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June 9, 2014 at 8:30 AM

Tim Eyman’s intriguing counterattack to Seattle’s $15 minimum wage

Tim Eyman drops off signatures in 2012 for his successful two-thirds-for-taxes measure, I-1185.

Tim Eyman drops off signatures in 2012 for his successful two-thirds-for-taxes measure, I-1185.

Ever since the Seattle City Council voted Monday for a first-of-its-kind $15 minimum wage, we’ve been hearing about real and potential court challenges, referenda and amendments to the city charter – local counterattacks for a measure of national significance. Not that anyone thought the fight was over. But Tim Eyman seems to have hit on an idea that takes the issue to an entirely different battlefield, the statewide ballot, where it might more easily be defeated.

The tireless Mukilteo initiative promoter last week filed an initiative to the Legislature that reflects an important insight. Seattle can be beaten when the rest of the state votes against it. His initiative would declare that minimum wages must be uniform across the state — in other words, any wage hike would have to pass muster at the Capitol and not at Seattle City Hall. So Seattle’s increase likely would be doomed by statehouse politics and an economy that simply won’t support high wages in every hamlet and hollow.

Eyman isn’t the only one thinking about a statewide preemption initiative. The same thing would be accomplished by I-1358, a late-starting measure for this year’s ballot filed by Rick Forschler, former councilman in the city of SeaTac. Forschler’s campaign faces a tough July deadline for signatures and so far reports no fund-raising; Eyman’s seems the stronger contender because it aims for the 2015 ballot and faces a January deadline.

Maybe neither will be the ultimate vehicle for a statewide counterattack. But the tactic seems such a strong bet it would be a surprise if no one tries it.

Really, it’s a matter of numbers. Last month the Service Employees International Union, one of the biggest advocates for the $15 wage, released a poll showing overwhelming support in the city of Seattle – 74-24. Let’s take the poll at face value, assume it is correct and figure it is probably the high water-mark. If the rest of the state votes the other way, 74 percent still won’t be enough.

Campaign folk have it boiled down to a formula — the “Seattle problem,” some call it. Randy Pepple, who ran the 2012 campaign for Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna, even made it part of his fund-raising pitch. If turnout was equal statewide, if McKenna won 60 percent in Eastern Washington and if McKenna broke even along the I-5 corridor and in King County outside Seattle — he only needed to pick up 22 percent of the vote inside the Seattle city limits.

Ultimately McKenna got 22 percent in Seattle. But turnout and returns fell short elsewhere, hence McKenna’s narrow three-point loss. Doesn’t change that strategy, Pepple says.

All it takes is a vote in the mid-twenties in Seattle to put over a proposition that is favored by the rest of the state. “If Eyman gets 25 percent in Seattle, he wins,” Pepple says. “And I think that if the state is given the opportunity to vote on it, I think the voters will not only see the folly of a $15-an-hour minimum wage, but we will also see SEIU waste a lot of money on the campaign. That’s money that normally would be spent against Republican candidates.”

The only poll so far to test statewide attitudes seems to demonstrate the necessary geographic divide. During last fall’s SeaTac campaign, pollster Stuart Elway found that 58 percent of voters statewide thought a $15 minimum wage was bad for business, but it was a whopping 68 percent in Eastern Washington. A preemption initiative is such an intriguing thought Elway says he’ll pose the question on his next poll.

Another winning element also may be present – a business community willing to put up the money for a paid signature drive. Unlike the Seattle business community, which displayed deep fractures and even apathy at its highest echelons, there is considerable unity among the state’s business trade associations.

Some of the biggest players in state initiative campaigns testified for a preemption bill in the state Senate this year, and their arguments were the stuff political campaigns are made of. The most important was the idea that small business is less about predatory corporations than about little people with a dream, and they deserve protection from special interests that might gain political advantage in a city like Seattle.

A statewide preemption strategy will no doubt bring howls from the activists, union leaders and city officials who put over the minimum-wage increase in Seattle. But the idea they won it fair and square won’t play beyond the city limits, and maybe not even in Seattle. It was more that they played a strong political hand against a weak and divided opposition. If forced to battle statewide they could face a hand stronger than theirs. At the least, it might be interesting to see Socialist Alternative Seattle Councilwoman Kshama Sawant making her pitch in the small towns of Eastern Washington, where the business-owner class doesn’t look much different than the worker class, and nary a one-percenter can be found.

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