Metro

Barbara Anderson, 73; was the voice of limited taxation in Mass.

Barbara Anderson was photographed at her home in Marblehead in January 2010.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/file
Barbara Anderson was photographed at her home in Marblehead in January 2010.

To state legislators who tried to find a way around Proposition 2½, Barbara Anderson’s signature tax-cutting ballot measure, she had a simple response: “It means what it says!”

For Ms. Anderson, who was 73 when she died Friday of leukemia, the exclamation point was as much a part of her as the political wallop she delivered throughout the Commonwealth.

A master of forcefully turning complex public policy into something anyone could understand, she played a highly visible and influential role in Massachusetts politics for more than three decades as the longtime executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation.

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“She was incredible,” said Jim Braude, who as executive director of the Tax Equity Alliance for Massachusetts traveled the state with Ms. Anderson from the late-1980s through the mid-’90s, debating opposite sides of the tax-cut initiatives she championed.

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“She was a political force of nature. I’ve never seen anything like it before, and I’m sure will never see anything like it again,” said Braude, who is now host of the WGBH-TV show “Greater Boston.”

Among the successful ballot questions Ms. Anderson backed were Proposition 2½, in 1980, which capped property tax increases at 2.5 percent of fair market value; Question 3, in 1986, to remove a 1975 income-tax surcharge and put a cap on tax receipts; and Question 4, in 2000, which rolled back the state income tax rate from 5.85 percent to 5 percent.

Her greatest triumph, the landslide passage of Proposition 2½ in November 1980, took place less than four months after she became Citizens for Limited Taxation’s executive director. She had started there in 1977, as a part-time volunteer. A year later, she was hired as an administrative assistant.

Governor Charlie Baker remembered Ms. Anderson as “funny, smart, and edgy,” as well as a significant force in Massachusetts politics.

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“For decades, she was the most effective taxpayer advocate in the Commonwealth, and her tireless work positively impacted public policy at all levels, making government more accountable to the people,” he said.

Chip Faulkner, director of communications for Citizens for Limited Taxation, called Ms. Anderson’s death “a tremendous loss for the taxpayers. She wanted more freedom for the average person. That freedom came through limiting the amount of money the government could take from you.”

Ms. Anderson, who had lived in Marblehead for many years, died in respite care in Salem.

Faulkner, who worked with her for more than 36 years, said he loved her tenacity and sense of humor.

To allies, Ms. Anderson was a “tax-cut tigress.” To opponents, a “tax-cut terrorist.” There was, however, no disagreement on her effectiveness. A longtime ally, Howard Foley, founding president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council, hailed her as “the most powerful political figure in Massachusetts.”

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When supporters and opponents alike called her the state’s most powerful unelected official, Ms. Anderson just shrugged. “She said, ‘That’s like being the biggest banana in a strawberry patch. It doesn’t get you much,’ ” Braude recalled. “She was painfully witty. She was really bitingly funny.”

His roadshow debates with Ms. Anderson, he added, were “the most fun I’ve had in my working life.”

In 1981, state Senator Alan Sisitsky, an opponent, called Ms. Anderson the “de facto governor” of Massachusetts. Though her effectiveness peaked before the 1990 defeat of Question 3 and its proposed tax rollback, she remained a force to be reckoned with on Beacon Hill — and at the ballot box.

“I didn’t know anything about anything when I started 2½,” Ms. Anderson said in a 1985 interview. “I didn’t know it could not be done. If I knew then what I know now, I would never have had the nerve.”

Whatever doubts she may later have had about passing Proposition 2½ did not extend to its impact. “In five years, everyone is going to admit that this was the best thing that ever happened to Massachusetts,” she said in a 1981 Globe interview.

Figures from the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation suggest the impact of Proposition 2½ was much as Ms. Anderson supposed.

When it was passed, in fiscal year 1981, Massachusetts ranked sixth among all states in the amount of state and local taxes residents paid per $1,000 of personal income. Five years later, in fiscal year 1986, it ranked 14th. By 1990, it had dropped to 36th.

Ms. Anderson’s inveterate optimism was evident in 2002 as she recovered from a fall that left her unconscious for nearly a week. When she regained consciousness, doctors asked what year it was and who was vice president. Having answered both questions correctly, she complained: “Why didn’t they ask me something more difficult, like what’s my name?”

Asked once where her political philosophy originated, Ms. Anderson cited a surprising source, the children’s story “The Little Red Hen.”

