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On Tuesday, Washington State progressives witnessed an  unbelievable, incredible victory that will go down as one of the greatest triumphs ever in Washington State political history.

Voters in Washington State defeated Initiative 912, a ballot measure which would have repealed a recent gas tax increase passed by the Legislature and signed by Governor Gregoire. The tax funds transportation projects throughout the state.

The drive to repeal it was led by local two right wing talk radio hosts, along with a cadre of organized anti-tax zealots.

I've been asked by several people to explain how it was possible that Initiative 912 was defeated. We're still incredulous, but we have a pretty good idea of why we succeeded.

We didn't just do well on this one ballot measure, either. We had a great election overall.

Pacific Northwest Portal

I won't go into too many details here, but follow the link above to Pacific Northwest Portal to see coverage and analysis for all the ballot measures and the major races for elected office.

Join me below the fold as I recount the saga of I-912. It's a long story, but it's a good one.

The Initiative 912 story really begins way, way back, rooted in the ongoing story of the national anti-tax movement, which, as you know, is led primarily by Grover Norquist and inspired by Howard Jarvis.

There are Grover and Howard clones in almost every state that has the initiative and referendum process.

I'm talking about unelected conservative activists who turn into professional politicians cranking out a new ballot measure every year or every other year.

California used to have Howard Jarvis, of course. Colorado has Douglas Bruce, the main architect of TABOR. Massachusetts has Barbara Anderson. Oregon has Bill Sizemore.

Washington has Tim Eyman.

Not all of these people are still in business, of course. But they all were at one point if they aren't now. And there are still more.

In 1998, after a similar proposal had passed in Virginia, the unknown libertarian/conservative activist Tim Eyman began working on initiative to cut out Washington's motor vehicle excise tax (MVET, commonly known as car tabs) drastically.

He failed to get on the ballot in 1998, but with a better start the next year, Initiative 695 made the ballot. Voters hated paying the MVET (which wasn't a progressive tax) but the problem was that the MVET was a significant source of revenue for the transportation budget.

The Legislature and then Gov. Locke did nothing to ward off Initiative 695. It passed easily, was challenged in court, and thrown out for violating the constitution. The Legislature, afraid of Eyman, passed the tax cut he wanted, hoping he'd go away.

He didn't. The next year he came back with an initiative to cut property taxes (I-722) and an initiative to direct 90% of all transportation funding to roads (I-745). 745 failed. 722 passed but was thrown out in court. This time, the Legislature did not help Eyman.

He came back in 2001 with an even stricter version of I-722 (I-747), which easily passed. He came back again with another measure in 2002, I-776, to cut the local MVET in only four counties, which paid for both transit and roads.

I-776 passed narrowly.

Also in 2002, the Legislature, recognizing that transportation needed more funding, came up with a big gas tax increase to fund mostly highway expansion projects. Environmentalists hated it. Many liberals joined conservatives to defeat Referendum 51. It went down in flames, failing everywhere.

Since 2002, Eyman has been in somewhat of a rut. He had four failures in a row. Three initiatives he sponsored didn't make the ballot. The fourth did but was defeated last year. It would have allowed Vegas-style slot machines to go almost anywhere, using a tax on them to fund property tax refunds.

Also in 2004, Initiative 884, which would have increased the state sales tax a penny to fund education, failed despite having an opposition which spent little money.

As you can see, in recent years, Washington has had a slew of anti-tax votes. When it comes to vote on taxes, Washingtonians always kill them, axe them, or reject them. So the thinking goes.

Now we come to this year.

There were two other significant happenings in the 2004 election. The first was that Democrats won control of the state Senate back from the Republicans. The second was the lengthy gubernatorial election challenge, which dragged on, and on, and on.

To make a long story short, Christine Gregoire won and became governor, surviving a court challenge that ended last June, months after her inauguration.

During the 2005 legislative session, Gov. Gregoire and Democratic leaders in the legislature resolved that something had to be done about transportation. There were major at-risk structures that DOT needed to replace, for fear they would be lost in an earthquake.

DOT also wanted to make numerous other safety improvements - things you might take for granted, like guardrails, cable medians (they stop rollover accidents), passing lanes, and other safety projects.

With Gov. Gregoire's prodding, the legislature produced a new gas tax increase with bipartisan support from both houses. After some bickering in the House, it passed. Gov. Gregoire signed it into law.

