Hodde, Charles William (1906-1999)

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 11/26/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10669

Charles W. Hodde left his parents' home in Missouri in 1927 and landed in Colville, Stevens County, the following year, where he found work on a dairy farm. After a short stint in Alberta, he leased the farm from its owner in 1930, joined the Grange, and soon earned a reputation as a persuasive advocate for issues of importance to farmers. He married Helen Lola Mighella (1907-1978) in 1933, and they had three children. Hodde was elected Washington Grange Lecturer and in 1934 organized a successful initiative campaign to establish a blanket primary system in Washington. Elected to the state House as a Democrat in 1936, he was defeated in 1938, then elected again in 1942, served in the House for the next 10 years, and was elected House speaker in 1949. Hodde's career in elective politics came to an end with an unsuccessful run for governor in 1952, and he spent the next several years farming, serving as the Grange's second-highest state officer, and working on behalf of Democratic candidates and causes. In 1956, he became an adviser to Governor-elect Albert D. Rosellini (1910-2011) and in 1959 was appointed to head the state Department of General Administration. Throughout the 1960s, Hodde served on a variety of state boards and commissions and in 1970 started a new career as a private consultant to government and business. In 1977 he was named director of the state Department of Revenue, a position he held until 1981. After briefly returning to lobbying, he retired in 1985, but served as an unpaid adviser to Governor Booth Gardner (1936-2013) until the early 1990s. Hodde spent his last years in Olympia with his third wife, Jane, and was often sought out by politicians of both parties for advice and by journalists for homespun comments on current events. He died there on June 27, 1999, at age 92.


Charles William "Charlie" Hodde's long and productive life began in Golden City, Missouri, on July 30, 1906. He was one of five children in the farming family of William Frederick Hodde (1875-1932), a German immigrant, and Mary Brunner Hodde (1884-1919), a native Missourian. He graduated from high school in 1924 and three years later left Missouri to head west. In early 1928 he landed in the small town of Colville in Stevens County and took a job on a dairy farm:

"I thought it was the most beautiful place I'd ever seen. Each Sunday, if I had a little time off, I'd try to climb another mountain. We worked hard, but it was so clean, so pretty, the water was so cold, so clear, you could see the fish in the stream, there were a lot of trout, the deer were fairly plentiful in the woods, rattlesnakes too, but it was a great country" (1986 Oral History, 1).

Hodde had a serious case of wanderlust, and after just a few months in Colville he went north to Alberta to work the fall harvest. After suffering frostbite during a winter moose hunt, he returned to Colville and took a job in a sawmill. That didn't last long either -- in March 1929 Hodde was off again, this time to Seattle, hoping to land a job that would take him to Alaska. Unsuccessful, he returned to Colville and went back to work on the dairy farm. But he still itched to travel. He decided to go to Australia, but couldn't produce the birth certificate needed for a passport. While he was gathering affidavits to prove his existence, the owner of the dairy farm talked him into leasing it. Hodde put aside his dreams of life abroad and, as the Great Depression took hold, settled into the farming life.

The Grange and the Altar

The Washington State Grange, a chapter of America's oldest farm-based fraternal organization, had been an advocate for farmers and ranchers since territorial days. Particularly during the dark years of the Depression, it was an influential and progressive force in state politics. Hodde joined shortly after leasing the Colville farm in 1930 and soon got his first taste of politics.

He was not the stereotypical laconic farmer; he was a natural public speaker and prolific storyteller, and his talents were soon put to good use by the Grange. In 1930 he gave speeches in support of a successful initiative authorizing public power and water districts in rural areas. In 1932, now a Grange officer, he campaigned for an initiative capping property taxes at 40 mills (a property's assessed value is multiplied by the "mill rate," then divided by 1,000 to arrive at the tax owed). It too was approved. Later that year Hodde was asked to go to Seattle to campaign for a state income tax, an issue of particular importance to farmers, who often had lots of land but little income. He later recalled:

"I said, 'Why pick me?' I'd spent a week in Seattle, didn't like any of it. I came from a rural area, and I'm a farmer, what can I do? He said, 'You come on over here; you'll find something to do and we need to put some effort into this campaign here'" (1986 Oral History, 2)

Hodde found someone to milk his cows in trade for the cream and for the next six weeks spoke at several gatherings a day in Seattle, filling the hours in-between knocking on doors for sessions of one-to-one persuasion. To the surprise of many, the income-tax initiative passed handily, only to be ruled unconstitutional by the state supreme court the next year.

