Ballot Busters

By Drew Lindsay — November 01, 2000 29 min read
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Direct democracy has become politics as usual.

Will Chubb is one happy fellow. It’s a little after 10 on a Sunday morning, a time when a lot of 19-year-olds like him are nursing hangovers. But Chubb, freshly turned out in black Nikes, black slacks, and a light blue long-sleeved shirt, has installed himself at the entrance to Powell’s, a bookstore that swallows an entire block in a funky downtown neighborhood of Portland, Oregon, not far from a wine bar and two used-record shops. A summer sun is climbing the sky, but Powell’s generous overhang offers the fair-skinned Chubb ample shade. “I love the shade,” he says with a broad smile.

Chubb has come here with great expectations. Powell’s boasts 6,000 patrons a day, many of whom come from the city’s suburbs and beyond to root among the store’s 1 million books. These are educated people, Chubb figures, and they’re bound to have time on their hands this morning, making them perfect targets for his pitch.

“Howdy. Are you a registered voter?”

Beanpole tall at six feet, four inches, a thin ponytail streaming down the length of his back, Chubb can’t be missed. Which is exactly the point. In his hand, he carries a clipboard. Affixed to the back is a Limp Bizkit sticker; clipped to the front is a messy sheaf of petitions for a variety of “citizen initiatives.” Chubb’s mission: Persuade passersby to sign these petitions and officially ask the state to put the initiatives to a vote.

This form of direct democracy is not exclusive to Oregon. Twenty-four states have the citizen initiative, and some—Arizona, California, Colorado, and Washington, in particular—give it a pretty good workout. But Oregon, which in 1904 became the first state to put questions on the ballot, is the king of initiatives. In the five general elections during the 1990s, it voted on 60 measures, more than any other state.

Chubb today is petitioning for five initiatives, including a measure that the teachers’ union and other education groups are hoping will boost school funding. It’s quite a noble picture, really. A year ago, the teen was a high school senior sweating through finals. Now, he’s practicing politics as it’s meant to be, at the grassroots level. In many ways, Chubb is a descendant of the turn-of-the-century populist farmers who imported the initiative from Sweden to wrench power from a legislature riddled with corruption and beholden to big business. He’s giving the people a voice, empowering them to decide matters for themselves, free from the influence of money or petty politics.

But then a young woman in sandals comes along. Her hair is loosely tied back, and a cell phone is clipped to the top of her cutoff shorts. Looking over Chubb’s petitions, she asks, “When do these go on the ballot?”

Suddenly, the wraparound smile that Chubb has worn all morning vanishes. He has no idea when the election is. In fact, he knows precious little about any of the measures he’s touting. A California native, he’s not even an Oregon voter. He arrived in Portland just a few days ago, driving up from Santa Monica in a Ford Taurus wagon with a crumpled front grill. It’s his first time in the state, and he’ll be gone within a few days. He’s a hired hand, making $7 an hour for a signature-gathering company headquartered in Southern California.

Chubb turns to me, his eyes signaling SOS. “November,” I tell him. The measures are on the ballot in this year’s general election.

Chubb is not convinced. “Are you sure?” he says. “I thought it was in the next couple of months.”

“I’m sure,” I say. The date of the election is even stamped on the petition he’s carrying.

When the dust settles, education in Oregon may look nothing like it did before.

Welcome to politics, Oregon style. In Washington, D.C., this morning, Tim Russert and a couple of white-haired Meet the Press pundits are chewing over Hillary Clinton’s prospects in the New York Senate race. In Moscow, Bill Clinton and Vladimir Putin are huddling to discuss U.S.-Russian nuclear arms reductions. But here in Portland, dozens of Will Chubbs are fanned out across the city, posted with clipboards in front of supermarkets, department stores, and any other place where people gather. Eventually, they will collect 2 million signatures and qualify 18 initiatives, ensuring that Oregon’s ballot on November 7 will be the longest in the nation.

In the weeks before the election, reporters and pundits will scramble to devise “what if it passes?” scenarios for each measure. For now, however, one thing is clear: When the dust settles, education in Oregon may look nothing like it did before. Three initiatives promise either to cut taxes or cap state spending in ways that officials claim would cripple schools. Another would ban instruction encouraging or sanctioning homosexuality. And three more touch on pocketbook issues for educators, including a measure that would make Oregon the first state in the country to pay its teachers based on student performance.

