Archive for the ‘Idaho’ Category

Heart and Soul

rs_560x415-140224091818-1024.roccos-chicago-pizzeria-arizona-legislators-022414The political and social fault lines in the modern Republican Party have been showing again for the last several days in Arizona. The Republican governor, Jan Brewer, vetoed a piece of legislation this week that was widely seen as opening a path of overt discrimination against gays. The veto came after days of increasingly negative attention focused on Arizona; attention that included corporate worries about the legislation’s impact on business and threats to cancel next year’s Super Bowl game in suburban Phoenix.

Brewer, an often erratic politician who once championed most causes of the far right of her party, took her time in doing it, but she ultimately saved the state’s Republicans from themselves. The hot button bill, pushed by conservative religious interests and passed by the Arizona legislature with only GOP votes, underscores once again the fractured nature and fundamentally minority bent of a Republican Party that vowed to renew itself after losing the White House again in 2012.

Gov. Brewer, who seems to be term-limited from running again in the fall, but still hasn’t said whether she would contest such an interpretation, underwent a full court press from the “establishment” wing of the GOP who called on her to ax the handiwork of Republican legislators. Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain and Jeff Flake both urged a veto. Apple, American Airlines, the state Hispanic chamber of commerce and a pizza shop in Tuscon that vowed to protest by refusing to serve Arizona legislators swarmed the governor. In the end it might have been the National Football League, plagued with its own image problems, that helped the governor decide to do the right thing; the right thing politically, economically, morally and for football fans.

The Republican Party’s national dilemma with issues like Arizona’s gay bashing legislation – and similar legislation in several other states with strong GOP majorities  – is neatly summed up in a comment from Mark McKinnon, the ad guy who made TV spots from George W. Bush in both of his successful elections.

“In this country, the arc of human rights always bends forward, never backwards,” McKinnon, a co-founder of the centrist group No Labels told Politico recently. “So these kinds of incidents are always backward steps for the Republican Party because they remind voters they are stuck in the past.”

Voters are being reminded of that reality in lots of places. In Oregon, some of the state’s most conservative Republicans are blasting the fellow GOP organizers of the 50 year old Dorchester Conference; denouncing them as “liberals” intent on advancing a pro-gay, pro-abortion, anti-religion agenda.

“In light of the unveiled agenda to promote and celebrate liberal causes like abortion-on-demand, pet campaign projects like ‘republicanizing’ same-sex marriage and the attack on people of faith and their religious liberties many of us do not feel that our participation in this year’s Dorchester Conference is welcomed,” one of the offended right wingers told The Oregonian.

In Idaho a conservative former Republican governor, Phil Batt, went straight at his party and Gov. Butch Otter over the state legislature’s failure to even consider legislation to add fundamental human rights protections for the state’s gay, lesbian and transgender population. Batt, with his own gay grandson in mind, wrote in an op-ed: “I would like to have somebody explain to me who is going to be harmed by adding the words to our civil rights statutes prohibiting discrimination in housing and job opportunities for homosexuals. Oh, I forgot, that might hurt the feelings of the gay bashers.”

It seems like a life-time ago that national Republicans, reeling from the re-election of the President Obama, commissioned an assessment of what the party needed to do to re-group in order to effectively contest a national election again. Like many such high-level reports, this one generated about a day and a half of news coverage and went on the shelf never to be read again. The GOP report outlined the demographic challenges the party faces and why the divisive debate in Arizona that quickly went national is so very damaging to party’s long-term prospects. Here are a couple of relevant paragraphs from the GOP’s Growth and Opportunity Book that was produced just over a year ago.

“Public perception of the Party is at record lows. Young voters are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the Party represents, and many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country. When someone rolls their eyes at us, they are not likely to open their ears to us.”

And this: “Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. States in which our presidential candidates used to win, such as New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Iowa, Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia, and Florida, are increasingly voting Democratic. We are losing in too many places.”

In the face of this incontrovertible evidence Republicans have rolled out legislation like SB 1062 in state after state further alienating not only gay and lesbian voters, but likely most younger and independent voters. The GOP refusal at the federal level to even go through the motions of working on immigration reform seems certain to drive more and more Hispanic voters – the fastest growing demographic in the nation – away from Republicans candidates. At some not-too-distant point the political math, even in John McCain’s Arizona, becomes impossible for the GOP.