In January 1933, Hodde was appointed state Grange Lecturer, third in the Grange hierarchy and responsible for the organization's educational programs. He was sent to Olympia to lobby for Grange-supported bills during the legislative session. On March 18, 1933, he married Helen Lola Mighella (in some sources, "Mighell"), a young woman raised in Colville but then living in Sioux City, Iowa. The marriage endured 45 years until Helen's death in 1978 and produced three children, Dorothy, John, and Mary.

The Grange had long supported Prohibition and Hodde, a nondrinker, was asked to run as a "dry" delegate to the state convention in 1933 that would consider its repeal. His was not a popular cause; the people of Washington had survived 17 years of local and federal Prohibition, and many of them were by then very thirsty. This first try at elective politics ended in defeat; the "wets" won in a romp and Washington ratified repeal later that year.

Hodde was Grange Lecturer until 1937, speaking around the state and lobbying in Olympia when the legislature met (which then was only every second year, unless a special session was called). He was earning a reputation as an effective lobbyist and a quick study, notably in the complex area of taxation. But perhaps his biggest accomplishment of these early years came in 1935, when the Grange decided that Washington politics needed a little more democracy and little less party control.

A Very Short Primer on Primaries

Until early in the twentieth century there were no such things as primary elections in Washington state; political parties had complete control over the selection of candidates, and they liked it that way. Starting in 1907, the party of any candidate who won at least 10 percent of the vote for a statewide office in the previous general election was deemed a "major party" and required to select its candidates in primary elections. Voters had to declare their party affiliation when they showed up at the polls to vote in those primaries, were given a ballot listing only candidates from that chosen party, and the winners in each party advanced to the general election. These became known as "open" primaries, at least in Washington.

To many reformers, the open primary was not much of an improvement over the previous system, and in 1934 the state Grange kicked off a campaign for "blanket" primaries. All candidates would be listed on a single ballot, regardless of party, and voters no longer had to identify their party affiliation to vote in a primary election. Even more significantly, they were not limited to voting for only candidates of one party, but could select from the full range of candidates, perhaps choosing a Democrat for one position and a Republican for another. The two major parties, but particularly the then-dominant Democrats, hated the idea.

Hodde Gets It Done

The Grange had little time to get a measure enacting a blanket primary on the November ballot, so Hodde suggested an initiative directly to the legislature, an option provided by the state constitution. The legislature could either enact such an initiative proposal as written, refer it to a vote of the people, or draft an alternative and put both to a public vote. But first initiative supporters had to collect the required number of petition signatures from registered voters. And to accomplish that, Hodde had another great idea -- he arranged for initiative supporters to stand in pairs outside polling places throughout the state on primary day, petitions in hand. After casting their ballots, voters would be approached by signature gatherers working from a script. Hodde recalled:

"I'm a great believer that you have to school your signature gatherers if you want to be successful. Ask these questions, don't ask any other questions: 'Did you have to tell them that you were a Democrat or Republican to vote?' 'Why, I sure did.' 'Would you like to have an election where you didn't have to do that, you vote for anybody you want?' 'I sure would, let me sign.' We just collected. I don't remember, over 100,000 signatures in one day, which was more than were required ..." (1986 Oral History, 51).

The measure passed, the legislature approved it as written, and the blanket primary became law on February 21, 1935. A headline in the Spokane Spokesman-Review read: "Charlie Hodde, King of Lobbyists. He did it!" (1986 Oral History, 51). At a time when jobs were scarce, the blanket primary insulated workers from employer retaliation by allowing them to vote without disclosing party preference. It also weakened the patronage system, which gave plum government jobs to those whose voting records indicated party loyalty. The system would stay in place for the next 68 years, until a federal court ruled in 2003 that it violated political parties' constitutional right of free association by enabling voters of one party to vote in the primary for the weakest candidate of the opposing party, setting him or her up for defeat in the general election. This ruling led to Washington voters approving a 2004 initiative, sponsored by the state Grange, which enacted the "top-two primary" system that remains in use in 2013.

In and Out

Hodde's accomplishments did not go unnoticed by leaders of the Democratic Party, which apparently held no grudges over the blanket primary, and in 1936 he was recruited to run for an open House seat in the Second District spanning Pend Oreille and Stevens counties. He won the election and in January 1937 took his seat in the legislature, where he soon made his presence felt.

Hodde embraced the progressivism of the Grange and was considered a member of the left wing of the Democratic Party. He was drawn to the more difficult and complex issues of governance, many dealing with the intricacies of taxation. He served on the Taxation and Revenue Committee and led opposition to extending the sales tax to food. When the legislature nonetheless approved doing so, Hodde helped convinced Governor Clarence D. Martin (1884-1955) to veto the law. He was not a reflexive foe of all taxation, but opposed schemes that placed a disproportionate burden on those least able to afford it, including farmers. He also sponsored a referendum for a graduated state income tax, something he had fought for as a Grange spokesman in 1932, but it was defeated at the polls.

