RtOW: Chapter 8, Part II - The Election of 1992: The Door Leading Away from the Way
Behind the political changes shaping these developments, economic and demographic shifts were similarly accelerating Oregon’s divergence from its Way.
*Editor’s Note* For the next several Saturdays, I will be posting an excerpt from my book, “Rediscovering the Oregon Way.” This effort started two years ago in the middle of my current role as a graduate school student. I spent weekend mornings doing research, late nights conducting interviews, and spare moments looking for typos.
Just six years after Goldschmidt won a staggeringly difficult battle, Oregonians experienced an election characterized by historian Tom Marsh as “a turning point,” the start of a “great divide,” and polarization. Then-Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer concisely voiced similar sentiments saying that he has “never seen an election that was as ugly as this.” These dire remarks followed the aftermath of a perfect storm of divisive ballot measures, big donor-infused partisanship, and narrow social institutions that battered the Way. If the 1986 election released the hinges to the door leading away from the Oregon Way, then the 1992 election was when the state walked through that door.
Rather than use values to unite Oregonians, the 1992 election high-centered on valley values—values for which the middle ground position was held by few but many took up the position of the extremes. Several valley values determined the outcomes of races on that year’s ballot. In the 1st Congressional District, political newcomer Elizabeth Furse staked out a firm pro-choice position that helped her win the election. The centrality of an issue as heated, personal, and morality-laden as abortion to the outcome of the race acted as a filter for voters: those already on the left became more left and vice versa. Many observers attribute Furse’s win over the more experienced and moderate Tony Meeker, the Republican Treasurer of the State, to Furse’s ability to mobilize the people on her side of the pro-life/-choice valley. While winning an election on an issue is not problematic in and of itself, this particular manifestation of an issue-driven election left little room for rallying residents back toward shared values.
Another valley value (at that time)—homosexuality—was on trial in the form of a ballot measure. The Oregon Citizen Alliance (OCA), a hyper-Conservative, Christian organization, brought Measure 9 to the voters. If passed, the measure would have banned “special rights” for members of LGBTQA communities as well as labeled homosexuality as “abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse." Though 56 percent of voters ultimately denied the measure, the debate sparked by the measure caused a conflagration that burned the bridges tenuously connecting the people that may have been on opposite sides of this particular valley value.
With the bridges destroyed, voters ran for their respective hills in wild fashion. Though each side was fighting for different values, other portions of the Way were still at work. This work however, was hastening the Ways demise by cementing who was on each side. A norm of participation helped thousands of armchair activists sit up and speak out—"yes" or "no”—on Measure 9. Social institutions did their best to educate and mobilize their communities. But the decision for institutions to take a stance was one fraught with trade-offs: stand up for members of your community or allow individuals to fight by themselves; pair with other groups, including political parties, or insist on staying out of politics; and, use the Measure as recruiting and fundraising tool or let other institutions firm up support by wading into the fray. This unfortunate use of a specific democratic process upended Oregon politics. The fact that OCA Director Lon Mabon felt the need to wear a bullet-proof vest on election night provided Oregonians with a provocative image to realize the damage done to their political culture and social fabric.
Money accelerated the poisonous effect of questions—such as Measure 9—and races—Senator Bob Packwood versus Congressman Les AuCoin—designed to move people away from one another. The rise of partisanship at the national level trickled its way down to Oregon politics. Suddenly, out-of-state interest groups were funding primary candidates in the race for Packwood’s senate seat, taking out ads, and crowding out Oregon voters. In the 1990-1992 election season, Packwood was ranked sixth nationwide among Senators raising funds outside their home state—sixth is pretty dang high for a senator from a state many people mispronounce. The wads of money taken by Packwood and, to a lesser extent, AuCoin tended to come from institutions and individuals who cared more about a win for their party than preserving what was left of the Oregon Way, which helps explain why the Seattle Times called it “as negative [an election] as many voters can remember.”
The influx of money made this negative tone possible by enabling Packwood to cover the state in attack ads. The tenor established by these ads incentivized the candidates to take extreme positions. Both sides tried to turn out specific interest groups that weren’t representative of the state but did turn out at high rates. The combination of money, negativity, and partisanship made the elections "one of the most expensive and most savage in Oregon's history." Packwood's eventual victory, helped along by outspending AuCoin by 4-1, sent a flare up from Salem that was visible from D.C.—a small amount of money on the national scale can win big races in states like Oregon.
