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Déjà Vu All Over Again?

For Howard Rich, the past is prologue

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Fourteen years after his signature organization, U.S. Term Limits, began deploying millions of dollars to tap widespread voter frustration with career politicians, political activist Howard Rich is using the same playbook to try to overhaul land-use laws in this week’s elections.

The wave of successful term-limits campaigns in the 1990s was marked by two key factors: an unhappy electorate and large infusions of cash from U.S. Term Limits and a few other big donors. For voters facing regulatory-takings ballot measures on Tuesday, that past could prove instructive.
 
Just as voters were disenchanted in the early 1990s with politicians who stayed in office too long, many voters are livid over a 2005 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Kelo v. City of New London that affirmed the power of government to seize private property for non-governmental uses in the name of economic development.
 
On Tuesday, voters in eight states will decide relatively non-controversial ballot measures that would curb the use of eminent domain for private development. In four Western states, voters will weigh ballot initiatives that would go further, requiring government to pay landowners when regulatory actions — new zoning rules or building restrictions, for example — reduce property values.
 
As with term limits more than a decade ago, Rich has mobilized a dizzying array of interconnected tax-exempt organizations — chief among them Chicago-based Americans for Limited Government, which he chairs — to try to turn grass-roots grumblings into radical change. The Rich-affiliated organizations have poured nearly $5.7 million — 79 percent of the total $7.2 million raised — into pushing takings initiatives in Arizona, California, Idaho, and Washington, according to state campaign finance records available through November 2.
 
The same funding patterns appeared in term-limits campaigns during the past decade. In 1992, when voters in 14 states approved ballot measures limiting how long their U.S. senators and representatives could stay in Washington, Rich’s U.S. Term Limits contributed $1.8 million of the total $5.9 million raised by term-limits committees, according to a 1993 analysis by Common Cause.
 
Later, Rich-backed organizations became even more prominent. In nine state campaigns for term limits in 1994, U.S. Term Limits provided more than 70 percent of the funding, the Associated Press reported in 1995. And in 2002, an opposition campaign that helped to stop an effort to extend the length of terms for California legislators was bankrolled entirely by individuals or organizations connected to Rich, according to state records reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity.
 
In that 2002 campaign against California’s Proposition 45, the opposition committee Stop the Politicians reported raising $1,032,719. Almost all of the money — $1,024,219, as well as a loan of $500,000 — came from Americans for Limited Terms, which Delaware incorporation records show renamed itself that year to become Americans for Limited Government, which is now the driving force behind the takings initiatives.
 
The only other contributions to Stop the Politicians in 2002 were a $2,500 donation from Rich’s wife, Andrea Millen Rich, and $6,000 from Council for Responsible Government, an organization based at the Fairfax, Virginia, home of William A. Wilson, a director of Americans for Limited Government.
 
Like the property rights measures now, the state-by-state campaigns for term limits in the 1990s also relied on professional signature-gatherers to get initiatives on the ballot and the involvement of a cadre of like-minded, libertarian activists.
 
But unlike with term limits, the push on regulatory takings has met a more organized and better funded opposition, say analysts such as Gary F. Moncrief, a political science professor at Boise State University. Moncrief has studied the term-limits movement and is watching one of the takings initiatives play out in his state.
 
“Almost everybody in the state understands that Howard Rich is the person who has funded most of this — and he’s a New Yorker, which is a terrible thing to hang on somebody’s neck when you’re in Idaho,” Moncrief said in an interview with the Center.
 
“For years, it was unclear who was behind the term-limits initiative. I was constantly asked in those days, ‘Who’s actually behind this? Who’s putting up the money?’ Nobody was very clear on it.”
 
Rich did not respond to a November 3 e-mail from the Center seeking comment for this story.
 
Beginning in 1990, 21 states adopted term limits for state legislators. But the movement has had setbacks. In 1995 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that term limits for members of Congress were unconstitutional (23 states had them on the books), and in six states local term-limits laws also have been struck down or repealed.
 
Still, Rich’s term-limits strategy is far from dead. Colorado At Its Best, a tax-exempt organization that lists Rich as a director, had spent more than $1.1 million as of October 24 to push a measure that would limit the terms of appellate court judges in Colorado, state election records show.
 
And in Oregon, where voters on Tuesday will decide whether to restore term limits for state lawmakers, U.S. Term Limits had contributed $1.24 million to that effort as of October 25 — roughly 95 percent of the campaign’s funding.