It is true that in our political history the fortunes of political parties regularly ebb and flow. The Whigs worked themselves out of existence in the 1850’s unable to find a set of positions that might bridge regional and ideological barriers and sustain them a national party. Immediately before and for years after the Civil War Democrats became largely a regional party that failed to command a national majority and elect a president in the years from 1856 until 1884. Teddy Roosevelt split the GOP in 1912 helping elect only the second Democratic president since the Civil War and his distant cousin Franklin, with the help of a Great Depression, created an enduring Democratic coalition – farmers, big cities ethnics, organized labor and the South – that lasted for two generations until moral and political battles over civil rights finally ceded the South to Republicans, a hand-off that now leaves that region as the only dependable base of the Republican Party.

In almost every case in our history when a party stumbles, as national Republicans stumble now, a unifying figure has emerged – FDR for Democrats in 1932 or Ronald Reagan in 1980 for the GOP – to offer a message that smooths over the ideological fissures. In the meantime, and lacking a unifying messenger, national Republican battles played out over the most polarizing issues – witness Arizona – will hamstring the party from moving forward.

Conservative commentator Myra Adams recently detailed ten reasons why the GOP is floundering as a national party. Adams remembered that the much maligned Millard Fillmore – he was president from 1849 to 1853 – was the last Whig Party president and she speculated that George W. Bush might well be the last Republican president. Her reason number nine for the current state of the national GOP was most telling. The party, she wrote, “is growing increasingly white, old, Southern, and male, which alienates majorities of younger voters, Hispanics, African Americans, gays, teachers, young professionals, atheists, unmarried women, and even suburban married women.”

In the end, the issues for Republicans are more serious even than the demographics. The party failure to re-cast itself by looking forward with attitudes and issues that address an America in the 21st Century is, to say the least, a risky gambit. Yet, the kind of a makeover that is needed seems increasingly unlikely, at least in the near term, when the loudest voices speaking for Republicans are constantly playing to a narrower and narrower group of true believers, while denying – as the 87-years young Phil Batt suggests – that the cultural and political world is passing them by.

Increasingly outside forces and insurgents like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz rather than sober-minded realists dominate the party’s message. The Koch brothers, aiming to keep beating the anti Obamacare drum, have hijacked the GOP message for the coming mid-term elections. Look for the totality of the GOP message this year to be about the evils of the health care law (and the “socialist” president) even as a new Kaiser Health poll shows Americans are increasingly comfortable with the much-debated law. Kaiser’s survey shows that fully 56% of those surveyed favor keeping the law as is or keeping it and making improvements. Only the GOP base is clamoring for something different and even those numbers are shrinking.

Another overly influential outside voice, the Heritage Foundation, was still trying to explain why the Arizona legislation was “good public policy” after Brewer’s veto. And the guy with the loudest (and meanest) GOP megaphone, Rush Limbaugh, always eager to double down on a lost cause, said Brewer was “bullied” into her veto position in order to “advance the gay agenda.” All that plays well tactically with the “increasingly white, old, Southern, and male” base of the GOP, but leaves much of the rest of the 21st Century United States very cold indeed.

Lacking the re-boot that many Republicans wisely advocated after the last national election the party, as Mark Mckinnon says, will continue to be stuck in the past. The really bad news for national Republicans is that elections are always about the future.

Women Who Work

rosie-the-riveterThe Labor Day news has been dominated by strikes at fast food restaurants, essays on growing income inequality in the United States and even reports about how increasingly unaffordable higher education is going to make the current generation less likely than their parents to climb into a comfortable middle class life.

All these challenges, and more, are worth the attention of policy makers and lawmakers was we mark another Labor Day, a holiday created in 1896, by the way, as an olive branch to workers by the anti-labor union President Grover Cleveland.  We should also add to our list of policy and societal concerns the continuing challenges and inequality that confront women in the work place.