In the span of six years much had changed. The hesitancy Paulus exhibited to go negative was nowhere to be seen in initiative battles and legislative races. Social institutions previously content to side on the sidelines were sucked into the morass of morality-driven politics. Oregonians turned to those in their community with the same values rather than risk a fundamental disagreement with someone on the other side of the valley. All this change took place just a few decades after the Ten Dam Nights.
Once the door leading away from the Way opened (or, in some assessment, fell off entirely) in the early 1990s, moderates in Oregon struggled to preserve any tenets of the Way. In particular, they wrestled with the proper use of the initiative.
Measure 5 - a Leg of the Way Kicks the State
Ideally, open democratic processes should always be moving toward universal, frictionless participation in elections, meetings, forums, etc. related to bills, proposed regulations, new rules, etc. and result in Way-furthering outcomes. Achieving such an outcome depends on the other aspects of the Way as well. If shared values, accepted norms, and strong, independent social institutions fall short of their potential, then democratic processes can be manipulated for partisan and ideological purposes. The manipulation of these processes is made worse by the extent to which the democratic process being manipulated adheres to the aforementioned ideal. In other words, the more powerful these processes become, the more the manipulator can use them to incite lasting damage. That damage has short- and long-term ramifications.
In the short run, abuse of a process can result in a decision that conflicts with the other attributes of the Way. In the long run, continual or particularly severe abuse of the Way can send the other legs into cycles of self-destruction.
A manipulator took control of a key democratic process in the 1990s. As a consequence, Oregon’s Way took significant blows, so significant that the Way has still not recovered from his actions. Bill Sizemore’s serial abuse of the initiative process did a number of things to fork the Way.
First, like the nephew that brings up politics at Thanksgiving, Sizemore seized Oregon’s political agenda and added a litany of sensitive subjects better suited for different processes.
Second, Sizemore went beyond simply raising issues ill-suited for the initiative by writing measures in a slapdash style. Rather than try to include the Way’s norms of moderation and incrementalism, Sizemore intentionally drafted all-or-nothing measures that did not build on the state’s reputation for experimentation and iteration; nuance never neared Sizemore’s proposed measures.
Third, these all-or-nothing questions on sensitive subjects meant that social institutions that would prefer to stay out of the political fray were commonly backed into partisan corners that proved difficult to escape later.
Before digging into these abuses, it is important to understand Sizemore’s background and apparent motivations. To some Oregonians, the fact that Sizemore was from Washington was the first sign he would be trouble. Born in Aberdeen, Washington, Sizemore headed to Portland in the mid-70s to attend the Portland Bible College. After graduating, he started teaching at the school while also launching a radio show—the Bill Sizemore Show.
Outside of these obligations, he launched a smattering of small businesses—many of which failed and landed him in the financial red and/or bankruptcy proceedings. Despite these shortcomings and negative news coverage of his business endeavors, Sizemore tried his hand at politics in the early 1980s—running for the State Legislature in 1980 and Portland City Council in 1981. His poor performance in business carried over to electoral politics—he lost both races. Searching for a way to have impact, Sizemore created Oregon Taxpayers United to fight for his anti-government, Christian views and traded the pursuit of elected office as a vehicle for change for the more straightforward path of the initiative process.
Improper Use of the Initiative: A Skewed View of “Shared” Values
Ways are shaped by democratic processes (plural) for a reason. Ways are strongest when a menu of processes exist such that officials and residents alike can turn to the right process for a particular matter. For example, Coons and Neuberger employed this rationale in selecting a series of debates for their discussion on hydroelectric power. They confined the conversation to impacted parties, adhered to a relevant agenda, and involved social institutions and community members in a meaningful way. In stark contrast, Bill Sizemore opted for the convenience of the initiative rather than actually win an election to air his views in the State Legislature or even Congress.
Harkening back to the earliest days of the Oregon System—when Oregonians faced as many as 37 measures on one ballot, Sizemore had no qualms with filling ballots with measures. To give you a sense of Sizemore's prolific (and careless) use of the initiative, consider that in the 2000 election Sizemore was responsible for more than 10 percent of all statewide ballot initiatives in the nation for that election. If you squint, you can strain your perspective to see Sizemore as the embodiment of several values and norms at the heart of the Oregon Way.
