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Week of 9.22.06

Interview: Hart Williams

Image of Hart Williams's blog This week's show was inspired by a compelling blog series written by Hart Williams. Williams' research revealed some extraordinary truths about efforts to take the "local" out of local ballot initiatives and create them from afar.

Williams has written for a number of publications including The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and The Oregonian.

NOW: How did you first get alerted to this story?

Hart Williams: I got a political mailing: bulk mail, grey envelope with a return address in Illinois. When I opened it, I saw that it was a letter and a petition and asked me to get signatures to put term limits on the ballot ... again. I'm too much of a Google monkey to let something like that go, and when I started to try and find out what that group in Illinois was, every answer raised ten more questions. I kept digging and here we are.

NOW: What were the initiatives being proposed in Oregon? What kind of local support did these ideas have?

Williams: Measure 39 - restricts use of Eminent Domain ("Government Can't Steal My Property And Give It To A Developer Act" — original filing title). Measure 45 - Term limits for Oregon Legislative Assembly ("Reinstate Legislative Term Limits" — original title). Measure 48 - Spending Cap/Rainy Day Fund ("Constitutional State Spending Limit" — original title)

To the best of my knowledge, there wasn't that much grassroots support. U.S. Term Limits gave $350,000 in 2004 to run a term limits petition drive, and they didn't come up with enough signatures to get it on the Oregon ballot.

NOW: From your research, what have you been able to piece together about Howard Rich and the organizations he's connected to?

Williams: I've put together more than 150 pages on it, and I recommend the reader to download the pdf I made of the first fifteen parts of the report. It's really an octopus of organizations, foundations, [non-profits], and a network of think tanks across the country. They have a definite agenda, and they've been pushing it everywhere they can. The term limits movement (and its inclusion in the 1994 GOP "Contract With America") has its genesis in this series of interlinking organizations.

NOW: How would you characterize the press coverage that Rich's involvement in these initiatives has received across the country?

Williams: The local press coverage always stops at the state line. And it's always overwhelmed, but it's been professional, and it's been good, as far as it's gone. These people have been very good at covering their tracks, and time after time, by the time the press really figures out what's going on, the election is over and it's no longer "newsworthy." I can't fault the press for what they've done. It's a national story, and the national press needs to look at it to connect the dots. When you've got a New York real estate tycoon sending money through an office in Chicago to an organization with offices in Idaho and Montana, who, in turn, send that money on to Nebraska and Missouri, something's going on that the local press just don't have the resources to dig into and follow up on.

NOW: Why do you care who funds initiatives in your state? Can't you just weigh the initiative on it's face and decide if it's a good idea or not?

Williams: There is a reason that we make laws in a deliberative body. The initiative process is meant to be an "in case of fire, break glass." There are always unintended consequences, and, as we've seen several times in the past, what you think you're voting for and what you're actually voting for turn out to be two different things. When people outspend the local opposition five to one and more, I can't see that as anything other than hard-core used-car sales techniques, used to bully the voters into taking up questions that legislatures are more properly constituted to address.

This is just an "up or down" vote with very little to no real deliberation, and a lot of local political fisticuffs. There's no opportunity to fix an initiative, amend it, etc. That's why they should be used rarely.

You'd think that the people pushing it would have the good grace to live in the place that's going to face the consequences. And maybe even reveal who they actually are. Democracy is about accountability, and non-accountability is its antithesis.

In deciding on constitutional issues, knowing who's pushing it is not only important, but there is something fundamentally suspicious if they're hiding who they are, and don't even have a dog in the fight.

NOW: In the end, do you think that voters will care who's backing these initiatives?

Williams: I hope that they will. Everyone I talk to cares when they find out what's behind it. Maybe that is why there has been a conscious pattern of faking local support and hiding behind highfalutin' "group" acronyms.

I think that self-government and home rule are very precious rights, and the idea of a bunch of secretive zillionaires hiding behind any number of "fronts" and using my state as a petrie dish for their "democracy" experiments is not something that most people cotton to. As they say in that salsa commercial: "NEW YORK CITY!!?!?"

NOW: What's your take on the ballot initiative process itself? They're clearly controversial: many people love them for their ability to put the power of lawmaking directly into the hands of citizens, and many others hate them for the very same reason. Where do you come down?

Williams: They were originally a necessary check on the power of a few powerful robber barons to block pieces of legislation that a clear majority of citizens considered necessary and proper. When initiatives are used that way, I think they're a fine thing. But in the past decade or so, we've seen that flipped on its ear: the robber barons use it to block the legislature instead. The whole thing is upside down.

Related Resources:

Hart Williams' Blog

Hart Williams on Quetionable Ballot Initiative Tactics