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Deroy Murdock

“Howie Rich from New York City” has become the Left’s latest whipping boy. The wealthy Gotham real-estate investor and long-time free-market activist has generated liberal ire through his personal donations and support of Americans for Limited Government, U.S. Term Limits, and other groups that sponsor state ballot measures to curb eminent-domain abuse, cap state spending, and curtail careerism among elected officials.

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“Who is Howie Rich from New York City?” asked the online newsletter of SEIU Local 503, a Salem, Oregon-based union. “And why is he spending millions to push dangerous policy gimmicks in numerous states thousands of miles from his front door?”

“Please join the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center in digging through the evidence of Howie Rich from New York Citys’ [sic] dirty tactics, hidden money streams, and shadowy operatives.”

“As governor,” Oregon Democrat Ted Kulongoski wrote Rich, challenging him to a debate, “I feel it is my obligation to stand up to the special interest groups you fund and protect the most vulnerable in our population — kids and seniors — who depend on services you are proposing to cut.”

AFL-CIO News called Rich’s pro-market, small-government groups a “tangled extremist web.”

HowieRichExposed.com dubbed him “the financial muscle behind the drive to mislead voters in many states into degrading state government services.”

All this makes Howie howl.

“I don’t think anybody has anything to fear from my involvement in the initiative process or anything else,” he laughs. “I have been fortunate enough to have been successful in business, and I want to do something in this life to advance liberty.”

He also points out that his Big Labor critics use compulsory union dues to thwart his efforts. “Every nickel that I either donate or raise is voluntary,” Rich tells me. “Nobody was coerced into giving.”

Rich nibbles on a piece of raw yellow tail at Sushi Yasuda, a restaurant near the United Nations. The Parliament of Man’s monolithic tower looms at the end of Manhattan’s East 43rd Street, just steps away. Rich rarely grants interviews, preferring instead to campaign quietly.

“It’s very difficult in many of these states, and very expensive, to get these measures on the ballot,” he says. “All I have done here, for the most part, is provide seed money. All of these initiatives are left up to the voters. That’s what these people, who consider money evil, are not willing to address. It’s the voters in these states who ultimately make the decisions.”

Rich, whose surname mirrors his bank account, is worth unspecified millions. He poured his initial plumbing-contracting revenues into real-estate ventures that have grown handsomely. For November’s election, Rich and groups he runs or advises reportedly spent $15 million promoting state initiatives. Although all three of Rich’s budget-trimming Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) proposals failed, nine of his twelve eminent-domain-relief referenda passed overwhelmingly.

In Louisiana, for instance, 55 percent of voters approved a measure that prohibits cities from condemning private property to create jobs or boost tax revenues. In Florida, 69 percent of voters adopted property protections, as did 80 percent of Michigan voters. In South Carolina, 86 percent of voters banned condemnations for “the purpose or benefit of economic development, unless the condemnation is for public use.”

Like the numerous property-tax cuts that voters endorsed after Californians enacted Proposition 13 in 1978, these eminent-domain initiatives quietly swept the nation, even as Republicans had a rotten night. Americans recoiled against the U.S. Supreme Court’s Kelo v. New London decision, which freed cities to use eminent domain to snatch private property to serve private interests.

In fact, in U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton and in Kelo, Rich found himself on the losing side of two, 5-4 Supreme Court decisions.

“The same Gang of Five who overrode millions of votes in favor of term limits in 23 states,” Rich says, “ten years later sanctioned handing over private property to private developers to build condos.”

Some of Rich’s foes claim he is shielding his portfolio from sticky-fingered local bureaucrats.

“It’s a crock,” he replies. “I own no real estate in any of the 12 states where we had property-rights initiatives on the ballot. That answers that question.”

He plans to keep underwriting ballot measures, rather than lobbying in state capitols.

“Working with the state legislators is a fool’s errand,” he says. “Most of them are RINOs [Republicans in Name Only] who water things down to nothing.” He adds: “The initiative process in 23 states was designed during the Progressive Era to bypass legislatures because, as we know, they played political games, and it is very, very difficult to get any meaningful legislation that advances liberty out of most state legislatures. It’s a matter of compromise, compromise, and compromise.”

Atop these political activities, which he plans to conduct in more states in 2008, Rich remains a trustee of the libertarian Cato Institute and the Club for Growth. His wife, Andrea, former owner of Laissez-Faire Books, is a trustee of the free-market Atlas Economic Research Foundation (with which I am a senior fellow).

“What we do is designed to advance individual freedom and create an atmosphere where we restore the Founders’ concepts of property rights and free markets,” says Rich, a not-so-tall bald man who is fond of patterned sport jackets. He taunts his critics.

“People think you can come in, win a few, and go away,” Howie Rich smiles. “You’re in the ring. You’ve got to keep punching.”

– Deroy Murdock is a New York-based columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution.



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