Massachusetts tax-revolt queen bee. Her zingers and drive made tax cap possible in liberal state
Boston — IT was a typically baroque session on Beacon Hill this spring. At the 11th hour, Massachusetts political leaders tried desperately to reconcile a state budget crisis on the one hand with a presidential campaign on the other. The next day's statements were generally cautious and gray. But not this woman's. Gov. Michael Dukakis hadn't wrapped up the budget, she told the Boston Herald. ``He tied it up in old newspaper along with the rest of the old fish.''
For the Boston Globe, she had another quip. ``The good that men do lives after them; the evil that men do goes on to the Democratic convention as an example of gubernatorial leadership.''
Meet Barbara Anderson, tax revolt leader of Massachusetts, and ``queen of quotes'' for the State House press. Her trademark zingers may well reach a national audience before the presidential campaign is through.
Officially, Ms. Anderson is the executive director of a group called Citizens for Limited Taxation (CLT). Unofficially, she heads what pundits here call the ``Petition Party,'' which has replaced the hapless Republicans as the political opposition in what is effectively a one-party state.
Twice in this decade, CLT has won antitax ballot initiatives - one limiting local property taxes, the other, state taxes. Boston Magazine says Anderson and the CLT have ``set tax policy in Massachusetts for the last 10 years.''
``She loves a good fight,'' says James Braude, head of Tax Equity Alliance of Massachusetts, an organization started by public-employee unions and others to counter the CLT. ``Anybody who's alive respects somebody who loves a good fight. ... I like her as much personally as I disagree with her politically,'' he says.
Barbara Anderson is a warm and exuberant woman with a one-of-the-guys quality of someone you might see at the bowling lanes on Saturday night in a boyfriend's softball jacket. An unrepentant free spirit, she wears little makeup, and couture is obviously not a priority. (Neither is housekeeping. Her office, a clutter of press clips and state budget reports, hovers precariously on the brink of mess.) Her office wall sports the familiar Jeffersonian adage, ``That government governs best that governs least.''
Anderson likes Windham Hill tapes, and her bookcase includes such pop new-thought classics as ``Megatrends'' and ``The Aquarian Conspiracy,'' along with ``I'm Mad as Hell,'' the tax revolt tract of Howard Jarvis, the father of Proposition 13 in California.
The tax revolt, Anderson says, is less a money issue than an interpersonal one. ``It is a revolt of people against the arrogance of government,'' she says. ``People were really angry because their intelligence was being insulted.''
``All we're asking for is an honest relationship'' with state political leaders, she adds.
That relationship was indeed strained when Anderson broke loose on the Massachusetts scene in the late 1970s.
Cries of ``Taxachusetts'' were more than just business lobby propaganda. Taxes were among the highest in the country. In 1975, after inheriting a fiscal mess from his Republican predecessor, first-term Gov. Michael Dukakis presided over the largest tax increase in the state's history.
But polls showed voters were less irked at taxes than they were at what those taxes were supporting. Massachusetts had never been known for excesses of rectitude in the public business. In the mid-1970s, a massive contracting scandal brought down a bevy of legislative leaders. A special task force concluded that ``corruption has been a way of life'' in the state.
Mass Fair Share, then a statewide group at the opposite end of the spectrum from CLT, stoked the fires of taxpayer outrage with campaigns against big-business tax delinquents. There were ballot campaigns from the left for a progressive income tax, and from the right for a state tax cap.
Amid this commotion, state political leaders did not respond to calls for relief. In his first term, Mr. Dukakis vetoed an admittedly expensive property tax relief measure. Edward King, a Democrat who unseated him in the 1978 primary, campaigned on a promise to cut local property taxes by $500 million. Once in office he backed down.
Meanwhile, Barbara Anderson was recovering from a broken relationship herself. In 1978, her second husband, a contractor, departed, leaving her with a young son and a part-time job as a swimming instructor.
The year before, she had volunteered to gather signatures for CLT's tax-cap initiative. It was Anderson's first real political involvement. As a Navy wife in the '60s, she had missed the political movements of that decade. But she had seen government waste aplenty, in the form of Navy bases that went on year-end spending sprees to use their entire budget so as not to invite cuts the following year.
Anderson was also in tune with the 1960s rejection of authority, though from a rightward slant. In college she had taken to the radical individualism of Ayn Rand and the softer, more humane version of Henry David Thoreau. She voted for Barry Goldwater in 1964 because, she says, she had a three-month-old son and Senator Goldwater promised to end the draft.
