March 20, 2011 in City

Spin Control: McCaslin was a man of character – and what a character he was

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Many years ago, when I’d written something he enjoyed about low voter turnout, Bob McCaslin sent me an oversized reproduction of an editorial cartoon that summed up his feelings on the topic.

A disheveled, cigar-smoking man slouches in an easy chair, beer can on belly, watching TV. His better-groomed wife is behind him in a coat, apparently just returned from the polls and talking on the phone. “No,” she says, “Mr. ‘Perfection’ didn’t vote because neither of the candidates met his high standards.”

I called to thank him and we shared a laugh, which was pretty standard when talking with the Spokane Valley Republican legislator who died last week. George M. Cohan believed in leaving them laughing when you say goodbye. McCaslin believed in getting them laughing from the get-go.

Sally Jackson, longtime Democratic activist and sometime McCaslin ally, said they got along so well because they could both take a joke. “I don’t know if there’s anybody who didn’t like Bob. You couldn’t talk to him for 30 minutes and not like him.”

I rarely saw him debate topics seriously, let alone solemnly. The well-placed joke, the slipped-in needle, the seemingly offhand comment actually directed like a laser: These were his stock in trade.

An opponent once complained McCaslin was such a reliable vote against taxes or budgets, the Valley might just as well send a rock to Olympia and set it on the no button. Clearly, replied McCaslin, his opponent knew little about the Legislature – senators don’t push a button to vote; they cast it by voice on every issue. He didn’t even address the opponent’s underlying complaint, and probably felt he didn’t have to. Voters knew what they were getting by electing him every four years.

Some say he was just lucky to be running in a safe GOP district. But when McCaslin was first elected in 1980 (beating Democrat William “Big Daddy” Day, a legislative fixture for 22 years), the 4th was a swing district.

He was the ultimate in what you see is what you get. Balding, bespectacled and no one’s idea of svelte, he was arguably the Legislature’s least likely ladies’ man, but he never met a woman he couldn’t flirt with, just as he never met a man he wouldn’t joke with.

“You can bet your boots he’s hitting on an angel right now,” Jackson said last week.

Just as he was happy to pass along praise, he wasn’t shy about letting reporters know when he disagreed with what they wrote. He objected to a story I wrote about one of his divorces, and mentioned it from time to time. Eventually he allowed as how it was the headline he really didn’t like, adding “I know you don’t write the headlines.”

In recent months he called to talk politics, both Valley and Olympia, and seemed truly humbled by a visit Gov. Chris Gregoire and some legislators made to his room in a physical rehabilitation center where he was learning to walk after having a leg amputated.

He reminisced about the governors he served with over 30 years, with quick ratings for each. John Spellman, the state’s last Republican governor, didn’t top his list. Not surprising, old-timers might say, considering Spellman once bestowed the honorary title of troglodyte on McCaslin for opposing his budget. To be fair, though, McCaslin was among the “trogs” who held a Spokane press conference supporting Spellman’s re-election in ’84, and chided a young reporter the next day for attending the event but not writing about it.

It’s dog bites man, I said. Republicans endorsing a Republican isn’t news. Republicans endorsing a Democrat would be news. He laughed, then noted the newspaper regularly writes stories about dogs biting people.

Spellman’s successor, Booth Gardner, topped his gubernatorial list. They didn’t agree on much, he said, but Gardner wasn’t afraid to act.

McCaslin wasn’t afraid to act, either, although sometimes he had little patience for the yammering some legislators do before acting. If a debate he considered pointless was dragging into the night, colleagues recalled recently, he’d grab his coat and head for the door, wishing them well … and good night.

Some say elected officials no longer have character, which is mostly not true. But in an era of packaged and poll-tested politicians McCaslin was a rarity: He not only had character, he was a character. It’s one reason he will be sorely missed.

The cartoon he sent years ago is still on my file cabinet.

A memorial service for Bob McCaslin is set for 2 p.m. March 27 at University High School, 12420 E. 32nd Ave.

Spin Control also appears online with daily items, reader comments and videos, including the Senate tribute to McCaslin, at spokesman.com/spincontrol.


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