Those fast food strikes aimed at a higher minimum wage are, as Slate points out, mostly about women. “This is a labor movement that is structured largely around the needs articulated by the working mothers in it, women who, with or without a partner, are often trying to raise families on minimum wage jobs. Women make up two-thirds of the fast food work force, and a quarter of workers are raising children.”

At the other end of the economic spectrum – the high end –  Fortune reckons that only 21 of the companies in the Fortune 500 are run by women. A 2011 report by Catalyst, an outfit that tracks “critical statistics to gauge women’s advancement into leadership and highlights the gender diversity gap,” found that only 16% of all Fortune 500 board positions where held by women. Fewer than 3% of companies had a woman chair the board of directors, only 1% – a decline from a previous study – had as many as 40%  female board members and 11% of the Fortune 500 had absolutely no women in governance roles. Predictably the numbers are even worse for women of color; 3% of board seats of the biggest companies in the United States are held by women of color and 70% of the Fortune 500 have no women of color at all in governance roles.

Some Idaho specific numbers to contemplate when next your order that Whopper from the woman behind the counter: the median income of a working woman in Idaho in 2012 was $18,772 – dead last in the nation with Utah and Montana ahead. (All these numbers are from the website USA.com.) And just to put that $18,722 in context, the poverty level – as officially calculated by the government – is $23,550 for a family of four. A working mom in Idaho who is bringing home the state’s median income and supporting a couple of children is, to say the least, struggling.

But Idaho must be doing better for women in the management and professional ranks, right? Not so much. Nearly 47% of the Idaho work force is made up of women, which is slightly below the national average and just over 35% of those women are employed in “management or professional” positions. That number puts Idaho well below the national average as the 49th state in the nation for women in more traditional “white collar” jobs. Idaho is just ahead of Nevada and Hawaii, states with a particularly high level of service oriented jobs due to their tourism based economies. Idaho’s regional neighbors do substantially as measured by a percentage of women working in white collar jobs: Utah is at 41 in the nation, Montana 28, Oregon 25 and Washington at 15.

So what’s going on here? From the highest reaches of corporate America to the neighborhood coffee shop women seem not to be sharing anything like parity in the work place with men and the gaps haven’t been closing much at all.

Hanna Rosin, a senior editor at The Atlantic and the author of The End of Men, says we’ve focused too much on the “wage gap,” the well-worn statistic that women only make 77 cents on the dollar compared to men. Rosin says there are many reasons for the wage gap, and many are not comforting, including the fact that women often work few hours a week than men, men more often belong to unions (and generally get paid more as a result) and, perhaps the big one, women, despite overtaking men in educational achievement, still gravitate (or perhaps are forced to gravitate) to generally lower paying jobs.

The bigger issues, Rosin says, are “the deeper, more systemic discrimination of inadequate family-leave policies and childcare options, of women defaulting to being the caretakers. Or of women deciding that are suited to be nurses and teachers but not doctors. And in that more complicated discussion, you have to leave room at least for the option of choice—that women just don’t want to work the same way men do.”

Author and educator Stephanie Koontz, who incidentally will speak at a major and sold-out Andrus Center conference on women and leadership this week at Boise State University, made essentially the same point in a New York Times essay earlier this year.

“Astonishingly,” Koontz wrote, “despite the increased workload of families, and even though 70 percent of American children now live in households where every adult in the home is employed, in the past 20 years the United States has not passed any major federal initiative to help workers accommodate their family and work demands. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 guaranteed covered workers up to 12 weeks unpaid leave after a child’s birth or adoption or in case of a family illness. Although only about half the total work force was eligible, it seemed a promising start. But aside from the belated requirement of the new Affordable Care Act that nursing mothers be given a private space at work to pump breast milk, the F.M.L.A. turned out to be the inadequate end.

“Meanwhile, since 1990 other nations with comparable resources have implemented a comprehensive agenda of ‘work-family reconciliation’ acts. As a result, when the United States’ work-family policies are compared with those of countries at similar levels of economic and political development, the United States comes in dead last.”

