Taking (Back) the Initiative
An activist think tank is fighting the Right
at the ballot box - and winning
by David Sarasohn
The Nation magazine, June 18, 2001
The Economic Opportunity Institute sounds like a typical think
tank-of any political persuasion. Each of the name's three interchangeable
words evokes Dupont Circle, position papers and regression analysis.
But the institute, from the small building it shares with
an architect a few blocks from the University of Washington-about
as far from the other Washington as you can get without the Pacific
lapping over your fax machines-sees itself differently.
Progressive policy institutes, explains the group's statement
of philosophy, come in three flavors. There's "think-tank
hands-off research," as in universities. There's "more
populist analyses that are picked up by local and national media"-still
not quite the institute's style. The third category, in which
policy development meets real-world advocacy, "is the niche
that we want to exploit," says EOI. "Our job is to develop
populist majoritarian policy and push that policy forward into
the public eye." In other words: less think, more tank.
Because of that attitude, Washington is now the first state
in the country with a minimum wage adjusted for inflation. From
another EOI innovation, the state has a program to develop a childcare
career ladder, to provide some professional respect and better
pay for a generally minimum-wage work force that has major responsibilities
and huge turnover and gets treated like a Play-Doh proletariat.
A bill EOI supported in the 2000 state legislative session
that would use surpluses in the unemployment fund to create a
paid-family leave program-standard in Europe, unimaginable in
the United States-made it through a State Senate committee, then
died. Now, EOI's founder and executive director, John Burbank,
is working on the idea with Washington's US Senator Patty Murray,
who is interested in proposing it as a federal pilot program.
And this spring, the institute announced that it would push
its second statewide ballot initiative, this one allying with
Washington health providers for a measure that would add a 60-cent
tax to a pack of cigarettes, using the proceeds for healthcare
for 50,000 working-poor Washingtonians. EOI developed the measure,
did preliminary polling and helped assemble the coalition. In
the campaign this fall, the institute will run statewide media
tours, meet with editorial boards and reporters, develop one-page
issue blurbs on different parts of the measure and boldly go to
places where progressive activists have rarely gone before-like
Over many years as a community organizer, Democratic staff
member, political director of the Washington State Labor Council
and graduate student, John Burbank concluded that progressive
forces weren't just losing the struggle, they weren't fighting
the right one. While progressives talked social theory, the right
turned to the ballot box and the airwaves. And it was winning.
"The right has understood the power of the initiative,
shaping debate, forcing debate onto their part of the field,"
says Burbank, sitting in one of Seattle's many espresso shops,
as central to the local culture as Microsoft. "Some people
say they're an abominable way to make law, but [initiatives] are
there, and if you dismiss them, you're turning them over to the
right wing." In Washington-as in many other states-there
are well-funded, well-connected conservative advocacy institutes
eager to seize any opportunity to set the terms of discussion.
The Economic Opportunity Institute-starting out three years
ago in a few cubicles in what the Seattle Times calls the "funky,
ultra-liberal Fremont neighborhood"-wasn't born on the barricades,
or out of a single inspired and overstuffed checkbook. It came
out of Burbank's 1997 master's thesis at the University of Washington's
school of public administration (several of his fellow students
would later become EOI staff members). His thesis designed-in
precise detail, including a budget and proposed board-an Economic
Security Institute to take on Washington State's four conservative
think tanks. Burbank also intended to challenge forces on the
progressive side, which he saw as focusing too heavily on foreign
policy and social issues, losing some of the bread-and-butter
focus that appealed to both poorer and middle-class voters.
That's why EOI-which works on the slogan "New Tools for
Building the Middle Class"-likes to focus on gritty, practical
issues like healthcare for the working poor and childcare development.
It also works to present the issues in a media-savvy way that
appeals to middle-class voters: For example, treating quality
child-care not as a question of equity, but as a way to promote
"Work has an enormous resonance with the middle class,"
Burbank says. "One of the sieves that we put issue development
through is, 'Can it distribute benefits up and down the income
ladder?' Some issues may disproportionately benefit lower-income
people but resonate with middle-income people."
EOI's childcare campaign is a case in point. Not only did
the institute's efforts lead Washington Governor Gary Locke to
set up the childcare career ladder, but when a fiscal crunch threatened
the program during the current legislative session, EOI's positioning
as a public advocacy force helped produce 1,200 personal messages
to the governor's office. Partly as a result, Burbank expects
Locke to back not just maintaining but expanding the program.
And Burbank's playing with another idea: a city initiative
in Seattle to raise $10 million a year for childcare with a tax
on espresso drinks. This is a little like taxing wine in Bordeaux,
and he remarks musingly, "Everybody laughs at that."
But it could solidify local childcare funding and quality, would
have to carry only the solidly liberal Seattle electorate and
with success might spread to other cities. At least, Burbank argues,
the effort would "build a database and catalyze discussion."
