Taking Liberties

The salesmen say ‘yes’ is a vote to stop government from taking your land, but this stealth campaign would do far more than that

  • Cindy Wehling
  • Three Forks, Montana, resident Norma Miller, interrupted while mowing her lawn, listened to Dondero's pitch about stopping the government's use of eminent-domain power to comdemn private property, and then she signed his petition.

    Ray Ring
  • Cindy Wehling
  • Cindy Wehling
  • Cindy Wehling
  • Cindy Wehling
  • Sitting at a picnic table beside the Three Forks Conoco Station, with his clipboard of petitions and an American flag pin on his visor, Eric Dondero animatedly describes his politicking.

    Ray Ring
  • Cindy Wehling
  • Going door-to-door in Three Forks, Montana, Eric Dondero likes to approach people who live in mobile homes, because, he says, they're 'amazed someone is coming to their door to ask them about a political matter.' He gets a signature from the elderly woman in this home.

    Ray Ring

Page 4

In four nearby rural counties, longtime ranching families have created regulations that make it difficult to subdivide lots smaller than 160 acres. Montanans have also passed ballot initiatives banning game farms and cyanide process gold mining. The takings initiative on this year’s ballot would derail all future efforts like these.

If you live in any of the six states targeted this year and someday you might want a new regulation to put conditions on a Super Wal-Mart, or to protect streambanks from new construction, or to require developers to do anything for open space and affordable housing, you would be wise to vote "no" in November.

Dondero kept on the move after Three Forks. When I called him a week or two later, he was collecting signatures in Milltown, a working-class settlement almost 200 miles to the west, on the fringe of super-liberal Missoula. A week after that, he was working small towns east of Billings, about 150 miles east of Bozeman. He told me he had personally collected at least 10,000 signatures on Montana’s libertarian initiatives. After leaving Montana, he worked on libertarian initiatives in Oregon and Colorado.

From now until November, unless lawsuits jam up the works, libertarians will likely continue to make headway. As in Oregon in 2004, they’ll push their message in statewide TV and radio ads that feature victims of regulations — or, even more compelling, victims of eminent domain. Also as in Oregon, some local financial backing will emerge; developers and timber companies provided most of the money for the Measure 37 campaign.

But there’s a key difference. In Oregon, a huge coalition opposed Measure 37, including environmentalists, governments, planners, architects, nurses, labor, neighborhood associations, the Oregon PTA and the American Cancer Society. They won endorsements from every daily newspaper in the state. They spent twice as much money as the property-rights side. And they still lost. Now, in many of the other states, the opposition is disorganized and poorly funded.

Those who understand what is at stake realize that it’s an emergency. Rodger Schlickeisen, head of Defenders of Wildlife, a national environmental group, hired a consultant to evaluate what happened in Oregon in ’04. He told me that opponents ultimately lost on "the fairness issue." The Measure 37 campaign used a few compelling examples to portray government as an enemy of property owners.

To beat that kind of campaign, opponents have to take a leaf out of its book: They need to find compelling examples of people who’ve been helped by land-use regulations. "There’s no reason that their side should have the fairness frame. There are huge fairness issues with regard to your neighbors and your community," Schlickeisen said. One person’s rights can be another person’s ruin, and strong regulations often raise property values, rather than lower them.

"We have to learn how to express that in a compelling way," Schlickeisen said. "We have a tendency to talk in policy-wonkish terms. We have to learn how to get to people, so they understand what this is all about."

"It’s all sound bites in a statewide ballot initiative (election)," warned Janet Ellis, head of Montana’s Audubon Society chapter, which is beginning to organize the opposition here. "That’s going to be the challenge, to wrap it up in a few words." She hopes to assemble a coalition that includes senior citizen groups and churches.

It will be difficult to get voters to see all the ramifications, however. Even Eric Dondero seems oblivious to how the Big Campaign often disguises regulatory takings inside "eminent domain reform." In my last talk with him, I asked him about it, and he didn’t seem to understand the issue of regulatory takings.

"I’m not quite sure what you mean," Dondero said. "I guess it means that if a government were to build a big ugly building next to your property, and lowered the value of your property, they’d have to compensate you." When I explained that it means something else altogether, something much bigger, he said, "To me, that’s a secondary part of this. To me, the main deal is Kelo. That’s what this is all about. Admittedly, I’m not really up on that part of the issue."

It occurred to me that Dondero is just a foot soldier — courageous in his way and sincere in his beliefs, but not fully aware of how he fits into the overall mission, how his idealism is being used by those above him on the command chain. No doubt many of the people who signed his petition, thinking they were standing up for the principle of private property rights, didn’t understand the ramifications either.

The question for Westerners is this: How much will we choose to understand, when we go to the voting booths this November?

Ray Ring is High Country News Northern Rockies editor.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

'I call (regulations) land stealing ...' - Dorothy English weighs in on the pros – and cons – of Oregon’s Measure 37

'It's clear out of control ...' - Bill Roses weigh in on the pros – and cons – of Oregon’s Measure 37

'I kick myself for being so naive...' - Ted Schroeder weighs in on the pros – and cons – of Oregon’s Measure 37

Takings campaigns around the West - A detailed graph sums up the status of the current "takings’ initiative campaigns in six Western states

'Great recreation value ... and great economic value ...' - Jim Miller weighs in on the pros – and cons – of Oregon’s Measure 37

'I hope other states don't do this ...' - Renee Ross weighs in on the pros – and cons – of Oregon’s Measure 37

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