As an old friend use to remind me – “all things are political.” Whether its the paltry percentage of women in corporate governance in America, the unlivable minimum wage or work place friendly policies that impact working women and their kids, the public policy response to women who work has, as Stephanie Koontz says, not just stalled, but “hit a wall.” Even Barack Obama, who most thought would take major steps to correct the gender balance in major presidential appointments, has a record leaving much to be desired.

A couple of weeks ago the Nixon Library was in the news as it released the last of Richard Nixon’s White House tape recordings. Less notice was given to some 30,000 pages of documents from the Nixon years that were released at the same time. Two of the pages where a typewritten 1971 memo from Nixon staff assistant Barbara Franklin to White House political advisers Fred Malek and Jeb Magruder. Franklin had just been to a Washington, D.C. conference on the “status of women” – the delegates she wrote were not “radical feminists” but “establishment women” appointed by the nation’s governors – and she wrote excitedly about the standing ovation that had been given at the conclusion of remarks by a woman named Betty Friedan who had issued a stirring call for woman to seek greater political power. [Friedan's pace setting book The Feminine Mystique had been published in 1963.]

Franklin told Nixon’s political guys in the concluding lines of her memo, “I’m absolutely convinced the ‘women’s issue’ is gathering momentum. We should be listening and thinking!!” Unfortunately that is still appropriate advice to politicians 42 years later.

As Dr. Kootnz has written we need to “stop arguing about the hard choices women make and help more women and men avoid such hard choices. To do that, we must stop seeing work-family policy as a women’s issue and start seeing it as a human rights issue that affects parents, children, partners, singles and elders.”

Women and minorities have provided the electoral power in the last two presidential elections, finally breaking one glass ceiling and putting an African-American in the White House. A woman may well be next and perhaps that will be, at long last, the catalyst for a policy agenda that really addresses women who work.

 

The Middle Doesn’t Hold

howard-deanLots of Democrats like Howard Dean the former Vermont governor because he can almost always be counted on to be a full-throated partisan. Cable news loves the one-time Democratic presidential candidate because he’s always ready to launch an attack the other side. Nothing subtle or nuanced about Dean. In his world the Democrats – make that the most liberal Democrats – are always right and the Republicans are a bunch of knuckle-dragging throwbacks to the 19th Century. He has nearly as little use for a Democrat who wanders off the party reservation.

Lots of Republicans, particularly the Tea Party wing of the party, love the Club for Growth and its mouthpiece former Rep. Chris Chocola because the Club and the former Congressman can always be counted on to attack any Republican who dares to veer, even ever so slightly, from the group’s unyielding anti-tax, anti-government agenda. The Club for Growth has established itself as the enforcer of GOP orthodoxy on taxes and the scope of government. As a Republican you cross this crowd with full knowledge that they know how to buy television attack ads and have money to burn.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury: consider Exhibits A and B in the sad and troubling case of who murdered moderation in American politics. The loud and often unreasonable voices of guys like Dean and Chocola  increasingly dominate political discussion and they are largely getting away with the political murder of moderation because we’re letting them. If you enjoy dysfunction in Washington, D.C. keep rewarding the Deans and Chocolas. Their political oxygen depends on squeezing the last breath out of anyone who even looks like a moderate.

Dean, of course, has his own political action committee and says he’s “open,” despite the legendary “scream from Iowa” heard round the world in 2004, to another run for president in 2016. He’ll undoubtedly run as a divider and not a uniter. Dean made news in Oregon this week, which he no doubt wanted to do, for launching a Twitter attack on a prominent Democratic state senator who had the gall to buck her party on a couple of high profile votes during the recently adjourned Oregon legislative session. Sen. Betsy Johnson did vote with Oregon Democrats 90% of the time during the recent legislative session, but in Dean’s “no room for moderates” world the senator, because she crossed her party on a couple of issues, needs to be challenged and replaced.

Chocola was out this week with an equally bizarre attack on Idaho Republican Congressman Mike Simpson. The Club for Growth announced it had endorsed a novice Republican from Idaho Falls, Bryan Smith, who is challenging the widely-respected eight-term chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee that just happens to be vital to Idaho. Club for Growth calls Simpson “one of the biggest liberals in the Republican Party,” which is nonsense bordering on political malpractice as anyone who really knows the Congressman can attest. Simpson is, by any realistic measure, a very conservative Republican. He’s gone down the line with the NRA, opposed Obamacare and has battled the EPA over budgets and regulation, among other things. What he is not is a knuckle-dragger always in lock step with the far right.

