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Sue Lani Madsen: Populist movement growing in Washington amid every tax increase

Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

A century ago when the state was young, populists and progressives had a consensual relationship. They pushed for the initiative process in 1912, believing a legislature controlled by special interests would not always reflect the will of the people.

But like many a youthful engagement, the two parties have grown apart. Now progressives are the special interest controlling the Washington Legislature, and the populist movement is resurging as Restore Washington (www.restorewashington.org). What was started by one frustrated small business owner as a support group for initiative I-1648 in 2019 has continued to grow.

Restore Washington uses Facebook as the primary communications platform for its bi-partisan membership base. “Restore Washington members are coming from all over the state, urban and rural,” said Cary Condotta, one of three co-founders. Condotta served 16 years in the Washington Legislature representing the 12th Legislative District out of Wenatchee. He emphasized the focus is on taxes. “We try to keep partisan politics out of our social media pages,” said Condotta. “We are tax-policy oriented, not sitting around and complaining as armchair warriors. We’re strictly focused on getting the job done.”

The job is to “create a large organized network of folks to keep Olympia in check through the initiative and referendum process – Legislation by the People, for the People” according to the group’s mission statement.

Condotta estimates only about a third of the states’ voters are deep blue progressives while the rest are Kennedy Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians or independent. Restore Washington has over 26,000 general members. Nearly 12,000 have joined one of ten zone teams based on their Congressional districts, ready to serve as unpaid signature gatherers and sign planters for the next initiative. It’s a formidable organization in the face of concerns about voter apathy, and a broader network than the traditional precinct based political parties.

Restore Washington stays out of the partisan debates on gun rights and sex education to focus on bi-partisan common ground “and we’ve taken some heat for it,” said Condotta. The group plans to run one and possibly two initiatives this year focused on property tax reduction. “Property taxes have the broadest base and affect housing affordability for both homeowners and renters,” said Condotta. “Tax increases have been well in excess of population growth and inflation, and it’s time to give a reduction out of the surpluses. We can win this battle.”

Condotta and co-founders Mike McKee of Wenatchee – the original frustrated small business owner – and Shelley Sieverkropp of Creston made an exception for the recent campaign to defeat Referendum 88. The R-88 campaign by Washington Asians for Equality was another grass roots movement in the old populist spirit and “we felt those folks needed help,” said Condotta. It was also the first test of Restore Washington’s political muscle. R-88 was a low visibility issue outside of the Puget Sound area until the group put 14,000 volunteers to work on sign planting and getting out the vote. “We believe Restore Washington is responsible for the winning margin,” said Condotta, happy with how the network functioned.

Restore Washington is in the process of drafting one or two initiatives ready to file when the Legislature adjourns.

“The Legislature I remember from just two years ago, which may have been left leaning but had some moments of balance, is gone. The reasonable democrats and centrists have all but disappeared. This legislature has moved radically left,” wrote Condotta in a Facebook post to the network. A rally at the capitol is planned for February 14th, where supporters who “love tax reduction and want to get engaged in the process” are encouraged to meet at noon on the steps.

Unlike the Eyman initiative machine, Restore Washington does not pay its leadership.

“All of our fundraising goes to basic expenses,” said Condotta. That includes engaging expert lawyers to make sure each initiative will meet constitutional challenges, in addition to printing and signs and all the visible accoutrements of a campaign. “If we’re successful this time, this [tax relief] machine is ready to roll.”

Condotta said he wouldn’t be putting in 5-7 hours a day on the effort if it wasn’t working.

Shelley Sieverkropp of Creston, one of the three co-founders of Restore Washington, likens the political situation in Washington to an abusive relationship and says something has to change. “Restore Washington is marriage counseling, Liberty State is the divorce. I don’t know anyone who says we should just stay and take it.”

These grass roots are growing, fertilized by every tax increase passed out of Olympia.

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