March 9th, 2005 Matt Buckingham, Ww Editorial Staff | Special Section Stories
 

1996

     
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CHIEF PETITIONER: Bill Sizemore dominated Salem for almost a decade.

The Signature King

BY MATT BUCKINGHAM

For good or ill, Bill Sizemore defined Oregon politics in the 1990s.

During that decade, the ballot initiative reshaped (some might say disfigured) the state's political landscape, and the driving force behind this change was a Portland carpet salesman.

Bill Sizemore did for signature gathering in the 1990s what Ray Kroc did for McDonald's in the 1950s. Both men would turn their respective industries from sleepy, localized concerns into vertically integrated, massively financed enterprises. Just as Kroc used economies of scale to produce an endless supply of cheap, identical Big Macs, Sizemore brought a certain ruthless elegance to the mathematics of collecting petition signatures.

If you were a wealthy political conservative with, say, $50,000, "Dollar Bill" could essentially sell you 50,000 petition signatures for your pet cause. Not only that, he could juggle your donation around between various accounts and organizations until, when it came time to report the campaign's finances, that $50,000 no longer had your name on it. (What Sizemore considered shrewd bookkeeping the courts would later identify by such names as "racketeering" and "money laundering," but let's not get ahead of our story.)

He also refined the practice of "ballot-title shopping"-introducing several versions of the same measure, then picking the one whose final wording on the ballot best enhanced its chances of voter approval.

Starting in 1994, when he put a measure on the ballot to force public employees to chip in more money for their own pensions, Bill Sizemore was a political juggernaut. He terrorized lawmakers, union bosses, bureaucrats and lobbyists alike. If you wanted to get things done in Salem, it might help to reach out to the governor-but you sure as hell had better know what Sizemore was up to.

Despite his conservative Christian background, though, Sizemore was no Lon Mabon. He never introduced a measure to limit abortion or strip gays and lesbians of their rights. Leaf through the dozens of petitions he introduced over the years and you'll find they were almost always about money: keeping more of it in the pockets of taxpayers and less of it in the hands of government and labor unions.

In 1996, for example, Sizemore authored-and voters passed-a measure to cap property taxes and limit increases to 3 percent per year. He also penned Oregon's "double majority" law, which requires new tax measures garner a majority turnout at the polls as well as majority approval by voters. Another Sizemore measure in 2000 tried to tinker with merit pay for teachers, requiring such awards to be based on performance, not seniority. He also tried to hobble public-employee unions by making it illegal for them to spend income from payroll deductions on political activity (effectively putting them out of business).

Sizemore built up so much political momentum that in 1998 he decided to run for governor. He won the Republican nomination but was trounced by Democratic incumbent John Kitzhaber. Sizemore captured only 31 percent of the vote-the worst showing by a major-party gubernatorial candidate since 1942. No matter: The race still gave him a bully pulpit from which to promote his initiatives.

In the end, Bill Sizemore's reign was cut short by the very political forces he had tried to quash-the public-employee unions.

In 2002, the state's biggest teachers unions won a lawsuit against Sizemore's organization, Oregon Taxpayers United, for $2.5 million-the cost of fighting two anti-union measures placed on the 2000 ballot with falsified signatures and illegal campaign contributions. Last fall, a Multnomah County judge ruled Sizemore was personally liable for the sum.

Meanwhile, fed up with Sizemore's endless stream of ballot measures, voters in 2002 approved a constitutional amendment outlawing the practice of paying petition gatherers a bounty (usually $1) per signature. This change radically altered the economics of initiative petitions-making it unlikely Sizemore will ever return to the pinnacle of power he enjoyed for almost a decade.

vera's wall

BY WW EDITORIAL STAFF

Torrential rain and melting snow from unusually warm February weather swell the Willamette River to within inches of breaching the city's harbor wall. At the urging of Mayor Vera Katz, hundreds of city workers and volunteers toil through the night to build a sandbag barricade along the riverfront. Statewide, the great flood damages 7,000 homes, to the tune of roughly $400 million. Highways require $81 million worth of repair.


* AK-47. 12-gauge shotgun. SKS 7.62 mm assault rifle. 9 mm pistol. A thousand rounds of ammunition. And a handful of knives. Thus armed, John Rincker staggers into the KOIN Center, shoots two people in the parking garage and holds four workers hostage in a Charles Schwab office. Motive unclear. Rincker surrenders after four hours and is sentenced to 250 years in prison.

* Two college students stumble on a 9,000-year-old human skeleton on the banks of the Columbia River, touching off a lengthy struggle between the Army Corps of Engineers, paleoanthropologists, five Native American tribes and a bunch of guys who dress up like Vikings. Eight years and many legal battles later, scientists finally get to study Kennewick Man.

* In the biggest bank merger in history, California-based Wells Fargo buys First Interstate for $11.6 billion.

* Mittleman Jewish Community Center hosts the first annual Eastern European Cultural Festival in response to a surge of immigrants from behind the former Iron Curtain. By 2005, roughly 100,000 Russian-speaking immigrants live in the metro area.

* Arts booster, blues fan and party animal Mike Lindberg steps down from 17 years on City Council. The rumpled Lindberg reckons he has attended 2,500 City Council meetings.

* Portland catches hold of the bagel craze as two Noah's Bagels compounds open to ebullient throngs, who gladly wait in lengthening lines for a nibble of the dense, chewy national treasure.

* Serial killer Douglas Wright is the first Oregon inmate to be put to death in 34 years.

* Forty years after stitching the first of its trademark plaid jackets, Pendleton Woolen Mills closes its Sellwood factory, idling 120 workers, and shifts operations to Mexico.

* Clark County voters derail TriMet's dream of a North-South MAX line across the Columbia River. 'Couverites are now officially banned from whining about I-5 traffic jams.

* An Air Force cargo plane crashes 80 miles off the California coast, killing 10 Portland-area reservists. The widows of the King-56 disaster begin a long struggle to find out the cause of the crash. Air Force blames the crew, but evidence suggests mechanical defect. In 1999, a federal judge rules that the widows can sue the plane's manufacturers, despite a law granting defense contractors immunity from lawsuits. The lawsuit is settled in 2001 for a sum one widow calls "an insult."

* Due to Ballot Measure 5, Portland schools are forced to cut $23 million from their budget, reaching record lows in school funding. Parents collect signatures for a temporary increase in Multnomah County's business income tax. Despite these efforts, Portland teachers strike.


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