Archive for the ‘Idaho Politics’ Category

Big George

220px-George_V._HansenI have a string of enduring memories of former Idaho Congressman George V. Hansen that date back nearly 40 years. Hansen died this week in Pocatello at age 83 and to the extent he deserves a place in Idaho and American political history it will be as one of the most controversial politicians the state, maybe the nation, produced in the second half of the 20th Century.

On one memorable occasion years ago I ran into Hansen as he struggled to squeeze his six foot, six inch, nearly 300 pound frame into an undersized Horizon Airlines plane on a particularly hot summer afternoon in Pocatello. He was huffing and puffing, perspiration streaming down his face, but every hair on his slicked down pompadour in place, packing his own luggage, smiling his big grin, off again to slay his dragons.

Hansen, whose spectacularly controversial career as an elected official came to end in 1984, was not long out of jail for failure to file the required federal financial disclosure forms when I encountered him that day in Pocatello. Big George recognized me – I’d interviewed him many times, since publicity good or bad was the jet fuel of his political success – and, of course, he said hello and asked how I was doing. In turn I asked what he was up to and he pointed to the two oversized lawyer-style briefcases that were stuffed with paperback copies of his book assailing the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Hansen was on-the-road again that day selling his books and preaching his never ending gospel about the evils of the IRS.

In his death, as in his life, we will no doubt hear strongly mixed assessments of his career as, ironically, the mayor of an Idaho town (Alameda) that no longer exists, as perhaps the most conservative Congressman in Washington over seven terms spread from the early 1960′s to the early 1980′s, as an unsuccessful three-time U.S. Senate candidate, as a felon who eventually saw his conviction overturned in a cloud of classic Hansen confusion, and later as a private citizen ordered to repay hundred of thousands of dollars to investors he bilked. The one consistent element of his wild career was his determined crusade against the IRS, a crusade conducted by a publicity generating gadfly who regularly neglected to file his own federal tax returns.

Hansen fits squarely into the gallery of Idaho political characters from Sen. Herman Welker to Rep. Bill Sali who largely held political office to fightGeorgeHansen against government, generating big headlines by tilting at windmills as they played fast and loose with political and personal ethics, not to mention the truth. It is not difficult to recall Hansen’s legislative accomplishments since there really weren’t any, but it has always been difficult to keep straight his various brushes through and around the rules most of the rest of us play by.

As news of Hansen’s death spread this week a friend reminded me once again of the spectacular story of Hansen’s failure over many years to file federal tax returns. The blockbuster story was broken by then-Lewiston Morning Tribune reporter Jay Shelledy who, as he wrote years later, had been tipped off by various anonymous sources about the fact the the self-styled congressional critic of the IRS apparently so disliked the agency that he took it upon himself not to file his own tax return. Hansen denounced the story, the newspaper and the IRS and his southern Idaho constituents promptly re-elected him, perhaps because they appreciated the audacity of his denials.

Shelledy, a brilliant reporter who went on to edit newspapers in Moscow and Salt Lake City and teach young journalists at Louisiana State University, revealed the story behind the Hansen tax returns in 1988 after the death of former Idaho state IRS director Cal Wright, who had been one of Jay’s confirming sources. The reporter had promised the sources confidentiality in exchange for information about a story of an elected official flaunting the law. Idaho being Idaho and Hansen being a darling of the right wing the story hardly registered on his political career.

Ironically officials in the Nixon Administration were the first to tumble to Hansen’s lack of tax filing while vetting the out-of-work former Congressman for a position at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1969. Hansen had given up his House seat the year before to challenge then-Sen. Frank Church. Despite Hansen’s best efforts to label Church as soft on Communism, Church won the election handily.

According to Shelledy’s account, Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell, a man who knew something about breaking the law and going to jail, became aware of Hansen’s tax problems early in 1969. Wanting to avoid a political problem for the White House, Mitchell pulled strings. The attorney general, Shelledy wrote, ordered “the FBI and the IRS to let Hansen file back returns, pay what was owed, and forget about any legal action” that might embarrass the administration and, of course, derail Hansen’s federal appointment. Hansen, the great critic of the IRS, quietly flew to Boise and presented himself at the state IRS office on a Saturday, a day when the office was normally closed, to hand over the late  tax returns and a check. He went on to serve several years in a variety of top positions in the Nixon Administration and only years later did the story came to light thanks to Shelledy’s reporting.

