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August 2, 2006

Frank Blethen on estate tax lobbying

Posted by David Postman at 11:22 AM

With another vote on repeal of the estate tax on the horizon, Sen. Maria Cantwell is again the focus of Republicans searching for votes and pundits looking to prognosticate. Bloomberg News today elevates Cantwell to the senator who may hold the "crucial vote." And they report:

Cantwell's state is also home to outspoken advocates on both sides of the estate tax issue. Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen has been a leader in the decade-long campaign to wipe out the tax, while William H. Gates Jr., father of Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates, the world's richest man, is urging lawmakers to keep it.

Yes, whenever the estate tax comes up, Blethen's name is not far behind. And with another vote coming up, and an initiative headed for the November ballot to repeal the state estate tax, it seemed a good time to ask Blethen about his political activity. We talked on the phone this morning.

There's sort of an odd quote attributed to Blethen in the Bloomberg piece:

"It's going to be a major test for Maria,'' Blethen said in an interview. "We're going to find out whether she pays more attention to leadership back there, or whether she pays attention to leadership.''

Blethen said that's not exactly what he said. But he's not backing away from looking like he's putting some pressure on Cantwell. He told me, "This is the whole issue, is Maria responsive to D.C. Democratic party bosses or is she responsive to the people of the state of Washington?"

Blethen said he and his lobbyist, Jill Mackie, have lobbied Cantwell as well as Patty Murray and the state's House delegation. He also lobbies the congressional delegation from Maine, where the family owns newspapers.

Blethen said he knows that people in the newsroom are uncomfortable with his political activity on the estate tax. He said editor Mike Fancher has made it clear on many occasions and said former Managing Editor Alex MacLeod was "far less subtle. He just looked me in the eye and said, 'You shouldn't be doing this.' And I'd say, 'Your job is to make sure we don't affect anything you do.' "

Does it pose a conflict to lobby a senator who will soon be looking for an endorsement from the paper's editorial board?

"No, it doesn't. All of our endorsements are based on a whole range of public policy issues and their philosophies on them, as well as their past behaviors on them."

Blethen points out that the paper endorsed Cantwell in 2000 over Sen. Slade Gorton even though the Republican incumbent was fully in support of the family position on the estate tax. Cantwell, he said, "was never for our position; always this nebulous, 'I'm for reform.' "

"So we had a candidate who was a huge champion for our position vs. one who was totally in the other camp and we chose to endorse her."

In June Mackie told me Blethen did not intend to make any political donations to Initiative 920, which would repeal the state estate tax. Blethen said today he still doesn't have any plans to do that. But the corporate side of The Times is involved.

"Jill has been having some conversations with some of the folks who are putting together the campaign. We may be involved on the periphery because people keep calling us. But we're not going to make any political donations, and I may do the things I normally do, which is talking to groups like minority groups."

To that end, Blethen has a new angle on lobbying for repeal of the estate tax. He wants to enlist gays and lesbians in the campaign for repeal.

He said that especially with last weeks' state Supreme Court decision upholding a gay marriage ban, same-sex couples should be concerned about what the estate tax hit would be. If they could marry, even under the current law, there would be a partial exemption on an inheritance. Now in Washington state there's no chance of that.

"If you're a couple and you're trying to preserve assets for a surviving spouse and children you get a 100 percent hit."

Blethen said the estate tax has not been a primary concern for gays and lesbians. But now that the gay marriage fight has ended, for now at least, he said there could be increased interest in the issue. Log Cabin Republicans, the organization of gay Republicans, supports repeal of the tax.

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