Anderson did such a good job gathering petitions that CLT asked her to come to work as a secretary. A year later, she was CLT's executive director, just in time to stump for the Prop. 2 campaign, as the property-tax-cutting initiative was called.
She fit the role as well as actress Diane Keaton did Annie Hall. ``She has a gut affinity with the frustrations the average burdened taxpayer feels,'' says Robert Schaeffer, a political consultant who has opposed Anderson often. ``She's a natural politician.''
Former US House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. said that all politics is local. To Anderson, they're all personal. ``It starts out with something that makes you angry,'' she says. While opponents were calling Prop. 2 ``simplistic,'' Anderson was turning the issue into a kind of political trucker song, a country-western lament of betrayal and disrespect. People had the sense that ``a politician somewhere was laughing at them,'' she says. ``The only way you can control the government is to make sure it responds to you.''
Prop. 2 was probably an irresistible force. But Anderson didn't hurt the cause. ``She convinced me,'' says Ray Torto, an adviser to then Boston Mayor Kevin White, who debated Anderson often but ended up voting for the measure. ``Politically she was right. It was the only way it [tax relief] would happen.''
Anderson's own views are more libertarian than right wing. She doesn't want government telling women they can't have abortions, for example, just as she doesn't want it taking their money.
But on the stump, she keeps tightly focused on the one issue - taxes - upon which most people agree. Instead of attacking government services, she says governments can be more efficient.
This helps explain a central conundrum in Massachusetts politics: that a state with probably the most liberal delegation in Washington can have such an influential tax revolt back home. ``People can vote for a good progressive government, and [then] keep it within bounds,'' through Anderson and the petition process, says Mark Dyen, a former director of Mass Fair Share.
``Michael, you are our governor. Slap. Slap. Slap'' is how Anderson describes her role.
Some opponents accuse her of skirting the complexities with one-liners and Reaganesque anecdotes. (They also say she can get a bit nasty when pressed.) ``This whole desk is covered with complexities,'' she counters, pointing to the clutter.
Certainly, Anderson has an instinctive grasp of legislative machinations. She follows budget deliberations like a hound, swaps backroom gossip with reporters, and is always ready with a choice one-liner to brighten a dull budget story.
Her mode of operation is not unlike that Ralph Nader has employed in Washington. ``I don't agree with him on a lot of things,'' she says, ``but I love the way he operates.'' In addition, her ability to mobilize an army of petition bearers gives her ``tremendous influence,'' says Rep. John Flood, the conservative House Taxation Committee chairman and a key Anderson ally.
Don Feder, who first hired Anderson at CLT and is now a columnist for the Boston Herald, says her Lone Ranger style has prevented CLT from building a genuine political movement. ``She tends to concentrate on what she does best and what she enjoys doing,'' Mr. Feder says. ``She does not enjoy grass-roots organizing.''
Anderson concedes that her estimate of 10,000 CLT members includes people who have simply carried petitions during initiative campaigns. She also acknowledges that corporations have provided most of the funds for its ballot drives, but she says the group supports itself otherwise through direct mail.
Even Anderson's critics generally concede that Prop. 2 has been good for the state. Not least, it gave public officials the ability to say ``no'' to claims upon the public fisc.
But what made Prop. 2 work so well is what made the Dukakis economic policies look so good: an economic boom that started well before the tax cuts, and that enabled the state to bail out localities with bundles of state aid.
Now those state revenues are tailing off. Dukakis has touched off a row by cutting $91 million in local aid. At the same time, school enrollments have turned upward, and localities are facing new costs such as solid-waste disposal. ``The situation is extremely volatile and scary,'' says William Kennedy, former town manager in Holden, Mass., and acting director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association.
Mr. Dyen doesn't think the CLT can ever become a broader political force on grounds it doesn't have a positive agenda to deal with such problems. ``You'd have to be voting for them instead of just against taxes,'' he says.
Anderson appears unfazed by such developments. She freely acknowledges her disinclination to build a political movement. ``I don't think there should be leaders,'' she told a local television interviewer. ``I think we should all be our own leaders.''
Meanwhile, she has pressing matters at hand. The state legislature has let her down again by bowing to Dukakis's need to take a semblance of a balanced budget when he went to Atlanta. ``If I said anything nice about the legislature,'' she said after the late-night maneuvering, ``delete it.''
Then too, there's the governor himself. While they differ on many issues, her problem with him is less ideological than personal. The controlled, methodical Dukakis couldn't be more her opposite. ``I don't relate to him,'' Anderson says.
``We're certainly going to be sources to any journalists who want to talk to an objective source,'' she adds with a hearty laugh.