Who is Tim Eyman and why do so many people hate him?

Accused of dishonest dealings and mired in debt, the frequent sponsor of anti-tax ballot measures says he wants to take on a new role in Washington state politics.

Tim Eyman

Tim Eyman, right, is shown at an election night party in Bellevue on Nov. 5, 2019. His daughter, Riley, is at left. Eyman has been celebrating the passage of his latest ballot measure, I-976, which is designed to cut annual vehicle-registration fees in Washington state to a flat $30. (Jason Redmond for Crosscut). 

Tim Eyman always knows how to attract the cameras. The conservative, anti-tax activist has been sponsoring ballot measures in Washington state for the past two decades, often showing up in brightly colored shirts — or even in costume — to promote his initiatives. 

In 2005, Eyman donned a gorilla suit as he dropped off signatures supporting one of his ballot measures, a move that even he called "a little cheap stunt" to get attention. The next year, he attended a news conference dressed as Darth Vader from Star Wars.

Now, the former watch salesman says he's planning to adopt an entirely different character: that of gubernatorial candidate. 

Or so he announced during a busy Sound Transit board meeting Thursday. Quickly, Eyman found himself in familiar territory, surrounded by reporters asking about his plans.

It’s not clear whether Eyman’s campaign announcement is just another one of his stunts, or something he truly plans to pursue. Though the serial initiative promoter filed campaign fundraising paperwork Monday, if he is to actually appear as a candidate for governor on the 2020 ballot, he’ll have to file an official declaration of candidacy in the spring.

While Eyman, who identifies as an independent, says he’s running a real campaign, others aren’t so sure.

“It’s Tim — so you don’t know if it’s a stunt, or publicity, or what it is,” said Cary Condotta, a former Republican legislator who has supported several of Eyman's ballot measures in the past.

Condotta said he suspects Eyman’s campaign announcement is a way to get “money and attention,” the two things he said the brash activist thrives on the most.

Eyman’s manipulation of the media has been a key component of his persona for 21 years, something any reporter covering him knows and must guard against.

I knew that when I sat down to interview him about two weeks ago in Bellevue, in the common area of the building where he now rents a condominium after he filed for bankruptcy and divorce.

Over the course of our two-hour conversation — and many follow-up phone calls, emails and text messages — Eyman proclaimed his main goal in politics is to keep sponsoring initiatives he thinks will help save taxpayers money and rein in government. Running for office, supposedly, wasn't on the 53-year-old's radar — something he has said repeatedly over the years, and told a group of reporters only a few days before our in-person interview.

Eyman’s sudden announcement of his gubernatorial ambitions comes as Seattle, King County and others go to court to try to overturn his latest statewide initiative, I-976, which was approved by 53% of Washington voters earlier this month. On Tuesday, a hearing is scheduled on whether a judge should temporarily halt the initiative’s implementation while a legal challenge plays out. 

The initiative would cut state and local car tab fees to a flat $30, stripping state and local government agencies of about $4 billion in revenue for transportation and transit needs over the next six years. Seattle, King County and the other plaintiffs in the case insist the measure is unconstitutional on several fronts. 

This story was supposed to be about the history of initiatives Eyman has run in Washington state, their lasting influence and why so many people — especially in Seattle’s progressive circles — hate him for those things.

I told Eyman as much when I first contacted him for this piece in the days after the Nov. 5 election, asking for an interview.

What this story never was supposed to be about: profiling a serious candidate for public office — something Eyman still may or may not actually be.

“He's playing you guys," Condotta said. "Frankly, he's playing all of us."

Tim Eyman, looking taxed
Initiative activist Tim Eyman appears in Thurston County Superior Court, Feb. 22, 2019, in Olympia. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

Success at the ballot box, if not in court

Since sponsoring his first ballot measure in 1998, Eyman has found repeated success with voters, even as he has run afoul of campaign finance regulators and the law.

All told, 17 of Eyman’s initiatives have attracted enough signatures to get on the ballot in the past 21 years. Voters have rejected six of them. 

Repeatedly, though, the effects of Eyman’s winning ballot measures have been curtailed by judges who have found them legally unsound. Of the 10 Eyman initiatives that voters approved before I-976, eight were thrown out or partly blocked by the courts. Only two — 2005’s Initiative 900, requiring performance audits of government agencies, and Initiative 200, a 1998 measure banning affirmative action in government programs — have been unaffected by legal challenges.

“The No. 1 thing Tim Eyman has shown me is how to write an unconstitutional initiative,” said state Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, recently chosen by her colleagues to become the next speaker of the House. “Honestly, if you look at his record, that’s what he has been most successful at.”

