Eyman bashers tacitly concede his ideas are popular

The News Tribune


Olympia, WA - Tim Eyman has long been fortunate in his opponents, who have become so obsessed with the Merry Prankster of the anti-tax initiative that they can't think straight. There's just something about the guy that provokes an overreaction.

Most recently, as reported in The News Tribune, representatives of a public employees union phoned a warning to Pierce County residents that initiative signature gatherers might be identity thieves in disguise. To bolster their credibility, the warnings came from a representative of the Washington State Council of Police Chiefs and Sheriffs, a group that ought to know better.

(Presumably, they had fewer worries a few years ago when they backed a successful million-dollar initiative campaign to give police officers and firefighters more control of their pension system.)

Such bone-headed tactics magnify Eyman's clout. Remember Gary Larson's "Far Side" comic, featuring a deer with the "bummer of a birthmark" target-shaped pattern on his fur? Eyman moves through the political forest with a target on his forehead, rarely surfacing without drawing fire. For him, though, it' s a boon, not a bummer, guaranteeing him an endless loop of media attention. And the unions continue to play into his hands.

Americans historically back the underdog, the populist champion battling entrenched power. From William Henry Harrison's Log Cabin campaign to the rolled-up shirtsleeves of Howard Dean, an appeal to the "outs" has been a fixture in American politics, often waged without irony by scions of wealthy families. The current presidential race features a pair of blue-denimed bluebloods, candidates with patrician pedigrees and Ivy League college degrees, each casting himself as the hero of the common man.

In this state, voters worship at the populist altar with fundamentalist fervor. Example: When Gary Locke vetoed the Cajun primary, erasing the option that most resembled our blanket primary, the outcry could not have been more vocal had he repealed the Bill of Rights.

Locke's veto put in place a responsible alternative, yet strident populists - and that end of the spectrum is dangerously overcrowded - condemned him as a Tool of the Party Bosses. (Odd capitalization is a movement staple.)

Eyman's opponents have also tried to tarnish his image by claiming he's a false prophet motivated by real profits, a populist pretender who lines his pockets with campaign contributions. With his recent announcement that he would be paying himself $3,100 a week through the signature-gathering phase of one of his two property tax campaigns - a plan to expand nontribal gambling and use the increase in gambling taxes to cut property taxes - Eyman again made the news and editorial pages.

His supporters surely don't mind; they've rallied around his flag before, even after he lied about taking money for his efforts.

When I asked him how he picked $3,100, he said it was arbitrary but seemed about right. Although Eyman is one of a kind, $3,100 a week for a part-time job (he does have that other initiative) is a lot of money. Yet the contributions are freely given, and he runs a low-overhead operation - no big media budget, staff of communications experts or pollsters.

Unlike others in the business, he has become a brand: People talk about Eyman initiatives the way they do Chevy trucks (love them or hate them). "Being an 'Eyman tax-cutting initiative' has a cachet to it," he says. "My ideas happen to be ones voters like," he argues, so there's no need to spend a lot of money on market research or promotion, which presumably leaves more for, well, him. It's true: His campaigns, which rely little on media or marketing, are routinely outspent by the opponents.

Eyman Inc. is the contemporary culmination of a process designed by rebels to get around the often-frustrating pattern of gridlock and compromise associated with representative government. Unlike today's other bypass artists, who at least nod to the legislative process as they go by, Eyman crashes the civic tea party like a hyperactive teenager, rejoicing in the broken china he leaves in his wake.

For all that, many Washington voters find him more credible than his opponents. When he's the target, he wins. By attacking him, rather than the initiatives, his critics concede the popularity of his ideas and their lack of a better alternative.

Richard S. Davis, president of the Washington Research Council, writes for this page every other Wednesday. His columns do not necessarily reflect the views of the council. Write Davis at rsdavis@researchcouncil.org or Washington Research Council, 108 S. Washington St., Suite 406, Seattle, WA 98104-3408.



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