It is impossible to escape the irony of a guy who made attacks on the federal tax agency the center point of his long political career, benefiting from the agency bending – or breaking – the rules to cover up his own repeated flaunting of federal law. The story is a lesson about Hansen, of course, but also one more indictment of the rottenness, 40 years after his resignation, at the core of the presidency of Richard Nixon. Years later Hansen was implicated in a massive investment scheme that cost one Idaho couple $300,000. In denying his appeal of a judgment that required him to repay the money, the Idaho Supreme Court said: “Hansen’s argument strangely assumes that he was unaware of his own assets until 2007. Moreover, there is no reason why the judgment would become inequitable simply because the judgment debtor cannot afford to pay it.” That sounds remarkably consistent with so much of Hansen’s tangled and genuinely strange career.

Say this much for Big George: he was a true believer of the Tea Party-type and a buddy of Ron Paul before such politics were fully in vogue. Never in doubt, Hansen styled himself a defender of the little guy against the excesses of Big Government. Google him today and you’ll find Big George lionized as a great defender of the Constitution who went to jail for his beliefs. At the same time, Hansen was a brilliant retail campaigner and as good a politician at working a room as I have ever seen, skills that were at the heart of much of his appeal to voters. Hansen was a rough and tough campaigner who played the race card against Frank Church in 1968, linking Church’s support for civil rights legislation with being soft on crime and Commies. When many Americans felt a growing disenchantment with the nation’s misadventures in Vietnam, Hansen criticized Church’s stand and argued for winning at any cost even if that meant using nuclear weapons. Seldom has a politician been so spectacularly wrong on so many things over such a long period.

Still it was hard not to like him on a personal basis. Hansen was a gregarious, fast talking, glib and even strangely charming salesman of his own brand of political hokum. He remembered names and genuinely seemed to be interested when he inquired about your health and how your kids were doing. Hansen would often introduce his gracious and politically astute wife – Connie Hansen died in 2013 – as the brains in the family and the one who should be in Congress. As Big George delivered that line you could often see heads nodding in agreement.

Reporters loved to interview him because he was good copy and he rarely failed to deliver with his analysis of the latest government outrage or administrative overreach, while skillfully evading every tough questions about his own foibles. When Hansen somehow managed to fly to Teheran in 1979 and literally placed a card table outside the U.S. Embassy in order to negotiate the release of American hostages, the image was unbelievable and irresistible. At the time I was producing a daily public television program in Idaho and, despite what seemed like the outlandish cost involved, my boss authorized a live satellite uplink so we could feature an interview with the Congressman immediately on his return from what, of course, was a failed mission to free the captives. No hostages were released by the intervention of the big, lumbering Congressman from Idaho, but Big George Hansen nevertheless commanded front pages. Like a Huey Long or Lester Maddox of any earlier time, one has to admire the sheer temerity of his career. Even in defeat in 1984, when Richard Stallings and his own ethics finally combined to end his run, Hansen lost by fewer than 200 votes. He had succeeded for a long time in fooling most of the people.

George Hansen’s obituaries mention his self-described identity as “a dragon slayer” of out-of-control federal agencies, and for sure the old Pocatello insurance salesman played his part in crafting his own bigger-than-life political personality. May God rest his soul, sadly the old dragon slayer never bested his own ethical dragons over 40 years in public life and it will be for those incredible shortcomings that he’ll be remembered, that and the fact that even Idaho will have trouble producing another politician so spectacularly over the top as George Hansen.

 

The Most Interesting Man

Conversations with ConservativesEven before he hired Idaho’s most senior political journalist to run his press operation this week you would have had to say that Idaho Republican Congressman Raul Labrador was the most interesting, unpredictable, and arguably most important political figure in the state.

