Education, Idaho Politics

Idaho Ds Win (Occasionally) When GOP Screws Up

My column this week in the Lewiston Tribune

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This year’s race for Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction will test one of my long held theories about the state’s politics. It will be news to some voters, but Democrats have occasionally won elections in Idaho, but generally only when Republicans screw up and put forward a candidate broadly seen as unfit or ill prepared. When that happens a competent Democrat can win and often stay in office for a while.

Frank Church won the first of his four terms in the Senate in 1956 because he faced a flawed GOP incumbent, Herman Welker, who had distinguished himself as Joe McCarthy’s best friend in the Senate. Welker was likely also suffering from a brain tumor, which may have contributed to an erratic personality that offended many voters, including Republicans. Unacceptable GOP candidate equals Democratic win.

Cecil Andrus used to joke that had there not been a Don Samuelson, another bumbling GOP incumbent, he would never have won the first of his four terms as governor. Democrat John Evans beat the hapless Republican gubernatorial candidate Allen Larsen in 1978 only after Larsen, an awful candidate, told live-and-let-live Idahoans that he thought it was possible to legislate morality. That’s why you don’t remember Governor Larsen. Richard Stallings was elected to Congress because the GOP incumbent George Hansen was a serial crook. One judge, obviously giving Big George the benefit of the doubt, said Hansen’s failure to comply with campaign finance law was not necessarily “evil” but “stupid, surely.” Hansen later served time for defrauding a bank.

Democrat Cindy Wilson

Which brings us to Cindy Wilson, the earnest, experienced, energetic and personable Democratic candidate for state superintendent of public instruction. Wilson, based on her resume and grasp of issues, should, even in red Idaho, be a serious candidate. She’s taught for 33 years in schools in Orofino, Pierce, Shelley, Boise and Meridian. She’s won awards for her classroom success and Governor Butch Otter appointed her to the state board of corrections, giving Wilson a view of how educational failure contributes to exploding prison populations. That Wilson has a chance to win, however, says as much about the underwhelming incumbent as it does about the challenger.

Republican incumbent Sherri Ybarra is, as one astute observer told me, really “an accidental candidate.” Ybarra, a total political unknown with a shallow resume, came from nowhere to win the GOP nomination four years ago. That was enough for a Republican “fresh face” to win a general election. Since then Ybarra’s often erratic performance has raised persistent questions about her competence and even her interest in the job.

For a politician who is supposed to be an advocate for Idaho’s 300,000 public school students, Ybarra frequently seems to have forgotten to do her homework. Ybarra has been late with her campaign finance reports and has never fully explained why she had to amend disclosure reports going back to 2017 to justify why she paid herself back for a loan to her campaign that she had never disclosed as a loan in the first place.

Ybarra has stressed support for rural schools, but her policy proposals have been thin to the point of non-existence. Gubernatorial candidate Brad Little, by contrast, recently put some specific meat on the bones of how rural districts might actually combine certain services. It is the kind of thing a chief school officer might do rather than a candidate for governor.

Republican incumbent Sherri Ybarra

Ybarra has touted a school safety initiative – KISS, Keep Idaho Students Safe – but did nothing to coordinate her very expensive proposal with the office state lawmakers specifically established to deal with that issue. As Idaho Education News reported recently the head of the Idaho Office of School Safety and Security was dumbfounded to learn that Ybarra had gone off on her own, ignoring the expertise in his office. “We didn’t even know she was looking at doing any kind of safety initiative until she announced it to the general public,” said school safety program manager Brian Armes.

Challenger Wilson might have simplified her entire campaign by adopting an easily understood slogan: “I’ll show up for work.” Ybarra has frequently missed state board of education meetings, including a meeting this summer that conflicted with her professed need to pack for a vacation. Lately she has been stiffing joint appearances with Wilson, including in the last few days an Idaho Falls City Club event and an educational forum at Boise State University.

Ybarra ducked the Idaho Falls appearance in favor of a fundraiser at a pub in Eagle owned by a former colleague who lost his educational credentials after being accused of multiple counts of sexual harassment. “He was punished for that, and he’s still a friend of mine,” Ybarra told reporter Clark Corbin of Idaho Education News. “We’re not around kids right now, we’re at a fundraiser.” That statement will be remembered as the definition of tone deaf, or perhaps worse.

The last time Idaho had a bumbler in the state superintendent’s office voters overwhelmingly rejected his “education reforms” at the ballot box. And before that an incompetent Republican state superintendent lost re-election to Democrat Marilyn Howard, who went on to serve two terms, carrying on a tradition of professional, competent management of the office that dates back to Jerry Evans and Roy Truby in the 1970s and 1980s.

Having the big R behind your name is often all it takes to win in Idaho, but if voters are paying attention and really want competence in a job critical to kids and parents and the economy, the incumbent state superintendent will be looking for a new job in January.

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Johnson, Supreme Court

This Is Not Over…

My latest column that run Friday, October 5, 2018 in the Lewiston (Idaho) Tribune.

