Clint Stennett

stennettA Nice Guy and Pretty Fair Legislator

I long ago began to apply a simple test to any Idaho Democrat who aspired to statewide office. Could the wanabee candidate walk into the VFW Hall in an Idaho rural community and “work the room” effectively or could they campaign at the Bear Lake County Fair and not look out of place? If you could be authentic and comfortable in those kinds of settings, you might have a future in Idaho politics.

Clint Stennett, who died last week at age 54, was nothing if not authentic. He passed with flying colors the VFW – Bear Lake County Fair test. He wore his cowboy boots naturally and under this Stetson was a sharp mind, a good sense of humor and the rare ability, particularly in today’s political world, to find and keep friends across the aisle.

Stennett was dealt a very, very tough hand when he was diagnosed with cancer early in 2008, but by all accounts he bore the personal and health burdens with grace and determination. His partner in life and politics, Michelle, carried on for him in the State Senate and she now seeks the seat he occupied so well for so long.

I was touched, as many will be I suspect, to read this letter from former Idaho House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, a Republican, endorsing Michelle Stennett. It speaks volumes about Mr. Speaker Newcomb, but also the Stennetts. This, my friends, is decency and substance trumping party and partisanship. We could use a good deal more of that.

Clint Stennett’s passing is a big loss for the Idaho Senate, his central Idaho constituents, his friends, family and, of course, for beleaguered Idaho Democrats, but it is also a cold, hard reminder that life is very short and full of only the sureness of uncertainty.

Stennett toyed more than once with those inevitable statewide ambitions that tend to swirl around a person with smarts, style and charisma. Too bad he didn’t take the plunge and sad for all of us that now we won’t know just how good he might have been on a statewide stage. I suspect very good.

It is too true, the good do die young.

Shelby’s Folly

Jack Dempsey Tommy GibbonsThe Crowd Went Wild…and Banks Failed

One of the most fascinating stories in the history of boxing was hatched over a several month period in the spring and summer of 1923 in the tiny hamlet of Shelby, Montana.

Jack Dempsey, the heavyweight champion of the world and one of the greatest personalities of that era (that’s him in the white trunks), came to Montana in that long ago summer to defend his title against a tough Irishman named Tommy Gibbons. Shelby barely survived.

The story of Shelby’s brief brush with international sports celebrity is ably told in a new book – Shelby’s Folly: Jack Dempsey, Doc Kearns and the Shakedown of a Montana Boomtown by Jason Kelly. The book was published by the University of Nebraska Press. Kelly’s book is both rich 1920’s American history and a cautionary tale about what can happen when a gaggle of slick promoters, a few local Chamber of Commerce-types and a big-time sporting event converge in a town, well, way out in the sticks.

In 1923, Shelby was a wind swept spot on the Montana map not far south from Glacier National Park. The young town was trying to make a go of it as a center of oil and agricultural production, but Shelby was hardly on the way to anywhere. A wealthy local businessman and his big thinking son thought Shelby had the potential to be “the Tulsa of the Northwest” and they hatched the idea to stage a heavyweight title fight in Shelby in order to put the town on the map. It worked, although not the way they intended.

The Montana hotshots found willing players in Dempsey and his flamboyant manager Doc Kearns. Kearns always sported a wild wardrobe, including dark blue shirts and yellow ties, and he and his celebrity fighter were eager to go anywhere, even Shelby, for a guaranteed $300,000 pay day.

After much haggling the big fight was set for July 4, 1923. Local promoters imported, at great expense, thousands of board of feet of lumber to build a massive, 40,000 seat outdoor arena and arranged for a nationwide ticket sale effort. The idea was that special trains would carry fight fans, willing to pay a King’s Ransom of $50 for a ticket, from as far away as Los Angeles and Chicago.

Tommy Gibbons moved his wife and family to Shelby and set up a training camp. His only compensation – a little cash to offset training expenses and a shot at the champion’s title. Dempsey, after doing a little fly fishing on the Missouri River, set up his camp in Great Falls about 50 miles away.

Meanwhile, the financial plans of Shelby’s fight promoters went seriously south and the locals were having trouble coming up with Dempsey’s upfront fee as ticket sales lagged. At one point Kearns was offered 50,000 head of sheep in lieu of the cash he’d been guaranteed. He replied, “Now just what the hell would I do with 50,000 sheep in a New York apartment?”

Eventually, with Kearns holding the bout for ransom, the fight did come off, with most of the 40,000 seats empty and many fans sneaking in without paying anything. Dempsey, on a brutally hot afternoon, went the 15 round distance with Gibbons who had become a favorite of the local press and public. There is some great film of the bout that gives a sense of the arena and the crowd in Shelby, as well as the brawling style of the two fighters.

When he returned years later to help celebrate the 35th anniversary of the big fight, Gibbons was treated as though he had won the Shelby showdown. “I always get a kick out of those people,” Gibbons said. “To them, I won the heavyweight championship.”

Dempsey remembered years later that the Montana folks hadn’t liked him quite so much.