This angered conservative talk show hosts Kirby Wilbur and John Carlson. Besides hating taxes, they also wanted to get even at Gregoire and the Democrats for keeping the governor's mansion. They began talking of doing a referendum to put the transportation package to a vote of the people.

Except there was a problem - the Legislature declared that the package was an emergency bill, so a referendum was out of the question. Disgusted, Wilbur, Carlson, and their cohorts decided to do it the hard way and did an initiative instead. (An initiative requires double the number of signatures that a referendum requires).

They needed about 220,000 or so signatures. In thirty two days, relying on GOP apparatus in many areas, they collected 400,000 signatures.

Initiative 912 easily qualified for the November 2005 ballot.

The success caught the business-led coalition of interest groups opposing 912 off guard. They were shocked and didn't recover for months.

We weren't as shocked. Among the progressive activists in Washington State are many who have done initiative campaigns in the past. They predicted it could be done, and it happened.

We began campaigning against Initiative 912 almost immediately. From the end of July to last Monday, on our own blog, I or others had posted over 100 posts in opposition to 912 to our blog. That's an average of about a post a day.

I was worried. I didn't see the interest groups moving to do much of anything. They were sitting on their hands. We needed to have an opposition campaign.

I brought several other people on board to form Washington Defense PAC, set up to fight Initiative 912.

I knew what was at stake. I'd first gotten involved to fight Initiative 776 back in 2002, which I wrote about above. After losing in 2002, we had successfully put a stop to Eyman's next four ballot measures, as I said.

While Tim Eyman wasn't the sponsor of Initiative 912, he could have been. (Eyman had his own initiative, a somewhat harmless performance audits measure, which passed easily on Tuesday).

Anyway, by the end of August, we set up Washington Defense PAC. A great Democrat who has led our county organization here (Greg Rodriguez) agreed to serve as Treasurer, and we started raising money.

A few weeks after we got moving, the business community and the other interests finally got moving, as we'd hoped they would. The reason they sat on their hands for so long was that they were pessimistic. With our recent history, you'd think I-912 was going to pass easily.

But they did some polling and decided a campaign was worth it. So they started to put together a last minute effort.

We kept on doing what we were doing. Ultimately, we raised a few thousand dollars. We printed up literature and yard signs and distributed those. Keep Washington Rolling, the business community led coalition (which also included labor and environmental groups) ultimately raised almost three million dollars.

We knew, and they knew, from the past that money doesn't buy elections. The anti-tax zealots had been winning for years despite large amounts of money being spent against them.

Our strategy was to go local. I'll say it again: going local. If you're a progressive from another state, please take notice of what I just said.

This strategy was supported by all the research we'd all done. For example, in 2004, I discovered that local ballot measures to raise municipal taxes had a high success rate.

This led to the conclusion that voters were more willing to support taxes when they felt the taxes were paying for something significant in their community.

The 2005 transportation package included funding for projects all over the state. Why not run a campaign specifically targeting many local areas? That is just what Keep Washington Rolling did. Their advertisements were carefully crafted to appeal to each local area.

Wherever you lived, if you tuned into local radio and TV you'd hear about projects in your area.

After a careful analysis of past anti-tax votes, we observed that there were several key places we'd need to capture votes from if we wanted to win.

There are only three counties in Washington that have historically voted down anti-tax measures: King, San Juan, and Whitman.

Of those three, only King County encompasses a major urban area. Its neighbors to the north and south, Snohomish and Pierce, always support the anti-tax measures. Their support outweighs King County.

Contrary to what you might think, it isn't urban vs. rural. If it was, none of these measures would ever pass. Urban counties were voting with rural ones to pass these measures.

Pierce and Snohomish weren't out of our reach, though. Along with several other counties, Pierce and Snohomish made up a bloc of "swing" counties that were more likely than other counties to come over to our side.

As I saw it, there were really three goals for getting enough votes for victory:

  1. Obtain a wide margin of victory against Initiative 912 in the strongholds (the three counties we usually win - especially King)
  2. Attempt to win as many of the "swing" or "reach" counties as possible (such as Snohomish and Pierce)
  3. Make the vote as close as possible in the counties where it's likely the campaign will not win (mostly rural counties)

Here's the strategy map I created back in Juky:

Initiative 912 Strategy

Counties in dark blue are counties that traditionally vote against anti-tax measures - our "strongholds", according to an average of votes I compiled on tax-related ballot measures from the last six years. If you look closely, you can see there are only three of those - King, San Juan, and Whitman. In light blue are counties we traditionally lose by small margins. These are the "swing counties". In order to win I-912, we needed to capture some of the swing counties, which we did. In light red are the vote softening targets. These counties are sure to vote against us, but if we campaigned hard, we might be able to make the margin of victory for the other side smaller. We achieved this as well. Then there are three counties in dark red which tend to vote for anti-tax measures by huge margins. For the most part, we paid no attention to these three counties, which have almost no population.