You could try to see Sizemore as a modern equivalent of U'Ren. After all, U'Ren, as the author of several initiatives himself, likely would have celebrated the fact that since 1904 Oregonians had voted on more initiatives than anyone else—Sizemore was just adding to that total. Sizemore could also be seen as channeling the localism espoused by Oregon's resettlers. But what you stop squinting and take in the scenery, context reveals that Sizemore does not deserve such associations. U'Ren championed the initiative as a way to ensure action on the desires of a representative majority of Oregonians. Sizemore knew that his use of the initiative had less rosy aspirations as he sought to advance what pleased a majority of voters (but not necessarily a majority of Oregonians). The resettlers may have celebrated the wisdom won by placing power in the hands of local communities but they dared not try to map the values of single communities onto the rest of the state as Sizemore did.
Measures That Broke Norms by Ignoring Moderation
Vague and simple measures shrouded massive and difficult to reverse outcomes. Measure 91, placed on the 2000 ballot, exemplifies the lack of nuance in a Sizemore-authored measure. If passed, Measure 91 would have made federal income taxes deductible on state personal income and corporate income tax returns. Further, the measure would have caused the state to lose around $1 billion in revenue. If he had succeeded, Sizemore would have told you that Oregonians were simply adhering to broadly-held values.
He mischievously coded his absolutist measure in the values of state-rights and fiscal conservatism—which surely did appeal to many around the state. Sizemore's ballot pamphlet statement in support of Measure 91 was grounded in seemingly sensical values: 1) "double taxation is wrong"; 2) state taxes are too high; and, 3) legislators aren't listening to the will of the people. He concluded his statement by warning voters to not be "fooled by the other side's scare tactics" perhaps hoping that this would cover his own fear-laced "facts."
One could forgive Oregonians for finding Sizemore’s statement compelling, which gets to the point of how easily individuals can manipulate democratic processes if the remaining legs of a Way are not in place. When it becomes the norm to prioritize electoral victory over truly garnering community support, you get statements that are coded to incite votes rather than to inform voters. When values of honesty and non-partisanship go missing, folks like Sizemore are not held accountable for violating what many would say constitutes good behavior. And, when social institutions are forced to take sides on value-laden measures, they lose the ability to provide unbiased, broadly received evaluations of measures. This “when” took place in the late 1990s/early 2000s in Oregon and, as will be discussed later, continues to apply to today.
Another measure on the 2000 ballot—Measure 93—claimed to place more power in the people’s hand by giving them expanded control over fees and taxes proposed by the state. "Measure 93," as outlined in the Explanatory Statement in the Voters Pamphlet, "would [have] amended the Oregon Constitution to require approval by no less than the percentage of voters approving this measure for new or increased taxes, fees or changes proposed by state and local governments, unless exempted." Such a measure, had it passed, would have frustrated just about any attempt by the state government to experiment, to advance evidence-based decisions, and to accelerate markets by addressing market failures through policy levers like progressive taxation.
But, here again, Sizemore and his squad attempted to ignore these norms. Voter pamphlet statements in support of Measure 93 seemed comfortable with stifling the sort of government activity that had been a hallmark of the Oregon Way. According to a statement from Becky Miller, a representative of Oregon Taxpayers United, the government should have to persuade a majority of residents that they need additional funds.
Miller employed similarly coded, emotional language as Sizemore—warning voters of "unbelievable" increases in taxation, accusing the government of "tak[ing]" money from regular Oregonians, and trying to specify that the measure would not "rob" elected officials of their power. If outlined in more neutral terms, even a resettler would likely oppose such a high threshold being placed on officials to effectively govern. Though Oregon’s Constitution writers were no fan of taxes, they still regarded elected officials as stewards of the interests of their respective communities. Measure 93 was yet another inappropriate use of one democratic process because Sizemore could not obtain his desired results in another.
