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Sunday, November 9, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Building lobby on roll with ergonomics win

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

OLYMPIA — Tom McCabe, chief strategist for the Building Industry Association of Washington, has always heeded the "Keep Right" road sign that hangs on the wall outside his spacious office.

Trouble is, keeping right has rarely been a winning political strategy in a left-leaning state such as Washington.

Suddenly, however, it seems McCabe and the BIAW are on a roll. Voters last week handed them perhaps their biggest victory ever by approving Initiative 841, a measure that repeals the state's sweeping workplace ergonomics rule. It was the BIAW's second ballot victory in as many years.

McCabe hopes those results are an indication Washington voters are starting to veer right. But he has lost too many battles over the years to be feeling overly confident.

"Sure, we've won two in a row, but the team is still two-and-20," said McCabe, executive vice president of the homebuilders group.

McCabe might be exaggerating the BIAW's poor win-loss record, but not by much. The group has long been considered a potent force in state politics, battling big business almost as much as it has battled labor. But it has consistently found itself on the losing side in the Legislature and at the polls.

So what's with this little win streak?

McCabe attributes the recent successes primarily to Washington's troubled economy. As job losses have mounted in recent years, he said, more and more people have come around to "our way of thinking" about reining in government regulators.

"The BIAW has an understanding of the issues that resonate with folks and has learned how to package them," said Dick Davis, president of the business-backed Washington Research Council.

What's more, McCabe theorizes, big businesses are starting to feel the pinch. After years of keeping their distance from the more radical small-business activists such as McCabe, big companies such as Boeing and Weyerhaeuser joined the latest effort to spike the ergonomics rule.

If businesses can keep that alliance intact, McCabe and others say, more victories are within reach for conservatives. McCabe's next big mission: help the Republican Party elect its first governor in more than 20 years.

McCabe's archenemies, such as labor-union leaders and environmentalists, are admittedly nervous about the BIAW's growing clout. But they don't believe it has anything to do with some sort of ideological shift among voters.

Instead, they contend, the BIAW has figured out how to sway voters and politicians with scare tactics that paint a falsely bleak picture of Washington's business climate. More importantly, they argue, the homebuilders group has lots of money and is not afraid to spend it on political causes, even when the odds are long.

"The key thing is their money," said Rick Bender, president of the Washington State Labor Council. "That's the big thing that has put the BIAW into play."

The BIAW and its members spent more than $1 million on I-841, nearly three times the group's previous record for a political campaign and twice what labor unions spent opposing the measure.

"They're winning right now," said Clifford Traisman, an environmental lobbyist. "It's not because the voters have changed. It's because their message is not being effectively countered."

Association grew rapidly

When McCabe went to work for the BIAW in 1990, the group had about 2,500 members. It has since grown to more than 10,000 members and is one of the nation's largest homebuilders associations.

According to the BIAW's Web site, the group's main purpose is to unite homebuilders in the "fight against a government that has made this industry among the most regulated in the nation."

Fighting for free enterprise hasn't been an easy task in a state "dominated by labor unions and liberal, anti-business politicians," said McCabe, who keeps a Goldwater for President placard on a mantle near his desk.

Over the years, McCabe and the BIAW typically fared about as well here as the archconservative Goldwater did in the 1964 presidential election, when he got less than 38 percent of the vote.

In 1993, voters rejected the BIAW's initiative to roll back business taxes. Two years later, by a 60-40 margin, voters shot down a BIAW-backed property-rights referendum that would have forced governments to pay private landowners for property-value losses caused by development restrictions. The homebuilders poured more than $350,000 into each of those campaigns.

The BIAW has made numerous unsuccessful attempts in the Legislature to weaken the state's Growth Management Act. And the group has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on so-called "independent expenditure" campaigns aimed at helping Republican candidates for governor, but none won.

Amid all of those losses, there were some victories — mainly a legislative race here and there. Things really started going the BIAW's way last year.