Putting the former political writer and columnist for the Idaho Statesman on his payroll just adds to Labrador’s fascinating spring and summer. Consider:

He mounted a high profile, but too-little, too-late campaign to become House Majority Leader when Rep. Eric Cantor very unexpectedly lost a primary election in Virginia. That effort might have seemed quixotic, but it also kept the First District Congressman in the middle of the tug of war between the establishment and Tea Party forces in the U.S. House of Representatives. Labrador continues to receive lavish attention from the national media. Among the House’s most conservative Republicans he remains a go-to critic of the president on immigration and House Speaker John Boehner on almost everything. His semi-regular appearances on the Sunday morning talk circuit, especially Meet the Press on NBC, means he gets more national press than the rest of the Idaho delegation combined and, I suspect, as much national political TV time as anyone since Sen. Frank Church investigated the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1970′s.

Labrador endorsed the insurgent gubernatorial candidacy of state Sen. Russ Fulcher who mounted a remarkably strong challenge to incumbent Gov. Butch Otter and then the Congressman presided over the chaotic recent GOP state convention that ended in turmoil, lawsuits and very likely lasting intra-party hard feelings. Still, while navigating the rapids at the center of the Idaho GOP, Labrador seems hard to have missed a beat or stubbed a toe over the last few months.

Little wonder that the most interesting man in Idaho politics again dominated the political news this week with his hiring of Dan Popkey as his press secretary, a move that I suspect surprised nearly everyone who pays attention to such things. Labrador has guaranteed that every move he makes in the near-term will be dissected to determine the level of Popkey influence. It will be great grist for the political gossip mill and will serve to make Popkey’s new boss, well, interesting.

Having made the leap over the line from journalism to politics nearly 30 years ago, I am certain of only one thing: My old friend and occasional adversary, Dan, is in for a thrilling ride. Think about the possible stops: Congressional leadership, a U.S. Senate seat perhaps, the governorship one day. Who knows? Labrador is one of those politicians who is routinely underestimated and yet regularly overachieves and modern politics – think about the guy in the White House – tends to reward a young man in a hurry who has a plan. It helps, as well, not to commit the cardinal sin of politics – being dull. Raul Labrador isn’t.

The other thing the Popkey hire illustrates, sadly, is the continuing and steady demise of real political journalism, and not just in Idaho. Dan’s reporting – along with the excellent work of the Spokesman-Review’s Betsy Russell – has long been required reading for anyone in the state who cares about politics and public policy. The kind of perspective, experience and knowledge of the political players that a reporter develops over 30 years can’t easily be replaced. Here’s hoping the effort continues to be made, but the trend lines are hardly encouraging.

Popkey likely reached the zenith of his reach as a columnist several years ago when the Statesman featured his work several times a week and often on the front page. His major investigative pieces on the University of Idaho’s mostly botched real estate development in Boise and on Sen. Larry Craig – that work put his newspaper in Pulitzer contention – haven’t for the most part been matched since. Coverage of the Idaho Legislature has declined dramatically, and not just on the part of the Boise media, in the last fifteen years and real critical and insightful coverage of the Idaho delegation in Washington, with the regular exception of opinion pages in Lewiston and Idaho Falls, is virtually non-existent.

Politicians from Barack Obama to Sarah Palin have found they can override the media filter by creating their own content and then by targeting that material to specific audiences. This is the new normal in politics and the media and it increasingly narrows the space for reporters like Popkey and for news organizations in general. Rep. Labrador said in the news release announcing the hiring of his new press secretary that he had “learned that one has to have an exceptional communications strategy to effectively represent Idaho in Congress. I know that Dan will help me better communicate my message to constituents and the media.”

I would fully expect Popkey will do just that, leaving us to reflect on the irony of a politician improving the communication of his own message, while further hastening the demise of old style political reporting.

 

 

John V. Evans: 1925 – 2014

JohnEvans-IdahoHistSoc-photo_t210As Idaho’s political history is written it should be kind, and I expect it will be, to John Victor Evans. Evans, who died on Tuesday at 89, ranks third in the state’s history for length of service in the governor’s office and his accomplishments, not always fully appreciated during his tenure or now, were substantial.

