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The Sonntag Saga: Eyman wins another game of populist outrage

State Democrats, in going after the state Auditor's budget, were really trying to stick it to Tim Eyman, the initiative king. The over-reach backfired.

It's hard to avoid the obvious: the real target of the Washington Legislature's cut in Auditor Brian Sonntag's budget was not Sonntag himself. It was Tim Eyman, whose Initiative 900 boosted Sonntag's power and budget.

Eyman drives legislative Democrats crazy, but has forged a marriage of convenience with Democrat Sonntag, who coyly plays the initiative guru at arm's length. Now he likes Eyman and his initiatives, now he doesn't — a slippery relationship, but it works.

Cutting the popular state auditor's budget was politics of over-reach. Democrats have a large-enough majority to have their way on nearly any issue, and the Sonntag budget was an excuse to stick their thumbs in Eyman's eye. They indulged themselves and managed to bring down the wrath of Washington editors, who like to throw Eyman a bone whenever possible, to offset their frequent opposition to his ballot measures.

Not smart, as Gov. Chris Gregoire realized and cut a deal with Sonntag. Eyman, meanwhile, gets more talking points in his daily screeds to the media and to the folks who pony up funds to keep him employed. The budget issue is complicated, as Andrew Garber pointed out in the Seattle Times, but the politics is pretty basic. Populist outrage is good politics right now, and Eyman is its master.

As long as he can convincingly play the role of underdog and as long as the state's media accord him celebrity status, Eyman will trump an unpopular Legislature every time. You have to admire his skills, if not his proposals, and the Legislature has now given him publicity and credibility that he will use to take another whack at whatever issue seems likely to rouse the public indignation and fuel his money machine.

The only thing that will ultimately bring Eyman down is the same thing that brought the Legislature down in this little skirmish: over-reach. Just as the Legislature over-reached in its attempt to punish Eyman through Sonntag, temptations to over-reach will face Eyman.

Another really poor initiative like last year's I-985, which was falsely labeled as aligned with Sonntag's audits of the State Department of Transportation, would be an over-reach. Of more significance would be running for statewide office as a Republican; he's already closely aligned with the party, but a partisan race would cause him to lose many Democrats who now support him at least part of the time. That might include Brian Sonntag.

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades. Recipient of a DuPont-Columbia Broadcast Award for documentaries, and a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, he is also a historian and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Washington. He resides in Bellingham and can be reached at floydmckay@comcast.net.


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