EDITOR’S NOTE: Both Schmit and Gutierrez confirmed Thursday morning that their attorneys are speaking and working out terms of a disclamer on the SEIU campaign’s website and materials that will help avoid confusion.
Naomi Havenhill is a 67-year-old who has to use a motorized scooter to get around because of a bout with polio when she was four. She also has to travel to the post office to get her mail from a P.O. box, she said, because her mail — specifically, her prescription medications — started disappearing a few years ago when a bus stop used by high schoolers was built near her house.
So when that P.O. box started overflowing recently with political mailers from a group called Stand Up For California, she got a little, well, PO’ed. So she tried to track down the source and put a stop to it. She called the number listed on the mailer three times, got hung up on once and generally didn’t get anywhere.
“It’s been a pain in the rear end, quite frankly,” Havenhill said.
Since the mailers called out her local Assemblyman, Tim Donnelly, R-Hesperia, she called his office. They gave her the phone number of one Cheryl Schmit, who has run Stand Up For California since 1997.
Except it was the wrong Stand Up For California.
Schmit’s group is a watchdog that tries to keep an eye on Indian casino projects in California. The group that sent the mailers to Havenhill and tens of thousands of other people is a project of the Service Employees International Union and other like-minded groups attempting to stop further cuts to social services and education in the state budget.
“They hijacked my name,” Schmit said. “I can’t believe the emails I’m getting, the phone calls. ‘Please stop spamming me.’ ‘Take me off your call list.’”
“We’ve never heard of them,” said SEIU spokeswoman Mary Gutierrez when told about Schmit’s organization. “We thought we were being catchy.”
The name came from a meeting with other labor groups earlier this year, Gutierrez said, who said Stand Up was “an informal coalition.”
“We were talking about our budget campaign,” Gutierrez said. “What came up around the table is people need to stand up for California.”
She added that they did do some due diligence, going to the WHOIS domain lookup service and typing in www.StandUpForCalifornia.org and finding it available. Schmit’s website is www.StandUpCalifornia.org.
David Kieffer, executive director of the SEIU CA State Council who has taken the lead in talking to the press about the Stand Up for California campaign, declined to comment.
The group has been targeting constituents in Republican areas, telling people to call and write their representatives and urge them to compromise with Democrats. Some mailers pointed out how hard cuts will hit many of these rural communities — such as Havenhill’s home of Hesperia, a somewhat isolated city of 86,000 on the edge of the Mojave Desert. Gutierrez said they may not maintain the group after the budget season has passed.
Schmit said she’s had the name registered with the Secretary of State’s office in 1997 and with the IRS in 2005, in order to take donations. She said she also has what is known as a common law trademark from this registration and her longstanding use of the name within California. The group’s use of the name, and their large-scale media campaign they’re conducting, are creating “initial interest confusion” that is harming her own cause, she said.
The confusion has become time-consuming, Schmit said. She’s been getting hate mail meant for the group, and was even contacted by a radio station wanting her to come on the air to argue the SEIU position. Though she has talked to an attorney, she said she has no plans to sue.
“I’m having to waste my time to explain who I am,” Schmit said. “I’m not in the mood for lawsuits. I just wish they would change their name.”
This isn’t the first time Schmit has run into this problem. In 2006 when he was the Democratic nominee for governor, Phil Angelides formed a group called Stand Up for California.
When she contacted his campaign, Schmit said, he quickly changed the name to Standing Up for California and put information on the group’s website to help avoid confusion.
Of course, name confusion isn’t always so accidental. Schmit pointed to aSan Diego group called Residents Against Gambling Expansion, or RAGE, that formed a few years ago. A large nearby gaming tribe, the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, quickly bought up the domain www.RAGES.com, which led visitors to a website that was far less critical of tribal gaming. That site has since come down, while RAGE lives on.
It isn’t a surprise that Schmit’s ongoing organization has had their toes stepped on by temporary, campaign-related outfits, which pop in-and-out of existence on a regular basis, said Jamie Court, president and chairman of Consumer Watchdog. But defending one’s name is a very important part of the game.
“That’s the problem in politics, no one ever remembers who you are,” Court said.
Court should know. His organization may be the poster child for name confusion in California politics. It’s widely believed that Consumer Watchdog started out as an outfit called Voter Revolt, founded by Harvey Rosenfield in 1988. Except Voter Revolt was meant to be a temporary group formed to push Proposition 103, which sought to impose regulations, protect consumers, bar discriminatory pricing and establish the state insurance commissioner as an elected position.
In 1995, a past employee of Voter Revolt took over the name of the group and used it, unsuccessfully, to push a trio of insurance-industry backed initiatives. Rosenfield’s permanent organization was called the Network Project, which later morphed into the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, which then became Consumer Watchdog in 2008, largely because the group had long owned the URL www.consumerwatchdog.org.
The Foundation name had two problems, Court said: First, people thought because they were a “foundation” they gave away money instead of accepting donations.
Second, Court said, “No one could remember the name. It was terrible branding.”