Intimidation Politics

June 12, 2006 —Imagine that you love big government.

Perhaps you sleep in an oversized Che t-shirt, rest your head on an NPR pillowcase, and dream of progressive tax increases. Perhaps you’re a union boss or government employee, hoping for bigger benefits and a pay raise. Or, perhaps you’re just a sympathetic, non-political sort who thinks those small-government types sound really, really mean.

Then, one day, your nightmare arrives: an army of petitioners, gathering signatures for an initiative that would cap yearly state-spending growth. It is the sum of your fears, and if the petitioners succeed, the measure will go on the November ballot.

Worse yet, voters love the idea and just might put it through. So what do you do if people want to take charge of their government?

You bring out your lawyers — and, in some cases, your thugs — in an all-out effort to block the vote.

My group, Americans for Limited Government, is working with local activists in eight states to put spending cap initiatives on the 2006 ballot. Our measures would give taxpayers some control over state spending and stop out-of-control budget binges. This terrifies groups which have a lot to lose from serious spending reforms.

Across the country, lawsuits — frivolous, time-sucking, and money-wasting — are all the rage among the democracy-blocking set. In Maine, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Missouri, our partner groups have gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures — and they’ve also been slapped with legal challenges based on little more than language technicalities.

Lawsuits, however, are just the beginning. A showdown is brewing in Nevada, where the AFL-CIO and state teachers unions have put some muscle behind an intimidation campaign against the Tax and Spending Control campaign. Reportedly paid by the hour, these “blockers” physically surrounded petitioners while shouting, screaming, and chasing away potential signers. The situation escalated last week, with petitioners reduced to pleading for a restraining order from a Nevada judge, who promptly ordered preschool-style rules — “no touching, no yelling” — to return order to the streets.

“Say you’re an elderly woman and you want to sign a petition — you don’t have a chance,” says Bob Adney, who is leading the spending-cap campaign. “And if you’re a guy who’s 6’4’’ and 300 pounds, quite frankly, you might not have a chance either. These guys are surrounding petitioners eight to one at times, and they’re not pulling punches.”

What happens in Vegas, alas, doesn’t always stay there. Our partners in Missouri, Montana, Michigan, and Oklahoma have faced similar intimidation tactics, often at the hands of local unions and, in particular, public-education unions. The goal is often to get petitioners kicked out of malls and other high-traffic areas, or even arrested — which is an interesting civics lesson indeed.

Lest you get too impressed with what local liberals can cook up at the coffee shop, however, you should know that these efforts are often well-organized, well-networked, and well-funded — sometimes on a national level. The Oregon Education Association, for instance,recently declared war on the state’s spending cap initiative. Meanwhile, the National Education Association has been doling out cash to similar causes for years. As the Wall Street Journal reported in January, the NEA spent $90 million dollars — $25 million of it in direct lobbying — supporting left-wing causes in 2005 alone.

In some cases, it’s the government that has become the ultimate democracy blocker. In Missouri, Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, an apparent specialist in bureaucratic warfare, recently dismissed the signatures of 400,000 Missourians who wanted to vote on reforms this fall because of “pagination” issues. Our partner group, Missourians in Charge, has just announced that they will appeal the decision — and rumblings around the state suggest that they just might win.

“These people trying to block the vote all have vested interests in the current system,” says Mary Adams, who is leading the campaign for aTaxpayer Bill of Rights in Maine. “They’re afraid. They know that voters want these reforms. They know that if our measures make it to the ballot box, they’ll lose, and they’ll also lose a lot of their government-funded perks and special favors.”

Adams knows this from experience. Her petition has already been through the standard legal attack (from a longtime left-wing activist) and the courtroom wringer, all the way to the Maine supreme court. The good news: On May 4, after a long, drawn-out battle, she, and the people of Maine, won the right to vote on the proposal.

In states across the nation, thousands of activists are fighting for that same right, and they’re getting a tremendous response. Voters, it turns out, do want a say in state spending. They’re tired of government overspending and politics as usual, and they want issues to be decided in a voting booth, not in a courtroom.