Evans, from a pioneering Idaho family, was both blessed by political luck and beguiled by his political circumstances. It was his good fortune, after a career in the state legislature and as mayor of Malad, Idaho, to win the race for Idaho lieutenant governor in 1974. Then incumbent Gov. Cecil D. Andrus drew a particularly inept Republican opponent in that race and realizing that Evans was within striking distance of winning his own race wisely diverted resources from his final campaign television buy to bolster Evans’ campaign.

The strategy worked and that decision, as my old friend and long-time business partner Chris Carlson properly pointed out in his book Medimont Reflections, made it possible for Andrus to accept the offer made by President Jimmy Carter in 1976 to become Secretary of the Interior. Had Andrus been confronted with turning the governor’s office over to a Republican he never would have made the move to Washington, D.C. On the strength of such details political history is written.

Evans thereafter, and often unfairly, suffered in the Andrus political shadow. He took the reigns of state government and provided a steady and often very successful brand of leadership. During the national economic downturn in the late 1970′s and early 1980′s, Evans battled a Republican controlled legislature to prevent deep cuts in education and other critical funding. Three times he worked magic as a Democrat in a state dominated by the GOP to raise taxes enough to prevent the kind of broad scale damage to education that we have seen in more recent difficult economic times. The tax work took both guts and political skill.

In the complicated and acrimonious showdown over water rights on Idaho’s mighty Snake River, Evans helped establish the massive adjudication of thousands of water rights in the Snake River Basin, a vast undertaking that took 30 years and its completion will be celebrated later this summer.

Evans became an early advocate of state-level compacts to help manage nuclear waste and created enough public attention around the U.S. Department of Energy’s dubious practice of injecting Idaho National Laboratory process water into the huge Snake River Aquifer that DOE finally abandoned the practice. I remember the day that DOE finally decided to celebrate the end of the aquifer discharges rather than continue to resist John Evans. A media event was held at INL – I still have the hefty paperweight commemorating the occasion – and a smiling Evans helped seal the injection well.

Evans even had to deal with the aftermath in northern Idaho of the volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helen’s in Washington state.

In 1986, John Evans made his last race for public office, a losing effort for the United States Senate in a bitter race against incumbent Steve Symms. Symms finished out his truly lackluster two terms in the Senate and Evans took on his own second act – growing the family business. Today D.L. Evans Bank has become a community banking powerhouse across southern Idaho in no small part because of the same kind of diligence and hard work that John V. brought to his public life.

On a purely personal note, I’ll forever remember John Evans as a truly kind and decent man, which is saying something in our day of too often cynical meanness in our politics. I think it was 1981 when the region’s governors gathered in Boise to help launch the regional energy planning and conservation effort embodied in the Northwest Power Act. As a producer and television host at Idaho Public Television, I hatched the bright idea of trying to pull off a full-blown half hour sit down interview with the governors of Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Montana. Not only did Evans allow us to turn his office into a make-shift television set for a day, but he personally buttonholed the other governors – Dixie Lee Ray, Bob Straub and Tom Judge – and asked them to participate. It may have been the first and last time such an interview was done and had Evans been any less open or accommodating it simply wouldn’t have happened.

While it is a political fact that Evans reached the governor’s office as an “accidental governor,” it shouldn’t be forgotten that he also won two races of his own to keep the job. He faced a tough re-election in 1982 given the sour economy, a fierce battle over right-to-work legislation, and Idaho’s still unfortunate flirtation with a California-style property tax limitation. Republicans nominated popular Lt. Gov. Phil Batt that year.

The Evans – Batt race may well have turned in the final days of the campaign when an independent expenditure committee produced a comic book-style pamphlet criticizing “Big John” Evans. Evans was portrayed as an inept flunky for organized labor, but the caricature didn’t match the kindly, decent, honest guy who Idahoans had come to trust with the governor’s office. Batt was slow to distance himself from the smear and Evans won with 52% of the vote.

