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The String Pullers

 

How a handful of wealthy ideologues
have taken over
what was once a populist tool

 
by Randy Stapilus

part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 

PART 1


Ridenbaugh Press’ purpose is to provide some perspective and understanding of events and developments in – the evolution of – the Northwest. That in itself is a little revolutionary; most of us are “stovepiped” in the news of our specific state, and the larger review of the Northwest can put those events in a little . . . different perspective. But sometimes developments or trends that hit even across this region can be properly understood only in a larger context. A string of ballot initiatives invading the political worlds of Washington, Oregon and Idaho are a case study: We can best understand what we’re seeing in these states now, and what is likely ahead in the next election cycle or two, only by broadening our vision beyond the region.


As it once was

The initiative and the referendum, as staples of American politics, are just about a century old. At the twilight of the 1800s and the dawn of the next century, Oregon was being prodded to paving a new direction in politics of and by and for the people. William S. U’Renthe Oregon legislator (briefly, and unsuccessfully) and activist and lobbyist (high successfully) was the man who chiefly led the crusade, arguing that ordinary people had not the “tools” – his expression, taken from his days in farming and machine repair work – to bend the government to their will. He feared the well-heeled special interests who too often took over the machinery of government; the popular ballot, he felt, would provide a useful and powerful counterbalance.

At times it has.

But what U’Ren would find today, on reviewing the ballot issue scene in 2006, would likely shock him: Very narrow and very well-heeled special interests that have hijacked the normal course of politics in state after state – by way of the ballot issue.

Ballot issues are used for many things, and some of them follow very much the tracks U’Ren might have intended. But as this century has worn on, the device has become increasingly divorced from the idealism, of a localized popular control, which gave it life.

This is not a completely new development. In the 1970s, for example, California passed a ballot initiative limiting the property tax. Called Proposition 13 (and destined to serve as a financial trouble-source for years to come, not nearly the help to taxpayers it was billed), it quickly spawned copycats in other states. But the efforts behind those copycats were at least usually home grown; in Idaho, for instance, a group of tax activists in the Boise and Coeur d’Alene areas independently seized on the California example to pass their own. (With, to be sure, some outside support.)

In this new decade, though, as the Oregon initiative (with others following) passes its centennial, the ballot issue has become a plaything of wealthy, cynical crackpots who throw money – by the hundreds of thousands of dollars, or even millions – into ballot propositions in faraway states. They get them on the ballot by hiring armies of paid signature gatherers, and they get them passed – sometimes – by underwriting ad and public relations campaigns that often wildly misrepresent the real intent and effect of the measures. If they pass in one state, sometimes even if they fail, the issue is passed along to the next state, or the next, or a group of them at once.

These ballot issues are not random. They do share a bottom line: A reduction or elimination of government regulation or taxation, of types that chiefly allow them to do as they wish, the desires of less powerful or influential fellow citizens be damned. Any governmental exercise that levels the playing field for – on one hand – the wealthy and the connected and – on the other – everyone else, appears to be fair game. (Once, for example, independent courts are neutralized, the powerful and wealthy people in society are unrestrained from acting, if they choose, as bullies on the playground.)

 
Bill Sizemore, an Oregonian with a hand in developing many ballot issues in recent years, recently addressed a concern with a businessman who has contributed (massively) the campaign of one gubernatorial candidate: “I suppose that there is reasonable cause for a second look anytime any candidate for a high public office gets a large chunk of money from any one source. Inquiring minds immediately want to know what the rich guy is going to get in return for his money. It is one thing to wonder.”

Surely the same applies to the subject of ballot issues: Motivation and interest are hardly irrelevant there, either.


The Myth of the Initiative Loner

 Oregon and Washington, two of the earliest initiative states and two of the most active over the years, have for years shared an unusual ballot issue phenomenon: The myth of the lone wolf proponent, the concerned and well-organized individual who tracks down others of like mind across his state, painstakingly collecting signatures until the popular idea reaches the ballot. Something in our culture presses us to look to the lone leader, the man on horseback.

It is more myth than fact.

Not that you can’t find some basis for it.

 You can play the game with almost any Washingtonian who pays the slightest attention to government or politics. Ask him or her to associate a name with the word “initiative” and one will pop to the surface immediately: Tim Eyman.

