Eyman's words haunt him
Seattle Times political reporter
To be brought down by ego and hubris, as Tim Eyman says he was, strong warning signs had to be ignored.
What did he think last fall when he wrote The (Spokane) Spokesman-Review: "Reporters could run front-page stories telling people that I smoke crackpipes and frequent prostitutes, and voters would still support our initiatives."
He told the Oregonian in November that questions about whether he was taking campaign funds as salary were a way for his opponents to test the loyalty of his supporters.
"I kind of like it," Eyman said. "It's like, 'Punch me again.' "
It's like Gary Hart daring reporters to follow him.
It was one week ago that Eyman confessed he had lied for years about taking a salary from his initiative campaigns. After going into seclusion at the urging of supporters, Eyman is to emerge this week to announce what the future holds for the state's most successful initiative sponsor.
But whatever he and his supporters decide, Eyman's image may already be changed forever.
He was the charismatic leader of a grassroots campaign who said he had the financial independence to join the battle on the side of what he called the "unwashed" — and he included himself in that — against "rogue governments" and the state's ruling elite.
But from the hundreds of thousands of dollars he collected in mostly small donations — many that came with adoring notes — he siphoned off more than $200,000 to pay himself a salary and used campaign money for personal expenses, including repairs to his Lexus and Saab.
Both could be done legally. But the admitted lies and the record-keeping machinations he went through to maintain the illusion of sacrifice led the state Public Disclosure Commission to open an investigation last week.
It's impossible to put the smoke of his emotional, overwrought confession back in the chimney.
"He finally realized, 'I'm getting carried away, I'm getting puffed up about myself,' " said Suzanne Karr, Eyman's former treasurer. "Too many guys get to that point, and they never learn power does corrupt."
Eyman has said he's not talking to the media until this week and was unavailable for comment.
He hasn't even talked to his mother.
"Once in awhile he'll bend my ear, but most of the time he solves his own problems," said Delores Eyman, 70, who still lives in Yakima, where Tim was born and raised. "He's got to regroup and figure out where he went wrong.
"There's always good where there is bad."
Eyman's initiatives have been one of the most potent political forces in recent political history in the state. He delivered individual taxpayers their biggest tax cut in years when the state car tax was eliminated.
But his influence extends beyond the laws rewritten and taxes cut by the initiatives. He has changed the way politicians view voters. His name comes up in Olympia as often as any elected leader's. He has been credited and blamed for keeping legislators from raising the gas tax with his threat that he would petition to repeal any increase through a referendum.
Millions of people have voted for his initiatives. And even when a judge threw out his most sweeping measure as unconstitutional on a host of grounds, lawmakers salvaged what they could, supporting a tax cut that many had opposed when it was on the ballot.
Eyman represented a growing discontent — voters unmoved by politicians' warnings of doom if Eyman succeeded.
With Eyman forced to the sidelines, it now may be possible to tell whether he was the tax-cut pied piper or merely had the savvy to know where to stand and cheer on a citizen-propelled movement so it looked as if he was out in front.
Eyman looked at politics with such disdain he wanted his followers to believe he could only watch from afar, nose held, eyes averted.
But there were subtle contradictions. He was a delegate to the National Republican Convention in 2000, a bastion of party regulars. And recently he had begun advising legislators of both parties.
What emerged in the past week was a picture of a young man so caught up in his own cult of personality — he has noted his supporters viewed him as a "Greek God" — that he didn't realize he had become what he was fighting against. The very act of pretending to be above politics made him as political as those he attacked.
When he did notice, he didn't parse words. He confessed to sins of omission and commission and from his heart and from his head. It was shocking in its self-flagellation.
But Eyman knows the power of language. He once said: "You have to overdramatize and flail your arms to break through the fog."
Through five initiative campaigns, Eyman said the issue was never him, it was his ideas.
But his confession has brought the focus clearly on Eyman. He says now that his image as a grassroots populist was so central to his movement's success that he thought he had to lie to maintain the fiction as a man above not just politics, but money.
Eyman is 36. He lives in a spacious house in Mukilteo. He and his wife, Karen, have two young boys.
He makes his living by selling personalized fraternity and sorority watches, marketing them to parents of college students. He was a member of a fraternity at Washington State University, where he graduated with a business degree.
Eyman was not political in school. But he showed some of the drive and marketing skill that would later serve him in business and politics.
He thought up a fund-raising idea that called for him and his frat brothers to run a pepperoni pizza from Pullman to Seattle. But he didn't know whom to raise money for. He just wanted to run the pizza across the state. He eventually settled on giving the donations to the Arthritis Foundation.