Burbank, a thin, intense man who tends to explain things at
loving length, argues that some activists insist on portraying
themselves as advocates for the poor, which leads to a double
trap: They can't draw enough mainstream, middle-class support
to win anything, and they "tend to isolate the lower-income
To some of those advocates, EOI's strategies seem indirect-and
insufficiently relevant. "While I appreciate the work that
they do, most of it doesn't really help the work that we do,"
says Jean Colman, director of the Welfare Rights Organizing Coalition
in Seattle. "If the institute would help us do linking with
middle-income folks to explain why there's a safety net and why
it helps everybody, that would be a wonderful- thing for them
to do. I haven't seen them do that."
Still, EOI seeks to represent the interests of a diverse set
of players in progressive politics. The board of EOI-in the move
from thesis to practice, "Security" was replaced by
"Opportunity"-reflects both Burbank's philosophy and
his strategy. It includes union representatives, academics, a
pollster and state legislators (including one who has since become
co-speaker of the State House). A policy adviser to Governor Locke
is a former board president, and still a member. They're not the
figures swimming in the standard think tank; they show why Burbank
prefers the term "activist public policy institute."
To Kim Cook, an EOI board member and regional director of
the Service Employees International Union, the institute reflects
the kind of approach and alliance-needed to challenge an atmosphere
that's proving toxic to progressive ideas. "There's been
a lot of talk on the board about broadening the public debate
and [changing] the anti-tax attitude," says Cook. The goal
is "to bring more progressive initiatives to the electorate."
EOI's successful minimum-wage campaign, launched in early
1998 as the institute was just getting off the ground, confirmed
Burbank's feeling that the initiative could be an effective liberal
tool. The vote gave the state not just a minimum wage among the
nation's highest, but the only one in the country indexed to inflation
to rise automatically. Running initiatives, admits Spokane Democratic
State Senator Lisa Brown, another EOI board member and an economics
professor at Eastern Washington University, "can be risky.
If you run a progressive initiative and lose, it can set you back.
But with the chances of something happening legislatively so low,
you work on other ways."
This is, of course, what the original progressives realized
at the beginning of the past century when they created the initiative,
and what right-wingers understood at the end of it when they seized
on the tactic. Burbank wants liberals to reclaim the initiative
at the start of the new one. To him, the initiative is not only
a tool but an opportunity. A campaign to collect the 225,000 signatures
to put something on the state ballot, he notes, is a chance for
"building a terrific database from signatures and donors."
Which, at least potentially, can help in building a real grassroots
To compete at the ballot box, progressive activists need tight
connections to the sympathetic institutions on their side. "The
right-wing institutes are powerful not just in how they define
the terms of the debate, but how they're linked to their financial
power," Brown points out. Practically, that means progressives
need unions in the room. And, as Brown's prominence on the board
suggests, it means reaching around the state, expanding progressive
efforts beyond their permanent bridgehead in Seattle and Puget
From the outset, EOI has focused on the role and use of media,
of making connections in a world of quick-hit consciousness. "We
can pursue all the policy development we want, but if we correspond
only with the policy elites, we have failed in our mission,"
explains an early "Tool Kit" for the group. "We
must develop and implement a comprehensive media plan that brings
our policy issues to the public and engages them."
It's a matter of both whom the institute wants to reach, and
whom it wants to help. The poor, and people who have dropped out,
aren't "easily organizable politically, but they do listen
to and are influenced by the media," argues Burbank. "To
me that's very important stuff, talk-radio. We shouldn't shy away
So Burbank, as part of the media theme that he calls "organically
part of what we do," goes on any talk-radio show that will
have him, even if that means talking to lots of people complaining
that Hillary Clinton keeps breaking into their houses to steal
their guns. The goal is to battle on every front-including the
ones that progressives have generally evacuated. And the group,
in listing its accomplishments, lists its press clippings along
with its policy advances.
Increasingly, the EOI is in a position to move on multiple
issues at once. Its staff, which started with Burbank and a press
aide, is now up to ten and growing. Its budget is rising, with
80 percent of its funding coming from foundations.
And the foundations are encouraged. "One of the exciting
things about EOI," says Michael Caudell-Feagan, a board member
of the Stern Family Fund, "is that it's trying to change
the terms of the debate with proposals that have broad appeal
but deal with economic justice." Around the country, the
foundation has been trying to seed similar institutes, such as
the Center for Economic Justice in Texas, Good Jobs First in Washington,
DC, and the Oregon Center for Public Policy. Caudell-Feagan thinks
EOI is setting out a direction and a pattern that liberals haven't
been following, but which is gaining ground politically. "Slowly
but surely," he says, "a number of foundations have
begun to encourage groups that deal with bread-and-butter issues."
In dealing with those issues-and in focusing on media strategies,
broad alliances and the initiative process-EOI has begun to turn
around a battle progressives have been losing. "They seem
to be doing a better job than anyone I can think of in our region,
in a way that seems to have legs, at building a program for economic
security for working-class and middle-class people," says
Jeff Malachowsky, founder of the Portland, Oregon-based Western
Burbank's approach may be more mundane than some progressive
strategies, and his vision of the middle class as the new liberal
constituency-and the media as the new barricades-may lack a certain
work-shirt romance. But he insists, and he's beginning to pile
up some evidence, that on issues such as minimum-wage increases,
healthcare coverage and childcare subsidies, progressives can
build successes and alliances. The first step is to retake the
initiative-the one on the ballot.
David Sarasohn is associate editor of The Oregonian in Portland.