I've seen some comments on the site that the Democratic Party was not involved in the fight against I-912. I can assure you this is not true. From the very beginning, the party had a position and worked hard to fight this initiative.

In King County, every legislative district organization received literature packets for PCOs to distribute throughout their precincts. There was a massive grassroots effort to get voters to vote I-912 down.

We also went out with our signs doing sign-waving, and we put together a demonstration by the Alaskan Way Viaduct (which got us over five minutes total of TV airtime).

Keep Washington Rolling did those custom local television and radio advertisements, and they sent out a ton of direct mail, all to women voters, who they found would be more likely to have an open mind. Absentee women voters were the main mail target. Most households got six pieces of direct mail. Each piece was different.

Another thing they did differently from past campaigns? They asked politicians to take a low profile. They told state legislators and Gov. Gregoire not to seize the pulpit and make too much noise. They found in their polling that people didn't like politicians telling them how to vote.

I've heard many of you complain that Gov. Gregoire and state legislators were weak and didn't show any leadership. Well, there was a reason for that. Apparently, people are turned off when they get advice from their current or former elected officials on how to vote.

That said, Gregoire did speak often against I-912, especially to her live audiences. She just didn't seek the media spotlight. And many state legislators, working as private citizens, helped with the NO on 912 campaign. I'd say that was tremendous leadership on their part.

Also, WSDOT and their leader, Secretary Doug MacDonald, did a great job defending themselves from attacks launched by I-912 proponents. They put the information out there so voters could see the truth.

The strategy worked. Targeting local areas, working especially hard to meet those three objectives, and changing our thinking allowed us to prevail. We all took a different approach.

There were also many local groups that fought I-912, especially a very active group down in Clark County.

As you can see from the results map, we won in critical counties, thus defeating Initiative 912:

Initiative 912 Results

Counties in gray are counties that are rejecting Initiative 912. We captured the whole urban corridor along Puget Sound - not just King, but also Snohomish, Pierce, Thurston, and Kitsap counties. But there were counties outside of the urban corridor that defeated I-912. We won in San Juan and Island counties, as well as in Walla Walla and Whitman counties in the east, and Jefferson in the west. That's right: not all the rural counties voted for I-912.

Now compare this map to the map above. Notice how many of the gray counties on this results map from the Secretary of State are dark blue or light blue on the strategy map. It's almost a exact match! We were able to accurately forecast which counties had the best chance of voting down I-912. In the swing counties we lost, the vote was usually very close.

The lesson here is that voters are more inclined to support taxes if they believe the taxes will pay for something important. They'll believe this if they see evidence that they will be affected. But if they feel they're not getting anything, they'll vote the taxes down.

There were also other factors: the devastation on the Gulf Coast certainly opened peoples' eyes to what happens when you don't invest in infrastructure.

We defeated Initiative 912 because we learned from our mistakes. We changed our thinking and adjusted our approach. Even though the business community's coalition got started late, their campaign still worked.

The significance of this victory cannot be overstated. Diverse interest groups worked hand in hand with the grassroots to defeat a cynical, self defeating ballot measure that would have had awful consequences for Washington State.

We've learned a lot. We'll apply that learning to future campaigns. Washington State is not yet safe from the anti-tax zealots. Tim Eyman is already announced a new tax cut measure to attack the motor vehicle weight fees the Legislature passed along with the gas tax. We'll be fighting that and other right wing efforts here in Washington State in 2006 and beyond.

One battle has ended. More are about to begin. But we've gotten wiser. We'll take what we've learned with us and make great use of it in the future. Unlike Keep Washington Rolling, the progressive blogosphere is not a seasonal campaign. We made a difference in this battle. We're determined to keep learning and growing in scope and influence. We'll largely be the same group of people. We won't be hiring a new team of consultants and a campaign manager for some future round. Our knowledge comes with us.

The progressive netroots should take heart. We have amazing potential. Let's harness it and win.

Here's to future victories against the anti-tax zealots and the right wing, here and everywhere.

Originally posted to nwprogressive on Thu Nov 10, 2005 at 12:00 PM PST.

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