“The simple justice of it was so right: If you work for it, you earn it. To a small child who looks for justice in the world that is a great lesson,” she said, adding that whenever she read “Peter Rabbit” she sided with the farmer, Mr. McGregor: “It was his lettuce, and Peter had no business stealing it.”

An only child, Ms. Anderson grew up in St. Mary’s, a small manufacturing town in northwestern Pennsylvania. She was the daughter of Max Horvatin, a hardware store owner, and the former Mary Ann Fodge, a homemaker.

Ms. Anderson attended local parochial schools and very early on demonstrated an intense independence. She was nearly thrown out of the Girls Scouts for refusing to sell cookies. She liked to say, “I think the phrase I heard more than any other in my entire life, from family friends, teachers, and everybody else, was, ‘Barbara, sit down and stop arguing.’ ”

At Penn State, Ms. Anderson further demonstrated an unwillingness to accept dogma, joining both the Newman Club, for Roman Catholic students, and the Young Protestants Club (“to find out what that was all about, too,” as she later put it).

She read the libertarian novelist Ayn Rand, whose novella “Anthem” moved her to tears. As she later said: “Someone had put into writing how I felt about the sacredness of the individual.”

Ms. Anderson dropped out after her sophomore year to marry Jack Crowley. They moved to New Jersey, where Ms. Anderson gave birth to a son, Lance.

After Crowley joined the Navy, the family lived in Florida, California, and Greece. “That was my idea of heaven, being married to a naval officer,” Ms. Anderson would later say.

While in Greece, Ms. Anderson once again demonstrated her iconoclastic bent: She took to wearing a black armband to protest US involvement in Indochina. The couple amicably divorced in 1971.

A year later, Ms. Anderson married Ralph Anderson, a Marblehead contractor.

Inspired by her husband’s opposition to a ballot initiative backing a graduated income tax, Ms. Anderson volunteered to do part-time work at Citizens for Limited Taxation.

She had been spending summers as a lifeguard and swimming teacher at the local YMCA. CLT, which officially became Citizens for Limited Taxation and Government in 1996, has some 6,000 members. At its height, during the 1980s, it had about 15,000 members.

Ms. Anderson and her husband divorced in 1978, the year she went on the CLT payroll. She liked to say it was because of her ex-husband that she acquired her trademark bright-red hair: She chose the color because he disliked it so much. Later, though, she would say her hair was “colored to match my temper.”

Ms. Anderson proved a highly effective spokeswoman for the tax-cutting cause. She kept up a constant schedule of public appearances, giving speeches and debating critics.

Her regular Tuesday afternoon appearances on radio station WRKO, as one of “the governors” with talk-show hosts Jerry Williams and Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr, became an institution during the 1980s and ’90s. She also wrote a weekly column for The Salem Evening News and Lowell Sun.

Her strength lay in her common touch. Braude, who drove to nearly every tax debate with Ms. Anderson, said the difference in their approaches offered a window into her success and impact.

“As someone once said to me, ‘People like you talk billions and abstract policy, which means nothing to real people. Barbara brings everything down to the barbershop level and connects with virtually everyone,’ and she did,” he recalled.

Despite Ms. Anderson’s seemingly all-consuming involvement with politics, she had many interests. She was an eclectic reader and devotee of New Age thinking and astrology. (Her standard response whenever asked if she was a libertarian: “I’m an Aquarian, with Libra rising.”)

In 1999, Ms. Anderson became only the fourth person to receive the Lifetime Taxfighter Award of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. Jarvis was the political activist who helped promote Proposition 13, the 1978 statewide tax-cut initiative in California that helped pave the way for Proposition 2½.

“I was always sort of a rebel,” Ms. Anderson said in 1985. “I always questioned.”

At her request, no services are planned at this time, according to Citizens for Limited Taxation. In addition to her son, Ms. Anderson leaves two grandchildren, Aidan and Mariah, and her partner of 20 years, Chip Ford.

“She was the eternal optimist,” Ford said. “She was always looking for the positive and thought she could accomplish anything. She wanted to do things her way, and she did up to the end.”

About 15 years ago, just after her twin grandchildren were born, Ms. Anderson was diagnosed with a blood disease whose treatment ultimately led to her leukemia, Ford said.

She knew about the risk, he said, but wanted the treatment because she was determined to live long enough so her grandchildren would know her.

“She was thrilled to make it that long,” Ford said. “It was 15 more years than she expected.”

Evan Allen of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com. Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.