Andrew Villeneuve Takes On Tim Eyman
The future of our state could hinge on the work of a 24-year-old college student who lives with his parents. Meet Andrew Villeneuve, computer geek, scourge of the right wing, and the only person who leaves Tim Eyman speechless.
MAN, WHERE DID this guy come from?
You’d think two signature gatherers—middle-aged men paid a buck or so a John Hancock—could catch a break, there amid a copse of trees on an Eastside commuter campus. But neither the skinny one in the newsy hat nor his rotund sidekick in the black tracksuit jacket seemed aware that they were bit players in a comedy a decade old. Or that they’d landed in the last place on earth foot soldiers in Tim Eyman’s army should step and expect to walk away unscathed.
All morning in front of the Bellevue College student union the men had dutifully engaged the backpacked masses, chatting up the harried undergraduates about the evils of taxes and, when lucky, acquiring signatures to help place Initiative 1125 on the November ballot.
Then a shadow loomed on the sidewalk like Alfred Hitchcock’s silhouette prior to a murder tale. The shadow’s owner, Andrew Villeneuve, six feet tall, stared them down. His black hair was perfectly parted on the side and seemingly shellacked in place—giving him the mien of a high school vice principal, not a 24-year-old Bellevue College business major.
Just as the skinny one was telling another student he didn’t know who was behind the initiative, Villeneuve interrupted. “Tim Eyman’s the sponsor.”
Repulsed by the identity of the sponsor, the student walked away. Villeneuve didn’t budge. He pulled out a camera and began to photograph the men, who meandered away and retired to a bench for a cigarette break.
The nicotine barely had time to commandeer the men’s bloodstreams before Villeneuve trained his camera on them again. The caption he posted on his blog hours later read, “Two petitioners light up…in violation of campus policy.”
You’ve likely never heard of Andrew Villeneuve. But among those steeped in state politics, especially progressive politics, he’s known as a vice chair of the King County Democrats, executive director of a lefty think tank (which he founded in high school), and, most notably, archrival of Tim Eyman, the potentate of antitax initiatives in the Evergreen State.
Former Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich spoke at a Seattle activist conference Villeneuve co-organized in July, a conference that also featured current Washington gubernatorial candidate Jay Inslee, U.S. Representative Jim McDermott, and former U.S. congressional candidate Darcy Burner. “I’m here because Andrew said I had to be,” Burner confessed at the event.
Seattlepi.com political columnist Joel Connelly lauds Villeneuve’s activism and research as “invaluable” in the fight for progressive causes. And state representative Roger Goodman credits Villeneuve with helping him win reelection last year—and calls him “Boy Wonder.”
This fall Villeneuve will do what he’s done every election season for the past nine years: School voters on the machinations of Eyman’s latest campaign to hamstring the legislature. This time it’s I-1125, which, among other things, would restrict the allocation of money from proposed tolls on Interstate 90.
Where he came from is just 11 miles from where the two signature gatherers sat, enjoying their illicit smoke break.
REDMOND, WASHINGTON, home of Microsoft—and thus the epicenter of brainiacs who dominate everything in their path—is also home to the Northwest Progressive Institute, which Villeneuve directs out of his house. Or rather his parents’ house.
NPI’s website is a dense collection of thousands of prolix posts, position papers, and analyses championing progressive causes—universal health care, labor unions, mass transit. Villeneuve posts daily, often on Permanent Defense, just one of a handful of projects on the site. Its sole purpose is to defeat right-wing initiatives. Check that. Its sole purpose is to take down one man.
Take for example the 2,137-word polemic titled “Who Is Tim Eyman?,” which begins at the initiative hawker’s cradle (“Eyman was born on December 22nd, 1965 in Yakima and was adopted there immediately after his birth”) and dips into armchair psychological analysis (“He seems to believe that he benefits from any publicity”).
In person Villeneuve is equally verbose. Toss him a question and you can expect a response that will eventually get to the point, but not before taking a long, long detour that could include reciting from the state constitution, disquisitions on cyberhacking, or the evils of Apple. (He refuses to own any of its products, citing its “Big Brother-ish” control over what is and isn’t allowed on devices.) And then of course there’s the topic that really winds him up.
