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 talk radio.
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.