Mills Crenshaw was just another radio talk show host, interviewing podiatrists and fielding calls about UFOs, before he found the topic that would make him famous. As Crenshaw remembers it, the whole thing started with a call from a little old lady who complained that rising property taxes threatened to push her from her home.
Now, 20 months later, that phone call has turned into a tax war, and Mills Crenshaw has emerged as its five-star general, the Patton of the airways.His talk show airs from 1 to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday on K-TALK, at the far left of the AM dial. Crenshaw himself leans closer to the right. He describes himself as an "enlightened conservative."
Other people use less generous terms. "They've been Bhagwanidized," says Mayor Palmer DePaulis, referring to what he sees as Crenshaw's guru-like effect on his listeners. "He's full of sophism and rhetorical stuff and numbers that don't compute," charges the mayor. "But he's so smooth. He's very much at ease with people's feelings. It makes great theater."
Numbers that don't compute? echoes Crenshaw in disbelief. "The mayor's projections sound like they're out of an Isaac Asimov novel!"
Armed with colorful analogies and charts full of figures, Crenshaw has become the most visible, and most controversial, proponent of the tax initiatives on the ballot Nov. 8. His opponents have even immortalized him with a bumper sticker: "If you need a cop, call Mills Crenshaw. Vote Against A, B, C."
Crenshaw put the sticker on his own sports car, crossing out the "against" and substituting "for."
Utah's tax battle may be the first campaign of its kind to be planned and carried out on the radio. Tapes of those shows, monitored by his opponents, Taxpayers for Utah, have turned up examples of Crenshaw's penchant for drama. According to Taxpayers for Utah, he has described their members as "paid political assassins" and "terrorists."
In September he was recorded as saying "I think some of the politicians we are hearing from now are the best argument in the world for retroactive abortions." Crenshaw says now that those remarks were made "in jest."
Utah's politicians aren't laughing. They complain that Crenshaw should be put under scrutiny, too - for his involvement in an investment scandal in California in 1975.
Crenshaw thinks it's unfair when his opponents bring that up. `My company was a victim," he says.
The complicated case involved Crenshaw's Gold and Silver Bullion Exchange Inc., whose 90 investors lost $366,000. Crenshaw says he himself was duped by a Colorado "con artist" who promised him $2 million profit and then failed to come up with the promised silver.
Although he was originally charged with 30 felony counts, all but two of those charges were dismissed. He pleaded no contest to a charge of operating an unlicensed commodities exchange, and a charge of issuing a bad check for $30,000. The commodities charge, says Crenshaw, was a technical violation, because when he first began his business the commodities law was not on the books. He says the bounced check charge resulted from his lawyer's advice to stop payment on a check he had written to a silver company he claims was owned by the Colorado con man.
Crenshaw says he went through five years of "absolute hell" during this time. He says he ended up broke and divorced. He says his experiences with the law are why he now hates "injustice." And it's because he hates injustice, he says, that he is now fighting for The Little Guy. His opponents point to the irony that some of the investors who trusted him with their money in California were Little Guys too.
Just a few years after his gold and silver problems, Crenshaw became a foot soldier in Howard Jarvis's California tax insurgency, circulating petitions for Proposition 13. Crenshaw had grown up in California, where he attended Napa Valley High School. He graduated from Brigham Young University in marketing, later taught karate and became a radio talk show host, moved back to California, and then moved back to Utah in 1986.
The once-portly Crenshaw has dieted off so much weight recently that he looks five or 10 years younger than he did when he began his tax crusade in 1987. He will not divulge his age but admits he is the grandfather of six.
Disgruntled taxpayers have boosted Crenshaw's radio ratings, and although it may be Merrill Cook they will vote for on Tuesday, it is Mills Crenshaw who is their buddy. No longer anonymous, he now has a difficult time going to the movies, he says, without folks coming up to him to tell him their stories.
"I love these people," he says.