Some high-profile court proceedings have focused on Eyman himself, not just the validity of his initiatives. In 2002, Eyman paid $42,000 to settle a case brought by the state attorney general’s office. State officials alleged Eyman secretly siphoned money from his political committee to pay himself without properly reporting those payments. While Eyman admitted lying to the press, he and his lawyers insisted through the end that the state had no case.

As part of the 2002 settlement, Eyman was hit with a lifetime ban on serving as a treasurer of a political committee or controlling a political committee’s finances.

The past year has brought a new level of legal trouble for Eyman. He was charged with misdemeanor theft in February, after being captured on surveillance video taking a chair from an Office Depot in Lacey. 

In July, authorities agreed they would drop the theft charge if Eyman avoids criminal actions and doesn’t return to the Lacey Office Depot for nine months. Eyman didn't admit guilt as part of the settlement.

Meanwhile, Eyman remains embroiled in yet another yearslong campaign-finance lawsuit, one that even he admits could derail his career of raising money for initiatives. 

Right now, Eyman is in contempt of court for failing to turn over information in a civil case brought by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson. Similar to the 2002 case, Ferguson has accused Eyman of enriching himself with donations meant to support initiative campaigns.

If a judge rules against Eyman, the initiative promoter could be forced to pay more than $3 million in penalties and be banned from any involvement in the finances of political committees for the rest of his life. That’s a broader and more severe penalty than the more narrow ban he agreed to 17 years ago.

In the middle of it all, Eyman filed for bankruptcy last year, citing the financial burdens associated with his legal case, which he said also put a strain on his marriage and contributed to his filing for divorce in May.

Yet Eyman has been in high spirits this fall, at least outwardly. With I-976, he scored his first win at the ballot box in four years, even though business interests, labor unions and other groups spent more than $4 million to try to defeat the initiative.

“I think he was on the ropes, and punched himself back into contention with I-976,” said John Carlson, a conservative morning talk show host who ran three statewide initiative campaigns in the 1990s.

I-976 marks the third time Eyman has successfully passed a measure to limit car-tab fees. Voters approved Eyman’s first $30-car-tab measure in 1999, then passed another version of the idea in 2002.

Eyman’s political history similarly came full circle this month with the failure of Referendum 88, which would have lifted I-200’s ban on affirmative action in government programs. I-200 was the first initiative Eyman ever sponsored. It prohibited race, gender or ethnicity from being considered as factors in public hiring, contracting and public university admissions.

Carlson, who headed up the statewide initiative campaign for I-200 in 1998, said Eyman has been able to tap into Washington voters’ fiscally conservative streak, which he said “is rooted in a healthy skepticism of government.”

“Usually, when there is tax relief, it is for special interests,” said Carlson, who periodically writes guest opinion columns for Crosscut. “Tim Eyman told taxpayers at large, ‘You’re my special interest, and I want tax relief for you.’ And he doesn’t always win. But sometimes he does, when people think that his proposal is reasonable.”

That success has continually frustrated liberals, many of whom say Eyman’s tax-restricting initiatives hurt vulnerable people who rely on government services — especially transit — to go about their daily lives.

A few of those critics confronted Eyman this month, when he showed up at Seattle City Hall to crash a press conference where city officials were announcing their lawsuit against I-976. 

“It’s [causing] harm for me and other folks who are transit dependent,” disability rights advocate Anna Zivarts told Eyman, in an exchange caught on video by journalists from KING 5  and KIRO Radio. “It’s disabled folks, it’s low-income folks, it’s folks of color, it’s our immigrant communities. We’re the ones who are suffering with this.”

In response, Eyman calmly replied that, once again, the voters had spoken.

Tim Eyman, talking in front of cameras
Tim Eyman speaks with reporters after hearing that a judge had struck down his latest tax-limiting measure, Jan. 21, 2016, in Olympia. The decision found, among other problems, that the measure was a thinly disguised effort to pass a constitutional amendment — which can't be done by initiative in Washington. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

‘The lobbying power’ of Eyman’s initiatives

Eyman was still riding high from his I-976 triumph when we met the week after the election. Sitting across a coffee table from me, in a room with windows overlooking a busy street in downtown Bellevue, he often waxed philosophical, punctuating his speech with emphatic gestures.

“Initiatives have two kinds of power,” Eyman said. “They have the power to create a law that forces elected officials to do something they'd rather not do. There's also the lobbying power that they have — the power of the vote itself.”