As November approaches, expect more shenanigans and blocking attempts, but don’t expect these initiative campaigns to fold. Our partners across the country are dedicated to making sure that these important reforms get on the ballot. They’re dedicated to putting the people back in charge of state governments, and to making sure that it’s the voters and taxpayers, not the special interests, who are heard this November.

Heather Wilhelm is a Phillips Foundation fellow and serves as the director of communications for Americans for Limited Government.

National Review Online


Unholy Land Grab

January 17, 2006 —For seven years, Reverend Roosevelt Gildon has preached the gospel at the Centennial Baptist Church in Sand Springs, Oklahoma. His congregation, around 50 strong, is like a small family. The elderly members, and those without cars, often walk to Sunday services.

“Rosey,” as his friends call him, figured he’d go on preaching in the tidy steel structure for years to come. That was, until the government told him they were taking his church away.

Since the Supreme Court’s controversial Kelo decision last summer, eminent domain has entered a new frontier. It’s not just grandma’s house we have to worry about. Now it’s God’s house, too. “I guess saving souls isn’t as important,” says Reverend Gildon, his voice wry, “as raking in money for politicians to spend.” The town of Sand Springs, Oklahoma, has plans to take Centennial Baptist — along with two other churches, several businesses, dozens of small homes, and a school — and replace them with a new “super center,” rumored to include a Home Depot. It’s the kind of stuff that makes tax collectors salivate. It’s also the kind of project that brakes for no one, especially post-Kelo. “I had no idea this could happen in America,” says Reverend Gildon, after spending Monday morning marching in the Sand Springs Martin Luther King Day parade.

This unholy takeover goes back to Sand Springs’s controversial “Vision 2025” project, which emerged in 2003. The plan includes, according to its website, the “largest set of public redevelopment projects in the history of Tulsa County.” The money earmarked for Sand Springs was supposedly meant to focus on redeveloping an abandoned industrial area for big box retailers and other stores. One problem: Centennial Baptist Church isn’t abandoned, and unlike some of the other buildings in its neighborhood, it is in pristine condition. More importantly, the church doesn’t want to sell — and they have good reasons. “After I heard the news, we started looking to see if we could move,” Gildon said. “I just don’t think we can afford it. It’s too expensive. And if we can’t move, and they take our building, what happens to the church? If we leave, who is going to minister to the black community in Sand Springs?”

Reverend Gildon is a practical man. He’s not a firebrand, and he’s not looking for a fight. He just loves God and loves his church, and wants to continue serving his community. Unfortunately, local officials would rather have an extra parking lot for a new Bed Bath & Beyond.

It makes sense on one level. Churches don’t generate any tax revenue for the government to spend. They don’t “stimulate” the economy. They often, much to their peril, occupy prime, envied real estate. With the supercharged powers granted by Kelo, be very, very afraid.

What’s most egregious about this application of eminent domain is that there’s already plenty of room for development, even if the pesky church sticks around. Many community residents were happy to sell their property. Two other churches in the area decided to move to Tulsa. Other structures in the area were dilapidated and ready for the deal. The way things are now, Centennial Baptist Church could easily live side-by-side with new stores, houses, or businesses. Yet Centennial remains in the crosshairs — even though two nearby national chains, a taxpaying McDonald’s and a taxpaying O’Reilly’s muffler shop, have been left alone.

In December, Reverend Gildon joined up with Americans for Limited Government and our partner group, Oklahomans in Action, to gather signatures for the “Protect Our Homes” initiative, which will go on the ballot in November 2006. Protect our Homes is a measure designed to stop eminent-domain abuse. Right now, Americans for Limited Government is working with citizens in Michigan, Montana, Missouri, and several other states to do the same.

“I hope that my story makes people more aware,” said Reverend Gildon, “and that maybe it stops other people’s homes and churches from being taken against their will.” Meanwhile, he awaits his next meeting with the planning board, where they will tell him how much his church is worth. If things don’t change, it promises to be an offer he can’t refuse.

Heather Wilhelm is a Phillips Foundation fellow and serves as the director of communications for Americans for Limited Government.

National Review Online



Planet Soros:
A pit stop on the financier’s magical mystery university tour

February 19, 2004 —I’ve been feeling a little low about my relationship with George W. Bush lately. I’m worried about the situation in Iraq. Dubya’s trademark, endearing smirk — the one that enrages Democrats — just doesn’t lift my spirits like it used to. And during the State of the Union, I definitely felt like we were drifting apart.