Initiatives Injuring the Independence of Social Institutions
Sizemore did more than just manipulate democratic processes, his behavior (as well as those of others—see the earlier description of OCA and Measure 9) accelerated a trend of social institutions losing their nonpartisanship and tracking closer and closer onto partisan priorities. In the case of Sizemore, his own institution was neither of the people, nor for the people. Sizemore aimed to serve a small sliver of Oregonians. An entry in the Oregon Encyclopedia by Mark Henkels recalled that:
In the early 1990s, backed by a group of wealthy and conservative businessmen, he formed a group known as Oregon Taxpayers United, to develop tax-reduction proposals and get them on the ballot. Then he created his own signature-gathering company, which, by circulating multiple petitions early in the election cycle, has been able to drive its costs down. Not only [did] this put Sizemore at the head of a ‘vertically integrated’ initiative enterprise, as the head of the state's AFL-CIO once put it, it [meant] that he and the people backing him [could] affect the statewide conversation at bargain-basement prices.
This structure of these overlapping social institutions was built on money, narrow views, and a manipulative use of the initiative. Sizemore used this “vertically integrated” structure to avoid the hard work associated with forging consensus across diverse Oregon communities—his campaign drew its strength from being centralized and exclusive rather than distributed and inclusive. His strategy, one adopted by others like him, succeeded in several instances—though these “wins” brought about tremendous losses for the state.
The passage of measures 5, 47, and 50 evidenced the effectiveness of Sizemore’s strategy. Don McIntire and Thomas Dennehy followed the Sizemore playbook on Measure 5—seizing social unrest and uncertainty and shaping it into a do-or-die proposition in the form of a ballot initiative lacking the nuance and compromise that's typical of good policy. Measure 5, as summarized by Henkels:
seemingly protected local school funding by requiring state government to compensate school districts for the property tax losses during the phase-in period, during which property tax limits were gradually reduced to one-half percent of real market value for local school districts and one percent for all other local government by the 1995-1996 budget period.
When Measure 5 and, later, Sizemore’s Measures 47 and 50 passed, they cumulatively resulted in “restrictions in local school district revenues [that] transformed the funding of Oregon's public school system to make it primarily dependent on state general revenues controlled by the legislature rather than on local school boards.” Sixteen years after the passage of Measure 5, local tax revenue plummeted by $41 billion forcing the proportion of the K-12 operating budget funded by the state to go from 28.6 percent in 1990-1991 to north of 70 percent in 1998-1999.
The increased need for state funds at the local level "squeezed" other budget initiatives, leaving Oregonians with a government that often lacked the money to fulfill its obligations. According to Henkels, the success of these measures reflected the strength of “insurgent conservative activism in the state." It’s important to flag Henkels’ use of “insurgent,” highlighting the revolt-like approach taken by Sizemore, McIntire, and Dennehy—an approach clearly out of line with pragmatism, incrementalism, and compromise.
These clumps of crass partisans also succeeded in disrupting other social institutions. By placing polarizing issues on the ballot and turning advocacy into a financial contest rather than an organizing one, many social institutions were forced to shift their own strategies. As other partisan Oregonians emulated Sizemore’s structure, the remaining social institutions found themselves having to wage political war to safeguard the rights regarded by their members as sacrosanct.
David Peterson del Mar recounts that during this period “fundamentalist Christians began flexing their political muscle.” Across Oregon, congregations of one church came to see those who attended another as subscribing to a different, inferior, and wrong way of life based on their political activity. One example—provided by del Mar—took place in Cottage Grove where "Presbyterians referred to the town's evangelical congregations as 'parking lot churches' in which, as one architect sniffed, 'you don't even need a degree to get up and preach.’" In another instance, a conservative condemned the liberal congregation for “trying to do a lot of social work with pedophiles, child molesters, alcoholics, and people we don’t need in our community.” Surely these sect-based squabbles have occurred throughout Oregon’s history but del Mar is careful to point out that the differences and pronouncements expressed in the 1990s and onwards were not grounded just in biblical interpretation; instead, politics, class, and culture all informed how Oregonians perceived social institutions.
