Some people might take offense at being compared to a troglodyte, particularly by a person who’s at least nominally on the same team.
But in 1982, two dozen Republican legislators in Washington took the troglodyte label as a badge of honor, turning it into a kind of club. They had buttons, certificates of membership and a relatively simple set of bylaws: Vote no on any tax increase supported by the man who inadvertently gave them their name, then-Gov. John Spellman.
It was mid-March 1982, and the state was reeling from a recession that cut the legs from under a revenue system relying on sales and business taxes to pay for its salaries and services. Voters had given Republicans control of the Legislature and the governor’s office in the 1980 elections, and many had run on a no-new-taxes program.
But after an extended session that resulted in a one-cent sales tax increase in 1981, there were clearly two kinds of Republicans in Olympia in 1982: Moderates and hard-line conservatives.
The state budget faced a deficit, but the Legislature’s 60-day session was ending without a rewrite to keep it in the black. House Republicans had an all-cuts plan that Spellman couldn’t stomach, saying it would decimate public schools and universities, and raid the pension fund.
He thought it was a backward, caveman-like approach to a complicated fiscal problem. One of his aides, Paul O’Connor, used the word troglodyte instead of caveman in a discussion before a news conference, and Spellman “thought it had a good ring to it,” the former governor recalled recently.
But he didn’t actually call anyone a troglodyte, he pointed out. Not directly, anyway.
“I think a group of troglodytes would have gotten together and drafted that kind of proposal,” was how he characterized the all-cuts plan to reporters before calling the Legislature into a special session. Asked to name the offending throwbacks to the Pleistocene, he declined but said he might campaign for more moderate Republicans in the fall elections.
“It was not intended to be quite that negative,” Spellman, now a semi-retired attorney in Seattle, said recently of the term. “But I used it, and I shouldn’t have.”
It wasn’t long before reporters sought a response from the 24 House members who had signed a letter to Republican Speaker Bill Polk calling for an all-cuts solution. While some referred to them as “the Gang of 24,” troglodytes had a snappier, easier-to-riff ring for columnists and editorial cartoonists.
“I didn’t know he knew big words like that,” Rep. Dick Bond of Spokane told a reporter for the Spokane Chronicle. Bond authored the letter from the group of 24 to Polk and quickly ascended to the status of head troglodyte.
Polk called Spellman a demagogue.
The late Sen. Bob McCaslin of Spokane Valley – technically an honorary troglodyte because he wasn’t in the House but was fully in line with their thinking on the budget – shrugged off Spellman’s suggestion of non-support in upcoming elections. He’d be tickled to have Spellman campaign against him, McCaslin said. “It’d probably assure my re-election.”
The Spokane area was well represented in the new antediluvian association, with Reps. Margaret Leonard, Mike McGinniss and Dick Barrett, all from Spokane, Mike Padden from Spokane Valley and Scott Barr from Edwall as well as Bond.
“Join the Troglodytes” lapel buttons sprouted, with cartoon character Alley Oop crowning a sketched visage of Spellman with a Capitol Dome. Bond had certificates of troglodyte membership printed up. Two days after the initial news conference, Bond gave Spellman a button making him an honorary troglodyte.
“We had a lot of fun with it,” said Padden, who’s now in the Senate and is the only troglodyte left in the Legislature. He’s sure he still has his button somewhere.
With little happening in the Legislature for the first weeks of the special session, troglodyte references – which some pundits thought obscure enough to require encyclopedic explanation – consumed barrels of ink. Senate budget proposals stalled in the House and vice versa. As the session approached the constitutionally limited 30 days, a compromise developed that split the deficit roughly in half on cuts and new taxes.
To raise the money, the Legislature temporarily re-imposed the sales tax on food, removed by voters in 1977, through the next June, the end of the state’s two-year budget cycle. Many troglodytes went along, but some – including Bond, Padden and Leonard in the House and McCaslin in the Senate – did not. Spellman said the food tax weighed most heavily on the people who could least afford it, but he signed the budget.
“I told my sons I’m somewhat of a visionary for voting against that,” Padden said.
The tax was hugely unpopular, and while legislators of both parties voted for it, Republicans felt the voters’ wrath that November. Their House 54-43 majority essentially flipped, leaving them in the minority with 44 seats. They also lost control of the Senate.
Spellman said recently he often found it easier to deal with the new Democratic leaders than the Republicans who were in charge in the first two years of his term. Polk was a big proponent of the Laffer Curve, which contended government revenue would go up when tax burdens went down, and Spellman didn’t believe that would work.
As the 1984 general election approached, a group of Spokane Republican legislators that included several troglodytes held a news conference at the Davenport Hotel to endorse Spellman. The governor was locked in a difficult race with a relatively unknown Pierce County executive named Booth Gardner.
He’s a Republican and you’re all Republicans, a reporter pointed out: How is this news? With this group, insisted McCaslin, it’s very big news.
Gardner won decisively that year, and a Republican hasn’t been elected to the state’s top office since. Republicans wouldn’t regain a majority in the House until the GOP wave of 1994.
Spellman said recently he carries no ill feelings from the clash with GOP legislators in 1982, even for Bond. The Spokane conservative left the Legislature in 1986. Bond is now retired and living in Alaska near family, but he was not available for an interview.
“He’s a pretty good guy,” the former governor said of the former head troglodyte.
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