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Originally published May 18, 2013 at 6:31 PM | Page modified May 19, 2013 at 2:08 PM

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Harley Hoppe, colorful assessor, tax foe, dies

Harley Hoppe, 82, a three-term King County assessor and an early tax rebel, died May 13 at his Mercer Island home.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Harley Hoppe, the colorful former King County assessor, was an early promoter of taxpayer rebellion in Washington.

A lightning rod for controversy, he was known almost as much for his love of horse racing and flamboyant clothes as for his tax-cutting efforts.

Mr. Hoppe, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, died in his sleep Monday (May 13) in his Mercer Island home. He was 82.

Although he toned down his wardrobe during his 12 years as assessor, he never gave up wearing an American flag tie — or fighting for lower taxes.

Mr. Hoppe lost more battles than he won with his state anti-tax initiatives, and his bids for county executive and governor were unsuccessful.

But his political influence never entirely disappeared. An organization he founded, now called We the People Will, has been seeking signatures for Initiative 1266, which would prohibit cities and counties from deducting union dues from employee paychecks.

Born in Hamilton, Mont., on Sept. 15, 1930, Mr. Hoppe was raised in Aberdeen. After attending Washington State University, he graduated from Willamette University in Oregon, but remained a lifelong Cougar fan.

Mr. Hoppe began his crusade for lower taxes at the state and local levels after the tax bill on his Sea-Tac service station and carwash jumped from $1,000 to $8,000 in 1969.

The following year, Overtaxed Inc., a grass-roots group he and others had organized, helped defeat ballot measures for a regional rail-transit system and a state income tax.

During his 12 years as assessor, Mr. Hoppe proposed initiatives — several of which failed to garner enough signatures to get on the ballot — to roll back the gas tax, limit future property-tax increases and reduce the size of the Legislature.

“For me, Harley Hoppe will always be kind of the Rosa Parks of tax initiatives in Washington,” said Tim Eyman, who followed in Mr. Hoppe’s footsteps by filing numerous tax-limiting initiatives.

“That was his thing,” Eyman said. “We came along and started doing initiatives in the late 1990s, and everybody knew about Harley Hoppe’s stuff.”

Eyman said Mr. Hoppe provided key advice in shaping voter-approved Initiative 747, a pivotal 2001 measure that forbade cities and other tax districts from increasing property-tax collections more than 1 percent a year without a vote of the people.

“I’m a lobbyist for the little guy,” Mr. Hoppe said in a 1973 Seattle Times interview.

“He was the tea party before there was a tea party. He was always saying government is too big,” said Amy Hoppe, a daughter who runs Harley H. Hoppe & Associates, a tax-appeal business founded by her father.

His personality was as colorful as his clothes.

He rode a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and frequently bought flowers wholesale, distributing them to people in his office, friends at Longacres racetrack, McDonald’s workers and neighbors.

“He was always going up and down the street giving people bouquets,” said Teresa Hoppe, his wife of 55 years.

When Jennifer Dunn worked in the Assessor’s Office before becoming state Republican Party chair and then a congresswoman, Mr. Hoppe would bring a bag of fireworks to each of her two sons every year before the Fourth of July.

“That guy came out with some incredible and insane fireworks. They were not safe, and they were insane. I don’t know where he got them, but it wasn’t the fireworks stand down the street,” said Jennifer Dunn’s son Reagan Dunn, now a Metropolitan King County Council member.

A Democratic state senator, Ruthe Ridder, spoiled Mr. Hoppe’s hopes in 1983 for a fourth term as assessor. His re-election campaign was hurt by reports his beloved Longacres racetrack paid a lower tax because it was assessed as farmland, by a whistle-blower complaint that owners of Seattle skyscrapers got special treatment, and that his own house on Mercer Island was only belatedly put on the tax rolls.

Mr. Hoppe said the complaints against him were unfounded, and he filed defamation lawsuits against Ridder and Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Emmett Watson, who lampooned him as “Hurley Herpes.” (Over her objections, Ridder’s insurance company reached an out-of-court settlement to end the lawsuit; a judge threw out the suit against Watson.)

Kirby Wilbur, the state Republican Party chair who was an appraiser under Mr. Hoppe, said he never saw any favoritism toward his boss’s friends, saying, “He was one of the most ethical men I have ever known.”

After he was voted out of office, Mr. Hoppe helped businesses assemble properties for development, but helping clients appeal their tax assessments soon became his specialty.

After Lloyd Hara was elected assessor in 2009, Mr. Hoppe frequently dropped by his office “simply to chat and get a free cup of coffee or tea,” Hara said in a written comment.

Mr. Hoppe soon had Hara’s staff scrambling to respond to his suggestions that a looming $60 million county deficit could be avoided by taxing corporate art collections, collecting on undervalued properties and taking other steps.

Hara’s staff couldn’t find the savings Mr. Hoppe touted, and the County Council found other ways to close the budget gap. “He had us in the headlines, and Harley really loved it when he made the news, good or bad,” Hara said.

Mr. Hoppe is survived by his wife, Teresa; daughters Elizabeth, of Chicago, Amy, of Mercer Island, and Susan, of Bellevue; grandchildren Justelle, Brayden and Alia, all of Mercer Island; and a half-sister, Rosemary Andrews, of Washougal, Clark County.

Viewing is scheduled for 2 to 6 p.m. Sunday, May 19, at Sunset Hills Memorial Park in Bellevue. A rosary will start at 10:15 a.m. and a funeral Mass at 11 a.m. Monday at St. Monica Catholic Church on Mercer Island.

The family suggests contributions to a favorite charity in lieu of flowers.

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

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