Challenger Smith, who the Club apparently recruited for a Simpson primary challenge by trolling the Internet, was endorsed because he opposed Idaho Falls city property tax increases and criticized the Supreme Court on its health care ruling. Quite a record. Sign him up. The guy sounds like he’ll dependably put his rock on the “no” button if, against all logic and likelihood, he should happen to make it to Congress.

Simpson, probably because he spent his formative political years in the Idaho House of Representatives, including a successful stint as Speaker, while a politically skillful and successful Democrat held the governor’s office, has never automatically assumed every person across the aisle is an opponent worthy of being savaged from Twin Falls to Twitter. Simpson actually thinks a legislator’s job is to try and make the government work. He knows his district’s economy depends on the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) and that contrary to Club for Growth-like thinking maybe, just maybe, he needs from-time-to-time to be able to work with an ideological opposite  in order to keep the Department of Energy budget working for the nation and his district. We used to call that politics and it still amounts to governing.

Simpson’s real concern to Club for Growth is that he has dared to speak what every sensible person in Washington and the nation knows to be the truth about the federal budget: To secure a long-term and stable fiscal situation for the country Republicans and Democrats must come together and address spending, entitlements and – brace yourself – future revenues. In other words, Simpson has said what Simpson-Bowles have said and what Warren Buffett has said, in fact what every responsible person in the country has said about the nation’s fiscal and budget policies. In short, Mike Simpson is a conservative Republican who understands that finding common ground on major issues isn’t treason, but rather statesmanship.

Howard Dean and his like on the political left and Chris Chocola and his ilk on the right play only one political note: a high pitched squeal that can best be heard by the most partisan folks in both political parties. Such silliness has been at the heart of the near death of moderation in our politics and in Idaho in the past it has given the state such stellar Members of Congress as former Rep. Bill Sali, once championed and elected thanks to the million dollar largess of Club for Growth. Sali’s inept and embarrassing single term in Congress was highlighted by his introduction of legislation repealing the law of gravity. It’s true. You can look it up.

Come election day here’s betting that Rep. Simpson in Idaho and State Sen. Johnson in Oregon will be returned to office. Their constituents like them and know them. Both of them seem willing to defend common sense, which thankfully some voters still appreciate. Others elsewhere who practice the once celebrated political art of moderation may not fare as well and what former Sen. Al Simpson of Wyoming calls “the 100% crowd” – those who insist on unbending fidelity to their way of thinking – will have won yet another battle against realistic government.

Once upon a time pragmatic voters in places like Oregon and Idaho rewarded stubbornly independent moderates like the late, great Republican governor and senator Mark O. Hatfield and the former Democratic governor and Secretary of the Interior Cecil D. Andrus. Hatfield built a career around charting his own course for Oregon in the Senate, often tilting against Republican presidents, and Andrus often publicly disowned the excesses of national Democrats and delighted in doing so while his Idaho constituents sent him to the Statehouse four times over three decades. Today such political heresy would spur a social media attack followed by a primary challenge.

Our national history tells us clearly that political independence and moderation really should be cause for celebration, but the political ayathollahs of the American left and right are as determined to slay the last visages of moderation as are the political absolutists who rule in Teheran.

Americans are united in condemning one group of fundamentalist crazies. We ought also unite in condemning those who fuliminate to kill moderation closer to home.

 

Appointing Senators

senateSam Ervin, the white haired Constitutional law expert from North Carolina who presided over the most famous and consequential Senate investigation ever, may never have made it to Senate had he not first been appointed to the job. That’s Ervin in the photo surrounded by Watergate committee staff and Sen. Howard Baker in 1972.

Ervin, appointed in 1954, served 20 years in the Senate and is now remembered to history for his drawling, gentlemanly and expert handling of the investigation that exposed the corruption at the very top of the Nixon White House. Ervin is one of about 200 people appointed to the Senate by governors since we started the direct election of Senators in 1913. All but seven of the Senators by stroke of the pen have been men.