Hodde lost his reelection bid in 1938 by a mere 40 votes and always believed that his support for a minimum teachers' wage of $100 a month was the cause. School officials in his district, who were paying teachers as little as $50 a month, complained publicly that state government, and Charles Hodde in particular, shouldn't be meddling in purely local affairs. His defeat, along with that of several other liberal Democrats, led The Seattle Times to crow "Left-Wingers Under Control" (The Seattle Times, November 10, 1938).

And In Again

Hodde returned to his ranch and spent the next four years logging, growing potatoes, cultivating an orchard, and running a successful business wiring homes for electricity, a skill he'd learned through a correspondence course. The worst of the Depression was easing, and for the first time in his life he was more than merely making ends meet. When his party again came calling in 1942, he answered, if reluctantly. Hodde recalled the day party officials came to the farm to recruit him:

"And I said, 'I'll tell you, I won't promise to campaign, but ... you just stop up at the house and Helen will give you a check for the filing fee. Tell her I said to do that, and you go on in and you send it in for me. She can sign my name for me.' It might not have been quite legal ... but that's the way it was done. They sent it in, but the funny part of it was, I got elected by a rather handsome majority really ... " (1986 Oral History, 105).

Hodde was named chairman of the Taxation and Revenue Committee, an unusual honor for a freshman (again) legislator. Among other accomplishments that first term, he worked successfully to get the 40-mill property-tax limit enshrined in the state constitution, where it remains, in amended form, today.

Still a Farmer First

The legislature held regular sessions every other year, in the winter months, so Hodde could still work his farm. A bumper crop of apples in 1944 left him no time to campaign, so he took out an ad in the Colville paper:

"You haven't got time to talk to me and I haven't got time to talk to you and I can't pass out cigars; I'm too busy sorting apples. If you want to talk about politics, come on out to the warehouse, I'll give you an apple and we'll talk while I keep on working" (1986 Oral History, 118).

The end of World War II in Europe was in sight when the legislature met in 1945, and relatively little was accomplished that year. Democrats held a 61-36 edge in the House, and Hodde successfully pushed a law giving voters in individual school districts the power to approve or deny district consolidation, a battle he had fought and lost two years earlier. He also helped pass a bill authorizing public hospital districts for underserved areas. But his life still revolved around his family and farm back in Colville; he was and would remain for several more years a farmer first and a legislator second.

Republicans made huge gains in the 1946 election, winning a 71-to-28 majority in the House and an even 23-23 split in the Senate. Hodde bucked the tide and was elected to the rather thankless role of Democratic floor leader in the House. He did what he could with what he had and managed to achieve one notable victory. The Republican Party, joined by a few Democrats, had wanted for years to gut the state's public-power system and Republicans thought they had the votes in 1947 to do it. A bill was introduced that would, among other things, have required a vote of the people each time a public-power utility sought to issue bonds. Using a parliamentary maneuver, and with the secret support of a few Republicans who felt bullied by private-power lobbyists, Hodde managed to keep the measure from coming to a vote. But all in all, it was a frustrating session for him:

"[T]o tell you the truth, there were times when some of us Democrats felt so useless, not even being allowed to talk, just come and go home ... . Somebody, I don't remember who it was, that knew how to play golf, they said, 'Oh, to hell with them, let's just go out and play golf.' So, a couple afternoons I went ... out and played golf, my first experience trying to play golf" (1986 Oral History, 125).

But the public mood in the post-war years was nothing if not volatile. In the 1948 election, President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) defeated a heavily favored Republican, Thomas Dewey (1902-1971), and Washington Democrats recaptured the state House of Representatives with a comfortable 67-to-32 edge, although losing control of the Senate. Hodde's years in the trenches were rewarded when the resurgent Democrats at their caucus in Olympia elected him speaker, the pinnacle of power in the House. When he returned to Colville, he was surprised to find himself hailed as a hometown hero, feted with a parade down Main Street.

Speaker Hodde

Voters in 1948 also passed Initiative 172, a wide-ranging proposal that included state pensions for the needy elderly and the blind, money for funeral expenses, and elimination of government liens on the homes of those receiving benefits. It was an expensive laundry list of benefits, and a post-war budget surplus had by then evaporated. Much of Hodde's time and energy in 1949 was spent on issues of revenue and taxation to finance these and other programs. The session ended with state government deeply in the hole, and this was not helped when an earthquake on April 13, 1949, severely damaged the Legislative Building and several others on the Capitol Campus in Olympia.