When Evans, somewhat controversially, appointed the outspoken, often caustic former legislator and newspaper editor Perry Swisher to the Idaho Public Utilities Commission in 1979, I sat down with Swisher for an extended interview on the afternoon of the day the governor announced his appointment. Near the end of the interview I asked Swisher for a short sentence to sum up John Evans. With no hesitation, Swisher said of the man who had just appointed him to a very important job, “John Evans is the mayor of Malad who by a quirk of political fate became governor of Idaho.”

A true enough statement, but incomplete. Evans took the small town qualities that make a mayor successful – attention to detail, remembering people’s names and needs, and a focus on practical and common sense solutions – and created ten productive years in the Idaho Statehouse. He should be remembered as one of Idaho’s best governors and, moreover, as a very nice and very decent fellow.

Political Lessons

0The lasting image – unfortunately – from the recent Idaho primary election will be the two guys, the biker and the curmudgeon,  who hijacked the one and only debate among the Republican candidates for governor.

As my friend Marty Peterson has pointed out fringe candidates Harley Brown and Walt Bayes secured their 15 minutes of fame during the bizarre debate, including cameos on The Today Show and Colbert, and the world had a good laugh at Idaho’s expense. The real lesson from the silly spectacle should be, as Marty sensibly suggests, a better procedure to qualify candidates for the Idaho ballot. We’ll see if a future legislature can get itself to sensible on that issue, but in the meantime there are, I think, three other big lessons from the recent election marked by a paltry turnout of less than 25 percent.

The Most Conservative Candidate Wins…

Lesson one, and this has often historically been the case in Idaho, in a multi-candidate GOP primary the most conservative candidate has a very great chance to prevail. One-on-one Congressman Mike Simpson wiped out his more right wing challenger and Gov. Butch Otter much more narrowly prevailed over his one legitimate, and more conservative, opponent. The same dynamic prevailed in two person races for lieutenant governor and attorney general, but in the Secretary of State primary the candidate positioned to the far right in a four-person race, former House Speaker Lawrence Denney, won with less than 40 percent of the primary vote.

The GOP race for State Superintendent of Public Instruction is an outlier with a self-professed “non-political” candidate apparently winning mostly because she hardly campaigned and has a sort of Basque sounding last name.

The further lesson here is for Idaho Republicans and their continuing stranglehold on the state’s politics. As a new generation of politically ambitious Republicans jockey for position you might expect even more of these multi-candidate GOP primaries with the smart money placed on the candidate who can position the farthest to the right. At the same time, just ask Gov. Otter, there is a danger over the long run in the party producing general election candidates who give a centrist Democrat a shot at victory.

Butch Otter well remembers his first run for governor in 1978 when he competed in a six candidate field that produced a GOP nominee, then-House Speaker Allan Larsen of Blackfoot, who simply could not win statewide against Democratic Gov. John Evans. Larsen won that long-ago primary with only 28.7 percent of the vote. Otter finished third with 26 percent. Don’t believe the old saw that primaries make for stronger candidates. The lesson in Idaho has more often been that such contests tend to produce weak Republican general election candidates.

Otter must be thanking his lucky stars that he didn’t have another “respectable” opponent in the recent primary. Imagine the outcome if a Twin Falls or Idaho Falls Republican, perhaps an incumbent legislator, had run for governor and eaten into Otter’s barely 51 percent majority?

Democrats Get A Chance When the GOP Misfires…

Lesson two follows from lesson one. The near total history of Democratic success in Idaho, dating back to at least Frank Church’s first election in 1956, has its foundation in Republican mistakes. Church got his chance when Republican Sen. Herman Welker proved to be an embarrassment by virtue of some of his antics and his close relationship with the controversial senator from Wisconsin Joe McCarthy. Church presented a fresh, young face, took the fight to the incumbent and won. He stayed in the U.S. Senate for 24 years.