“People think Tim’s sales pitch sounds really good. ‘What if government can do more with less?’ It’s very alluring. ‘We could all pay lower taxes and have the same public services we have today if government was just more efficient—if politicians would just waste less of our money.’ But it’s a big lie. What Eyman and others don’t want people to realize is that those mythical savings don’t exist. If they did exist, we would be using them, we would be tapping them right now.”
In a recent conversation at the Bellevue College student union—yards away from where he encountered the I-1125 signature gatherers a few weeks earlier—and sporting his de rigueur blue T-shirt, tan cargo shorts, and white socks pulled halfway up his calves, Villeneuve recounted how he came to be so obsessed with state politics.
Remember the kids in junior high who whiled away their free time in the computer lab? That was Villeneuve. In fact, he helped maintain Redmond Junior High’s website—at age 12. Before heading off to school each day he read The Seattle Times at the breakfast table the way other kids played Game Boy.
By the time he hit Redmond High School—where his father, Denis, still teaches civics and American history and coaches the track team—he was sparring with his fellow students about taxes. Topic A: Tim Eyman.
In February 2002 the initiative Svengali tearfully admitted to a coterie of TV cameras that he had paid himself $45,000 from campaign contributions—and planned on taking another $157,000—despite having told backers otherwise.
It was a sweet moment for Washington state progressives. They’d been haunted by Eyman, a Mukilteo watch salesman, since 1997 when, using the state’s unique initiative and referendum process, he attempted to gather enough citizen signatures to ban affirmative action hiring for government positions. He ruffled a lot of fleece but failed at the signature drive and had to pass the project onto another conservative activist. But another idea, which limited vehicle license and registration fees to $30 per car, did qualify for the ballot in 1999, and voters passed it.
“Please send an email to Andrew Villeneuve and let him know that his arrogant gloating inspired you to donate,” Tim Eyman wrote in an email to his supporters.
“He was telling reporters, he was telling his supporters, he was telling the public, ‘Oh I don’t make any money from doing these initiatives. I’m just volunteering my time, I’m trying to run my watch sales business, I don’t make any money doing this,’” recalls Villeneuve. “In reality he was taking over $100,000 from his campaign for his own personal use, and after the Seattle P-I published its investigation, for the first time in his professional life he felt guilty.”On a roll, Eyman then took aim at limiting property taxes, and his I-747 made the ballot and passed in 2001. But he had lied throughout the campaign.
Villeneuve was glad Eyman had been caught, but “my friends said they liked what he was doing, and that they thought the government was spending too much of our money…. I was arguing this later in the school library and it turned out that the assistant librarian was a longtime Eyman donor. I asked her, ‘Why would you give money to him? He’s trying to destroy your livelihood.’ And she looked kinda conflicted.” Villeneuve was incensed by the ignorance of those around him. So on February 15, 2002, a month after his 15th birthday, he launched the site Permanent Defense (named in reaction to Eyman’s company, Permanent Offense).
After the scandal, many expected Eyman to disappear from public life. He didn’t. And Eyman 2.0 was a circus. Over the next decade, as he pushed a series of hit-and-miss measures, he latched onto the notion that winning media attention required turning the political process into a freak show. He arrived at the Secretary of State’s office in a gorilla costume, a reference to his own sobriquet for one of his initiatives, “the 900-pound gorilla.” At other press conferences he dressed as Darth Vader, a jail inmate, and Buzz Lightyear.
Villeneuve made a point of attending these publicity stunts, where he joined writer David Goldstein, who had once proposed an initiative of his own, one that would declare by state law that Tim Eyman is a “horse’s ass.” Whenever Eyman went to Olympia to, say, turn in signatures to qualify a measure for the ballot, Villeneuve and Goldstein were there, scrutinizing every word and blogging about it.
“And man, did we drive coverage,” recalls Goldstein. “The media started to respond to our message. But they didn’t know that Andrew and I and a few other progressive bloggers were on an email list that we all sent around and strategized and decided what our message would be.” Villeneuve’s computer expertise became instrumental, too. “He maintained a listserv and did a lot of other tech work for the other bloggers.”
In February 2005, Villeneuve, still a high school senior, testified before the state’s House Finance Committee about tax reform. In May, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer invited him to write a guest column (the title: “Eyman out to destroy representative democracy”).