There’s some truth to that. Twice — once in 2000 and again in 2007 — state lawmakers have enacted versions of Eyman’s tax-limiting initiatives on their own, despite the original measures being invalidated by the state Supreme Court.

To some progressives, reflecting on that history is maddening.

“The big blows he wants to strike against taxes and all the things that they fund, he ends up losing in the courts — but the Legislature comes and saves him. And it’s just mind-boggling,” said Robert Cruickshank, a Democrat from Seattle who serves as the president of Washington’s Paramount Duty, which advocates progressive tax measures to pay for education.

State Rep. Gael Tarleton, a Seattle Democrat who chairs the House Finance Committee, which deals with tax policy, said the impact of Eyman’s tax measures on government officials “has been profound” over the years. 

“Those of us in elected office, we are contending with it all the time,” Tarleton said. That means not only having to scramble to find revenue to pay for government programs, she said, but also knowing that Eyman may be waiting in the wings to file an initiative aimed at overturning any tax measures that lawmakers enact. 

Particularly frustrating to some government officials is a law establishing a 1% cap on property tax growth from year to year. The 1% cap was originally part of an Eyman initiative that voters approved in 2001. But legislators enacted the policy of their own accord six years later, after the initiative was struck down.

For local officials, the cap has resulted in a struggle to find money to keep up with the basics of government operations, such as paying for road maintenance and police, said former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn. Local officials say the cap means they can’t even keep up with the cost of inflation without having to ask voters for more money.

“It’s your parks, libraries, police, fire, streets and human services. It’s everything a city does,” said McGinn, who was in office from 2010 to 2014.

Eyman is not particularly sympathetic to those tales of woe, particularly when they come from officials in Seattle or King County. Nor does he mind being loathed by government officials and some slices of the statewide electorate, he said.

In fact, he said, it’s become part of his strategy.

“Your job as an initiative sponsor is to just take all the slings and arrows — to be the lightning rod to just take all the crap,” Eyman said. “Because if they're unloading on you, you're able to easily highlight the fact that, look, they don't have any really valid arguments against our initiative.”

He goes on. “The power of being hated is really, really strong. And you've got to learn to just love the hate ... because that's the role of an initiative activist. It’s not to be well-liked, or to be well-respected. It’s just to, you know, get your measures out there on the ballot, so that the voters have a chance to vote on it.”

Tim Eyman, dressed as Darth Vader, holding a plastic light saber
Tim Eyman, center, dressed as Darth Vader when he delivered boxes of petition signatures to the Washington State Elections Office in Olympia for an earlier initiative he sponsored for $30 car tabs, June 5, 2006. (John Froschauer/AP)

From watch salesman to initiative pusher

Eyman is happy to explain how he got into the initiative business in the first place. In the 1990s, he was living in Seattle’s Green Lake neighborhood, running a mail-order watch business out of his home, he said. After attending Washington State University and serving as social chairman of his fraternity, Delta Tau Delta, he developed a niche selling watches emblazoned with fraternities’ letters and coats of arms.

He was focused on his watch-selling business when he got swept up in the popular outrage over the Mariners stadium deal in the mid-1990s, he said. 

Eyman said he attended a public meeting where he was inspired by KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross, a left-leaning talk show host who would later run for the U.S. House as a Democrat.

“Dave Ross, of all people, was one of the speakers, and said, ‘If we're going to spend this much money, we should let the voters decide,’ ” Eyman recalled. “And it was like, ‘Oh my God, that's so powerful.’ ”

Eyman, who later would make “Let the Voters Decide” one of his recurring catchphrases, said he went to Green Lake with a cardboard sign bearing that message. In his first day of political activism, he gathered about 100 signatures for an effort to put the stadium deal to a public vote, he said.

Ultimately, King County voters rejected new taxes to pay for the Mariners stadium, only to have the Legislature call a special session granting local officials the authority to impose taxes to build the stadium anyway.

“They overruled what the voters did,” Eyman said. “That was kind of my baptism of fire.” After that, Eyman closely watched California’s passage of Proposition 209 in 1996, which banned affirmative-action in state programs there. He wanted to see a similar law adopted in Washington state, leading him to sponsor I-200. 

Over the next few years, as his first initiatives to lower car-tab fees and cap property-tax increases won public support, Eyman began shifting his focus away from his home business and toward politics, he said.

“The more I fell in love with the political stuff, the less time I spent on the watch stuff,” Eyman said. 

At the time, however, he wasn’t being honest about how he was making a living. He repeatedly denied that he was being paid for his political work, something he now calls “the biggest lie of his life.”