Though the homebuilders came up just short in their attempt to elect conservative attorney Jim Johnson to the state Supreme Court (another $200,000 spent), they were instrumental in helping Republicans retake control of the state Senate.

On top of that, the BIAW got voters to repeal a comprehensive legislative rewrite of the state's unemployment-tax system. Under the rewrite, which was supported by Boeing and much of the state's political establishment, homebuilders would have been forced to pay more in taxes.

But last week's defeat of the state's ergonomics rule was particularly sweet for the BIAW. The rule was crafted and supported by the BIAW's biggest foes: the Department of Labor and Industries and the state's labor unions.

Had it survived, the rule would have been the nation's first comprehensive regulation aimed at preventing ergonomic injuries such as carpal-tunnel syndrome, back strain and shoulder tendinitis. It would have required all employers to identify ergonomic hazards and do whatever possible to eliminate them.

The homebuilders, along with other business groups, tried for more than three years to get the courts and the Legislature to dump the rule. When all of those efforts failed, the BIAW once again turned to the voters with Initiative 841.

With all but a few absentee ballots left to count, the measure is passing in 34 of 39 counties by a margin of nearly 80,000 votes.

Business alliance a key

The resounding victory shows what the broader business community can achieve if it sticks together, said Don Brunell, president of the Association of Washington Business, which represents many of the state's large businesses.

"I don't know that (BIAW) would have been successful if the rest of us had not been helping," Brunell said.

McCabe agreed the alliance was key.

Too often in the past, he said, labor-friendly Democrats were able to divide the business community, often by offering special deals such as tax exemptions to big business. And during the boom times of the mid-'90s, McCabe said, big businesses weren't really fazed by growing regulatory burdens that had small businesses howling.

But now everyone is feeling it, he said.

Carolyn Logue, another prominent small-business lobbyist, agreed. "The economic problems and the regulatory problems finally caught up with the big boys," she said. "I think big business finally realized that small business is not the enemy."

Still, Logue sees the BIAW as the business community's most potent force for taking on labor unions and big government. She said the association has the key ingredients for success: a penchant for politics and lots of money.

The BIAW gets some money through membership dues. But the big dollars come from the association's ability to recoup money from the state's workers-compensation system.

Under state law, businesses can form workers-compensation pools to share the insurance risks. The groups get refunds from the state each year that their premiums exceed claims.

The BIAW, which keeps 20 percent of its refunds and sends the rest to its members, earns more than any other group through the refund program. Last year, for instance, the BIAW's cut was more than $4 million.

Labor groups have long complained about the arrangement. Two years ago, the Department of Labor and Industries adopted a rule that would have cut the BIAW's workers-compensation profits in half, but the homebuilders got the rule thrown out in court.

"They have what appears to be an unlimited pool of resources to thwart progressive interests," said Traisman, the environmental lobbyist.

'Scare tactic is working'

For BIAW's opponents, however, matching the group's money might prove easier than countering its message.

Traisman said the BIAW is trying to scare voters with what he called a "false choice" — that they can either have jobs and strong economy, or a clean environment and safe workplace, but not both. During the I-841 campaign, for instance, the BIAW helped pay for a barrage of TV ads warning voters that the ergonomics rule would wipe out jobs and drive children off health insurance.

"It's a scare tactic and it's working," Traisman said.

McCabe sees some irony in all of the complaining from his foes. He said the homebuilders are different from most groups in Olympia because they are driven by principles. To them, consensus is an often dirty word and, most times, they'd sooner fight than compromise.

In that regard, he said, the BIAW has a lot in common with labor. He said labor groups deserve praise because they stick to their cause, are willing to play rough and aren't afraid to kick their friends if necessary.

"Their philosophy is it's better to be respected than loved," McCabe said. "I admire them for that."

"That's kind of a scary compliment," replied Bender, the labor council president.

Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or rthomas@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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