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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Taking the Initiative Too Far?

A Washington state man has been labeled a horse's hindquarters for bringing messy California-style tax reform north. Taxpayers love him.

April 22, 2003|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — The most feared man in Washington state politics may be a giggling, pasty-faced watch salesman who's about to take himself on another ride.

"Hoo-ha!" he likes to say. "This is Tim Eyman!"

In four short years, the man known around these parts as the initiative king has risen from suburban obscurity to become the Moses of the tax-burdened masses.

He has led four popular anti-tax initiatives, is leading a fifth, and has attracted a large and devout following in the state's fields and farmlands. His name, pronounced "eye'mun," is uttered with either near-reverence or disdain. People love him or hate him, and lately the haters -- also large in number and most of them in the more liberal Puget Sound -- have started a new offensive.

They've called him everything from a pig to the antichrist, blaming him for stirring up the electorate and creating a fiscal mess in Olympia. One critic launched a counter-initiative declaring Eyman "a horse's ass." Legislators from both parties would like to send him back, muffled, to the sleepy little 'burb from whence he came.

The debate over citizen initiatives rumbles in nearly all 24 states that allow them. Depending on whom you ask, initiatives wreak havoc or bring electoral justice, make governance impossible or give voice to the voiceless.

California, where initiatives have been called the fourth branch of government, is often held up as a worst-case model. A Washington state senator, Ken Jacobsen (D-Seattle), wants to ban initiatives altogether, claiming that initiative fever is a "virus from California making its way north" on Interstate 5 and that Eyman is the de facto carrier.

There's truth to the statement. Eyman's hero and inspiration is Ward Connerly, the black businessman who, in 1996, led the California initiative banning affirmative action. Eyman, following Connerly's footsteps, helped collect signatures for Washington's version of Proposition 209, which passed a few years later.

So will the Evergreen State catch the Golden State virus?

The answer might depend on the fate of the man who's been called Washington's "shadow governor," the 37-year-old, blond-haired, blue-eyed Eyman, who fancies himself a "conservative populist," and who at the moment is racing down I-5 in his Ford pickup to meet with a supporter.

Not one to waste a 40-minute commute, Eyman wants to take this opportunity to talk about his take on things, and to reassure his critics that he will continue to annoy them.

"Hooo-hah!" he says.

*

The truck weaves among traffic. A collector of speeding tickets, Eyman drives as fast as he talks. He goes nonstop, without periods or pauses, without, it seems, taking a breath. He's mastered the art of soliloquy, segmented only by his own giggling.

"Am I a wack job?" he asks, driving with the left hand and gesticulating with the right, his head snapping front-to-side like someone watching a game of pingpong. "I might be, but it's irrelevant because the ideas speak for themselves. I think I'm pretty normal, a Type A personality. A double-A? Yeah, maybe a double-A personality. Ha!"

His manner is playful, sassy, and completely at ease with its own quirks. On this day, he is covered neck-to-ankle in blue denim. His lanky 6-foot-2 frame, curled into the driver's seat, cuts a fine figure when suited up and silhouetted against a spotlight. Eyman adores the spotlight.

Part of his charm lies in his constant, almost compulsive, self-deprecation:

"I'm just a pasty-faced white guy."

"I'm no reader by any stretch."

"People couldn't care less about Tim Eyman's psyche!"

Eyman was a ringleader in his fraternity, Delta Tau Delta, at Washington State University. Since graduating with a business degree in 1988, he's remained connected to frat life, making a living by selling personalized, Greek-engraved watches to fraternity and sorority members. He does it all by mail-order, out of his garage.

He lives in a spacious house, bought five years ago for $433,000 at Harbour Pointe Golf Club in the waterfront community of Mukilteo, just north of Seattle. Besides his Ford pickup, he drives a late-model Lexus SUV, and his wife, Kathy, drives a shiny Saab sedan. They have two boys, both adopted, and are about to adopt a third.

He might have gone on to live a quiet lifestyle had it not been for a C-SPAN show featuring Connerly, who at the time was pushing Proposition 209. The show, Eyman says, changed his life. It drove home the idea that a man could go against powerful forces and win. It was a TV epiphany: the spark that fed the flame that became a populist bonfire.

In the beginning, the flame needed direction. The idea of an initiative on car-tab fees, as registration fees are known here, came to him after reading a newspaper article on Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, who in 1998 swept into office with a three-word slogan: "No Car Tax."

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