Tim Eyman: despised by the left and loving it

Tim Eyman has the worst press of any political figure in Washington. When he loses, he's in the spotlight; when he wins, he gets no respect.

Look how The Times and P-I played it when the jail guards' initiative to shrink the King County Council was ordered off the ballot. Eyman was an adviser to that initiative. For him, the ruling was a loss, and both papers said so. The Times had Eyman's name in the first paragraph and the P-I in the second. The P-I's account jabbed Eyman for "promoting ballot measures that violate the state constitution."

When the Washington Supreme Court ruled in Eyman's favor, both Seattle dailies covered the story without mentioning his name.

Was it an intentional slight? Probably not. The reaction to Eyman by the liberals who run my industry and this town is visceral. When his initiative is declared unconstitutional, it seems more like news.

Admit that Eyman has lost some. But consider his successes:

• In 1998, a state initiative to ban racial preferences and led by John Carlson was passed with 58 percent of the vote. The initiative had been filed by Eyman.

• In 1999, Eyman's initiative for $30 car tabs won 56 percent of the vote. It was thrown out by a court but largely put into effect by the Legislature.

• In 2001, Eyman's initiative to put a 1-percent cap on property-tax revenues won 58 percent of the vote. It is now in effect.

• In 2002, 52 percent of state voters approved an Eyman initiative to repeal Sound Transit's car-tab tax. A judge ruled that it had two subjects, making it unconstitutional. The matter is now at the Washington Supreme Court, which will rule soon, perhaps tomorrow. Meanwhile, a congressman from Oklahoma holds up $400 million for Sound Transit's light-rail project. His reason: Eyman's initiative.

• In 2003, came the state budget. It was the work of legislators, the governor and the business lobby, not Eyman. But in the background was Eyman's threat to challenge any tax increase. Sen. Adam Kline, a left-leaning Seattle Democrat who wanted to make up the deficit with tax increases, said at session's end that the budget "panders to a certain Pied Piper from Mukilteo."

The left despises Eyman. They resent that he is a populist of the right, because they don't think there should be any populists on the right. They insinuated that his motive for cutting the car-tab tax was that he drove a Lexus. (Now, he drives a Ford.) They charged he was filing voter initiatives not because he believed in his cause, but only to make a profit.

I've heard fishermen claim that Greenpeace was motivated by profit. The charge against Eyman is as ridiculous as that.

Eyman is in politics because he believes in his cause and loves the fight. He has a caffeine willingness to be outrageous and an impish skill at getting a goat. "I take a mischievous glee in being the greatest thorn in the side of people who desperately need to be humbled," he says.

They fire back at him, knowing that by the liberals' rules of engagement he is unprotected. Sen. Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, compared him to a terrorist; Sen. Pat Hale, R-Pasco, compared him to a pig; and Metropolitan King County Councilwoman Cynthia Sullivan called him "the state's most infamous political liar."

What is Eyman after? Sam Gompers, the founder of the American Federation of Labor, was once asked what labor was after. He answered in a word: "More." Looking at taxes, Eyman might also answer in a word: "Less."

Opponents reply, "You can't just keep cutting and cutting, all the way to zero." Well, look at your sales-tax receipts. Look at your property tax. Are they approaching zero?

Like Gompers, Eyman is championing one interest within a system. It is a selfish interest, but so are the others.

I once heard a law professor call Eyman an anarchist. Eyman is not that theoretical, but there is consistency in him. His first venture in politics was to stop the construction of Safeco Field after the voters had rejected it. Says Eyman: "All the initiatives we've done have been some kind of limit on governmental power."

The next one, he says, will be a cut in the property tax. Stay tuned for the outrage.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com