Russ Walker has spent the past few days recuperating from bronchitis and from an election campaign that led to the crushing defeat of an $800 million tax hike on Tuesday’s ballot.
The convalescence has given Walker some time to reflect on his new role as the leader of Oregon’s anti-tax movement — a position that’s been vacant since the political demise of Bill Sizemore.
Walker, head of the Oregon chapter of Citizens for a Sound Economy, was instrumental in putting together the signature-gathering effort and campaign that led to the drubbing of the tax plan.
For nearly a decade, Sizemore was Oregon’s leading purveyor of ballot measures to reduce taxes and limit government.
Last year, two unions filed a $2.5 million lawsuit against Sizemore seeking to hold him personally responsible for earlier fraud and racketeering convictions against Sizemore’s former organizations.
In an interview this past week, Sizemore conceded he’s been too pinned down by his lawsuit problems to work on initiatives for this year’s ballot.
“Russ Walker has taken my place as the leading taxpayer advocate in this state,” Sizemore said. “I wish him the best at it.”
Walker, a 36-year-old father of three, readily accepts the role and he said his group already is looking at future projects to lower taxes and limit the size of government.
Chief among them is a possible initiative measure — still in the draft stages — to ask voters this fall to clamp a tight limit on state government spending, Walker said.
“If we had that in place, it would address the real issue, which is long-term, out-of-control spending,” he said.
In the aftermath of Tuesday’s vote, Walker’s group now has a list of 170,000 people who signed petitions to get Measure 30 on the ballot — all of them potential contributors or volunteers for future campaigns.
Oregon AFL-CIO President Tim Nesbitt, who for years did battle against Sizemore’s anti-tax, anti-union initiatives, said Walker and Citizens for a Sound Economy are a formidable political foe.
Nesbitt noted that the Washington, D.C.-based group has also fought at the national level for federal tax cuts, and in September waged a successful campaign to defeat an Alabama tax measure.
The group is using places like Oregon and Alabama as “laboratory states” as part of a national strategy to push for lower government spending and reduced taxes at the state level, Nesbitt said.
“With a relatively small amount of money, it is easy to pursue an anti-government agenda with ballot measures in the states,” the AFL-CIO chief said.
Nesbitt said unions planned to continue to battle those tax-slashing efforts, which he said could continue to erode public services and hurt some of the state’s most vulnerable citizens.
Walker grew up in southern Oregon, the son of an insurance agent. He did a 12-year stint as an infantry officer in the Army National Guard, and studied political science for four years at Brigham Young University, where he met his wife.
Walker worked for Oregon Right to Life and other political causes before he went to work for Citizens for a Sound Economy. He was named Oregon director of the group in 1999, but he remained a low-key figure as he lobbied the Legislature on issues involving telecommunications, land use and pension reform.
He was thrust into the public spotlight last August after the Legislature approved the $800 million tax increase to avoid budget cuts to schools and various social services.
Oregon Republican Party Chairman Kevin Mannix, who also opposed the Measure 30 tax hike, said Walker’s key accomplishment was quickly putting together a coalition of groups to launch the anti-tax referendum.
“He’s the guy who worked his socks off. He did a very fine job of managing the organization,” Mannix said.
While some are calling Walker the “new” Sizemore, Mannix said the two aren’t that similar.
“I don’t think Russ Walker desires the kind of media spotlight that Bill Sizemore had,” Mannix said. “He is more involved in the nitty gritty, the organization-building.”
Walker said it’s true that he’s more comfortable working behind the scenes than standing in front of TV cameras and giving interviews.
But he said that he’s willing to do what it takes to advance the no-new-taxes cause.
“If I can reduce the tax burden on individuals, then I’m happy to fill that role,” he said.
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