“I am owed $750,000 by I-1000,” said Johnson, who runs Your Choice Petitions, a Spokane-based signature-gathering firm. Without his firm’s work to gather signatures for the citizen initiative, Johnson said, no one in the room would even be there that night.
The debt is an issue supporters of the affirmative-action measure continue to run into on the campaign trail, and one that opponents of I-1000 have seized upon as the November election approaches.
Workers in the I-1000 campaign, some of them provided by Johnson’s operation, collected nearly 400,000 signatures last year to ensure I-1000 qualified as an initiative to the Legislature. Though state lawmakers approved I-1000 in April, opponents of the policy gathered enough signatures to prevent the law from going into effect, sending it back to voters for final passage.
I-1000 will appear before voters this November as Referendum 88. Approving the referendum would cause I-1000 to become law, relaxing the state’s 21-year-old ban on considering race in government hiring, contracting and public university admissions.
But as the election approaches, the committee that launched I-1000, the One Washington Equality Campaign, remains about $1.3 million in debt, according to campaign-finance records. About $1.2 million of that money is owed to Citizen Solutions, a signature-gathering firm that Johnson said hired his company to carry out some of the signature-collection work. The two companies filed a lawsuit last month in King County Superior Court alleging a breach of contract by the One Washington Equality Campaign.
In response to Johnson’s questions about the outstanding debt, Locke told the crowd at China Harbor that he wasn’t a formal part of the committee that owed the money, so couldn't speak to the issue directly.
However, Locke said, “A contract is a contract and it should be honored, and the signature gatherers should be paid.”
The affirmative-action measure isn’t the only statewide initiative this year that is tied to legal controversy, or that made its way to the November ballot through a flawed messenger. Anti-tax activist Tim Eyman, a perennial sponsor of citizen initiatives, is back this year with Initiative 976, a measure that would cut car-tab fees to a flat $30. (Coincidentally, Eyman previously helped pass Initiative 200, the 1998 ban on affirmative-action that I-1000 seeks to overturn.)
Eyman is currently in contempt of court for failing to turn over information in a campaign-finance lawsuit. He is being sued by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who has accused Eyman of enriching himself with donations meant to support initiative campaigns. If a judge rules against Eyman, he could be hit with $2.1 million in penalties and be banned from managing the finances of campaign committees for the rest of his life.
Last year, Eyman filed for bankruptcy.
Yet he is still leading the fight to pass I-976, which is opposed by labor organizations and several business groups because of how it would cut funding for roads and transit. According to the state Office of Financial Management, the initiative would cause state and local governments to lose more than $4 billion in revenue for transportation projects over the next six years.
In recent email blasts, Eyman touted his work to pass I-976, while labeling the state’s vehicle taxes “dishonest” and proclaiming that “taxpayers are getting ripped off.”
“Going everywhere to promote $30 Tabs Initiative - I'm absolutely loving it!” Eyman wrote in the subject line of a Sept. 26 email.
Also in that Sept. 26 email message, Eyman asked for help raising money for his legal defense, something he has done several times in recent weeks. Twice in the same email, Eyman referred to Ferguson as “Fascist Fergie.”
“Please help me survive his political jihad against me and my family,” Eyman wrote.
A common link
To an extent, Eyman and I-1000’s problems are intertwined. Their common thread: the signature-gathering firm, Citizen Solutions.
Long before the firm signed on to assist the I-1000 campaign, the company had worked consistently for Eyman, gathering signatures for many of his initiatives. Among other Eyman-led efforts, the firm has collected signatures for multiple proposals to require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to raise taxes, including Initiative 960 in 2007 and Initiative 1185 in 2012. (After a court fight, the state Supreme Court ruled the two-thirds requirement to raise taxes unconstitutional in 2013.)
Citizen Solutions also collected signatures for I-976.
The company’s ties to Eyman’s conservative, anti-tax ballot measures have created some difficulties for the One Washington Equality Campaign, which continues to owe the firm for its work on I-1000.
Recently, Citizen Solutions has been directly implicated in Eyman’s financial schemes. Last week, a Thurston County judge ordered the company to pay the state $1 million for its part in funneling donations to Eyman. The judgment found that Citizen Solutions' owner personally approved a $308,185 “kickback payment” that enriched Eyman personally, deceiving donors who thought the money was going toward supporting a specific ballot initiative.
Nat Jackson, the citizen sponsor of I-1000, said those legal issues have made it impossible for the One Washington Equality Campaign to give Citizen Solutions any more money directly.
Instead, Jackson said, the committee is working to pay individual signature gatherers, without routing money through the signature-gathering firm.
“We will continue to ask for donations to pay our workers,” Jackson said last week. “But we will pay our workers directly — nobody else.”
Mark Lamb, an attorney representing Citizen Solutions, said he couldn’t comment on the latest judgment in the state’s case against his client.
But he said the One Washington Equality Campaign hasn’t been paying what it owes the individual signature gatherers or field coordinators, either. That suggests the attorney general’s case against Citizen Solutions isn’t the real issue, he said.
“They’ve only paid us and the coordinators $26,000 since January,” Lamb said. “So the idea that this unrelated situation is weighing on that is not borne out by the facts.”
The One Washington Equality Campaign’s lack of follow-through is what forced Citizen Solutions and Your Choice Petitions to file a lawsuit last month, said Lamb, who is representing both companies. The lawsuit alleges that the I-1000 campaign violated the terms of a January promissory note, in which the One Washington Equality Committee pledged to pay Citizen Solutions by the end of September.
The lawsuit also names two other groups as co-defendants. One of them, the Approve I-1000 campaign, hasn’t raised any money so far. The other, the Washington Fairness Coalition, has been actively fundraising in support of R-88 and I-1000 since the group's formation in August.