David Ammons, a former Associated Press state Capitol correspondent, recalls receiving a phone call from a tearful Eyman on a Sunday night in 2002, in which Eyman confessed the ongoing deception. The fallout led to Eyman’s settlement with the state attorney general later that year.

“Up until that moment, he had been presenting himself as the average little-man-type advocate, and that he was doing this on a shoestring,” said Ammons, an AP reporter in Olympia from 1971 to 2008. “That was sort of his schtick — that he was unpaid, doing it out of the goodness of his heart to try to rein in state government and so forth. This kind of blew up his entire image.”

Looking back, Eyman says he shouldn’t have lied. 

“You always ask yourself, ‘Why do you do stupid things?’” Eyman reflected during our Nov. 13 meeting at his Bellevue condominium building. “I do stupid things all the time, like anybody else. Mine are just more dramatic and, you know, more flashy.”

Tim Eyman stands at a reception desk next to a man paying a $5 filing fee
Tim Eyman stands at the reception desk at the Secretary of State's Office, while Mike Fagan, left, pays a $5 filing fee, and Jack Fagan, third from left, looks on, as they file an initiative that requires a two-thirds supermajority for the Legislature to raise taxes, Jan. 10, 2011, at the Capitol in Olympia. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

‘His money is drying up’

That wasn’t the end of Eyman, however. He went on to sponsor other successful ballot measures, including I-900, the 2005 initiative to require performance audits of government agencies. That measure remains in effect today, avoiding the legal challenges that have plagued nearly all of Eyman’s other initiatives. 

After that, Eyman attracted support from business interests and some wealthy donors. Lately, though, he has had fewer backers, especially after one of his key supporters, Woodinville investment adviser Michael Dunmire, died in 2014.

Eyman said Dunmire was bankrolling his initiative campaigns from about 2005 to 2009. After that, “2010 onward was Tim doing second mortgages on his house, and crazy crap," Eyman said.

Soon, Eyman entered what he calls “scandal, Phase 2.” In 2012, the state's campaign finance watchdog, the Public Disclosure Commission, received a complaint about Eyman and two of his political committees. An investigation led to Ferguson filing the ongoing campaign-finance lawsuit, which accuses Eyman of receiving illegal kickback payments and misusing campaign funds.

Over the past few years, Eyman has qualified far fewer measures for the ballot than he did earlier in his career. Between 2014 and 2018, his only ballot measure to go to voters was 2015’s I-1366, which was intended to pressure state lawmakers to advance a constitutional amendment that would make it harder for them to raise taxes. If lawmakers didn’t follow through, the initiative said, the state’s sales tax revenues would be cut by 1 percentage point, causing a hit to the state budget.

The measure passed, but the state Supreme Court threw it out in 2016, saying it violated the state constitution's rule limiting ballot measures to a single subject. Some of Eyman’s past initiatives had been tossed on similar grounds.

Increasingly, some conservatives who supported Eyman’s previous ballot measures have decided it is time to go a different direction, said Condotta, the former Republican state lawmaker, who hails from East Wenatchee. In the past year or so, Condotta has helped form another group, Restore Washington, to support right-leaning initiatives.

Condotta said he appreciates and respects Eyman’s early work, and also likes him as a person. "He is really personable," Condotta said.

Yet he thinks in recent years, Eyman’s initiatives “became a business and it became an income stream” for him, instead of being primarily about passing good, legally sound policy.

“I think he has really reached the end of his credibility, in terms of you can only fail so many times,” Condotta said Friday. “And he’s had a lot of failures and ballot measures overturned, and all these gimmicks that didn’t fly. You reach a point where people start to second guess the whole thing.”

Condotta wonders if Eyman's announcement of gubernatorial run is part of a new, desperate effort to fundraise. 

“His money is drying up. I think he had to do something pretty drastic to get some income, and this is it,” Condotta said. 

“Running for governor, you can spend a lot of money on stuff, because you can go anywhere and do anything, and reimburse yourself with campaign funds,” Condotta added.

McGinn, the former Seattle mayor, shares those suspicions. 

“It puts him in the spotlight, and he can fundraise around the campaign,” McGinn said Friday. “And, under the state’s campaign finance laws, he is entitled to use the extra money to replace lost income.”

While the state requires candidates to provide documentation of income lost while campaigning, it sets no limit on how much money candidates can take from campaign funds to replace their lost earnings.

For his part, Eyman denies that moneymaking has anything to do with his political aspirations.