To be fair, Karl Rove has no need to panic. Realistically, who else am I going to vote for? John “Millionaires are out to get you, America…except for this millionaire!” Edwards? Please.

Regardless, I’ve been a little depressed. So last week, for a little pick-me-up, I did the only natural thing: I went to see George Soros.

Soros, for those who have been smart enough to ignore him, is on a cross-country crusade to get President Bush out of the White House. He is also promoting his book, The Bubble of American Supremacy: Correcting the Misuse of American Power. And at the University of Chicago last Wednesday, he made very little sense.

There are three types of people who oppose the war in Iraq. The first group knows their history, understands foreign policy, and can make a logical, respectable argument about why the war is not in America’s best strategic interest. The second group are always antiwar, period. The third group consists of people who only need to hear the words “Dick Cheney” for their heads to start spinning around like that poor little possessed girl in The Exorcist.

I probably don’t need to tell you which camp Soros falls into. “President Bush,” he announced after stepping to the podium, “is leading the country and the world in a dangerous direction.” After a smattering of applause, the audience sat in silence, waiting for Soros to tell them why this was so.

I could write many things about Soros’s argument that followed. It was at turns inconsistent (praising state sovereignty one minute and calling for an “interventionist” strategy the next), laughable (“I have experienced in the media an Orwellian truth machine — I think this problem requires very serious research”), and vindictive (“I am actually eager to have this [American] bubble punctured. Because otherwise we will be able to squeeze through and inflate it again.”)

But the most interesting thing about Soros’s central argument has nothing to do with strategy. It has nothing to do with war or peace. Instead, it has everything to do with his personal philosophy, which he declared at the beginning of his speech.

After a brief paean to the philosopher Karl Popper, Soros began his lecture by revealing the greatest possible threat to an open society: People who believe in ultimate truth.

“Nazism, Communism, Fascism: The problem with all of these is that they believed that they had the ultimate truth. Nobody has access to the ultimate truth. Because of this, Nazism, Communism, and Fascism had to enforce their ultimate truth — with repression.”

Um, wait a minute, Soros.

I sincerely believe that I have access to the ultimate truth. If I jump off of a bridge, that’s a bad idea. If I stick my hand into the mouth of a great white shark, I don’t expect it to come out with a French manicure. If I wear the “urban cowboy” look two years after its disastrous fashion apex, I expect to get ridiculed.

More importantly, and I know this is a stretch, but could it be that the problem is not the belief in ultimate truth, but the nature of the ultimate truth you hold? Could it be that the problem with Nazism, Communism, and Fascism was that their versions of truth involved genocide, wanton murder, class warfare, and total control of the populace? And could it be that our whole conceptions of “good” and “bad” come from — yes — a belief in ultimate truth?

“The open society is always in danger,” Soros continued. “But I never thought I would have to defend it in the United States.” As football announcer Terry Bradshaw once brilliantly it, you don’t have to be Albert Einstein to see the linkage forming in Soros’s head: Bush equals Hitler.

There are perfectly rational, intelligent arguments that can be made against the Iraq war, the Bush Doctrine, or the national-security strategy. The problem is, Soros isn’t making these arguments. Instead, he’s on a one-man crusade against a president who sees things in black and white. He’s incensed about a president who believes that there is a truth, saw a problem, and decided to take action.

This is, of course, terribly ironic–-after all, the Bush administration has spent the past few months swatting off charges that they distorted the truth to get into Iraq. For Soros, though, WMDs and stretched intelligence are peripheral issues. Our action in Iraq may have been flawed, but he doesn’t spend a lot of time offering plausible alternatives. That’s because, for him, this really isn’t about the war. It’s a personal problem.

To be fair to Soros, he is, as he says, “putting his money where his mouth is.” He has a charitable foundation which, I hope, makes life better for many people. That’s wonderful. I can’t bash it.

But the philosophy and motivations behind his current crusade are alarming–-and if people take them seriously, that’s downright scary.

However, when I think about it, I can’t be too hard on George Soros. He did, after all, make me feel a whole lot better about George W. Bush.

Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Chicago.

National Review Online