As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie considers his enormously high profile appointment to fill the seat vacated by the death of long-time Sen. Frank Lautenberg, it’s worth pondering the unique gubernatorial power under our system to literally create a senator. There is nothing else quite like it in our politics.

In keeping with his flamboyant style, Christie made news by saying he’ll appoint a temporary replacement and then immediately call a special primary election in August and then a Senate election in October, just weeks before Christie himself faces the voters, in order to give New Jersey voters a say in who their senator will be. New Jersey will then vote again for a Senator in November 2014. If all this plotting seems a little too calculating even for Gov. Christie then welcome to the strange world of appointed senators.

The analysis of Christie’s strategy has been rich and for a political junkie intoxicating. The governor knows he needs to make an appointment, but by calling a quick election to either validate or reject his appointee Christie (perhaps) can distance himself from his own pick. By scheduling the election three weeks before his own re-election goes to the voters Christie can get the complicated Senate business out of the way in hopes it won’t impact issues or turnout in his campaign. Or…well, offer your own theory.

One thing seems certain in New Jersey. Christie is too smart and too politically savvy to appoint himself. That has been tried and never works. Montana Gov. John Erickson orchestrated such a self-appointment in the early 1930’s and he subsequently lost when voters correctly concluded the appointment smacked too much of a backroom deal. Same thing happened with Idaho Governor-turned-Senator Charles Gossett in the 1940’s. Gossett resigned as governor having cut a deal with his Lt. Gov. Arnold Williams to immediate appointment him to the Senate. Voters punished both at the next opportunity. In 1946 the Senate actually had two self-appointed Senators – Gossett and Nevada’s Edward P. Carville who cut the same deal with his second-in-command. Carville also lost a subsequent bid to retain his self-appointed Senate seat. History tells us there is not a high bar to Senate appointments, but one thing that doesn’t pass the voter’s smell test is an appointment that smacks of an inside deal. Note that Christie made a point in his public comments to say he wouldn’t be part of such a deal, but his appointment when it comes will be scrubbed up one side and down the other for hints of just such a deal.

Idaho is actually in the running for the most appointed Senators – six by my count – with one of that number, Sen. John Thomas, actually appointed twice, once in 1928 and again in 1940. Alaska’s Ted Stevens first came to the Senate by appointment, so did Maine’s George Mitchell (a future majority leader) and Minnesota’s Walter Mondale (a future vice president). Oregon’s great Sen. Charles McNary came to the Senate by appointment and stayed to become a respected Republican leader and vice presidential candidate in 1940. Washington’s three-term Gov. Dan Evans was later appointed to the Senate. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, a great leader on foreign policy during the early Cold War years, was an appointed Senator, so too Mississippi’s James O. Eastland, a power on the Judiciary Committee and a six-term Senator after his appointment.

Virginia’s Carter Glass had a remarkable political career – Congressman, Secretary of the Treasury, appointed Senator who went on to serve 26 years in the Senate and become an authority on banking and finance. The Glass-Steagall Act, a hallmark of the early New Deal regulation of banking, bares his name.

Only a handful of women have come to the Senate by the appointment path and most have replaced their husbands. Rose McConnell Long filled out the remainder of husband Huey’s term in 1935 and 1936, but opted not to run herself. Arkansas’ Hattie Caraway was appointed to fill the term of her deceased husband and then became the first women elected in her own right to the Senate in 1932. She won another election in 1938 and then lost a Democratic primary in 1944 to J. William Fulbright who went on to become one of the giants of the Senate.

Gov. Christie has a lot to ponder as he considers creating a United States Senator with the stroke of a pen. Will he create a Thomas Taggart of Indiana or an Irving Drew of New Hampshire? Both were appointed Senators and, don’t be embarrassed, there is absolutely no reason you should have ever heard of either one. Taggart, a Democrat, served a little over seven months in 1916 and lost an election bid. Drew, a Republican, served barely two months in 1918 and didn’t bother to run on his own. For every Sam Ervin or Charles McNary there is an appointed Senator who is something less than a household name.