“If I’m in it for the money, I’m really, really bad at it,” Eyman said Friday, noting he recently drained some of his retirement accounts to loan $500,000 to the I-976 campaign.

Yet a review of Eyman’s bankruptcy file reveals a flurry of court activity in the days leading up to his decision to announce his campaign for governor. 

The same day Eyman announced his intention to run, the state Attorney General’s Office submitted a plan to the bankruptcy court, asking that Eyman pay $20,000 a month to satisfy some of his debts. According to the court filing, Eyman owes $211,500 in sanctions from his failure to comply with court orders, an amount that grows each day. The state plans to seek at least $3 million more when its campaign-finance lawsuit against Eyman goes to trial next year.

Additionally, the state and Eyman have been locked in a disagreement over whether he can be trusted to manage his money. For the past three weeks, the state has been asking the court to appoint a trustee to ensure that Eyman actually pays his debts. Court filings indicate more than 95% of Eyman’s debt is owed to the state.

“Since the beginning of the bankruptcy, Debtor Eyman has excessively spent the estate’s funds,” the state told the bankruptcy court. “... In five of the last six months, spending from Debtor Eyman’s accounts have exceeded his receipts.” 

Some of Eyman's expenditures that the state cites as questionable include a $465.50 meal at Ruth’s Chris Steak House, a meal at Daniel’s Broiler in Bellevue costing $344 and a family trip to Universal Studios in Florida. 

A recent judgment against one of Eyman’s co-defendants in the state’s campaign finance case may also signal trouble for longtime activist. On Sept. 30, a Thurston County judge ordered a signature-gathering firm, Citizen Solutions, to pay $1 million for its part in funneling donations to Eyman. The judgment found that the company’s owner personally approved a $308,185 “kickback payment” that enriched Eyman personally, deceiving donors in the process.

On Friday, Eyman dismissed the state’s court filings as an attempt to bury him in paperwork and cost him more money in legal fees. His lawyers dispute that a trustee is needed in his bankruptcy case, and are asking a federal judge to deny the state’s request to appoint one. Eyman also argues that the state has mischaracterized his spending.

Asked whether he plans to try to use campaign funds to replace lost income, Eyman replied, “Right now I am in a constant effort to raise money for a legal defense fund, just so I can pay the lawyers.”

Tim Eyman holds a sign as cameras film him in city hall
Tim Eyman leans on a sign as he prepares to talk to reporters on Nov. 7, 2019 outside the office of Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan in Seattle. The city would later file a lawsuit to block the $30 car-tab initiative sponsored by Eyman that was passed by Washington voters in the November general election. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

A challenge to Eyman's latest initiative

In the meantime, Seattle, King County and others unhappy with the I-976 election results are going to court to ask a judge to overturn the initiative. Among other things, they say that the ballot measure deceived voters and combined too many disparate policy items into the same initiative.

If the courts ultimately strike down the measure, leaders of the Democratic-controlled Legislature probably won't rush to reinstate it, as lawmakers did with some of Eyman's earlier initiatives, said Dean Nielsen, a Democratic political consultant.

“I think if it gets struck down by the courts, you will hear the sound of champagne bottles popping,” Nielsen said.

Condotta, the former Republican lawmaker, made a similar prediction. He said that would signal how Eyman’s influence has diminished significantly since the 2000s.

“At that point, he had enough political clout to get the Legislature to move, and I think they moved correctly,” Condotta said. “But now, I don’t think he’s got that clout.”

For now, Eyman is using the lawsuit against I-976 as fodder to solicit donations for his gubernatorial run. In an email blast Friday, he wrote, “I’m sick of Seattle calling all the shots.”

So far, the two-term incumbent, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, has raised about $1.8 million for his reelection bid. A few Republicans have also announced they are running for governor in 2020, including state Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn; former Bothell Mayor Joshua Freed; Loren Culp, the police chief of Republic, a city in Eastern Washington; and Anton Sakharov, whose background is in technology.

Back in his Bellevue condominium building, eight days before announcing his intention to run, Eyman acknowledged that Ferguson’s lawsuit could hamstring his ability to raise money for future initiatives.

Yet he said he planned to stay in the public eye no matter what, doing what he thinks he does best: making Democrats “demented” and “completely unhinged.” 

“I'm not gonna let this litigation stop me from being out there, because I need to be out there — one, because I love it and enjoy it,” Eyman said. “But it’s also that I think I'm good at it. Because I make the other side nuts.”

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About the Authors & Contributors

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos is formerly a Crosscut staff reporter who covered state politics and the Legislature.