Eminent Absurdity: Institute for America's Future, 7/31/06

By Matt Singer

One of the things that we take for granted in the United States is that we have the political freedom to prevent our next-door neighbor’s house from being sold and the new owners turning it into a tire-burning plant. And we like to think that we can protect open spaces and farmland, rather than having our remaining scenic landscapes turned into strip mines and strip malls.

If you thought these values were universal, you have probably never heard of New York developer Howard Rich. And while Rich’s name is hardly well-known, the impact of his actions is being widely felt. Rich sits at the center of a vast operation of organizations working in states across the country to gut communities’ ability to steer their own futures.

His organizations have so far directed at least $4 million into ballot campaigns to turn right-wing legal theory into law in a half-dozen states by bamboozling voters. In so doing, Rich’s operation is a case study in how the right operates — combining populist rhetoric with Trojan horse legal language to advance horribly destructive policy.

In November of 2004, anti-government zealots succeeded in passing a ballot measure — Measure 37 — in Oregon that would make their theories the law of the land. For three decades, Oregon had the nation’s strictest land-use planning rules. These rules encouraged dense growth and protected Oregon’s farmland and scenery, but also helped prompt a backlash. Combining some genuine populist outrage with a little propaganda to cover the far-reaching impacts of the proposal, Measure 37’s backers won a majority of the vote.

Since Measure 37’s passing, Oregon has come to know the true cost of the radical right’s legal theories. Local governments are completely overwhelmed with requests for compensation for various regulations. And in some cases, the requests border on the absurd. Landowners literally are demanding millions of dollars in compensation if local governments refuse to let them build huge, environmentally-disastrous mines on their land.

In short, communities are being held hostage. A single landowner can now demand of his neighbors that they either accept his new strip mine or buy him off to not build it.

Measure 37 would have been simply Oregon’s problem were it not for two other factors: the deep pockets of the far right and an opportunity quickly seized. At the same time that Oregon’s voters were considering Measure 37, a legal dispute was working its way to the Supreme Court. In Kelo v. New London, the libertarian right had found a perfect case for the media. The town of New London had decided to use its eminent domain authority to stoke development in a blighted area of town and promote economic development. The Institute for Justice, a laissez faire-minded legal foundation, represented the homeowners and lost.

But the Institute and their allies were ready for the real battle, which took place in front of TV cameras. Poised with a populist tale of homeowners evicted to hand property to wealthy developers, these well-heeled libertarians created momentum for legislation to drastically alter eminent domain authority. And their allies got a new opportunity to advance their far-right “takings” theory.

The Reason Foundation quickly laid out the strategy: talk publicly about the need to protect people’s homes while advancing measures that would prevent the public from protecting their communities from corporate developers.

With the strategy mapped out, the major donors went to work. Howard Rich quickly used multiple organizations in his control — Americans for Limited Government, America At Its Best, and the Fund for Democracy — to steer money to fake grassroots groups across the country pushing ballot measures modeled on Oregon’s Measure 37.

These astroturf operations claim grassroot support even as the vast majority of their funding comes from Rich’s organizations — over $4 million laundered through multiple layers of non-profit bureaucracy in an attempt to hide the funding sources from reporters and campaign finance watchdogs.

The price tag is extremely high, but what the right has purchased is simply astounding: They have turned a measure to literally destroy communities’ ability to fight unwanted development into what is being perceived as a populist crusade for change. The cynicism of the maneuver is obvious — a developer-backed strategy using faux outrage at development that actually makes rich developers' jobs easier.

Fortunately, hard work and good disclosure rules are exposing Rich’s operation for what it is: a sham house of cards. When voters find out these measures are being pushed from a New York townhouse, it is much less likely that these efforts will be successful.

Institute for America's Future: http://www.tompaine.com