The campaign to allow affirmative action in Washington state gathered nearly 400,000 signatures last fall, more than any initiative to the Legislature in state history, and more than enough to ensure that either the lawmakers will repeal the ban on affirmative action or the people will vote on it in November.
But the campaign is also deeply in debt, owing more than $1.3 million to the people and companies who collected the signatures to qualify the initiative for success, according to records filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission.
The One Washington Equality Campaign has raised more than $145,000, most of which has gone to pay signature gatherers. But with paid signature gatherers generally fetching $3 or more per signature, the campaign is far behind.
And those signature gatherers, some of whom said they haven’t received anything for months of work, are worried they’ll never be paid.
“They literally haven’t paid a penny,” said Carolyn Ostic, a coordinator who hired crews last fall to gather signatures for the affirmative-action campaign, known as Initiative 1000. “They keep promising money, but nothing’s happening.”
Ostic, who is based in California and works on initiative campaigns around the country, says she is owed nearly $90,000 for her work last fall.
Jesse Wineberry, a former state legislator who helped spearhead the I-1000 campaign, said he was confident the campaign would pay its debts.
He said the campaign is planning a fundraiser for Easter weekend — a march from Seattle to Olympia, where participants recruit sponsors to pay per mile-marched.
“All of the proceeds we are raising go first and foremost to the signature gatherers who are yet to get paid,” Wineberry said.
I-1000 would repeal Washington’s 2-decade-old ban on using affirmative action in public employment, education and for public contracting. It would allow the state to use affirmative action to remedy “discrimination against, or underrepresentation of, disadvantaged groups,” including women, people of color and military veterans.
Using quotas or giving a position to a less-qualified candidate based solely on a characteristic such as sex or race would continue to be banned.
Affirmative action has been banned in Washington since 1998, when an initiative drive led by anti-tax advocate Tim Eyman was approved by 58 percent of voters. Washington is one of only eight states that ban affirmative action.
If the Legislature does not pass the measure in the coming months, it will be on the ballot for voters in November.
I-1000 has the support of the state Democratic Party and Gov. Jay Inslee, and lists former Govs. Dan Evans, Christine Gregoire and Gary Locke as honorary campaign co-chairs.
Inslee said he would “make it a priority to have it passed by the Legislature.”
The campaign has pulled in five-figure donations from the Puyallup, Tulalip and Jamestown S’Klallam tribes, among others, but has raised only $16,000 total since it submitted signatures in early January.
The One Washington Equality Campaign, like most initiative drives, did not directly hire signature gatherers. Rather, it hired a signature-gathering firm, which, in turn, hired coordinators like Ostic who then hired the people who stood outside grocery stores and other venues with clipboards collecting signatures.
The signature-gathering firm, Citizen Solutions LLC, has long been known for working with Eyman on his initiatives, although the firm said it did not work on Eyman’s anti-affirmative action campaign in 1998.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued Citizen Solutions and Eyman in 2017, accusing the company of taking part in a scheme to conceal campaign money funneled to Eyman. The company is presently in contempt of court for not turning over documents related to the lawsuit, and is being fined $500 per day, Ferguson’s office said.
Nonetheless, I-1000 supporters hired the firm because they charged less per signature and didn’t demand payment in advance.
“The progressive companies wanted $150,000 up front,” Wineberry said earlier this year. “They were asking something ridiculous, like $6 to $12 per signature.”
Roy Ruffino, a co-owner of Citizens Solutions, said he was confident his firm would eventually be paid.
“Jesse’s working hard,” Ruffino said. “I think that the business community is going to step up here.”
But the people who Ruffino hired to get the signatures, who are waiting on payment, are frustrated and not nearly as confident.
Kyle Locascio, a Vancouver, Clark County-based signature coordinator, said he’s owed close to $23,000.
“I’ve done my best to pay all the circulators that work with me as much as I possibly can, but as you can imagine it’s a challenging situation,” Locascio said. “This particular situation is highly unusual. This has never happened in my experience.”
Dan Harwig, a California-based signature coordinator, says he’s owed about $90,000.
“Normally, when we petition we work with contractors, we turn in signatures, we’re supposed to get paid when we turn them in,” Harwig said. “This one, they kept telling us, ‘the money is coming, the money is coming,’ and then they just never paid us.”
Harwig said he’s worked with Citizen Solutions for years and never had a problem getting paid.
“They brought us up there and we were just working under the assumption that they had money in the bank,” he said. “They apparently didn’t have a deposit and they didn’t tell us that.”
Harwig said he’s been a professional signature gatherer for nearly 20 years but is now doing construction work “to try to earn some money to pay rent.”
“We’re basically broke,” he said. “We have gotten burned before, never this badly.”