The Shutdown of Tim Eyman


When I was at the Seattle Times, a colleague reacted to each new Tim Eyman initiative campaign by saying that he “probably needs some money to remodel his kitchen.” It was a common cynicism to say that Eyman was in it for the money. 

Of course, we newspaper people were paid, as were Eyman’s enemies in state government, but such people were not said to be in it for the money. With Eyman, the charge of mercenary motives stuck and has by now effectively muzzled him. Anyone pushing to cut taxes, the cynics assumed, must be motivated by “greed.”

I knew Eyman and often talked to him on the phone. He never talked about money. He talked, eagerly and obsessively, about politics. He loved the game, the gotcha moments, the glee of political checkmate. He was certainly not humble. He laughed at those in authority. He crashed their press conferences, wearing T-shirts with bumper-sticker slogans. Once he wore a gorilla suit.

In return, officials despised him. For 20 years they have gone after him, and they have been winning. Eyman is still fighting, but it has been a losing battle.

The latest battle began in 2017, when Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued Eyman for “taking kickbacks from contractors, using campaign funds for personal expenses, redirecting donations made for one initiative to a different initiative,” all the while “enriching himself while keeping his contributors and the public at large in the dark.” 

Eyman denied these accusations, but in 2021, he lost in court. Judge James Dixon, who had been appointed to Thurston County Superior Court by Gov. Christine Gregoire, imposed the punishment that Ferguson recommended. This includes $5.8 million in court costs and interest. The unpaid amount increases by 12 percent a year. 

Eyman had no way to pay this. In 2018, facing an $80,000 lawyer bill, he declared bankruptcy. The state declared his other lawyer unfit to represent him, and for nine months Eyman had to represent himself pro se. Finally he was able to hire Richard Sanders, a former justice of the Washington Supreme Court. Sanders from 1995 to 2012 was the court’s libertarian but was too conservative for Western Washington and lost his seat in 2012. In November October, Sanders argued Eyman’s appeal at the state Court of Appeals.

For almost 25 years, Eyman has been running initiatives to limit taxes and other activities of government. When his initiatives were thrown out in court or modified by the Legislature, he often rewrote them and ran them again. Some won and some lost, but most of them had political effect. One of the things he learned was that no victory is permanent. “All initiatives are lobbying,” he said. To make a difference, he had to keep at it. He called his political organization, “Permanent Offense.”

The officials permanently offended were not happy with this. They went after him with the Fair Campaign Practices Act. Passed by voters in 1972, the law aimed to make political campaigns more honest by letting voters know who was funding them. Eyman didn’t hide the funders who paid for his initiative campaigns. The rap on Eyman was that he was making a living at it. This wasn’t forbidden, but no one had done it before.

At first, Eyman took a cut of the money he raised. In 2002 the state came down on him for that. Ten years later, the state came down on him for what it called a kickback from a contractor Eyman had hired to collect voters’ signatures. After the contractor had collected the signatures, for which Eyman had paid $3.89 a signature, the contractor paid Eyman for business referrals. Eyman argued that that was the contractor’s money, and that the law didn’t regulate contractors. A court ruled otherwise, and that ruling is now under appeal.

Eyman’s final way to make a living was to ask donors for money. Donors wrote their checks to Eyman, not his political committee. Attorney General Ferguson responded to this by labeling Eyman himself a political committee. When Judge Dixon accepted that, it made Eyman’s personal finances subject to the Fair Campaign Practices Act rules. 

Those rules say that Eyman could no longer ask for money for personal use, except to pay his lawyer. And that dilemma is where Eyman is currently stuck. 

Eyman’s attorney Richard Sanders writes that his client cannot ask for money “for groceries, shelter, children’s expenses, health care, education for his kids, taxes,” or any of the $5.8 million the court says he owes the state. “Unlike any beggar holding a cardboard sign,” writes Sanders in his appellants’ brief, “if Mr. Eyman is out in public and someone offers him $20 for food, he must refuse it.” He has lost “the right to beg,” leaving him in that respect with fewer rights than a homeless person. “That is unprecedented, here or anywhere,” Sanders says.

Eyman has already lost his three-garage house in Mukilteo. He has lost his wife, Karen. If Eyman gets a job, his paycheck will be subject to garnishment to pay down the $5.8 million. He still has a web page and a cell phone, and is still fighting the ruling that makes him a one-man political committee. 

The Washington Court of Appeals should reach a decision on that issue sometime this winter. That ruling, whichever way it goes, will probably be appealed. In the meantime, Eyman is left with a cell phone and a web page. He has qualified no statewide initiatives in the past three years.

