Republicans gum the bullet

Even the GOP is scared of its own tax-cutting demon child—I-695.

IN PRIVATE, REPUBLICANS are afraid it's a "third rail"—you touch it, you die. What strikes fear in the hearts of our fearless leaders? It's Initiative 695, the $30 car tab and anti-tax initiative on the ballot in November.

The proposal is a populist brew of drive-by tax reform and unintended consequences, a demon child born of bipartisan legislative myopia, GOP tax-cut rhetoric, and partisan gridlock. It's baited with a drastic cut of the onerous and unpopular car registration tax (MVET), but takes a chain saw to the legislative taxing process and the state's transportation plans, and leaves a fiscal mess for politicians and courts to clean up.

Democrats are monolithic in their opposition. And since they practically invented the idea, Republicans should be able to agree on a tax cut; nevertheless, I-695's been tough on the GOP from the start.

In May, I-695's hypermanic author Tim Eyman jumped up without being recognized at the state committee meeting and demanded their endorsement. Blanching, they quickly shifted into neutral, taking no stand.

I-695 qualified for the ballot with record signatures and ran strong early poll numbers. After futzing around and being subjected to political death threats by Eyman for months, the GOP finally endorsed I-695 at their September meeting. Cary Evans, the party's executive director, said, "Enough votes shifted on the state committee to sway people who were on the fence, and once that snowball starts, nobody wants to be left behind."

Last year GOP Party Chair Dale Forman said we needed the MVET to "solve major transportation problems." This year he had out-loud reservations about I-695 for months but finally decided to support the measure and helped push it through. Some posit the reason for his mind-change might be because he's considering a challenge to Governor Gary Locke next year and sees this as an opportunity to be on the winning side of another popular initiative (like I-200) that Locke opposed.

Republicans always accuse Democrats of pandering to voters, but one gets the feeling they'd love to do some pandering, too—but they don't know how and can't agree about who to do it to.

They have no Locke to put a face on their party or personify their points of view. With so few elected statewide, the party is virtually headless. Senator Slade Gorton, lonely at the top and not exactly lovable, is distrusted by the conservative base and wins elections by small margins. Forman is a faceless suit to average citizens, scarred by party infighting, and seen more as referee than leader.

The lack of leadership on I-695 has made for lots of hand-wringing. State senators Pam Roach, Harold Hochstatter, and a few others have supported I-695 since its inception. Roach says, "They made a mistake by waiting so long to make a decision. It sends a message that may reflect they don't know what grassroot residents are concerned about."

Roach and friends have been counseling the party to just say yes, but other observers would be happy if more Republicans would just say anything. Many influential and usually outspoken Republicans are mute. Gorton takes no stand, nor does new Senate Minority Leader Jim West. State Senator Dan McDonald is rumored to be anti but won't return calls on the subject. Conservative state Senator Don Benton, R-Vancouver, sounds like one of the wishy-washy liberals he usually rails against: "It'd definitely force government to think outside the box, and maybe that's not a bad thing," he says. State Representative John Koster, ultraconservative congressional hopeful in the 2nd District next year, says, mysteriously, "Personally I'll vote for it, but I won't endorse it."

Not all Republicans are taking the Fifth. Outgoing Secretary of State Ralph Munro has been outspoken against it, as has Thurston County Auditor Sam Reed, who's hoping to replace Munro in 2000. State Representative Renee Radcliff, who is running for the 1st District congressional seat, calls the measure "painful and irresponsible."

Local government will be impacted most if the measure passes, and local Republicans oppose it statewide. These include King County Council Republicans Louise Miller, Rob McKenna, and Chris Vance.

The collection of strange bedfellows opposing this—unions, big business, small business, Democrats, environmentalists, Republican moderates—makes for some unlikely rhetoric. Eyman, who lives in a $433,000 house on a golf course and enjoys the endorsement of the gnomes of the Republican party, has nonetheless spun his cause as class struggle against "the establishment." He's working the philosophical place where right-wing, blue-collar Republicans share blue-collar Democrats' disdain for the so-called "elites." This is the pissed-off land of Reagan Democrats, Buchanan Brigades, anti-tax grouches, talk radio, and send-a-message politics. It's a collection of single-issue voters without loyalty to any party—a tiger by the tail for Republicans, who've never kept them happy for long.

Grassroots aren't the only problem. Boeing, Weyerhaeuser, and the Association of Washington Business are adamantly against I-695. These traditional allies have given the GOP a financial edge over Democrats in this state, and they're already upset by the party's anti-affirmative action stance, preoccupation with far-right social issues, and lack of viable statewide candidates.

Foreman says Boeing told him it would cut donations to the party if it endorsed I-695. "No one can buy the Washington Republican Party," he says, bravely. Money, however, is the mother's milk of politics, and not being (or staying) bought sounds scary to party regulars facing the 2000 elections. The latest Elway poll indicates that support is eroding for I-695, especially among moderates, women, and people who've gotten around to reading the initiative. Some Republicans fear they'll be left stamping out a bag of flaming dog doo if enough voters study the issue and actually turn out to vote it down.

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