Remembering Mills Crenshaw, the voice behind a massive Utah anti-tax protest rally

(Al Hartmann  |  Tribune file photo)    Late radio talk show commentator Mills Crenshaw speaks to a receptive crowd in 2011 in support of putting a measure on the 2012 ballot to penalize companies for hiring undocumented workers and to get rid of HB 116. Merrill Cook, left, signs a petition to file at the Salt Lake County Clerk’s office. (Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Late radio talk show commentator Mills Crenshaw speaks to a receptive crowd in 2011 in support of putting a measure on the 2012 ballot to penalize companies for hiring undocumented workers and to get rid of HB 116. Merrill Cook, left, signs a petition to file at the Salt Lake County Clerk’s office.

Long before the tea-party movement was launched, a talk radio host in Salt Lake City got his listeners so riled up against tax hikes that they marched on Utah’s Capitol by the thousands and chanted slogans that echoed through the building’s rotunda while the governor remained holed up in his office, reluctant to even show his face.

The talk-show host was Mills Crenshaw, the premier voice at the time of K-TALK Radio. His anti-tax drumbeat inspired close to 7,000 protesters to show up at the Capitol to rail against a more than $300 million tax increase the Legislature passed to benefit public education.

Crenshaw, who spent 50 years on the radio, mostly in Utah, died Tuesday of complications incident to age. He was 80.

“He had a golden voice,” said conservative activist Janalee Tobias. “It was just the kind of voice that made you believe whatever he said. He could really motivate people.”

“He was one of the great talk show hosts on radio,” said former U.S. Rep. Merrill Cook. “He was an absolute natural at that and he was a great help in many of the things I was trying to accomplish.”

Crenshaw organized the massive protest in November 1987 after the Legislature, at the request of then-Gov. Norm Bangerter, passed the largest tax hike in state history.

Crenshaw had been at KTKK 630 AM for about a year, having moved to Utah from his home state of California.

He had been inspired by the California tax-limitation movement that led to successful ballot proposal Proposition 13, which imposed strict caps on property taxes.

“We were in total agreement on that,” said Cook, who used the momentum from Crenshaw’s Capitol Hill rally to launch a petition drive to get three tax-limitation initiatives on the ballot in 1988.

Cook ran as an independent candidate for governor that year, with the ballot initiatives serving as the basis for his political rallying cry.

“Mills was usually right there in my camp,” said Cook, who has run for office more than a dozen times, including two successful bids in Utah’s 2nd Congressional District.

The tax initiatives went down to defeat and so did Cook, although he received a respectable percentage of the vote for an independent.

Crenshaw and Cook continued their small-government, limited-taxes crusade, which eventually helped Cook get elected to Congress in 1996.

“I got a phone call from a little old lady and she broke down and started to cry,” Crenshaw once said to explain his passion for the anti-tax campaigns.

“One of the things I’ve learned in the decades I’ve been on the air is there are times when you just shut up and listen. And I listened to her and when she got her voice again she said, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do.’ ”

The woman, who had called in to his radio show, added: “Everyone is behind this tax increase and I don’t know how I’m going to buy food and pay my taxes at the same time.”

Crenshaw said he listened and then the phone lines lit up “and for two weeks, nobody wanted to talk about anything else.”

“That was the peak of talk radio in Utah,” said longtime Republican strategist Dave Hansen.

“And Crenshaw was at the top. He was the Rush Limbaugh of Utah.”

Hansen was a part of the Bangerter administration and was at the Capitol when Crenshaw’s army arrived to protest the taxes.

“I remember it well,” he said.

Besides his radio career, Crenshaw launched several businesses and, for a short time, owned a radio station. He authored a book, “The Christmas of ’45,” and he was a black belt in karate.

“Even in his later years, he kept himself in shape,” said Tobias.

prolly@sltrib.com