This scene is being repeated to a lesser degree elsewhere. At least 20 of the more than 70 citizen initiatives on state ballots this year promise change for education. Some are garden-variety tax measures that would trim school budgets. But according to the Initiative and Referendum Institute, 11 initiatives aim to rewrite education law. (“Yea Or Nay,” November 2000.) Success at the polls would introduce vouchers to Michigan and California, increase teacher pay and reduce class size in Washington state, and do away with bilingual education in Arizona. With so much at stake, the National Education Association is readying a hefty war chest. The union expects to give at least $7 million to its state affiliates to fund initiative campaigns-only $2 million less than it doled out in the last three election cycles combined.

Some observers point to this bumper crop of education initiatives as a sign that the public is eager to pitch in and fix schools. But such analysis rests on the premise that ballot measures represent political expression by “the people.” That has always been something of a myth, and it’s even less true today. In the 1980s and ‘90s, special interests and millionaires with a cause increasingly turned to direct democracy to accomplish what they couldn’t get done in legislatures. As Pulitzer Prize-winning political reporter David Broder and others have noted, these “faux populists” have found it easier and cheaper to win ballot campaigns than to win over lawmakers. The result: Voters are seeing more initiatives than ever before. “The initiative process . . . threatens to challenge or even subvert the American system of government in the next few decades,” Broder writes in his recent book, Democracy Derailed: Initiative Campaigns and the Power of Money.

Special interests and millionaires have increasingly turned to direct democracy to accomplish what they couldn’t get done in the legislatures.

Some states already know what this trend means for schools. After seven ballot measures in the past dozen years, California’s education code resembles a movie screenplay that’s been worked over by too many script doctors. “The initiative adds a wild card factor to education reform,” says Michael Kirst, co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education. “These things come out of left field. You never know where they’re coming from or why.”

Recently, political experts gathered at the University of Virginia to consider what the initiative process has wrought. In a sun-drenched room directly beneath Thomas Jefferson’s famed Rotunda dome, consultants, scholars, and activists debated the merits of ballot measures as a second, parallel track of lawmaking. Proponents, while acknowledging some problems with the initiative process, cautioned that its sins pale in comparison to those of the legislative process. “It’s the legislature that is in crisis,” said Paul Jacob, head of U.S. Term Limits, which has been involved in more than 50 state initiative campaigns.

Jacob’s argument makes sense; everyone knows that money, politics, and egos grease the wheels of lawmaking. But watching Chubb and others in Oregon work and looking closely at how measures are conceived, drafted, and debated, you see that the initiative process isn’t much of an alternative. Though it is celebrated as direct democracy, there’s hardly anything direct or democratic about it. Initiative authors seldom dirty their hands with grassroots work, choosing instead to manufacture the semblance of popular support. It’s no wonder that, of the initiatives passed in Oregon in the past decade, a quarter have been thrown out; measures get drafted and debated in the hothouse of a campaign, where sound bites and bumper sticker slogans rule, not reason and common sense. As the climax of Oregon’s ballot extravaganza approaches, you have to ask: Is this any way to make policy?

The man who will dominate Oregon’s elections this fall is talking about bees. It’s Monday, the morning after my outing with Chubb, and I’ve come to KKGT radio, a 5,000-watt mom-and-pop station that broadcasts from a makeshift studio in an office building in the Portland suburbs. Bill Sizemore hunches over a desk, scanning news clippings spread before him. His reading glasses sit at the end of a nose that’s red and raw from a cold. On the desk is a roll of toilet paper he’s using as Kleenex.

Nothing’s gone right today. The show’s engineer is AWOL, so Sizemore and his co-host, Kelli Highley, are laboring through two hours of drive-time radio with no commercials, no weather reports, no traffic updates, and no listener calls. They riff on news of the day, reading tidbits from local papers and the wire, but they’re running out of good material even before the second hour begins. At one point, Sizemore unspools a tale about a swarm of bees he encountered while working on a rail-tie fence in his yard.