Cecil Andrus, my old boss, got his chance in 1970 when Republican Gov. Don Samuelson proved he wasn’t up to the job after a lackluster term. Andrus parlayed that chance into four terms spread over three decades. As noted John Evans won two terms by first defeating a weak Republican candidate in 1978. Richard Stallings won a Congressional seat in 1984 by defeating, oh so narrowly, a Republican, George Hansen, who was a convicted felon and had been censured by Congress. More recently Walt Minnick grabbed his one term in the House against an inept and embarrassing Republican Bill Sali how proved he wasn’t up to the job.

To me the lesson is clear: Democrats in Idaho often only get a chance to shine because the state’s Republicans put forward a weak, flawed or otherwise damaged candidate. The Idaho GOP would appear to have at least three less-than-secure candidates in November – a third term seeking governor badly in need of uniting his splintered party, a secretary of state candidate who couldn’t hold his own leadership position in the state legislature and has been dogged by other controversy, and a candidate for school superintendent who no one seems to know. No predictions, but rather the observation that historically Idaho Democrats need Republicans to misfire if they are to have a chance to win an election. We’ll see if any of the current Democrats are positioned to take advantage of that history lesson.

Democrats Need a New Strategy…

Twenty or more years ago an Idaho Democrat had no chance to win statewide without a very strong showing – or better yet an outright win – in northern Idaho’s Kootenai County. The Coeur d’Alene area routinely sent conservation and education minded Democrats like Art Manley and Mary Lou Reed to the state legislature. No more. Kootenai County is now a hard right enclave where it seems impossible that a Democrat could make a credible effort. Cece Andrus won Kootenai County in every one of his elections from 1970 to 1990 and could count on Coeur d’Alene as part of a solid Democratic base. No more. The same can be said for Sandpoint and even the old Democratic stronghold of Shoshone County.

The old mantra that a Democrat could win just 14 of the state’s 44 counties and still be elected statewide just isn’t true any longer. Threading the political needle for a Democrat is, if not impossible, now a hugely demanding strategic challenge. The question for Idaho Democrats remains how, even as history suggests they might have a few rare opportunities this year, they maximize the votes of women, young people and Hispanics. At the same time they need a smart strategy to attract the increasingly smaller share of the conservative electorate – so called “moderate Republicans” – who may be thinking that the state has gone too far in whacking education spending and lacks a long-term economic development strategy?

If a Democrat wins a statewide race in Idaho anytime soon it will be because they have taken advantage of Republican misfires that produce vulnerable general election candidates and also found a new, 21st Century way to woo new voters who might listen to a fresh message aimed at the center of a right-of-center state. It won’t be easy, but in some respects the GOP has set the table thanks to some of the choices made in the recent primary.

 

The World is Watching

1391446725-new_add_the_wordsIdaho is making national news again and again for all the wrong reasons.

A quick Google search this morning turns up more than 130 stories on the 44 protesters arrested Monday in the Idaho State Capitol in Boise. Typical was the story in USA Today, a paper/digital publication with the top circulation numbers in the country, that featured the headline: “Dozens of gay rights activists arrested in Idaho.”

While the issue of same sex marriage has turned into the new civil rights steamroller across the country with state after state abandoning old notions and embracing equality the Idaho Legislature has again refused to even debate the issue of bringing the state’s human rights law into the 20th, not to mention the 21st, century.

As if anyone needed proof of how quickly the moral and legal ground is shifting under Idaho’s extra-conservative lawmakers, Politico reports today that same-sex marriage advocates are establishing a national “war room” to coordinate the incredibly diverse political battles on marriage equality that stretch now from Oregon to Virginia.

Politico’s Maggie Haberman writes: “Adding a bipartisan dimension to the effort at a time when a number of establishment Republicans are moving to back gay marriage, the war room will be led by SKDKnickerbocker’s Olivia Alair on the Democratic-leaning side, and Brian Jones, the former Republican National Committee official and Mitt Romney adviser, of Black Rock Group.”

But, as Idaho human rights advocates have stressed for years, an even more fundamental issue exists in Idaho – will gay and transgender Idahoans be afforded the same protections under the law that the rest of us already have? It is really an issue of basic fairness and equity; should Idaho law include workplace, housing, public accommodation, transportation, and education rights for its citizens without regard to “sexual orientation” and “gender identity?”