Maybe Christie create a Senator like Idaho’s Len Jordan, a former governor appointed to the Senate in 1962 who went on to twice win election in his own right and establish a solid legislative record.

If history is a guide, Christie will reward a loyal and safe member of his own party – former Gov. Tom Kean for example – and someone unable or unwilling to overshadow the governor. The person appointed must also fulfill the fundamental qualification for the office – do no harm to the person making the appointment. Did I mention that appointing a Senator is just about the most political thing any governor can do? It’s going to be rich political theater to watch and analyze the actions of the governor of New Jersey who both wants to be re-elected this fall and run for president in 2016. Let the appointing begin.

 

Sorry, Wrong Number…Many, Many Times

My Dad used to smile when telling his story about the young fellow who had just seen the classic 1962 World War II movie – The Longest Day – about the D-Day invasion of France in 1944 and was, in turn, telling his own father about the film.

The old man listens patiently and then off-handedly tells his son, “I haven’t seen the movie, but I was there for the play.”

In the same spirit as that old story, I have not seen the 1948 Barbara Stanwyck/Burt Lancaster movie – Sorry, Wrong Number – but I have definitely been living the play. My play is called: Trying to Reach Health and Welfare? Sorry, Wrong Number.

There is nothing special or particularly unique about my telephone number except that the first seven digits of my number match the first seven digits of a toll-free, helpline number – Medicaid Automated Customer Service – managed by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. I know this rather obscure fact because I have been averaging two or three “Health and Welfare calls” every weekday for the last two years or so. I long ago lost track of the number of calls, but it beyond hundreds and into the thousands. Thankfully, callers with questions about their Medicaid benefits must assume no state employee works on the weekend, so my phone tends to get the weekend off, as well.

Months ago I thought I had identified the answer to all these wayward calls, but alas it was a fix without a cure. On the state government website that promotes the toll-free number the “1” before the toll-free number had been, inexplicably, left off the rest of the number. So an unsuspecting caller, say from Weiser or Bonners Ferry – I’ve had calls from every corner of the big state of Idaho – would just dial the number shown (minus the “1”) and get me. I called a helpful state agent and asked if maybe, just maybe they could add the “1” and solve the problem of the call from Mrs. Jones from Caldwell, she needs to talk about her niece’s Medicaid needs, ending up on my voice mail. Problem solved, right? Not so fast. The wrong numbers declined a bit, but did not end. I have to assume regular callers to the toll-free number have made a note of the non-“1″ toll-free number and were still calling, blissfully unaware that some public affairs consultant and part-time blogger was fielding their calls. The voice mail messages on my phone seemed to continue unabated.

So, believing that information is power, I changed the greeting on my phone. No longer was it, “You have reached me and I can’t take your call right now…” My message became much more Medicaid-centric: “If you are trying to reach the Department of Health and Welfare, you haven’t…hang up and dial a “1” before you call this number.” That’ll fix it, I happily proclaimed, as I began answering questions from people who were really trying to reach me and wondering why I had a Health and Welfare related message on my phone. You can inform some of the people some of the time, but…the calls continue.

I have genuine sympathy for my callers. They need answers to real questions. Judging by some of the hundreds of messages that have been left on my voice mail, many of the callers are confused and uncertain about benefits and responsibilities. If you have ever tried dialing into a government agency you know what an intimidating experience it can be. Imagine getting the wrong number and ending up in some civilian’s voice mail, while you worry and wait for a call back. It would be easy to conclude that government just doesn’t work.

My standard procedure now is to try and intercept as many of these calls as I can and re-direct them to a number that begins with that essential “1,” but it is not always possible. And, while I admit that I’ve been annoyed and frustrated by the calls that I get, wasted effort that doesn’t do the callers any good, the “sorry, wrong number” play I’ve been living has given me an entirely new appreciation of what one little glitch in a vast government program can do to create problems and frustrate users.

As Idaho contemplates a major expansion of Medicaid services under the Affordable Care Act – one estimate holds that 100,000 more Idahoans could be covered – and the state’s for profit Medicaid contractor continues to try to make the system work, here’s hoping, and not just for my sake, that they attend to all the details, small and large, involved in an expansion.