“I’m worried about yellow jackets this year,” he says."They’ve gotten bad,” Highley agrees.

Later, Sizemore turns to me and whispers, “This must sound really weird to people out there.”

Perhaps. But Sizemore is not your typical political power broker. Though tall, personable, articulate, and ruggedly handsome, he’s a failure as a politician, having lost the three local elections he’s jumped into. Two years ago, he was on the wrong end of the state’s most lopsided governor’s race in 50 years, capturing only 30 percent of the vote against incumbent Democrat John Kitzhaber. Instead, Sizemore, a 49-year-old father of five, part-time businessman, and full-time conservative gadfly, derives his clout from the initiative process. As head of Oregon Taxpayers United, a group of conservative activists who banded together in 1993 after passing a tax-cap initiative, he focuses almost exclusively on putting measures on the ballot that call for sweeping change in government. “We do things through the initiative process that the legislature is afraid to do,” Sizemore says.

‘We do things through the initiative process that the legislature is afraid to do.’

Bill Sizemore,
Oregon Taxpayers United

This year will test OTU. Sizemore wrote six of the 18 citizen initiatives that qualified for the Oregon ballot, and in this, the era of “compassionate conservatism,” he is pushing an agenda that looks cribbed from Newt Gingrich. His biggest assault on government is a plan to allow Oregonians to deduct their federal tax payments when calculating their taxable income for state returns—a move that amounts to a $1 billion tax cut with big ramifications for schools. Sizemore also has filed several measures that would impact teachers. One, Measure 95, proposes a merit-pay plan that would base teacher salaries on whether students learn. Another, Measure 98, would limit the ability of labor groups-including teachers’ unions-to raise political cash.

With each initiative, long before the first signature is gathered, Sizemore plays a behind-the-scenes game of chess. In Oregon, the state attorney general reviews every initiative before signatures may be gathered and attaches a “ballot title” summary of about 200 words. That title, Sizemore says, determines the fate of his initiative at the polls. “One of the lessons that we have learned is that people don’t vote on your idea,” he explains. “They don’t vote on your measure. And they don’t vote on the concept of your measure. They vote on the attorney general’s description of your measure that appears as the ballot title. Most people never read your measure.”

In this, Oregon voters are no different from others. Focus groups conducted by Celinda Lake, a Washington, D.C., pollster, suggest that American families spend an average of five minutes a week talking about politics—and probably even less hashing out their views on initiatives. “It’s amazing,” Lake says. “People who wouldn’t think of voting for president or senator without doing their homework will walk into the booth without their minds made up on a ballot question.”

People also evaluate initiatives differently than they do politicians. Voters in candidate elections are like beauty contest judges; image—George Bush’s folksy twang or Al Gore’s cowboy boot—can influence them as much as policy papers. Voters considering initiatives, meanwhile, operate like jury members in a trial. They face an up-or-down decision—vote yes or no—and any “reasonable doubt” about a measure is enough to tip the scales.

Sizemore knows this well. If the attorney general attaches a ballot title to one of his initiatives that doesn’t use clean, simple language, Sizemore will rewrite the measure and refile it. He wants no legalese. No jargon. No language that will introduce reasonable doubt. Sometimes, he chucks the whole measure and starts from scratch.

This year’s Measure 98 has gone through just such a makeover. It targets the common practice among public employee labor groups—including the Oregon teachers’ union—of funding political work with member dues collected via payroll-deduction plans. The unions have the right to gather campaign contributions, Sizemore and others argue, but doing so through the dues-collection process dupes the rank and file by obscuring the political purpose of the money. Measure 98 promises “paycheck protection” to union members with a ban on the mingling of political contributions with dues. It also would accomplish a longtime OTU goal: to cut off a key source of political cash for public employee unions, which, in Sizemore’s world view, are to blame for runaway government spending and higher taxes.

With each initiative, there is a behind-the-scenes game of chess.

Before the 1996 elections, Sizemore wrote and filed at least 15 versions of a “paycheck protection” measure. All were constitutional amendments to prohibit unions from using payroll deductions to pay for lobbying, get-out-the-vote drives, and other political activities. With each measure filed, however, the attorney general—a Democrat at the time—attached a ballot title that Sizemore claims effectively sabotaged him. Some of the worst titles spoke of “new restrictions to employee union dues,” he says, but then never explained the old restrictions—a lapse bound to confuse voters.

