BOZEMAN, Montana — The first time I talked to Eric Dondero, I called his cell phone, and caught him on a sidewalk in the small town of Three Forks. He was asking people to sign a petition. He convinced one man to sign while I listened. Then he told me enthusiastically about his political work: "I’m full-time, all the time! I try to do a good 10 hours per day … I’m a very ideological person. I’m a proud libertarian."
Dondero was operating as a point man for a campaign that stretches from Arizona to Washington state. I hoped he would allow me into the ground-level operations. "All right," he said, "you want a really good story? Come on out. I’m standing in front of the Conoco store, you can’t miss me. I’m rockin’ here!"
I drove west from Bozeman, through suburban sprawl and 30 miles of farm country, to the confluence of rivers where Three Forks sits. The town only amounts to a few dozen blocks, and it has a random feel, trailer homes mingled with small houses, a looming talc plant, and a fringe of new, pricier subdivisions mysteriously growing on former wheat fields.
Dondero was hanging around a gas-station store on the not-too-busy main street. Stocky but not imposing, he was dressed to blend in with the Three Forks community (trimmed hair and mustache, jeans and work boots, American flag pin) as well as for a long day under the hot May sun (visor, sunglasses, long-sleeved shirt). Petitions were stacked on his clipboard, and even as I approached, he persuaded another passerby to sign. "You’re a great American! I appreciate it!" he told the guy.
We shook hands, and Dondero grinned, animated and immediately likable. I stepped back and watched him work. Locals wheeled their pickup trucks into the parking spaces around the Conoco, and as they walked into the store, Dondero asked them politely, "How are you doing (ma’am or sir)? Are you a registered voter?"
He seemed like an ordinary concerned citizen, not a part of an orchestrated, multistate campaign. But the libertarian movement he belongs to — broader and more powerful than the anemic Libertarian Party — has a growing reach in American politics. The movement’s mission is to maximize individual freedom by limiting government power in everything from taxes to judges’ rulings. One of its national leaders, Grover Norquist, has said that he wants to reduce government "to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub."
In this campaign, which is playing out in six Western states, the libertarians mostly want to "reform eminent domain" — or at least that’s what they say.
Governments at all levels invoke eminent domain on occasion to condemn property and force the owners to accept a buyout to make room for new roads, electricity lines, urban renewal and other projects that benefit the public. Recently, however, eminent domain has been the target of public outrage, thanks to a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling known as the Kelo case. The high court held that the city of New London, Conn., could exercise eminent domain to condemn the homes of Susette Kelo and six other holdouts, to make room for a global pharmaceutical company’s 100-acre manufacturing complex. Since then, more than 30 legislatures have either passed or considered laws limiting eminent domain, and ballot initiatives have sprung up from Alaska to South Carolina.
Dondero carried a knee-high posterboard that said simply: "Protect Private Property Rights … Citizens Fighting Eminent Domain Abuse." Each time he made the pitch, he began, "This is a statewide petition to protect our property rights. To keep that new eminent domain law from coming to Montana and taking our homes away. … I know you saw this on Fox News, or CNN. …" He often referred to the Kelo case: "New London, Conn., they condemned this little old lady’s property to take it away."
But the patriotic sales pitch hides something else entirely. National libertarian groups are not just funneling big bucks into this campaign to protect a few property owners from eminent domain. They have their sights set on something much bigger — laying waste to land-use regulations used by state and local governments to protect the landscape, the environment and neighborhoods. Their goal has received little attention, partly because of its stealth mode. But the fact that the libertarians just might pull it off makes the campaign the hottest political story in the West this year.
I began to see the pattern in April, during a conversation with John Echeverria, head of the Environmental Law and Policy Institute at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Echeverria called it "eminent domain hysteria."
"The Kelo case is presented as a caricature in the news," Echeverria said. "Most people don’t understand the valuable development (that eminent domain) can help generate, and how, if it’s fairly conducted, it can produce entirely fair, even highly favorable outcomes, for affected property owners — they’re paid market value or well above." We talked about some of the horror stories, where governments use eminent domain in questionable ways. But those are few and far between. What’s really going on, Echeverria said, is that, "The property-rights advocates have exploited Kelo to advance a broader anti-government agenda."