Hodde also helped rein in the Canwell Committee, a notorious Communist-hunting roadshow authorized by the 1947 Republican majority. The committee's chairman, Albert F. Canwell (1907-2002), a Spokane Republican, together with three other committee members, were voted out of office in 1948, but the committee itself was still in business. Hodde had the House Sergeant at Arms and the state patrol seize the committee's files, which it had refused to surrender and which allegedly held damning information about subversive activities. When opened years later, they were found to contain almost nothing of significance.

The state's financial problems led Republican Governor Arthur B. Langlie (1900-1966) to call a special legislative session in July 1950 to request more than $22 million in additional funding. Hodde was again elected speaker, and after a short four-day session the legislature gave Langlie part of what he wanted. The 1951 session found Democrats with a considerably smaller majority. Hodde won the speakership on a 53-45 vote over Republican Perry Woodall (1912-1975). It was strictly a party-line vote with two exceptions -- Hodde voted for Woodall and Woodall voted for Hodde.

There was a little more cross-party collegiality that session, at least at the highest level. Working with Republican Governor Langlie, Hodde and his fellow Democrats managed to pass a 4 percent corporate-franchise tax to help close the budget gap, and did so without a single Republican vote in the House. Hodde also worked to improve funding for schools, to authorize the building of a General Administration Building in Olympia, and to establish the Legislative Budget Committee, which provided an independent auditor's analysis of how funds allocated by the legislature were being used. It was a productive session, and it was Hodde's last -- he was about to make one of the few political miscalculations of his long career, and it would bring to an end his time in elective office.

Back to the Farm

Urged on by friends and colleagues, Charlie Hodde decided to run for governor in the 1952 election. As he ruefully recalled many years later:

"Well, you know anybody that gets built up like I did when I'd been Speaker for two sessions and then people begin to decide you're going to be President some day or something, at least they try to tell you that and you get a lot of well-wishers come around and say, 'You really ought to go for it. You're the one that could win.' And you bite on it even though the history of Speakers is that they never get elected to anything, especially if they run right after they're Speaker" (1986 Oral History, 155).

He faced two Democrats in the primary, U.S. Representative Hugh B. Mitchell (1907-1996) and then-state Senator Albert D. Rosellini. Hodde and Rosellini lost, and Governor Langlie easily defeated Mitchell in the general election, part of a sweep that gave the GOP a majority in both houses of the state legislature for the first time since 1931. Hodde was again a private citizen, and he went back to what he knew:

"My home on the ranch had burned down in '45, and I'd been living in town and commuting back to the ranch. So I decided I'm going to be here forever now, so I built a two-story house out on the ranch and we moved back out there. I was just very busy and I did some logging, and I didn't think I'd ever run for election again. I just figured that was the end of it" (1997 Oral History, 5).

He was right that he would never run for public office again, but he was very wrong if he thought his government service was at an end. Within a few years he would be back in Olympia for good, and with far greater influence than he had wielded as a legislator.

A Farmer No More

Hodde took up logging again on his return to Colville, using some of the lumber to build the family's new home. In 1953 he was elected Grange Overseer, the second-highest office, and was pulled back into the organization's legislative activities. He also stayed active in the Democratic Party, but refused an invitation to run for governor again in 1956. But he did chair the party's convention in Tacoma that year, the first to be televised, and later managed the gubernatorial campaign of Earl Coe (1892-1964), who was defeated by Rosellini in the primary. Hodde was asked to campaign for Rosellini in the general election and initially declined, but when the candidate's Roman Catholicism became an issue, particularly in conservative areas of Eastern Washington, Hodde, a Methodist, traveled to Wenatchee to speak in his support.

Rosellini won, and Hodde was asked to help recruit the new governor's cabinet. He was offered a cabinet post himself, but the only position he would consider, director of agriculture, was already filled. Instead, after he obtained his wife's blessing, the Hoddes moved to Olympia in 1957, where he took a seat on the state tax commission at an annual salary of $11,000. Within a year, Hodde's deep expertise in tax issues and the workings of state government led to his appointment to several other positions, mostly unpaid, including chairman of the governor's committee to revise the state's budget and accounting system. At this point, the Hoddes gave up active operation of the Colville farm and moved permanently to Olympia.

