Bob McCaslin, who spent 30 years in the state Senate fighting taxes and government expansion with consistent votes and ready jokes, died Sunday at 84.
McCaslin, who was also in the middle of his first term as a Spokane Valley city councilman, had resigned his Senate seat in January because of ill health. He underwent heart surgery last year that kept him away from Olympia for much of the session and had developed circulatory problems that this year led to the amputation of a leg.
The city of Spokane Valley announced his death Sunday morning with a statement from Mayor Tom Towey.
“This is a great loss to our community. He was deeply committed to serving the people of Spokane Valley,” Towey said.
McCaslin was undergoing rehabilitation and physical therapy after the amputation. In recent weeks he had described himself in an interview as much improved if somewhat tired, and couldn’t resist a joke at his own expense: “Of course, I’ve never lost a leg before.” Visited a few days earlier by Senate colleagues and Gov. Chris Gregoire, who made a special stop during a trip to Spokane to wish him well, McCaslin was somewhat surprised by the attention.
His retirement, just days before the Legislature began a difficult session to wrestle with a growing budget shortfall, sparked a race for an appointment to the empty seat and an outpouring of tributes on the Senate floor.
“We’re going to miss Bob McCaslin’s institutional memory as we deal with this crisis,” state Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said. The Spokane Valley Republican was the last remaining member of the Senate who served in the last big economic downturn, in 1981-’82, he said.
He was the master of a well-timed story or joke, said Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla. “Bob was always the one who, when things were going badly in caucus, could get things calmed down. He’d tell a little story.”
Some senators joked about his reputation as the Republican caucus’s “most eligible bachelor,” who as he got older said he didn’t mind being set up on a date as long as it was with someone who could drive at night.
“We looked for interns who had really nice grandmothers with a driver’s license,” Schoesler joked.
He had a reputation for killing bills that came to the Senate from the House, and Senate bills from Democratic members.
“He always killed my bills. He said, ‘You work too hard, but we don’t need all these things,’ ” said state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, who came close to tears during her tribute. “He hated Growth Management. And you know what, Bob, you were right about some of it.”
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, of Spokane, said she and McCaslin didn’t agree on many issues but found ways to work together for things important to Spokane. She added she’ll miss their “entertaining exchanges.”
McCaslin was so skilled at debating that an opponent wouldn’t immediately realize he was being skewered, said Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, who serves as president of the Senate. “He is the only senator so far to tell the president he’s wrong without the president knowing it until he got back to his office.”
McCaslin was first elected to the Senate in 1980 in the Republican tidal wave created by Ronald Reagan’s presidential election. He ousted longtime Democratic legislative fixture William “Big Daddy” Day. He was re-elected easily every four years, sometimes with only token Democratic opposition, in a district that has become a GOP stronghold.
Local Republicans’ efforts to find a replacement for his Senate seat touched off charges of backroom politicking with the candidate McCaslin supported for the job, longtime friend and former state Rep. Mike Padden, being unfairly excluded from the list of nominees. GOP District Leader Jeff Baxter, a Spokane Valley business owner, was eventually appointed, and McCaslin came out publicly for Padden, who announced a run for the seat this fall.
McCaslin opposed most tax increases and supported most efforts to shrink state government, but he broke sometimes with his caucus on personal issues, such as medical marijuana, which he supported after his wife died of cancer.
A U.S. Navy veteran of World War II, McCaslin graduated from Washington State University, worked for Kaiser Aluminum and later owned a real estate firm.
Services are pending.