Eventually, Sizemore gave up and set his sights on the 1998 elections. This time, he drafted an amendment that made no mention of unions; rather, he proposed banning any use of public funds for political purposes—a move that would prevent school officials from processing payroll deductions if the money went to union political coffers. The revision turned his measure from a surgical strike against the unions into a scatterbomb that promised plenty of collateral damage. Critics argued that it would even prohibit Oregon from publishing the voters’ guide that’s mailed to residents each election. Still, the new language earned Sizemore a title he could live with. He sent his signature gatherers into the field, and his paycheck protection initiative soon took its place on the ballot.

Sizemore acknowledges that such political maneuvering in the drafting of a constitutional amendment is unseemly. But he says the blame lies with the state’s attorney general, who won’t describe his measures fairly. Ultimately, he argues, the politics that go into the crafting of his measure don’t matter. People vote based on the words on the page, and those words read the same before an election as they do after. That can’t be said of politicians, who say one thing during campaigns and do another once they’re in office. “The language is right there—nothing’s hidden,” he says. “You can have attorneys analyze it if you want, and you can generally tell exactly what a measure will do.”

In the end, Sizemore’s 1998 paycheck protection measure lost, in large part because opponents effectively argued that it would gut the voters’ guide, which is considered sacred. This year, however, he is back with a revised initiative—Measure 98—and a better ballot title that he says is polling well.

Sizemore’s other big teacher-related initiative this year, the merit-pay proposal known as Measure 95, is posting disappointing poll numbers. It’s the first election he’s filed such an initiative, and the ballot title doesn’t read as cleanly as he’d like. “We’ll have to run a perfect campaign to pass that measure,” he confesses. Win or lose, Measure 95 may help Sizemore. In past years, when he’s put up only one or two big measures, the Oregon Education Association has helped bankroll the fight against him. This year, however, with a merit-pay plan on the same ballot as paycheck protection and tax-cut proposals, the OEA is fighting a multiflank war.

I ask Sizemore: Did you put the merit-pay plan on the ballot simply to distract the union? He smiles broadly at the question and leans back in his chair. He waits a long time before answering. “Each one of those measures stands on its own feet,” he says, finally. “I’ve heard it suggested that such a strategy exists, and it’s an interesting theory. It’s an interesting theory.”

There’s no shortage of Sizemore critics—or theories as to why he’s an initiative maven. Some say he’s a power-hungry egomaniac who writes ballot measures to play politician. Officials with the teachers’ union claim he’s the henchman for a cabal of wealthy, right-wing extremists out to destroy public education. Still others say he’s making his living off the initiative process because he’s a lousy businessman. (Before joining Oregon Taxpayers United, Sizemore ran two troubled companies—a toy manufacturer and a retail carpet store.) This last charge stems from a for-profit company he opened three years ago to gather signatures for OTU initiatives. “He’s a carnivore,” one politico told me before my visit with Sizemore. “He does it simply to make money.”

Though there’s probably truth to these claims, there’s also exaggeration. OTU is backed by wealthy conservatives, but it also enjoys grassroots support. According to the Oregonian newspaper, half the group’s most recent contributions—which total $510,000—are from individuals giving $50 or less. Sizemore scoffs at charges that he’s making big money from his signature-gathering business, I&R Petition Services. Sizemore says he founded I&R after OTU’s legal counsel grew concerned about the group’s legal responsibility for volunteer signature gatherers. The company works on many campaigns, but its chief client is OTU, to which it sells its services at cut rates. “The company hasn’t made money,” Sizemore claims. As for his I&R salary, he says only, “It has paid me a reasonable amount of money as a consulting fee.”

The idea that anyone should make money off the initiative process is controversial. Oregon banned the use of paid signature gatherers from 1935 to 1983, but today, few initiatives make the ballot if campaigns don’t contract out the work. As a result, the initiative process has become high stakes poker: To get into the game in Oregon, you need roughly $100,000, the minimum that companies charge to qualify a measure. In California, the ante’s $1 million plus.