Ross Perot's run for president in 1992 was Eyman's political awakening.
But still he wasn't strong on ideology. It was always more about running that pizza over the Cascades than pursuing a philosophy.
He collected signatures to force a King County vote on a baseball stadium.
And in 1997 he was watching C-SPAN when he saw Ward Connerly, the California businessman and university regent who was heading an anti-affirmative-action initiative in that state.
In a 1998 interview Eyman said he had never given much thought to affirmative action. After seeing a newspaper story about an anti-affirmative action lawsuit against the University of Washington, he decided to copy Connerly's approach here.
He first linked up with former state Rep. Scott Smith, a Republican who had been pushing similar measures in the Legislature.
Eyman was quickly able to frame the affirmative-action debate in the simplest terms.
"Either you believe in government preferences or you don't," he said. "What's so darned complicated about that?"
Running the campaign operation was more difficult. Conservative talk-show host John Carlson took over the campaign, and voters approved I-200 in November 1998.
Eyman was already on to another cause. He saw news reports about a Virginia campaign against license taxes and wanted to try the same thing here.
In 1998 he couldn't get enough signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot.
The next year, though, he added a requirement that all future tax increases by local or state government be approved by voters.
In what was to become an Eyman trademark, the issue was framed as an epic battle: "If we fail, politicians will learn that money, threats, lies and scare tactics work and that taxpayers are sheep."
He also had begun to draw class distinctions, pitting the common folks he said were backing him against the state's political elite.
"Now, big business, big labor, politicians, the press don't like 695," he said. "But we, the great unwashed, are the ones who are going to be voting on this, and there are a lot more of us than them."
Voters approved the initiative despite an opposition that outspent Eyman almost seven-fold and that included the most powerful companies in the state.
Eyman's genius is in pushing issues that people outside Olympia are thinking about, Carlson said. "He does have a gift for knowing what bothers people."
And for talking about it in a way that resonates with voters.
"Maybe he isn't Joe Sixpack driving around in a beater car, but he certainly can relate to him," said Sherry Bockwinkel, the sponsor of a 1992 term-limits initiative who runs a Tacoma business that collects signatures for petition drives.
Sometimes, though, accuracy has been a victim of simplicity.
He is loose with numbers and has acted as though details were unimportant if his intentions were good.
In 1999, a review by The Seattle Times of his car-tax measure found his figures questionable.
Last year Eyman backed up his push for an initiative to slow growth of property taxes by claiming people were being "taxed out of their homes."
When pressed, he had no examples, but said, "I am hearing from a lot of people who say, 'Hey, you're on the right track.' "
Eyman has thrived on disdain from the state's elite as well as adoration from supporters.
"People would send him money and say, 'Oh Tim, go get 'em. You're great. You're doing such a wonderful thing,' " Karr said.
Eyman says he had an "addiction" to the spotlight.
"I can't ask people to sympathize, but you have no idea what an overwhelming thing it is to sponsor a successful initiative," he told The Associated Press last week. "Everything about it, I just adore."
Except that it was eating into the time he could spend on his business — and into his profits.
Karr had an idea. She proposed creating a consulting business, Permanent Offense Inc., which would be paid from Eyman's political-action committee, Permanent Offense. Then Eyman, for his work managing the campaigns, could take a salary.
Eyman was conflicted. He didn't want his political work to rob his family of his earning power as well as his time at home — an issue with his wife.
"She does not share his passion," Karr said.
But Eyman had always said he was not making money off his initiatives. He was afraid that if people knew he was profiting it would tarnish his man-of-the-people credentials.
He decided to take the money but lie about it.
Karr wrote him a $45,000 check in late 2000. The next year an additional $157,000 was paid to Eyman's company, money he later said he'd planned to also take as salary.
Karr tried persuading him to go public, saying people would understand. Before he confessed last week, Karr had e-mailed reporters telling them that Eyman had taken a salary from the campaign money.
Until then, Eyman had refused to go public, persisting in what he later described as a charade to maintain moral superiority.
After the I-695 victory and before the lies, Eyman once said he was done with the initiative business.
If he had quit, he would have exited the perfect gentleman political activist. He would have returned to his old life, unchanged by the adulation and ambition that he says led to his undoing.
Eyman's mother, waiting like everyone else to find out what he'll do, said yesterday: "He should have quit when he was ahead."
David Postman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-943-9882. Times reporter Ralph Thomas contributed to this report.