For the moment in Idaho, as in Utah and Virginia among other states, we can set aside the same-sex marriage issue that admittedly remains a hot button issue for many conservatives. Lawsuits challenging state bans on same-sex marriage, including a case in Idaho, will eventually sort out those issues. Yet, normally clear-headed legislators like Senate President Brent Hill in Idaho have elected to dodge the fundamental human rights issue yet again because they say the marriage issue must be resolved first. That is as disingenuous a position as it is short sighted.

All across this big and diverse country the idea, at long last, that all our brothers and sisters deserve the same treatment under the law – not more protection or different protection, just the same – has started to roll down, as Dr. King might have said, like a mighty river. Idaho risks much by being seen as having been hauled kicking and screaming into this new and better day.

Having been around the Idaho Legislature for more than 35 years, I have more than a little sympathy for legislators of both parties who must have struggled mightily on Monday over how to deal with a few dozen protesters who were determined to make a point and risk arrest in the process. Idaho is not unfamiliar with passionate protest even in the Statehouse or on its grounds. And, while not all of us would have chosen to protest in the manner of as those did who were eventually taken from the State Senate chambers by Idaho State Police yesterday, these fellow citizens do share some history with other Americans who chose much the same path of civil disobedience.  That history reaches back to a drug store lunch counter in Greenboro, North Carolina in 1960 and a factory floor in Flint, Michigan in 1937.

Idaho has too often had a dodgy history on matters of human rights. Locals in Kootenai County and elsewhere were often quicker to react to neo-Nazi hate groups in the 1980′s than were state officials. A saintly Catholic bishop once had to shame lawmakers into providing portable restroom facilities for Hispanic farm workers. The state was a very tardy adopter of the Martin Luther King Holiday and some still seem to barely embrace the importance of such a day. The current protest over basic human rights issues, and make no mistake this is such an issue, has a long and resonant history in America. The Idaho Legislature had best brace itself. There will be other days like Monday as citizens petition their government to right a wrong.

Fifty-four years ago last Saturday four young African American college students took seats at a lunch counter in a Woolworth drug store where the prevailing law and sentiment told them they could not sit. Those protests ended a few months later with a decision to desegregate that lunch counter and a student civil rights movement was born. Once in a while the smallest gesture sparks a revolution. A move to the right side of history is a curious thing. Once it is done we will wonder why it took us so long.

[Photo credit: Boise Weekly]

 

Death of a Consensus

inlFor at least the last 50 years there has existed a bipartisan consensus in Idaho regarding the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory. The consensus held that Idaho political leaders from both parties – Jim McClure and Frank Church, Richard Stallings and Larry Craig – would do what it took to protect the federal investment and jobs at the sprawling site in the Arco desert west of Idaho Falls.

The consensus did not mean that the “site,” as locals call it, would ever be free from controversy. Then-Gov. John V. Evans, a Democrat, pressured the Department of Energy in the 1980′s to end the practice of injecting less-than-pristine process water into a well that eventually made its way into the vast Snake Plain Aquifer. DOE finally ended the practice and I still have a hefty paperweight on my desk that marked the public capping of that controversial well.

Former Gov. Cecil D. Andrus, another Democrat, fought the DOE to a standstill in the late 1980′s and early 1990′s over its various waste handling processes and eventually won federal court guarantees about how Idaho’s share of the environmental legacy of the Cold War would be cleaned up and moved to move appropriate disposal sites. Gov. Phil Batt, a Republican, continued those efforts, which remain on-going to this day.

Yet even when controversy erupted over environmental issues the bipartisan consensus held. When it came time to present a united front in support of federal funding for research or environmental restoration at INL pragmatism always seemed to trump ideology. Andrus and McClure, a Democrat and a Republican, linked arms to support new initiatives at the site when both were in office. Stallings became a champion of INL funding during his time in Congress. Craig inherited McClure’s role as the Senate champion of DOE funding for Idaho.

It may be an overstatement to suggest that the long-time INL consensus has come to end with the current division in the Idaho delegation over support for the budget bill that recently passed Congress, but it seems pretty clear that political pragmatism no longer automatically trumps ideology when it comes to supporting INL funding.