The initiative process has become high stakes poker: To get into the game in Oregon, you need roughly $100,000.

At least a dozen national signature-gathering companies have sprung up in the past decade or so, according to initiative insiders. One of the biggest is the California-based Progressive Campaigns Inc., which operates out of a dozen states and employs as many as 500 workers during peak times. In the last three years, the firm has collected 12 million signatures at anywhere from 75 cents to $3.50 a pop. Founder and owner Angelo Paparella was once a Ralph Nader lieutenant who helped pass the gadfly’s 1988 California initiative cutting car insurance rates, and his company counts many left-wing campaigns as clients. But Progressive Campaigns also has helped qualify initiatives sponsored by conservatives, including California’s 1998 ban on bilingual education and the voucher measure that’s on the state’s ballot this year. “You can’t run a business and base it strictly on ideological considerations,” Paparella explains. “First and foremost, we believe in the initiative process. It’s a healthy check on legislatures.”

Progressive Campaigns is pushing five initiatives in Oregon this year, and among its employees is Will Chubb, the 19-year-old I observed at Powell’s bookstore. While peddling his petitions, Chubb talked to me about his foray into politics. After graduating from high school, he had tried landscaping in his hometown of Kenwood, in California’s wine country. “That was hot work,” he said with a scowl. Then, one day, he ran into a buddy petitioning for Progressive Campaigns. The friend was making good money, so Chubb decided to check out the company. When he discovered it was working on an initiative to legalize medical marijuana, he threw down his shovel and picked up a clipboard. “I said, ‘Wow, medical marijuana,’ ” he recalled. “ ‘This is the team to be on.’ ”

At Powell’s, the foot traffic was light, but that didn’t faze Chubb. “A bad day may be when you get a lot of signatures but you don’t have any fun,” he said. At the top of his pile of petitions was the measure to boost school funding. Its sponsor, Governor Kitzhaber, has unsuccessfully tried to persuade the Republican-controlled legislature to put up money he believes schools need to help students meet standards set in core academic subjects.

Frustrated, he took a page from Sizemore’s playbook and drafted an initiative for the November election to make such funding a constitutional mandate. The measure would also guarantee equity in state education spending.

If it seems odd that Kitzhaber, a politician, is sponsoring an initiative, the tool of the people to bypass politicians, that’s Oregon. “We essentially have two legislatures,” says Oregon Education Association political director Tricia Bozak. Like other “citizen” initiative authors, Kitzhaber signed up a political consultant to run his campaign. And he hired Progressive Campaigns to collect signatures.

Chubb, of course, didn’t know who the governor was. Kitzhaber in his State of the State address in January spoke eloquently about the initiative: “It gives a child living in Coos Bay or Fossil the same educational opportunities as a child living in Lake Oswego or Beaverton.” But at Powell’s, Chubb sold it in simple terms: “This is to make sure that money for public schools is distributed evenly throughout the state.”

The one-liner worked fairly well. While many people stiff-armed Chubb, a few paused to read the school-funding petition as well as the others. Some even demonstrated savvy about the initiative process. “These aren’t Sizemore’s initiatives, are they?” asked one woman. “I won’t sign anything from him.”

Still, there was clearly no danger of a town hall meeting breaking out on Powell’s portico. A tall woman in a print dress confessed that she was baffled by the governor’s measure. After scanning the petition, she asked Chubb, “I’m just signing it to put it on the ballot, right?”

“That’s right,” he assured her. “You can actually vote against it once it’s on the ballot.” She signed.

Another woman, a twentysomething with a blonde ponytail, listened to Chubb’s patter about distributing school money evenly and asked, “How’s it distributed now?”

Chubb answered haltingly, “I’m not really sure. I think it’s like it’s done in California.” Again, he looked my way. I shrugged.

Few people challenged Chubb. But he’s had his share of run-ins. “A lot of people want to get into an argument right away,” he said. “But it’s the golden rule of petitioning: Never upset anyone. What’s the point of it? It doesn’t serve anyone.”

