The group, U.S. Term Limits, spends considerable effort and money across the country trying to fend off attempts to weaken term limits laws, such as Prop. 93 -- which will appear on the February ballot -- in California. And the group tries to do so while steering clear of the limelight, which is precisely how Howard "Howie" Rich prefers it.
Rich, a wealthy Libertarian New York real estate developer who is the founder and chairman of U.S. Term Limits, has been a stealthy operator in the growing field of ballot initiative politics and in making use of the most unregulated political entities -- nonprofit organizations.
Critics complain that Rich and his colleagues are abusing the initiative process by using their nonprofit status to hide the identity of a handful of wealthy conservative businessmen and large corporations pursuing various anti-government causes aimed at freeing industry from regulations and taxes.
He's even inspired a Web site -- Howierichexposed.com -- focused exclusively on tracking his political movements. Kristina Wilfore, executive director at the liberal union-funded Washington, D.C.-based Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, maintains the Web site.
"You have a group of wealthy radical activists who see no role for government," Wilfore said. Their measures would "bankrupt state government and give special rights to developers. ... And it's brought to you by a network of Libertarian Party activists who want to eliminate government."
Rich's defenders say California voters embraced term limits in 1990 -- two years before Rich formed U.S. Term Limits -- and continue to support them out of a sense of suspicion toward politicians. Voters, they say, couldn't care less about who's behind the opposition to Prop. 93, which would shorten the number of years legislators could serve from 14 to 12, but allow them to serve all 12 in one chamber -- essentially an increase in years for most legislators, who typically are done after six years.
Rich's supporters say he is a visionary with a single mission: to keep government honest.
"He's not one who's looking for self-aggrandizement and personal publicity," said Lew Uhler, president of the Roseville-based National Tax Limitations Committee, which ran California's 1990 term limits campaign. "He's simply interested in issues, making sure that good government, constitutional government, prevails."
Rich, who would only agree to be interviewed via e-mail, said he uses nonprofit groups to protect donors fearful of being stalked by entrenched interests threatened by anti-government ballot initiatives.
"It's safe to say that an organization dedicated to imposing term limits on politicians has a lot of powerful politicians and interest groups interested in threatening and intimidating potential supporters," he wrote. "I have no intention of subjecting anyone to that abuse and we have gladly complied with all laws."
A spokesman for Prop. 93 said Rich should reveal who's behind U.S. Term Limits' $1.5 million donation.
"Voters have a right to know who is trying to influence their views on Prop. 93," said Richard Stapler. "Pulling the wool over their eyes like Rich is doing by not disclosing his contributions and shady political ties flies in the face of a healthy democracy.
"Rich claims he's protecting small contributors -- but he's really tricking voters by hiding his massive political spending that supports his extremist agenda."
Lately, Rich has widened his horizons beyond term limits and become active in dozens of ballot measures -- all aimed at limiting the taxing, spending and regulation powers of state government.
One group that Rich heads, Americans for Limited Government, orchestrated -- with $15 million flowing through seven affiliated nonprofit groups -- 20 ballot initiative campaigns in 14 states. That included $3.4 million to support California's failed eminent domain proposal (Proposition 90) that critics said hid its true agenda of decimating local government's land use and zoning regulations to allow developers free rein.
Two initiatives funded by Rich's shell groups were aimed at the judiciary last year. One that lost in Colorado would have allowed the recall of judges. The other, called Jail 4 Judges, in South Dakota, would have created a special grand jury to indict judges for such offenses as a "deliberate disregard of material facts," and "blocking of a lawful conclusion of a case." After three such "convictions," the judge would be fired and docked half of his or her retirement benefits. It failed by an 8-1 margin.
But Rich's group has had its successes, including in California, where U.S. Term Limits backed a congressional term limits measure, later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, and single-handedly defeated a 2002 measure to loosen legislative term limits.
In the 2006 election, Rich's name became a pejorative among political consultants across the country who were kept busy trying to uncover his use of the obscure tax-exempt shell organizations.
"Rich is the figurehead who seems energized by these stealth methods of operating," said Bill Hogan, an investigator with the Center of Public Integrity, a nonprofit nonpartisan group that funds investigative reporting. "He's built layers of nonprofit organizations (that are) pretty hard to fathom. They seemed to be set up to avoid disclosure triggers."
Unlike political action committees, independent committees, candidates or parties, nonprofit groups are not required to disclose their donors -- as long as they don't spend a majority of their money on elections. In California, a nonprofit organization doesn't have to list its donors as long as the donors don't know what issue their contributions are funding.
But not disclosing donors creates "more problems than disclosing," said Bob Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies. "It creates a suspicion that isn't necessary."
Kevin Spillane, spokesman for the No on Prop. 93 campaign, said voters are fully aware of the ideological bent of U.S. Term Limits.
"They know that U.S. Term Limits is active in leading term limits advocacy," Spillane said. "What other organizations or causes that Howie Rich is involved in has nothing to do with Prop. 93."
Reach Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Proposition 93 would change term limit laws in California. Here's a look at the current law and how things would change under Prop. 93:
Legislators may spend a total of 14 years in office.
Lawmakers may serve a maximum of six years in the Assembly (two-year terms).
Lawmakers may serve a maximum of eight years in the Senate (four-year terms).
UNDER PROP. 93
Lawmakers may spend a total of 12 years in office.
Lawmakers may spend 12 years in the Assembly, 12 in the Senate or any combination up to 12 years.
Many current incumbents would be allowed to extend terms that otherwise would expire next year.
Source: MediaNews Sacramento Bureau reporting
Growth and Social Security Choice.org; founder, Legislative Education Action Drive
Source: MediaNews Sacramento Bureau reporting