Businesses were dragged into the thicket as well. For example, “Cottage Grove merchants who opposed the OCA lost business.” This sort of animosity mandated that previously nonpartisan organizations take a side and share that stance publicly. Perhaps Tim Hirons, one-time president of the Oregon Lands Coalition, best conveyed the rationale behind social institutions drifting from the Way. During the divisive battles of the 1980s and 90s, Hirons explained why he had become such an impassioned advocate for logging that he needed to start an organization to defend the industry: "My sense of morality got offended in this whole thing. Somebody crossed over a line out there and I felt I had to defend a set of values my old man tried to teach me."
The melding of partisanship and social institutions was not confined to Oregon alone, but the trend stood out in the Beaver State given that it demonstrated a marked departure from the Oregon Way. Whatever shared values had enabled Oregonians to get over regional, racial, and political differences were no longer enough to prevent the state from tearing apart along values with a higher degree of divergence.
The Positives of Sizemore’s Serial Initiatives
Not every Sizemore measure was inappropriate for the initiative process nor out of alignment with the Oregon Way. Though poorly worded, the intention behind his push to limit the political activities of special interests crossed off several attributes of the Oregon Way, especially limiting the extent to which social institutions overlapped with political institutions (Measure 92). In general, his anti-bigness sentiments tapped into contemporary and historic values shared across many Oregonians. Sizemore aimed to take down any industry or institution that had amassed too much unchecked power. And, in doing so, often gave voice to a sentiment long found in Oregon politics: "residents [that] want a smaller government, one that keeps taxes low, produces few regulations, and protects traditional social values."
Sizemore's occasional ability to tap into a shared value was what rendered his use of the initiative most dangerous. When he promoted anti-property tax measures 47 and 50, for example, he was acting on a widely-held sentiment that property taxes were unaligned with the priorities of residents. Though this value was held by many, Sizemore’s solutions were unaligned with the rest of the Way; in other words, these solutions did not align with the norms, democratic processes, and social institutions as envisioned by the Way.
Measure 47 challenged the strength of Oregon’s democratic processes by insisting that tax increases not only receive 50 percent of the vote but also that 50 percent of the electorate participate in the election; in short, the measure gave more power to not voting, an increase in power contrary to a norm of participation and unaligned with strong democratic processes.
Sizemore’s focus on what many Oregonians held in common allowed him to mitigate pushback against the other attributes of his measures; he would argue that he was just doing the will of the people. But Sizemore knew that the initiative process loses its ability to further the Way when it is flooded with dense, blunt measures with large ramifications. Rather than think too hard about each measure, voters simply go with their gut. Most guts can easily stomach the idea of fewer taxes, so Measures 47 and 50 passed in 1996 and 1997, respectively (note that Measure 50 clarified some language in Measure 47 and effectively replaced the entire measure). It is this sort of gut-based thinking that led to larger holes in the state’s budget.
Fewer and More Partisan Social Institutions
Beyond being pressed to “take sides,” the health of social institutions was also impinged by Sizemore’s manipulation of shared values. The financial cuts made by Measure 50 to local revenues meant that communities had to lean more on the state for support—in effect, Sizemore strangled local control as schools, hospitals, and other community-based institutions had to lean on the state legislature for support. The weight of every community leaning on the state put pressure on the state’s budget. Governor Barbara Roberts predicted this pressure the day after the initiative passed, forecasting that "people would die" due to the loss in funding for critical welfare and social services.
In the first post-Measure 5 legislative session, the aforementioned pressure released itself in the form of reduced financial support for senior services, early childhood programs, health care for the indigent and uninsured, libraries, and several other social institutions. What’s more, the intended recipients of the care provided by these social institutions were soon made even worse off due to cities falling back on regressive fees to try to make up for lost revenue.
Some people celebrated the leaner government that resulted from Measures 5 and 50 but the reality was even the lost library funds significantly stunted the strength of the Way. Libraries in timber counties were particularly hit: absent using property tax revenue to cover costs, the counties turned to timber revenues (which were steadily declining) to cover things like roads, law enforcement, and, yes, libraries. As anchor institutions in cities around the state, libraries helped upskill the unemployment, educate the young, and entertain the old. When libraries could no longer serve as anchors, communities were left adrift as they searched for new places to gather and connect.