Second District Congressman Mike Simpson, a long-time champion of the site, now chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on Energy and Water. It’s no secret that Simpson took over that important spot – he had chaired the subcommittee on Interior and related agencies – in order to have even more direct influence over INL funding. Just before the recent and bipartisan $1.1 trillion spending bill passed the House and then the Senate, Simpson was saying that he’d been able to reverse Obama Administration cuts in DOE spending in Idaho.

“In fact,” Simpson said in a news release on January 14, “I have increased funding for INL’s nuclear research programs, ensured full funding for the Lab’s vital security force, and boosted funding by more than $20 million for the ongoing nuclear cleanup activities in Eastern Idaho. This bill not only stabilizes funding at INL after a couple of years of uncertainty, it sends a strong message that INL’s work as the DOE’s lead nuclear energy laboratory is critical to our nation’s energy security.”

It’s worth underscoring that part of the money Simpson helped secure – beyond what the administration had proposed – funds the on-going clean-up at INL; a critical effort that both Republican and Democratic governors in Idaho have supported.

That is the kind of budget work that would have once almost guaranteed a release from the entire Idaho delegation claiming credit for protecting jobs and investment in Idaho and getting the better of a hostile Democratic administration. Instead Simpson was blasted by his Republican primary challenger Bryan Smith for being the “left flank of the Idaho congressional delegation.” Smith pointed out that the three other members of the Idaho delegation – Senators Mike Crapo and Jim Risch and Congressman Raul Labrador – all opposed final passage of the budget legislation. Just for the record the budget legislation, a product of a spending framework hashed out by Democrat Patty Murray and Republican Paul Ryan, passed the Senate 72-26 and the House by an overwhelming margin of 359-67.

Crapo and Risch issued a joint statement explaining their NO votes. The statement stressed the big national debt and the need to bring it under control and made no mention that the NO votes also had the effect of rejected Simpson’s budget work on the Idaho National Laboratory.

There are lots of ways to look at this set of facts. A NO vote on a big budget bill, even one that had strong bipartisan support, forecloses another government shutdown and was certain to pass, is a politically safe vote in Idaho these days. It is often easier in politics to explain a NO vote than to justify a YES vote, particularly given the increasingly conservative nature of the Idaho GOP. If you want to apply a particularly cynical analysis to the facts you might conclude that the three NO voters in the Idaho delegation simply calculated that they would let Simpson take the heat for passing a trillion dollar budget knowing full well that the DOE spending that he had helped secure for Idaho would be included.

But there may be a larger and more important lesson.

As I’ve written before, Mike Simpson, by any measure, is a very conservative guy. Yet his pragmatic heavy lifting in his House committee to enhance the DOE budget to the benefit of thousands in Idaho – a position that once would have demanded a rousing show of support from interests as diverse as the Idaho Falls Chamber of Commerce and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers – has, in the political environment of 2014, opened him to a charge of being a big spending liberal.

Simpson is no liberal. What he really is – and I mean this as a high compliment – is a throwback to those days when passing a budget that provided stability to a major Idaho institution was cause for celebration. Simpson is a legislator in the same way Jim McClure, Larry Craig and Richard Stallings once were. Each of them considered it re-election must that they campaign on the basis of how strongly they supported the INL. Pragmatism in those days trumped ideology. It may not any longer.

We’ll see in the weeks ahead whether a serious, pragmatic legislator looking out for the interests of his district and state and determined to actually help pass a budget that funds the government can withstand a challenge that calls into question the very essence of what it means to be a legislator. Those interests that have long supported the Idaho National Laboratory better hope that pragmatism wins.


Read more here: http://blogs.idahostatesman.com/cd2-challenger-smith-slams-simpsons-budget-vote/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=cd2-challenger-smith-slams-simpsons-budgetvote#storylink=cpy

Read more here: http://blogs.idahostatesman.com/cd2-challenger-smith-slams-simpsons-budget-vote/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=cd2-challenger-smith-slams-simpsons-budget-vote#storylink=c