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Most Americans today won’t recognize his name. When he resigned in disgrace from the U.S. Supreme Court in 1969 he mostly disappeared from public life, remembered now only as a footnote in the evolving story of increasing partisan hostility over membership on the highest court in the land.

It wouldn’t be correct to say that the politicization of the court began with Abe Fortas – judicial nominations are and have always been inherently political – but what happened to Fortas does provide a cautionary tale for today’s Senate as it struggles with the tortured process of assessing Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s fitness for a lifetime appointment.

Justice Abe Fortas

Fortas, like Brett Kavanaugh, was not merely a creature of the political process but a deeply partisan political player who, like Kavanaugh owed his appointment to a flawed process engineered by a flawed president.

Fortas was, like Kavanaugh, a Yale Law grad, and was one of the bright young lawyers who populated the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt. In the 1940s Fortas helped found a high-powered D.C. law firm – today’s Arnold and Porter – where he represented deep pocket corporate clients and maintained his extensive and lucrative political connections.

When his friend Lyndon Johnson needed legal help to make certain his contested 87-vote victory in a 1948 Texas Senate race would hold up under scrutiny he called Fortas. After Johnson won a landslide election as president in 1964, like most presidents he wanted to put his mark on the Supreme Court. Johnson being Johnson, he literally forced Associate Justice Arthur Goldberg off the court in order to appoint his pal Fortas. He was confirmed and that decision seemed, briefly, to cement a liberal lean to the Supreme Court for a long time to come.

But, in a variation of the old line that you can make God laugh by telling him your plans, Johnson – and Fortas –overreached. Badly. When, near the end of Johnson’s presidency in 1968, Chief Justice Earl Warren announced his retirement, LBJ was certain he could replace Warren as chief justice by ramming a Fortas nomination through a Senate controlled by Democrats. Shades of the current controversy – Johnson insisted on speedy Senate action. Don’t ask a lot of questions, he said, just confirm him – quickly.

A famous photo of LBJ giving Abe Fortas “the Johnson treatment”

Conservative southern Democrats and Senate Republicans refused to go along with the hurry up process, particularly after it was disclosed that Fortas had been the beneficiary of a sweetheart deal that paid him a tidy sum to teach at American University, a deal not financed by the college, but by former clients at his old law firm. It was also revealed that the justice had been a regular advisor to Johnson, counseling the president on PR strategy regarding the war in Vietnam, attending cabinet meetings and even drafting a state of the union speech for LBJ. Fortas, with the surety of a Brett Kavanaugh, dissembled about his involvement and ultimately a Senate filibuster killed his appointment as chief justice.

But even as Fortas stayed on the court, the drip, drip of scandal would not stop. And finally when another sweetheart consulting gig involving a shady friend was unearthed Fortas’s time was up. He resigned from the court in disgrace in the spring of 1969. He died in 1982.

So play this out 50 years later with another highly partisan court appointment. Kavanaugh has left not only a vast and still undisclosed paper trail of his activities and views of the George W. Bush White House, but now has had two appearances before the Senate Judiciary Committee where, to be charitable, he has been at best guilty of less than subtle obfuscation.

The president of the United States has outsourced judicial vetting to the most extreme partisans in the community of GOP special interests who want to complete the full politicization of the court. He has, like LBJ in 1965, looked beyond talent and temperament to put a politician on the bench.

No matter what happens with the Kavanaugh nomination – let’s assume he is narrowly confirmed amid continuing controversy about his past and his truthfulness – the scrutiny, just like with Abe Fortas, will not suddenly disappear.

Judge – Justice – Brett Kavanaugh

There is a better than even chance that Democrats will win control of the U.S. House of Representatives in the fall and a feisty New Yorker by the name of Jerrold Nadler will become chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Last weekend Nadler seemed to be reaching back in time when he said: “We cannot have a justice on the SupremeCourt for the next several decades who will be deciding questions of liberty and life and death and all kinds of things for the entire American people who has been credibly accused of sexual assaults, who has been credibly accused of various other … wrong things, including perjury. This has gotta be thoroughly investigated. I hope the Senate will do so. If he is on the Supreme Court and the Senate hasn’t investigated, then the House will have to.”

Based upon what the Supreme Court should be – independent, free of obvious partisan taint, above politics to the extent that is possible – it’s easy to see that Lyndon Johnson made a historic mistake in 1965 appointing an unabashed partisan to the court. Johnson knew what he was doing. He wanted his guy in there. History shows us how that turned out. Donald Trump also wants his guy on the court, a judge who has wondered out loud if constraints on presidential power are appropriate and, credible questions of past conduct aside, believes he is being put upon only as “revenge on the behalf of the Clintons.” The lesson is clear: controversial, highly partisan nominees are bad for the court and bad for the country.

In his biography of Abe Fortas, historian Bruce Allen Murphy notes that a portrait of Fortas that once hung in a prominent place in the Yale law school has now disappeared from the New Haven campus. Does a similar fate await a new justice? We’re going to find out.