Members of the Washington Fairness Coalition have worked to distance their organization from the One Washington Equality Campaign — and, by extension, Citizen Solutions. Legally, the campaign committees are separate entities, the coalition's leaders are quick to say.
Martha Choe, the coalition's co-chair, said the new committee was created to support R-88 and “stand up the resources and other elements we needed to get it over the finish line.” She said members of the local business community had expressed concerns about supporting a campaign committee linked to Citizen Solutions.
Other groups, including labor organizations, were also unwilling to join forces with a committee that employed the signature-gathering firm, said April Sims, secretary treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council.
"Some of the strategic decisions of the other campaign made it necessary for us to start a new campaign," said Sims, who is another co-chair of the Washington Fairness Coalition.
In particular, Sims said, “We did make it clear that the decision to use the Citizen Solutions signature-gathering firm was not a decision we could support, based on the connections to Tim Eyman."
In their lawsuit, however, the two signature-gathering firms argue that the new campaign committee was formed for a different reason: “to avoid the valid debt” owed by the One Washington Equality Campaign.
David Perez, a lawyer for the Washington Fairness Coalition, said that argument “makes no sense whatsoever.” In an email, he noted the Washington Fairness Coalition is not a party to the January promissory note, and wasn’t even formed until eight months later.
“The folks running WFC had no role in or participation with any agreement One Washington or its agents may have made to Citizen Solutions,” Perez wrote. “Any suggestion otherwise is pure fiction.”
Perez said he plans to file a motion in court to remove the Washington Fairness Coalition from the complaint.
Will the ballot measures suffer?
The campaigns fighting against I-1000 and I-976 are each seeking to capitalize on the legal problems of the people who spearheaded the initiatives, but in different ways.
The No on 976 campaign’s ads talk at length about how I-976 would hurt transportation infrastructure. But its strategy also includes a constant emphasis on Eyman’s involvement in the initiative, down to the campaign's logo, which reads, “No on Eyman’s I-976.”
Meanwhile, during the same event where Locke spoke at the China Harbor Restaurant, members of the group fighting R-88 handed out packets of information that included a news article highlighting the lawsuit against the I-1000 campaign. One of the pages featured a Venn diagram that sought to illustrate the ties between the One Washington Equality Campaign and the Washington Fairness Coalition, which sponsored the Sept. 26 dinner event.
Key to the diagram was Locke, who was a high-profile supporter of the One Washington Equality Committee and went on to help draft the statement in the statewide voter pamphlet supporting R-88.
In his remarks that night, Locke emphasized that although he was an honorary co-chair of the I-1000 campaign, he didn’t sign the January promissory note, nor was he involved in the campaign’s day-to-day operations.
Still, opponents of I-1000 and R-88 have continued to make the unpaid debt a topic of conversation on social media.
Members of Let People Vote, the committee urging a “no” vote on R-88, are opposing the referendum primarily because they say it will draw unfair distinctions based on race, leading to further division. But Kan Qiu, the group’s campaign manager, said he thinks it is also important for voters to know about the I-1000 campaign’s failure to pay its signature gatherers.
“For a committee that championed fairness to do such a deed to this group of people — isn’t that ironic?” Qiu said Thursday.
Yet it’s not clear how much voters will care about the behind-the-scenes financial problems plaguing the original I-1000 campaign, a handful of political consultants told Crosscut.
“When a voter is scanning a ballot, they are making a gut decision based on the ballot initiative title,” said Heather Weiner, a Democratic political consultant who has worked on multiple statewide initiatives. “It takes a lot to break in to what they are thinking with something as wonky as debt carried by a nonaffiliated political committee.”
Peter Graves, a Republican political consultant, agreed. “At the end of the day, it’s not going to be an issue that is going to affect an undecided voter,” Graves said.
To campaign donors, however, the debt could be of greater concern, Graves said. Even as the Washington Fairness Coalition emphasizes it is separate from the earlier committee that owes the debt, “it’s hard to pitch to a donor that you’ve got it all cleared up,” he said.
“People don’t trust you if you don’t pay your bills,” Graves said.
The situation with I-976 might be a bit different for voters, Graves said, because of the notoriety Eyman has built up while running statewide ballot initiatives over the past two decades.
In addition to his financial problems, Eyman was caught on video earlier this year taking an office chair from an Office Depot in Lacey without paying for it. (He later struck a deal in which the theft charge against him would be dismissed if he complies with certain conditions, such as not committing another crime for the next several months).
“As a personality, he is a negative personality,” said Chad Minnick, a Republican campaign consultant.
By contrast, the main leaders of the One Washington Equality Campaign, Jackson and former state lawmaker Jesse Wineberry, aren’t nearly as well-known figures in state politics, Graves said.
Crystal Fincher, a political consultant who works mostly with Democrats, said the success of many of Eyman’s initiatives shows that people will overlook an imperfect messenger if they care enough about an issue. After all, Eyman’s campaign-finance issues date back years: In 2002, he paid $42,000 to settle another case with the state, which was similarly about using money from initiative campaigns for his own enrichment.
With that history in mind, Fincher said she doesn’t think focusing on campaign-finance issues will be an effective campaign strategy for those looking to defeat R-88 and I-1000.
“People are going to have very strong opinions about this,” Fincher said, citing the emotional nature of discussing affirmative action, which brings up the topics of race and discrimination.
“With this out of all issues, it probably would have less of an impact, because people have such an emotional investment,” she said.
In a phone interview, Eyman, too, questioned the approach. He noted that his team managed to gather 352,000 signatures to ensure I-976 would qualify for the ballot, even as he was in the middle of being sued.
“Opponents of our initiatives have tried for 20 years, ‘Vote ‘no’ for tax relief because Tim Eyman’s a bad guy,’” Eyman said Thursday. “It’s never worked.”