Don’t confuse Eyman with his message

Tim Eyman screwed up. He lied about whether or not he was drawing a salary in the course of his efforts to push the tax-cutting initiatives that have made him a formidable political force in Washington state.

His supporters and contributors deserved better.

Eyman over the weekend conceded he’d taken about $45,000 in salary from the coffers of his Permanent Offense organization — despite repeated denials he had. Eyman’s actions will almost certainly have an impact on his efforts to raise money for future initiatives, and the people who stood behind his work because they believed in the cause for which they all fought have a right to be disappointed.

That said, what sort of punishment does he deserve? Jail? Hardly. What Eyman did was absolutely legal and no less ethical than what hundreds of other paid lobbyists all over the state do every year. The only difference is they don’t pretend they don’t.

Should he be impeached? Not possible, because Tim Eyman isn’t an elected official.

Should he admit his mistake and apologize? He’s done that.

Should he return the money? He’s considering it, but it remains to be seen how many of his contributors are even interested in a refund. Probably very few, we’re guessing, because the overwhelming majority recognize they got what they paid for from Eyman — and at bargain rates.

When they wrote their checks, thousands of donors all over the state — and beyond — believed they were funding a grassroots effort to reduce the amount of their incomes gobbled up by government at the state and local levels. And that’s exactly what they got, as borne out by the overwhelming success of each and every one of Eyman’s initiatives at the ballot box.

Eyman apparently didn’t start out with the intention of paying himself out of the Permanent Offense till. He says he took nothing for working on his first initiative, the wildly popular car tab measure I-695, and there’s been no evidence to suggest otherwise. It wasn’t until 2000 that Eyman discovered what common sense should have told him from the start — that you can’t work virtually fulltime on something that doesn’t pay and still feed your family.

At that point, Eyman should have come forward and announced his intention to make fighting for tax reductions his life’s work, and he also should have made it clear that a portion of future donations would be used to make it possible for him to do so. Our guess is that his supporters would have cheered the news and enthusiastically continued their support.

Instead, he couldn’t bring himself stop playing the role he’d created for himself — that of the lone, virtuous crusader for justice, unburdened by the day-to-day demands of a career.

Which isn’t to say his cause is any less just now than it was a week ago. Eyman as an individual is apparently less than a paragon of virtue, but we’ll get over that. As one observer noted, Gov. Gary Locke has lied to us far more times than Tim Eyman, and he’s been paid a lot better for doing it. The difference is that Locke’s “donations” have the force of law, while Eyman must ask nicely for his.

Eyman’s opponents, of whom there are many, desperately hope this latest disclosure will derail what has, up to now, been a spectacularly successful run for the man from Mukilteo. But in doing so, they make the mistake of confusing the man with his message.

Tim Eyman is no Svengali, and those who support his initiatives aren’t simply blinded by his charisma. They know precisely what they’re doing and they’ll keep doing it with or without Tim Eyman. Eyman is one voice — but only one — speaking for the 60 percent of Washington taxpayers convinced their political representatives are out of touch with their concerns.

Anyone who thinks these people or their beliefs will simply go away if Tim Eyman turns out to be human does so at their own peril.

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