As we wind up this year's election, one of the distinguishing characteristics of the current political season has been the rise of grassroots organizations educating the public about the various issues and mobilizing political or social action to achieve their aims.
These organizations and their leaders have been busy organizing people, seeking to influence how policy is created and implemented on Guam. And because of the rise of these grassroots movements, awareness has grown, especially among the youth and the so-called millennial voters, about the many problems and issues that our island is facing today.
We have the government watchdogs — the Guamanians for Fair Government (GFFG) and the Guam Citizens for Public Accountability (CPA) which figured prominently in the movement to repeal the government pay raises instituted by Public Law 32-208. Both organizations generated an amount of public interest which sparked discussion across social media. CPA also mobilized support via a series of rollback meetings at the different villages in a move to get a voter referendum on the ballot.
Both CPA and GFFG leveraged online platforms to spread awareness of their various advocacies. CPA, in particular, released a series of videos highlighting topics from the voter pay raise initiative, Guam’s growing debt and deficit levels, misprioritized government spending among other issues. The organization’s mission, after all, puts emphasis “on the use of social media, primarily YouTube and Facebook, to share news stories to keep the public informed about laws and
actions that will affect their life.”
While it may be relatively new to Guam, the increasing prevalence of grassroots politics is found in the mainland.
One of the most active groups, for example, is MoveOn.org, for example, is MoveOn.org, a non-profit, progressive public policy advocacy group and political action committee. Formed in 1998 in response to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton by the U.S. House of Representatives, MoveOn.org has raised millions of dollars for candidates it identifies as "progressives.” It also runs a petition website similar to Change.org.
Another one of the most influential grassroots movements in recent years is the right-wing U.S. Tea Party, which has been responsible for organizing widespread political opposition to the Obama administration, particularly against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
On Guam, while some local politicians are likely to court certain blocs during the campaign, the island does not necessarily have a history of sectoral endorsement of candidates running for offices. The LGTB community, for example, does not gather as a bloc to actively campaign for any candidates even though its members were very vocal during the discussion of same sex marriage and anti-discrimination laws.
Though not political in nature, two other community groups have gained prominence this year. One is the Concerned Catholics of Guam, whose objectives include achieving financial transparency and consistent financial reporting in the archdiocese and in the parishes around the island and to represent the concerns of the laity in regards to any archdiocesan decision related to Church assets.
The other is Save Southern Guam Inc., a grassroots movement advocating for responsible development along Guam’s seashore and coastal areas, has been very vocal about their displeasure over the Guam Land Use Commission’s decision to approve a height variance for the construction of the Pago Bay Marine Resort in Yona.
During the months following the commission’s controversial decision, the group had amassed a following all over the island. They were also able to direct public scrutiny and discussion on the commission’s processes of approving applications under its purview.
The issue also resulted in the introduction of several legislation, such as Bill 366, which sets a moratorium on future developments in Southern Guam for a period of up to two years or until a Southern Master Development Plan has been developed and approved; Bill 365 which proposes a sequential process for the Application Review Committee (ARC) and the municipal public hearing in the GLUC application process, and; Bill 318, which seeks to amend statutes to require the approval of municipal planning councils for projects under review of the GLUC.
Dianne Strong, SSG member said during a public hearing that the Southern development bills, when polished will give villagers a stronger voice, and improve transparency of agencies.” In a release, Strong emphasized that the group supports intelligent development whether it be in the South, North or Central Guam
To find out where the current crop of candidates stood in terms of responsible development, the organization disseminated questionnaires asking whether they support a two year moratorium on the development in Southern Guam and giving the village municipal planning councils the authority to approve or disapprove projects affecting their villages, among other questions.
The catch of a grassroots movement is that since they develop more organically— sometimes motivated by particular policy issues or agenda. These organizations are driven by volunteers.
CPA spokesperson Ken Leon Guerrero said his group basically evolved into what it is now. “We go back to 2007-2008 when GRRP was big with waste-to-energy. I got started then, fighting waste to energy. And then in October 2015, when the pay raises were a big story, a bunch of people asked if I was going to testify at the hearings for bills 201, 202, and 204,” he said. The bills pertain either to senatorial or elected and appointed official compensation.
After the public hearing, he said a lot of people got in touch with him. “Everywhere I go, people would ask me questions and ask what they could do. That is how we formed Guam Citizens for Public Accountability. We have about 30 to 40 active members but we have thousands of inactive members. In other words, silent supporters,” he added.
He cited two reasons which cemented his involvement with the CPA— the need to ensure that Guam youth stay on island and to have a political leadership capable of
expanding the economy.
“When I am talking to these young people, I am concerned with how they are going to stay on Guam. Our economy is dumbing down, creating more and more low wage service jobs and we are not creating any middle class jobs,” he said.
He said on Guam, the cost of living is going up while income is not keeping pace. “That is one of the reasons why Guam’s middle class is shrinking and service class is struggling.” According to Leon Guerrero, it has become a challenge for the youth to stay on Guam. “That is the biggest concern I have because whether we know it or not, we are driving the young people off the island,” he said.
Aside from the repeal of the public law, GGFG wants elected public servants to return their retroactive payments to the treasurer of Guam or donate it to a “worthy government entity or local charity.” The group, which includes educator Andri Baynum as one of its members, has been using the classroom to raise awareness on issues that matter.
Around September or October last year, Baynum’s class at Simon Sanchez High School conducted a phone survey of around 1,200 respondents to gauge public perception on the salary hikes for elected and appointed government officials. The survey respondents represented a sample of registered voters on Guam. The results only show a snapshot of the community’s perception on the topic.
A majority of the respondents — around 76 percent — said they did not agree with the move. Moreover, 69 percent of the respondents indicated disagreement with the pay raises due to the following reasons: there was no public hearing; it was paid retroactively; it was such a large sum of money, and; that it went to public officials only.
Leon Guerrero said the initial survey done by the SSHS students sparked his interest after his GGRP involvement. “When the SSHS kids did their first survey, everybody started talking about it and getting in touch with me again. I said, we got to do something because we want to encourage the students to be active in local affairs and government. So that was one of the reasons why I got active again,” he said.
Leon Guerrero emphasized the importance of voting in this election, “Right now, there is $600 million in borrowing bills on the floor of the legislature. And if we elect the same people we have been electing, guess what they are going to say — ‘let’s pass the borrowing bills,’” he said. He also emphasized the need to break the paradigm and shift voter consciousness. “We need new ideas. We need people who would take creative solutions to the problems that we have,” adding, “We need leaders who are willing to take a creative approach to perennial problems. Borrowing and spending is not the most creative approach. All it does is kick the can down the road.”
After the election, CPA plans to look at other areas where it could influence public policy. Potential areas include education, mass transportation, and of course, economic development. “That is where I see the CPA coming out after the elections — identifying problems that we are being faced with as an island and then bringing the community together to bring about discussion and changes,” he said. This year’s elections will gauge these advocacy groups’ influence on the voters.