The 1990s were a turning point in the Oregon Way. The state could not escape the toxicity being emitted out of Washington, D.C. Increased partisan fervor paired with an influx of money in politics, gave specific bad actors numerous chances to damage the tenets of the Way. Sizemore, the OCA, and a litany of other social institutions gave up on the hard work of collaboration and placed less weight on appropriately using democratic processes. These bad actors succeeded in driving wedges between Oregonians and placing the tenets of the Way on shaky ground. The people of Oregon responded to this poisoned political atmosphere by doubling down on what they knew best—their own values, the priorities of their specific, small community, and connecting only with those that claimed to share the same values and priorities.
These developments created new norms, new ideas of the proper use of processes, and new pressures on social institutions. Behind the political changes shaping these developments, economic and demographic shifts were similarly accelerating Oregon’s divergence from its Way. By 2000, according to Del Mar, “the richest one percent [of Oregonians] had 17 percent of the state’s income, more than twice its share in 1979.” The income divide was paired with the death of Oregon’s natural resource economy and the cross-state ties it fostered. “The days when agriculture, timber, and other extractive industries dominated Oregon’s economy were long past.” In the vacuum created by the collapse of timber, tech tried to fill the void. But it was far from a perfect substitution. “The overwhelming majority of high-tech employees, for example, worked and lived in the urban Willamette Valley, in Corvallis, Eugene, and especially in the Portland metropolitan area.”
Rural Oregonians lost the jobs and industry that connected their community, gave its residents a sense of purpose, and gave the region an avenue to collaborate with urban Oregonians. It comes as no surprise that rural Oregonians, seeking some outlet for their woes, pinned the decline of their communities on urban Oregonians, Californians, and international trade. In fact, with timber gone, anti-Portland sentiments became somewhat of a unifying factor among rural officials.
Portlanders generally ignored attacks levied by their rural colleagues, choosing to instead focus on the development of their economic might. Portland and its surrounding communities developed whole economic infrastructures that were disconnected from the rest of the state. Tektronix was seemingly born in Portland’s backyard—Beaverton. As it grew, it developed a tech ecosystem that incubated more tech-based economic growth. Case in point, the Oregon Graduate Center opened in 1969 right next to Tektronix, which likely helped recruit Intel and Hewlett-Packard to the area in 1976. But what was good for this slice of Oregon resulted in the remainder of the state having very different economic desires, daily lives, and conceptions of diversity:
In 1969 the Oregon counties with the highest average median incomes were Washington, Multnomah, Clackamas, the Portland metropolitan area. The seven lowest were located outside the Willamette Valley. Five were in Eastern Oregon. These regional gaps grew. By 1999 residents of the three metropolitan counties again led the state, with per capita incomes of between $31,500 and $32,200. All seven of Oregon’s poorest counties were east of the Cascades. Gilliam County residents made an average of $11,500 in 1999.
These income statistics, provided by del Mar, reinforce how economic shifts inevitably altered the daily concerns of Oregonians depending on what part of the state they called home. Absent economic exchange and reliance between urban and rural Oregon, the number and strength of shared values diminished. Take a 1994 measure to restrict the hunting of bears and cougars as an example: the measure received the support of 65 percent of Multnomah County voters, but just 30 percent or less of the votes in nine eastern Oregon counties. Hunting, in and of itself, is not a shared value; however, the two “sides” of Oregon came to see the outdoors differently—something to protect or something to engage. The divergence between “Oregons” was not confined to the environment.
The differences in average income among Oregonians on the two sides meant that Portlanders had a degree of economic stability and opportunity unknown to more rural areas. The differences sparked by economic changes were amplified by demographic shifts. Portland’s emerging tech and service economy drew both highly educated folks to the Rose City as well as more ethnically diverse laborers from abroad. In the early 1990s, Oregon attracted such a large number of new residents that it recorded the 11th highest population growth rate in the nation. This absolute growth was diverse growth. Consider that in 1960, just 2 percent of the state's population was non-White. By 2000, that percentage was 15, a more than seven-fold increase in diversity. The majority of this population growth took place in Oregon’s metro areas.
The magnitude of these cumulative changes made maintaining the Way nearly impossible. Oregon’s political leaders, if they had applied a statewide lens and worked with independent social institutions, may have been able to keep the tenets of the Way intact for longer. But, as evidenced in this chapter, that sort of thinking became less and less common in Salem as the 1990s progressed. So when more changes arrived in the 2000s, the Way was already on its deathbed.
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