He faced off with his nemesis a few months later, when the weekly newspaper The Stranger invited the two to debate I-900, Eyman’s effort to make auditing of state agencies more aggressive. Josh Feit, then the news editor, says it was the first time he’d seen anyone “get under Eyman’s skin.” He described the encounter on Slog, the newspaper’s blog:
Eyman kept trying to start his closing statement saying, “Given that I don’t have any opposition…” and Villeneuve would interrupt Eyman and say dramatically: “I’m your opposition…” Eyman would roll his eyes, take a breath, and start again, “Given that I don’t have any opposition…” and Villeneuve would jump right back in: “I’m your opposition.”
For his closing statement, Villeneuve hit his audience with his trademark high-word-count, flat-toned screed.
“I said that the initiative was not necessary because the legislature had already passed performance audit legislation,” Villeneuve recalls. “And I said…we don’t really need the state auditor having the power to poke around at a local government because basically the initiative had no checks and balances.”
After the debaters left, the members of The Stranger’s editorial board stared at each other for a few seconds in silence. “We were like, ‘What just happened? Who was that kid?’” recalls Feit, who now runs the news blog PubliCola. The staff had been on the fence about I-900, but the 18-year-old had won them over.
Villeneuve also became a regular at Drinking Liberally, a weekly salon held at the Montlake Alehouse, where in the summer of 2006 he befriended the P-I’s Joel Connelly, 39 years his senior. “There was a teenager present at Drinking Liberally,” Connelly recalls. “I felt that somebody of considerable talent should be considered important and be taken seriously, regardless of their age—young or old.” Connelly also found Villeneuve’s earnestness refreshing. “We used to all joke that we should get him a driver so that he could drink, but Andrew is a very, very serious person…. To this day I’ve never seen him take a drink.”
As Villeneuve’s profile grew, he gained his own chorus of critics. In January 2007, a post on the conservative blog Sound Politics accused him of delusions of grandeur. The writer made fun of Andrew’s “self-written bio” on the NPI site for reading “like a college admissions essay.” Indeed, the biography primarily focused on the successes Villeneuve had had in junior high and high school.
The Sound Politics blogger also took aim at “the commercial empire of Andrew’s mind,” writing, “Did you know that Andrew owns a travel agency, a publishing house, a fresh foods distributorship, a media consultancy, something called Imaginaire Ventures and the creepily named Camp Villeneuve Ranch?”
Funny thing is, Villeneuve doesn’t want a career in politics. His dream job would be at Amazon or, like a true son of Redmond, Microsoft.
Villeneuve, stung, defended himself. Responding to another Sound Politics post that referred to him as a teenager who lives with his parents, he wrote: “If you cared about at least getting your facts correct, you would know that I’m 20-and-a-half years old—not a teenager…. Most disgustingly of all, you sneer that I’m still living with my parents.… It should make no difference to you where I live or with whom.”All were references to business ideas Andrew had toyed with and for which he’d made URLs. “Thanks for the report,” a commenter wrote. “I always thought he was a little off.”
THAT WAS FOUR years ago.
Villeneuve, still working on a business degree, hasn’t changed addresses. And his critics haven’t gone away. David Boze, host of the conservative talk show The David Boze Show, calls him smart and earnest—and too naive for the big leagues. In September 2010, Boze invited Villeneuve and Eyman to an on-air debate about I-1053, which would reinstate a previous measure that mandated that the legislature reach a two-thirds supermajority before raising taxes. The host says Villeneuve dug himself into a rhetorical hole. Responding to a caller wary of taxes taken out of his paycheck, he announced, “We think that income is different than property.”
Boze’s call-in audience used that statement—which they interpreted to mean Your paycheck does not belong to you—against Villeneuve for the rest of the show. “I think someone more seasoned or skilled would know not to say that,” says Boze, “even if he believed it.”
A message misfire perhaps, but Villeneuve’s allies insist his true gift is research. “Andrew was the first to unveil that big oil companies were backing Initiative 1053 and later the involvement of out-of-state banks,” notes Connelly, the P-I columnist, referring to Eyman’s 2010 initiative, which nonetheless passed.
“Compared to the big unions and organizations rallying against Eyman’s initiatives, Andrew’s impact isn’t that big,” admits PubliCola’s Josh Feit. “But his obsessive research is definitely useful. He’s thorough, no doubt about it. And he watches Eyman like a hawk.”