And, just for the record, I have equal amounts of sympathy for the state workers who, without much fanfare or appreciation, labor to make an essential program of our society work for people who really need the help. This is a vastly complicated government program, wrapped in layers of regulation and requiring immense levels of accountability. One little digit – that pesky “1” – can frustrate even the most essential government program.

And, yes, I could get a new phone number, but have ruled that out. If Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster can handle a wayward call, so can I. But, for future reference, do remember that “1” in front of a toll-free number. Given the vast proliferation of telephones these days, it is a given that someone has the number that is toll-free with a “1” and just some schmuck’s voice mail without.

 

 

Spud Bowl

Bring on the Sour Cream

Let’s get this out of the way right off the top: there is no better potato in the world than the Idaho potato. World class. Dependable quality. The tuber gold standard. And the “brand” is valuable.

Years ago some enterprising fellow in New Mexico got the bright idea of importing potato sacks with the “Grown in Idaho” mark and filling them with spuds grown, of all places, in New Mexico. A stop was put to that pronto. You can’t have an Idaho potato grown in New Mexico. It’s like Champagne. You may call it champagne, but if it ain’t made from grapes grown in the Champagne region of France and bottled there, it isn’t “real” Champagne, it is merely sparkling wine. Same with an Idaho spud.

So, given the historic Idaho association with the Famous Potato, it’s a natural, I guess, that the once named Humanitarian Bowl football game is now the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. But Idahoans best brace themselves. The jokes are just beginning.

On Twitter, @TheRobMorse writes: “I’d like to see Chip Kelly coach against Hayden Fry in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.” And @ParkerShield22 says, “Gatorade shower replaced by players spreading butter and sour cream on winning coach and wrapping him in aluminum foil.” You get the idea and, believe me, there are lots more where those came from.

To be serious for a moment, the news of the renaming of the bowl should cause Idahoans – at least those with some responsibility for the state’s “brand” – to consider, well, our image. For a state frequently confused with Iowa – “I was in Des Moines once is that anywhere close to Boise?” – being almost completely defined by an admittedly superb agricultural product may have some real downside.

A lot of marketing folks would tell you, Idaho doesn’t have a brand. Maybe the same is true of most states. New Jersey’s brand? Hazardous waste sites and Tony Soprano. Kansas: The Tornado State. Or, North Dakota: You Can See Canada From Here.

Idaho is Famous Potatoes.

It’s a tough time for the state branding business. Washington State recently ended all state-sponsored tourism promotion. USA Today reported this week that at least 20 states have cut back on efforts to lure visitors, which really means they aren’t marketing whatever “brand” they have.

Not everyone is throwing in the towel, however. Michigan has been all over the air with its pretty good Pure Michigan campaign. Not bad for a state whose largest city can boast of a good baseball team, and not much else, playing amid years of decay. Montana, a state with a real brand, has big billboards in downtown Seattle and a new tourism promotion chief who has the good sense to market the state’s two iconic National Parks.

Idaho’s real marketing problem may just be that a state with such a vast collection of individuals will never be able to settle on one image, slogan or brand. Some Idahoans would be comfortable with calling our place “The Wilderness State,” but that certainly wouldn’t fly with the “no more wilderness crowd.” How about the “State of Big Hearted Rivers?” Nope. Rivers here are for more than floatin’ and fishin’, we use that water to grow, er, potatoes. The no-growth, “I wish it were 1950 again” types might opt for “Idaho – the tick fever state.” Not a winner with the economic development crowd.

Idaho: We Know Nuclear. Nope.

Idaho: Nevada Without the Gambling. Won’t catch on.

Idaho: Easier than Utah to Get a Drink? Even that isn’t really true any longer.

Idahoans should just embrace the iconic potato and the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl as the best we got. It’s has put us on the map, or the Internet, after all. Google those words today and you’ll get 1,500,000 hits. It’s not Iowa, yet, but it’s a start and it’s not – thank your potatoes – in a class with the Poulan Weed-Eater Bowl.