Hodde was rapidly earning a reputation as a troubleshooter and the go-to guy in state government. In 1959, The Seattle Times exposed questionable practices in the state's purchasing division. Rosellini again turned to Hodde, appointing him head of the Department of General Administration, which oversaw all state purchasing. He served in that position until 1962, when he returned to the Tax Commission, this time as chairman. When Rosellini was defeated in the 1964 gubernatorial race by Republican Dan Evans (b. 1925), Hodde's career took yet another unexpected turn.

Working for the Feds

Hodde resigned as head of the tax commission when Evans took office, although the new governor wanted him to stay. He was well known to both of Washington's senators, Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989) and Henry M. Jackson (1912-1983), and they soon secured his appointment as the Northwest regional coordinator for the federal Department of the Interior.

After two years service there, in 1967 Hodde was named by President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) as chairman of the Pacific Northwest River Basins Commission, an important new agency that studied and planned for future use (and restraints on use) of the region's major rivers. These were the early years of environmental awareness, and Hodde's brief touched on irrigation, hydropower, public versus private utilities, international water rights, even nuclear power. In his short time on the commission he helped establish an ethos of thoughtful and considered exploitation of natural resources.

With the election of Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994) in 1968, there was no longer room for a progressive Democrat at the head of an important federal agency. Because he was just a few months shy of qualifying for a federal pension, Hodde was given a short-term job as a planner with the commission, then returned to Olympia in the late summer of 1969.

Another New Career

Charlie Hodde would spend the next seven years, from 1970 to 1977, working in Olympia as a private consultant to government agencies and private companies. His clients included grain exporters, the Washington Public Utility District Associations, the Washington Public Ports Association, the Washington State Hospital Association, the Department of Ecology, and, of course, the Grange. Some of his activities involved lobbying, of which he said:

"Full-time lobbyists may be involved in some things that they, even personally, don't think are too justified, but they're representing their client. If you look at my lobbying record, I lobbied for a number of different outfits, but only ones I thought were justified. The reason I think I was successful is that I never lobbied on those issues that I didn't think were justified to start with" (1997 Oral History, 24).

One of Hodde's notable victories during these years was on a matter close to his heart. Initiative 59, the Family Farm Initiative, sought to rein in "corporate farming" by allowing allocations of public water resources for irrigation only to farms of 2,000 acres or less. It was submitted first to the legislature, which took no action, so was sent on to the people and passed in November, 1977.

Hodde was doing well, but tragedy struck in 1978 when Helen, his wife of 45 years, passed away. The following year he married Levoy Curtis (1918-1985) and following her death was wed to Jane Barfoot, whose grandparents were Orcas Island pioneers. They would remain together until Hodde's death in 1999.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Charlie Hodde was earning more money than ever before. He had made many friends and very few enemies over his long career, and his influence in Olympia was legendary. Governors of both parties frequently called on him for service. Republican Dan Evans put him on the Governor's Energy Policy Committee and named him advisor to the Tax Study Committee. In 1977, the newly elected Democratic governor, Dixy Lee Ray (1914-1994), placed Hodde at the head the Department of Revenue, which he would lead for four years. In the 1980s, Hodde served both Governor John Spellman (1926-2018), a Republican, and Democrat Booth Gardner. In between and during all this public service (when there were no conflicts of interest), he continued his lucrative consulting and lobbying career.

Summing Up

It is unclear exactly when, if ever, Charles Hodde actually retired, although he had dialed back his activities considerably by the late 1980s. But right through to his last years, he was called upon by politicians and pundits alike for advice or knowledgeable comments about current events and issues in state politics. Starting as a self-described dirt farmer in the remote northeast corner of the state, he had over the course of six decades become a man of tremendous reputation and influence.

One of Hodde's great gifts was his story-telling ability, and one story he told seems to sum up his lifelong fight on behalf of common people, and particularly small farmers, who he believed were often asked to give more than they got. Heavily paraphrased, it goes like this:

A tired man on a tired horse came upon a hand-cranked water pump on the road at the bottom of a hill. Grabbing a bucket, he started cranking the pump, but only a trickle of water came out. He pumped and he pumped, but the bucket was taking forever to fill. Taking a break, he glanced up the hill and saw a man sitting on the porch of a house at the top. He yelled up, "What's the matter, if you're going to have a pump down here by the road, why don't you have it so it will pump?" and the man yelled back, "Don't worry, that pump's working all right. You just keep pumping; when you've pumped that bucket full for yourself down there, you will have pumped me two barrels up here ..." (1986 Oral History, 4).

Few others in the history of state politics have served the people so long, so well, and in so many roles as Charlie Hodde. He died in Olympia on June 27, 1999, leaving behind his wife, Jane, his three children by his first marriage, and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.


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