On one of Chubb’s first days petitioning in Oregon, someone gave him a hard time, demanding to see his driver’s license and insisting, “Why don’t you stay out of Oregon politics?” But the episode didn’t bother Chubb. “Any good cause is worth fighting for,” he told me. “Look at World War II. What would have happened if Britain had stood alone?”

The use of hired signature gatherers angers those who see the initiative process as an exercise in grassroots politics.

Such arguments anger those who see the initiative process as an exercise in grassroots politics. Brad Avakian, a civil rights attorney and political activist who this year proposed a ballot measure to repeal the state’s one-year-old charter school law, considers paid signature gatherers a blight on the system. Working on the charter school measure with the Oregon School Employees Association—a union for janitors, secretaries, and other school staff—he insisted that the campaign put only volunteers into the field. The measure failed to collect enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, but Avakian says he’ll probably try again in 2002. “Our mission is not only to get the signatures but to start educating people on the dangers of charters,” he explains. “If we wanted to do something different, we’d have ponied up the money and hired the pros to just go out there and use their catch phrase and get the signature. But this is education as much as a legal effort to get law passed.

“The pros will probably say that if I really want to get a law passed, I’m wasting my time,” he adds. “But that’s the way it should be.”

One of Oregon’s consummate political pros is Roger Gray. An affable, fit-looking 55-year-old, Gray taught high school government for several years before beginning a long career in the political shops of the NEA’s Colorado, Washington, and Oregon affiliates. This year, as an independent consultant and strategist who specializes in ballot campaigns, he’s heading up the opposition to Sizemore’s paycheck protection and merit-pay plans.

On my first day in Oregon, Gray offered me an extensive introduction to the initiative process over coffee at a hotel not far from his home in the Portland suburb of Beaverton. Though the election was nearly six months away, he brought along a summary of a few dozen initiatives and predicted—with great accuracy, it turns out—which would make the ballot. Sizemore’s six-pack of measures are a lock to qualify, he said. Earlier in the week, Gray had played golf at a political fund-raiser and chatted briefly with Governor Kitzhaber about the elections. The consultant later fired off a memo to the politician. The message? We’re playing defense against Sizemore this year.

Gray’s battle this fall will most likely resemble the fight that he spearheaded against Sizemore’s first paycheck protection initiative, Measure 59, in 1998. That year, the opposition coalition organized by state labor groups spent $5.2 million, or nearly half the cash poured into all state candidate races. Much of the money paid for advertising. Gray went to the air early, putting up radio ads in the spring that aimed to stir up trouble before Measure 59 even qualified. Without mentioning the initiative or Sizemore, the ads encouraged people to test whether signature petitioners were Oregonians with questions like, “How do you pronounce Willamette?” A wrong answer, the ads declared, would suggest petitioners were hired hands who didn’t care about Oregon.

During the summer, Gray ordered polls on the measure and, using the results, set to work crafting the message that drove the anti-59 campaign. Message is critical to ballot races, as voters have no candidate, party platform, or other traditional political yardstick. Among politicos, it’s conventional wisdom that opposition campaigns must describe ballot initiatives in terms of the “three c’s": confusing, controversial, and costly. Gray and his strategists tweaked this formula to come up with the “three u’s.” They would attack Sizemore’s plan as unfair, unnecessary, and underhanded.

Having settled on a message, Gray gathered his consultants together to design television and radio ads. He explains, “We generally sit down and say, ‘Let’s put 1,000 ideas on the wall, and let the pollster beat them up as they relate to how voters will react.’ ” Once the ads were produced, Gray “dial tested” each one, asking focus groups to register approval or disapproval of the images and words streaming by. This sophisticated technique helped Gray edit the ads according to what viewers liked and didn’t like, second by second. “If you’re going to put two-thirds or more of all the money you raise into ads,” he told me, “you want to make sure those ads are as good as they can possibly be.”

Gray eventually ran five ads. One damned the measure as the work of an outsider, noting that Sizemore had been “bankrolled” by Grover Norquist, a Washington, D.C.-based anti-tax advocate. With heads of the two conservatives bouncing across the screen, a narrator declared that Norquist was “a registered foreign lobbyist” who led “an extremist agenda to limit the voice of America’s working people.”

A former political science teacher, consultent Roger Gray worries that he’s playing politics with Oregon’s Constitution.

