Think again

The fight-fire-with-fire strategy heats up another election


One of my favorite cartoons, which I used to have on the wall behind my desk at work, shows two cowboys huddled behind a circle of covered wagons, as a band of Indians attacks them with flaming arrows. One cowboy, his eyes wide with amazement, asks the other, “They can’t do that, can they?”

The cartoon may be politically incorrect in its use of the cowboys-and-Indians stereotype. But it captured a political truth about the incomprehension that gripped progressives in Oregon as Bill Sizemore and company took over our state’s initiative process more than a decade ago. We were shocked and awed at what was coming at us on the ballot every two years. But all we did in response was to hunker down and run “just-vote-no” campaigns.

We have learned a lot since then.

Following the 1996 election, we developed our “fight-fire-with-fire” strategy, which we used to counter and pre-empt Sizemore’s initiatives with measures of our own. Then, we took the offensive to advance our working families agenda, including raising the state’s minimum wage.

By 2002, we even proved that “they can’t do that,” when we found that Sizemore was shooting crooked arrows. After the Voter Education Project exposed massive fraud and forgery in Sizemore’s signature gathering operation, he failed to qualify a single initiative for the ballot. To complete the rout, the American Federation of Teachers-Oregon and the Oregon Education Association nailed Sizemore’s operation for racketeering and wholesale violations of our election laws in a Multnomah County courtroom.

2002 was also the year that we passed Measure 26, the Initiative Integrity Act, which banned the practice of paying bounties for signatures. As a result, by 2004, initiative sponsors ran cleaner signature-gathering campaigns. There were fewer measures on the ballot and none that directly attacked the interests of our unions.

Our fight-back strategies were successful. But the initiative attacks we confronted in Oregon were never the manifestations of indigenous uprisings. They were attacks orchestrated at the national level, where anti-government and anti-union operatives had decided that Oregon was a cheap and easy place to launch their war parties.

For a while, it looked like these operatives were shifting more of their attention to other states. But they showed up again in Oregon this year, shooting arrows that look a lot like the arrows of yesteryear. Don McIntire is fronting for national anti-government groups with another formula for capping state funding for schools and health care, like the one he brought to the ballot – and voters defeated – in 2000. Sizemore’s cronies are advancing another income tax scheme that would bust the state budget — and looks a lot like the one voters defeated in that same year. Even the term limits advocates are back, armed with a war chest furnished by their national monomaniacs.

There were some who argued 10 years ago that, if we started shooting flaming arrows of our own, our enemies would just redouble their attacks. But, it turns out they were a lot bolder when we didn’t fight back. And, now that we’re engaging the process and treating every election as an opportunity to make our mark on the ballot, we’re creating a very different political dynamic.

The Service Employees collected signatures for an initiative to improve staffing at nursing homes and ended up using it to negotiate commitments from the industry. OEA did the same with an initiative to make corporations’ tax payments public, holding off on submitting the final signatures needed when business groups agreed to join the fight against McIntire’s spending limit.

And AARP threw its weight behind a proposal to expand the state’s bulk purchasing pool for prescription drugs, which sets up a head-on battle with the pharmaceutical industry.

I’m disappointed that we didn’t end up with a ballot measure to expand health care coverage and reduce costs for those with employer-sponsored insurance. But the AARP proposal sets up a nice dynamic in the ongoing battle over the role of government in people’s lives.

What we’ll be fighting this year looks like a stale agenda — more straightjackets on public services and budget-busting tax cuts of the kind that voters in this state rejected when they last got to vote on them. What we’ll be promoting looks a lot more appealing — a new way to make government work for people who need help with their medical costs.

This will be a year when we get to repel the flickering arrows of the old curmudgeons like Don McIntire and shoot back with a hot, new idea that can make medical care more affordable for working families.

I’d rather be on our side this year.


(Note: Recently, I agreed to join the Kulongoski for Governor campaign as the governor’s political adviser. My only conditions were that I remain an independent contractor, with time on my own to devote to my service on the state’s Higher Ed board, as an adviser to the Working Families Party and as the author of this column. That’s my new arrangement through Election Day, which means I won’t be commenting on the governor’s race to avoid any conflicts of interest.)

Tim Nesbitt is former president of the Oregon AFL-CIO. For more information, check out the Oregon AFL-CIO online at