To the shut-down of Tim Eyman, progressive Seattle’s response is, “Good riddance for a man who flouts the law.” 

But what law? All states have campaign-finance laws, which burden the freedom to act politically. The Institute for Free Speech, a Washington, D.C., organization that pushes back against the more intrusive laws, has ranked the states on a “Free Speech Index.” The index ranks Washington third-lowest of the 50 states, above only Connecticut and New York, meaning that we have the third-harshest campaign-finance regime.

Sanders accepts Washington’s law. His complaint is that by declaring his client a one-man political committee, the state has put him in a kind of financial prison. “If you can declare an individual a political committee,” he says, “you can shut down any political activist you want.”

Bruce Ramsey
Bruce Ramsey
Bruce Ramsey was a business reporter and columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in the 1980s and 1990s and from 2000 to his retirement in 2013 was an editorial writer and columnist for the Seattle Times. He is the author of The Panic of 1893: The Untold Story of Washington State’s first Depression, and is at work on a history of Seattle in the 1930s. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Anne.


  1. I’m very glad to see this opinion piece, from someone who’s followed Eyman closely. Though I’ve disagreed with almost everything Tim Eyman worked for, I was completely gobsmacked at the seeming viciousness of imposing a $5 million penalty, with a 12% per year interest on the uncollected balance. This is the level of fine that should be leveled at high corporate misfeasance, for an oil company’s repeated spills, for example. I would even argue that we need a Tim Eyman, as a counterbalance to Washington progressivism.

    • We need Tim Eyman like we need COVID. You conservatives are always quick on the trigger to blame people in unfortunate circumstances for the “bad choices in life” that they have made. Bruce Ramsey, in particular, has made a career out of doing so. Well, if anyone has made bad choices, it is Eyman, and he has made them time after time, knowing full well he was in violation of the laws of this state. Time after time, he was warned, and time after time, he continued to offend. He deserves no sympathy, as he has put himself in the state he’s in. He could, after all, go back to selling watches and bling to frat boys again. Nobody’s stopping him.

      If this is the best “counterbalance to Washington progressivism” you can find, your prospects for success will be dim indeed. Maybe Loren Culp, or Joe Kent, are available.

      • I am the opposite of a conservative. I have and remain a progressive voter committed to women’s equality, BPOC, human rights issues. But I have seen some over reaches against conservatives, and that was one of them. You should watch your knee-jerk responses to people, Ivan.

      • Still laughing at the idea of anyone calling me a conservative. Anyone who knows me — I use my real first and last name, I don’t hide anything — knows the only time I’ve voted for a Republican is when an unacceptable progressive candidate like Nicole Thomas-Kennedy is on the ballot. When progressives are so beholden to an idea that they view anyone voicing opposition as an enemy, they are blocking progress. Tim Eyman’s clownishness did raise uncomfortable truths: that the car tabs enacted real hardships on many Washingtonians. To that degree, he had much in common with some far-left ideologues.

        • I’m still laughing at the idea that Washington progressivism needs Tim Eyman as a counterbalance. If that isn’t conservatism, I don’t know what is.

  2. As “law and order” conservative types like to say (about poor people of color, at least) – “if you can’t do the time, don’t do the time”.

    Too bad, so sad. You’re mad – I’m glad.

  3. To a significant extent, Eyman was a “public enemy.” From that point of view, the question seems to me, whether this was a really effective solution to the problem. Relative to the problems he caused, his woes seem somewhat insignificant.

  4. I am not a Tim Eyman fan: Far from it. But the legislature opened the door by making a mockery of “car tab” charges. A tax you have to pay to legally drive drive your car. Maybe in its infinite wisdom it could waive car tab fees for electric cars?

  5. Not since Elizabeth Taylor’s last perfume commercial have I witnessed airbrushing to compare with that which Bruce Ramsey applies to kickbacks received by Tim Eyman.

  6. I’ve never come across a donor to Eyeman that was disappointed in his performance.. that is no ‘victim’ of Eyeman using their donations has ever existed. So.. who is Bob Ferguson going to bat for to protect?

  7. Tim Eyman failed to conduct his initiative campaigns as a political operation, and like all other operations have a clear accounting of donations, staff salaries etc. He apparently believed the righteousness of his cause would earn forgiveness for his lazy or deceptive business practices. Evidence produced in court does show deceptive accounting practices. Thus the financial sanctions by Judge Dixon. Eyman lied. Hard to airbrush such things from his populist camouflage.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Comments Policy

Please be respectful. No personal attacks. Your comment should add something to the topic discussion or it will not be published. All comments are reviewed before being published. Comments are the opinions of their contributors and not those of Post alley or its editors.