Polling, dial testing, and advertising blitzes are traditional tactics of modern politics. But Gray turned to one strategy that’s fairly new in ballot campaigns—the countermeasure. Under Oregon law, if two measures are approved with contradictory statutory effects, the one that wins more popular support at the polls goes into law. Worried that Measure 59 might pass, Gray and the other leaders of the anti-Sizemore forces wrote and qualified an initiative of their own, Measure 62. It proposed to secure in the state’s constitution the “fundamental right” of Oregonians to use payroll deductions to collect political contributions. But to make the measure irresistible to voters, Gray packed it with a host of sweet-sounding campaign finance reforms, including requirements for greater disclosure of campaign contributions. In this way, the consultant built a firewall against Sizemore: If Measure 59 passed, the unions could still stop it from going into law by passing Measure 62 with a higher vote count. “That’s why it was loaded with good things,” Gray told me. “Maybe when you write initiatives, they should be loaded with good things. We didn’t feel bad about doing it that way.”

In the end, Gray and the unions would have prevailed even without Measure 62. The majority of voters rejected Sizemore’s Measure 59, though it lost by just 23,000 votes out of more than 1 million cast. Measure 62, meanwhile, coasted to victory with 68 percent of the vote.

Critics of Measure 62 claimed the unions recklessly monkeyed with the state’s constitution. Before the vote, Phil Keisling, a Democrat and then-Oregon’s secretary of state, remarked: “On a very basic level, you have a fight over a collective bargaining issue that has been elevated to a constitutional fight because of Measure 59.” After the election, Sizemore and the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the union-backed initiative in separate lawsuits. The measure is still tied up in the courts and has not become law.

Despite the court fight, Gray told me that nothing in Measure 62 is bad for Oregon. The union, he said, believes in each of the campaign finance reforms. Still, as our conversation wound down, I pressed him. It was troubling, I suggested, that he tried to rewrite the state’s constitution as part of an elaborate campaign gambit. Shouldn’t documents that declare our most sacred principles of governing be treated with more care? Gray claimed that he, too, worried about this. But the initiative process, he argued, had left him no choice. “I’m an old political science teacher who believes that the constitution actually means something,” he explained. “And now, all of a sudden, I’m forced by this process to go in and amend it with things like Measure 62 in order to play defense. It galls me. I hate it.”

This fall, Gray has assembled a formidable opposition to Sizemore’s Measure 98, the conservative’s new and improved paycheck protection initiative. The coalition includes more than 200 unions, charities, and professional organizations—the biggest “no” campaign in Oregon history, he claims. As the election nears, Gray will run five or six ads with the three u’s message, but he’ll also drive home the notion that Sizemore’s measures would cripple charities that rely on payroll deduction contributions.

Gray also is preparing three television ads to run against the merit-pay proposal. At least one will portray the plan as a bureaucratic monster, with the state government creating a multimillion-dollar testing system to decide who gets raises and who doesn’t. Gray will also have fun with the fact that university professors would be covered by the plan. “It’s ludicrous,” he says. “One of the one-liners we’re using around here is: If a professor at the University of Oregon was to find the cure for AIDS, we couldn’t give him a raise until we find out how his students tested.”

The Oregon Education Association and other unions will again fight the tax-cut initiatives on the ballot, but Oregon businesses—including the computer giant Intel—are stepping up for the first time. Gray hopes this rare partnership between business and labor will endure past November and push the legislature next year to increase school funding. “That’s my best, most optimistic look at the year 2000,” he says.

Sizemore, too, is optimistic. He’s counting on the noise from the fall’s political activity—the presidential election, hot congressional races, and so many ballot campaigns—to drown out the unions’ attacks and make it impossible to beat his paycheck protection measure. “I frankly don’t think they can do it,” he says. “I’m going out on a limb to say this, but this idea is too good for them to defeat in this election.”

The merit-pay proposal will have a lot more trouble, he says. But that’s OK. It’s drawn interest from national organizations, interest that could translate to money and a second run in the 2002 elections should it fail here. “I will tell you this,” Sizemore says. “If this measure doesn’t pass, we will poll, we will find out why, and we’ll vote on it again.”


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