OLYMPIA, Wash. — Initiative promoter Tim Eyman’s solid loss on an anti-tax measure — a topic that’s delivered his biggest successes over the years — is sure to ignite another round of political obituaries for the state’s top ballot-box activist.
The reality is, Eyman may never go away.
While Washington voters have increasingly handed the controls of state government to Democrats in recent years, they’ve also kept Eyman hanging around as a counterweight, granting him periodic victories that frustrate the establishment’s agenda.
In fact, it seems almost odd to say this, considering his roots as a populist outsider and noisy contrarian. But Eyman’s Mukilteo direct-democracy factory is now simply part of Washington state’s political routine.
He’ll inevitably chalk up some losses, sometimes failing to qualify for the ballot at all. But eventually, Eyman and Co. hit upon an idea that resonates with independent voters and gives government fits.
“We’re kind of like rain in Seattle,” Eyman said Wednesday. “You might not like it, but you might as well get used to it, because we’re not going anywhere.”
Make no mistake, this year’s loss was something unusual. It’s not often that Eyman misreads the electorate’s appetite for his bread and butter, an anti-tax initiative.
But he clearly overreached with Initiative 1033, which would have slapped growth caps on state, county and city checking accounts while doling out property tax cuts and putting any tax hikes on the ballot.
As anti-Eyman activist Andrew Villeneuve happily pointed out on Election Night, I-1033 was Eyman’s first loss on an anti-tax initiative, his first defeat in an off-year election, and the first time he’s lost at the ballot two years in a row.
But nevertheless, Villeneuve concluded, “This victory does not mean an end to Tim Eyman.”
“I don’t think he’s going anywhere,” agreed Scott Whiteaker, spokesman for the successful No on I-1033 campaign.
I-1033 seemed like a promising plan for Eyman, who organized the measure with his regular Spokane partners, Jack and Mike Fagan.
As a smaller-government project wrapped in the promise of reduced property taxes, it could have been well-positioned to win among voters who have seen home values plummet while hearing politicians float tax hikes as a possible salve for service cuts.
Several weeks from Election Day, both camps had polls showing I-1033 with a significant lead. But as of Wednesday evening, I-1033 was losing by a margin of about 56 percent to 44 percent.
The swift turnaround was fueled by an extremely well-financed opposition campaign, which put about $3.5 million into TV ads, direct mail, and more. Public-sector unions made major contributions, joined by big names in business, including Microsoft Corp. and its co-founder, Bill Gates.
But political analysts also were pointing to the negative reaction I-1033 garnered from local governments, which are much closer to voters’ everyday lives and perhaps harder to malign than the bureaucrats and politicians in Olympia or Washington, D.C.
“There’s a lot of folks around the state who, while they very much disapprove of the overspending on the federal and state levels, have a better opinion of their county government and their city government,” said state Republican Party Chairman Luke Esser, whose group endorsed I-1033.
Indeed, that seemed like a likely explanation for I-1033’s losses in some strongly conservative areas of Eastern Washington, including Yakima County and virtually the entire southeastern corner of the state.
“When you have locally elected officials that people know and trust saying, ‘Look, this is actually going to be pretty devastating,’ and they can’t be branded as tax-and-spend liberals, I think that really says something,” said Whiteaker, the No on I-1033 spokesman.
For his part, Eyman was chagrined by the loss, but not necessarily downcast. He was focused on the fact that I-1033 was still pulling in hundreds of thousands of yes votes, despite a typically shoestring general election campaign that focused on free media exposure. That tally should serve as a warning to the Legislature, he said, that voters aren’t necessarily ready for higher taxes.
Oh, and about next year? Eyman was already promising to take the lessons of I-1033’s defeat to heart as he starts laying the groundwork for his next measure.
“The next initiative that we’ll do is going to address the state government only, and it’s going to try and say, ‘Hey guys, don’t even think about raising taxes,”’ he said.