Taking the Measure of Measure C

Free-Range Thinking | March 2000

Measure C would have raised money to widen highways in traffic-choked Sonoma County, but some area environmentalists saw serious flaws in the proposed tax hike. How did the enviros convince frustrated commuters to reject an initially popular measure? Step #1: they stopped talking about the environment.

Forty-five minutes north of San Francisco, Highway 101 rolls through the picturesque vineyards of Sonoma County. During rush hour, however, cars crawl through this scenic stretch, making it whine country for commuters. In the 1990s, the number of hours motorists spent stuck in traffic on the 101 nearly tripled, so by 1998 voters were ready to spend money to widen the highway and speed their daily commute. The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors responded by putting two measures on the fall ballot: Measure B, an advisory measure outlining how new funds could be spent to solve transit problems (with the largest chunk devoted to Highway 101); and Measure C, a half-cent sales tax increase that would raise the roughly $650 million needed to do the job.

The two measures caught the attention of Michael Cameron, then a senior economist at the Environmental Defense Fund’s office in Oakland. As a transportation specialist for EDF, Cameron was already concerned about the traffic problems in Sonoma County, largely because of the air pollution they caused. He was skeptical that widening the road would do anything more than ease traffic for a short time until population growth (and a lack of mass transit alternatives) clogged the highway once again. Cameron also opposed using a sales tax – which would be borne evenly by everyone in the county – to pay for a project that would benefit a relative few. To his mind, this was both unfair and bad transportation policy. If you want to see fewer cars clogging the 101, he argued, start asking the commuters who use it to pay for all the improvements.

Cameron and the transportation team at EDF decided to fight Measures B and C, but the early odds were stacked against them. Polls showed 70% support for the tax increase among county voters. The most influential regional newspaper, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, was “unabashedly pro-tax” according to Cameron. The measures had the well-funded backing of the political establishment, the Chamber of Commerce, and leading area businesses. And there was one more complication: since Measure B promised funds for light rail – addressing mass transit needs -a handful of local environmental groups offered their endorsements. The EDF team was skeptical that the rail plan could be delivered, but on one point there was no doubt: EDF could no longer present a united environmental front against the two measures.

With five months remaining before Election Day, Cameron called Ted Nordhaus for help. Nordhaus, a political strategist with the consulting firm The Next Generation, listened intently as Cameron spelled out all the environmental problems with the proposed highway expansion. As Cameron talked, a strategy began to form in Nordhaus’ mind. Given that the environmental community was already split, Nordhaus knew the battle would have to be fought on different turf. “If people went into the voting booth and the question in their minds was, ‘Is Measure C good for the environment?'” Nordhaus thought, “we were going to lose.” He counseled Cameron to focus on Measure C and make the operative question in the voters’ minds, “Do I want to raise my sales tax?”

EDF and Next Generation started scrutinizing the measures from a purely economic perspective. Nordhaus observed that the way the tax measure was written, the Board of Supervisors was not obligated to spend the funds raised on Highway 101. “There was nothing that would suggest a secret plan to mislead the voters,” Nordhaus admitted, but the possibility alone was potent. “If the Gingrich revolution taught us anything,” Cameron observed, “it was that people are deeply suspicious of elected officials. So we went after them saying, ‘You can’t be sure how they’re going to spend this money.” At the same time, Dan Kirshner in the EDF office calculated the amount of money necessary to fulfill all the promises of the advisory measure. His conservative estimates were one-and-a-half to three times more than the new sales tax would raise. The anti-tax war could now be fought on two fronts.

EDF joined a coalition of local environmental groups opposing the measures, and The Next Generation kept them on message, starting with the coalition’s name, “Citizens Against Wasting Millions.” Through interviews, op-eds, and direct mail, the environmentalists repeated a single, non-environmental message: “Measure C is a $650 million blank check. The County can spend it any way they like.” By Election Day, the coalition had invested $30,000 in their anti-tax message, while the pro-tax advocates had spent over $500,000 – but the coalition’s strategy worked. Although the advisory measure passed with over 70% of the vote, the tax increase went down to defeat with only 48%. And without the money, Measure B’s victory was meaningless.

For Cameron and the coalition – and for public interest advocates reading this story – the Sonoma County victory is worth remembering. Sometimes your message may look very different from your mission, and that’s okay. Fighting for what you believe in is not always talking about what you believe in. Or as Ted Nordhaus likes to say – borrowing from the brilliant political strategist, Al Davis – “Just win, baby.”

To find out more about this story, send an e-mail to info@nextgeneration.org


 free-range follow-up

Keeping Trustees on Track

Defining the work of your board of directors and keeping them on track are challenges for any executive director. Jim McManus, a pubic interest consultant specializing in education, suggests that the work of most boards can be divided into 4 categories, which I call The Four Ms:

Mission Keeping the organization focussed on its core purpose and serving as its ambassador.
Map Assisting in the design and implementation of a strategic plan.
Management Choosing the organization’s head and regularly evaluating her (or his) performance.
Money Ensuring the long-term financial health and stability of the organization.

The Four Ms not only organize a board’s priorities, they are easy to remember – a value not to be underestimated. Board members who cannot easily recall or concisely articulate the parameters of their work are bound to stray off course. The Four Ms are like a handy little compass that’s easy to carry and ever ready to point you in the right direction.