What does the initiative pitchman think of Villeneuve? Eyman, who’s famously chatty with reporters, and who has spoken to Seattle Met in the past (as recently as July) would not return phone calls or emails for this story.
“It doesn’t surprise me that normally talkative Tim doesn’t want to comment,” says Villeneuve. “He has gone through periods of not acknowledging me, then acknowledging me, then not…. He can be unpredictable, and it’s hard to understand why.”
“I think it has always bothered Eyman that he’s had to contend with bloggers like me and Andrew,” observes David Goldstein, who now works at The Stranger. “I think he thinks he deserves to be debating politicians.”
That doesn’t stop Eyman from invoking his critic’s name when it’s convenient. In a March 2011 email to his contributors, Eyman wrote: “Please send an email to Andrew Villeneuve and let him know that his arrogant gloating inspired you to donate.”
Funny thing is, Villeneuve doesn’t want a career in politics. Not at all. He currently operates an online-security consulting business, guarding other bloggers against hackers. And his dream job, he says, would be at Amazon or, like a true son of Redmond, Microsoft.
But he’s not giving up the Eyman beat.
Initiative 1125, the measure pitched to students at Bellevue College in May, will be on the November ballot. If passed, it would prevent allocating toll money anywhere other than the roadway where the tolls are collected—endangering any potential for east-west light rail in the region, construction of a new 520 floating bridge, and numerous other projects.
“It would decimate our transportation planning for the foreseeable future,” says state representative Roger Goodman, whom Villeneuve chauffeured around the Eastside in the summer of 2010 to meet and woo voters. “Transit would be cut off at the knees. It’s abject irresponsibility, it’s selfishness, and it’s the worst Eyman initiative yet.”
“The measure would turn our transportation system into a disaster zone,” adds Democratic state senator Adam Kline, who says he’s never heard of Andrew Villeneuve or NPI. “How in the hell are we going to pay for anything?”
Yet the initiative’s opponents face an enormous uphill battle. The coalition fighting the measure, Keep Washington Rolling, had only garnered about $40,000 by early August, according to records filed with the state’s Public Disclosure Commission. The “Yes on Initiative 1125” campaign, meanwhile, is backed by big bucks, including more than $1 million from Bellevue mall mogul and avowed transit slayer Kemper Freeman—a frequent Eyman money spigot.
So every day until November 8, and every day after, Andrew Villeneuve will post on NPI’s blog. “I think I’ll always be working against [Eyman], unless something happens to me,” he says. “It’s a part of my identity.”
IN JULY, Villeneuve stood on stage at a Pioneer Square comedy club to emcee NWroots, the one-day activist conference he co-organized. He wore the same thing he’d worn earlier in the week at the student union. Blue T-shirt, cargo shorts, white socks—his uniform. Behind him, in large cartoonish letters, the name of the club: Comedy Underground. His introduction sounded like the beginning of a Seinfeld routine. It wasn’t quite What’s the deal with airplane food. But close.
“How many of you in this room are sick and tired of Tim Eyman? I’ve been fighting Tim for more than nine years. And I’m sick of it.” The audience, some 100 progressives, exploded with applause.
“He seemed more relaxed than I’d ever seen him, less robotic,” says Feit, who reported on the event for PubliCola. “I remember thinking, ‘Andrew has really grown up.’”
The rest of the morning was filled with rousing speeches by the likes of gubernatorial candidate Jay Inslee and a panel that included Darcy Burner. In the late afternoon, U.S. congressmen Dennis Kucinich and Jim McDermott electrified the room like preachers and brought the crowd to its feet.
But before those elder statesmen hit the stage, Villeneuve took a breather outside, in front of the club. Asked if Kucinich was there yet, he shot a look as if the stupidest son of a bitch he’d ever met had just questioned him. “Oh, he’ll be here,” he said. Just then McDermott strolled toward the comedy club entrance with an entourage.
“Hello congressman!” Villeneuve boomed. “Congressman!”
McDermott pivoted on his right foot and turned his whole body to face the source of the greeting. A strained smile broke across his face and he locked in on the man in the blue T-shirt. The gray-haired politician narrowed his eyes, which betrayed something closer to concentration than recognition, as if he was thinking, I know this guy. I know I do. But how?