And reasonably so. Eyman has been involved with loads of initiatives over a couple of decades (his track record is spotty, at this point about as many losses as wins), and he has shown unusual skill at playing the media, generating lots of attention with ease. But the initiative operation is by no means just him, a point he acknowledges readily. Since 1999, after passage of I-595 (the $30 car tab proposal), he has operated Permanent Offense, the organization for his effort, and he collects contributions statewide. He has gotten loads of help too from Seattle’s conservative radio talkers.

 But the support base, as suggested by Eyman’s diminishing track record at the polls, may be less broad than appears. In 2005, according to an article in the Olympian, “Eyman's I-900, which proposes an expansion of performance audits for state and local agencies, raised about $617,000. Of that, $489,494 came from a retired Woodinville investment executive, Michael Dunmire, and his wife, Phyllis Dunmire.” The measure would have died quickly but that support.

 Dunmire has not stopped there. And at one point, in an unusual gesture, he took his loyalties public, writing an op-ed piece in support of Eyman and his organization.

In a June 9 web column, the Seattle Times’ David Postman noted, “He heard the talk that Eyman was done, washed up and on a potentially career-ending losing streak now that he fell short of the signatures needed for his drive to repeal the law. Dunmire has bet $1 million that's not true. That's how much the Woodinville investment adviser has given Eyman's various campaigns in just the past two years. The most recent $75,000 came in April, so Dunmire's support is not a thing of the past. And he saw nothing in the failure of Referendum 65 to dissuade him from not just backing Eyman, but enthusiastically endorsing him as the once and future initiative king.”

Big money backers are crucial – apparently are becoming ever more crucial - to Eyman’s efforts.

That scenario is more clearly established in Oregon.

Over the last couple of decades, the best-known ballot issue proponents in Oregon probably have been Don McIntire and Bill Sizemore (he even became a candidate for governor in 1998).

McIntire was the clear leader of one of the most significant initiatives in recent Oregon history, Measure 5, a 1992 tax-cutting initiative. After it passed, McIntire took a call from Loren Parks, who owned a medical equipment company at Hillsboro, who said he would be willing to contribute in the future to certain types of efforts. McIntire recalled that he though Park was proposing to contribute a few hundred dollars or a thousand or so.

Loren Park has given to a lot of things – his interests range broadly, and not only political but a number of health, environmental and humanitarian organizations have received hundreds of thousands of dollars from him. 

Then, as Willamette Week recounted, “A day or so later, a fellow conservative activist, Frank Eisenzimmer, met with Parks. He called McIntire and told him Parks had written a very large check toward a term-limits initiative. McIntire was stunned by the size of the contribution, which he recalled was as much as $25,000, though he can no longer recall the exact amount. He only knew it was a lot.”

And that was just the beginning.

Soon after in 1993, Parks and another businessman, developer Robert Randall, contributed the money for Oregon Taxpayers United and paying its executive director Bill Sizemore, who also would be a major figure in the initiative arena over the next decade. (He still is: His name was attached to a batch of measures which were submitted to the secretary of state’s office and proposed for ballot status this year. One which may pass is a proposal to ban insurance companies from using credit scores in determining premium rates.)

Bill Sizemore recalled that in June 1993 "I met with Loren Parks for the first time. He and another Portland area businessman, Robert Randall, who has since passed on, offered to fund the entire start-up and two years operating budget for Oregon Taxpayers United, which for more than a decade was Oregon’s premier taxpayer association. Mr. Parks and Mr. Randall told me up front that it would take two years to get the organization off the ground and build up a membership large enough to support it. They agreed to pay the bills, including my salary as executive director, for that entire period. ... They kept their commitments and also donated generously to specific projects for some time after that.”

They certainly did. From 1993 to 2002 Parks alone contributed http://www.wweek.com/editorial/3224/7461   more than $3 million to various ballot issues in Oregon – and that’s not counting the money paid to standing organizations and the many hundreds of thousands to the 2002 and 2006 gubernatorial campaigns of Republican Kevin Mannix (who was also the proponent of several of the ballot issues Parks proposed). The heavy contributions to Oregon ballot issues have continued since (as we will note later), even after Parks’ 2002 move from Oregon to Henderson, Nevada.

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