Although far too much publicity has gone Tim Eyman’s way already, it’s time to make a clear-eyed assessment of his reach for the governor’s chair.
In an election, that is.
Eyman’s caught-on-camera caper at Office Depot aside, the biggest surprise of his recent career is that he waited this long to seek office. The ballot-initiative entrepreneur has longstanding name recognition and a nose for contorting practically any media attention to his benefit.
A few short weeks ago, his political obituary seemed near. Initiative 976 opponents said preelection polls showed his $30 car tab initiative could lose. The threat loomed of serious political sanctions for routing campaign-fund kickbacks into his own pocket.
Instead, Eyman showed up at the November board meeting for Sound Transit, the target he aimed I-976 to strike. In one of his familiar garish T-shirts, he crowed, “You lost big” at agency leaders. Then he announced a gubernatorial run.
One Eyman nemesis saw this coming from quite a distance.
“If Tim Eyman ran for governor, I think he could win,” Seattle attorney Tom Ahearne told the Los Angeles Times — in 2003.
Ahearne has successfully persuaded courts several times that Eyman anti-tax initiatives weren’t up to constitutional snuff. His 16-year-old assessment still holds.
“I think that’s especially true now,” Ahearne recently told me, “given how we see the divisiveness in our politics and the tribalization of people who hate government versus the people who want government to do something good for the country, or in our case for the state.
“He has a populist-sounding message that is appealing to the people who are fed up with government.”
Washington’s top-two primary system might even be his best friend.
No matter how many votes Gov. Jay Inslee gets in the August primary; the next-highest total puts a second candidate onto the November ballot. If that’s Eyman, he’ll be legitimized by proximity. His mile-a-minute tax-phobic shilling will draw as much coverage as Inslee’s argument a prosperous state should retain his leadership.
Eyman works the same hard-conservative, anti-Seattle lane as announced Republican candidate Sen. Phil Fortunato of Auburn. But Eyman has politicked statewide, campaigning for 17 initiatives.
Even without party support, Eyman figures to be formidable at least up to the primary. Consider the trajectory President Donald Trump took to subsume national politics.
Eyman has strong name recognition and a long list of foibles that would disqualify most other candidates. Courts have found twice that Eyman was self-dealing thousands of dollars from campaign funds. He also settled that chair-theft charge. The “No on 976” advertisements invoked his name as a campaign boogeyman, just as Sound Transit did back in 2016.
Eyman is running for an executive-office government job but has absolutely no relevant experience to show he can perform it. In an hourlong news conference in the Secretary of State’s lobby in Olympia — it’s a public space anyone can access — Eyman ducked policy questions repeatedly. He’s a single-issue candidate, repeating a mantra to roadblock taxes.
Eyman has wielded this anti-tax cudgel via initiatives, revealing his constituency and his limitations. Of the 17 Eyman initiatives that made state ballots, 11 won. All but two limited government taxes and fees. Courts ruled against every one of these money measures, including issuing an injunction against I-976 last month.
Eyman’s repeated failures to write tax legislation that can pass constitutional muster, and to ethically and openly handle campaign money, show problems with trusting him to run Washington’s government. Voters ought to be extremely skeptical he can deliver on much of anything he says, no matter how much he talks.
However, his easy-money claims might score points with fresh listeners. Many first-time Washington voters in 2020 will be transplants unfamiliar with the carnage of his ballot-initiative bomb-throwing.
Ahearne knows a thing or two about Washington’s governance. He’s the attorney who won the McCleary lawsuit to force more state education funding. So I asked one more question: How destructive would Eyman be?
“I think he would be very destructive,” Ahearne said. “The tragedy of this is that kind of approach to just burn the place down, ‘Everyone who disagrees with me is evil,’ doesn’t lead to productive solutions. It just leads to more tribalization and breaking us apart and separating us as a state.”
The politics of division didn’t need any more help. Here comes Eyman anyway.