October 6, 2006 Volume 107 Number 19

New Yorker pours millions into Oregon ballot measures

Out-of-state money has made itself felt in Oregon politics before, but a pair of ballot measures up for a vote this November has Oregonians wondering about how thoroughly their citizen initiative process can be hijacked to serve a private agenda.

As detailed in three sets of mandatory campaign finance disclosures, every phase of Ballot measures 45 and 48 has been almost entirely financed by one individual — conservative New York real estate millionaire Howard Rich. Measure 45 would set term limits for state elected officials, and Measure 48 would set an inflexible limit on state spending; both are opposed by the Oregon AFL-CIO and other labor organizations.

Rich is founder and financier of the group Americans For Limited Government, which contends that government is doing too much, and is charging excessive taxes. But rather than focus on the federal government, which has been spending more than it takes in since President Clinton left office, Rich’s group is targeting state governments, which by law must live within their means.

Oregon is one of a number of states where Rich’s millions have financed paid petitioners and political consultants to put identical questions before voters.

Such a top-down campaign is a far cry from the citizen uprisings Oregonians imagined when they set up the initiative system. It was supposed to be a way to get around the Oregon Legislature in cases where legislators were truly unresponsive to the popular will: If citizens gather signatures from enough fellow citizens, statutes and constitutional amendments go directly to the electorate for approval or rejection.

But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1988 that states couldn’t ban the use of paid petitioners, and that opened up the initiative process for political experiments by deep-pocket ideologues and special favors for moneyed interests. Some initiatives still come about with grassroots citizen support, but almost every election also has measures that were bought and paid for by big money.

That’s why New Yorker Howard Rich may be the most important man in Oregon this year. His proposals — Measures 45 and 48 — don't carry his name on them, but they come with his money.

Entities controlled by Rich have given $2 million to a Missouri group pushing a spending cap, $1 million to an Arizona group pushing a spending cap, and $100,000 to an Oklahoma group.

Rich’s contributions to Oregon ballot measure campaigns totalled $2.8 million, the Oregonian reported Sept. 12. The most recent campaign finance report, Oct. 2, showed at least $30,000 more.

“My question would be, ‘Has he ever set foot in Oregon?’ ” said Oregon AFL-CIO President Tom Chamberlain. “The thing about Oregonians which folks on the East Coast don’t understand is we hate being told what to do.”

Similar sentiments prompted Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer to challenge Rich to a debate. Rich decline to respond. Montana is one of the states where Rich’s measures circulated. The measures qualified for the ballot, but were disqualified after the Montana Supreme Court found a pattern of widespread fraud in signature gathering efforts.

While there’s no evidence of a similar degree of fraud in Oregon this time, critics of the two Oregon measures say the measures wouldn’t have qualified for the ballot without Rich’s riches.

“There’s no support for Measure 48 from the grass roots,” said Becca Uherbelau, spokesperson for Defend Oregon, a coalition of over 100 labor and community groups that formed to oppose Measure 48 and Measure 41, which would cut income taxes, mostly for the wealthiest.

While Rich is very private and hardly ever grants press interviews, a group called Ballot Initiative Strategy Center put together enough research on him to publish a Web site — howierichexposed.com — that points up a close relationship between Rich and many other well-funded far-right groups and causes, including campaigns to privatize Social Security; the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign to discredit John Kerry; the conservative “free market” think-tank Cato Institute; the vehemently anti-union National Alliance for Workers and Employers Rights; Grover Norquist’s group Americans for Tax Reform; and the Club for Growth, a conservative group targeting Republicans who are perceived as too moderate.

How will Oregonians vote on the two measures if Rich funds a flurry of TV ads? Uherbelau says its plausible that Rich may have waited until after the reporting period to make his next large deposit of cash into the Oregon campaign organizations. That won’t be known until the next reports are due, shortly before the deadline for mail-in ballots.

For more information about the November 2006 election, look to the Oct. 20 issue of the Northwest Labor Press.

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