“For the first and only time, I was more worried about getting hurt by the crowd than by the guy I was fighting,” Dempsey said. “I got a pretty good blast when introduced. The crowd was hollering and raising hell. I looked around for my bodyguard, a colorful New York character named Wild Bill Lyons, who packed two pearl-handled pistols and used to talk a lot about his days in the West. Wild Bill was under the ring, hiding.”

Dempsey retained the world heavyweight title until 1926. He was a sports celebrity to rival Babe Ruth or Red Grange in the sports mad 1920’s and 1930’s and he lived out a long and profitable life as a former champ until his death at 88 in 1983.

Gibbons, like Dempsey a member of the Boxing Hall of Fame, never won the big title, but did go on after his impressive ring career to serve four terms as the Sheriff of Hennepin County, Minnesota where, by all accounts, he was enormously popular and effective.

Shelby didn’t fare so well. As Kelly writes, “For years afterward, people would say to Kearns, ‘You and Dempsey broke three banks with one fight.’ He considered that a misinformed slur. ‘We broke four,’ Kearns would respond, correcting the record.”

The chief local promoter lost thousands of dollars and the merchants who were hoping to make a killing on the big crowd didn’t.

The colorful villain in Kelly’s fine little book is Dempsey’s manager Doc Kearns who the great Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray eulogized in 1963 as the last of his kind of boxing shysters.

“There must be a no-limit crap game going on in the Great Beyond today,” Murray wrote upon Kearns’ death, “Or a high-stake poker game with a marked deck. Or some kind of graft. Otherwise, Doc Kearns would never have left here.”

Then, obviously with Shelby, Montana in 1923 in mind, Murray added, “Maybe there’s a nice little town that should be bilked. Or a nice little guy whose pockets are leaking money and he trusts people.”

The Automatic 3%

governors raceFive Vie for Idaho Governor

All the attention two weeks before the November 2nd gubernatorial election in Idaho has been focused on the two major party candidates, incumbent Republican C.L. “Butch” Otter and independent-turned-Democrat Keith Allred.

Not surprisingly, considering the voting habits of Idahoans for the last 16 years, Otter has consistently been ahead in the public polls. But, there is at least one wild card in this political deck this year – three other candidates are on the ballot.

The recent Mason-Dixon poll in the governor’s race, conducted over a month ago, had Otter ahead 45% to Allred’s 29% with 20% undecided. The three minor party candidates were taking a total of 6%. The Rasmussen Poll has consistently had Otter over 50% and Rasmussen’s latest numbers (early September) show the minor candidates getting 7% with a much smaller number of undecideds – 5%.

Historically, an independent or third party candidate for Idaho governor (and there have be a lot of them) has taken about 3% of the total vote. In 1986, an independent candidate named James A. Miller pulled just over 1% of the total vote cast for governor. Miller’s total vote was 4,203. Democrat Cecil D. Andrus won that close 1986 election defeating then-Lt. Governor David Leroy by only 3,635 votes out of more than 387,000 total votes cast. It’s hard to say whether Miller really impacted the outcome or explain why 4,200 Idahoans voted for a guy who never really campaigned, but merely put his name on the ballot. Still, had the lion’s share of Miller’s vote total gone to Leroy, history might have been very different.

Idaho gubernatorial elections in 1994, 1998, 2002 and 2006 were not nearly as close as that 1986 race, but each of these later races featured a minor candidate who, in all but one election, got at least 3% of the total.

I think the argument can be made that in the 1994, 2002 and 2006 races, the independent candidates where, generally speaking, positioned to the right of the Republican standard bearer. Anti-tax gadfly Ron Rankin, for example, who as a Republican had been a Kootenai County Commissioner, garnered close to 16,000 votes, or close to 4% of the total, in 1994. While it’s all conjecture, one assumes that most of Rankin’s votes came from among his anti-tax followers around the state and at the expense of the successful GOP candidate Phil Batt who won with just over 51% of the vote.

So, what about 2010?

Of the three minor candidates on the Idaho ballot, only former GOP legislator Jana Kemp has put on much of a campaign. She handled herself well in a recent three-way debate and, while hampered by a lack of money, Kemp has managed to get mentioned in much of the press coverage of the campaign. Under normal circumstances, and given Idaho’s election history, Kemp’s independent effort should almost automatically be good for 3% of the votes. Just by showing up and having her name on the ballot, she should takes that number of votes from the established party contenders. But what of the other two candidates?

Libertarian Ted Dunlap is on the ballot again this year and he pulled 1.6% in a four-way race in 2006, as did Pro-Life candidate Marvin Richardson who has now officially changed his name to Pro-Life. Neither candidate has really mounted a campaign this time around, but the same level of effort four years ago still ensured that together they pulled the nearly automatic 3%.

Do the three minor candidates split the magic three percent this year? Or, do the weird Tea Party dynamics of 2010 mean that there are more “protest votes” up for grabs than is normally the case in Idaho gubernatorial elections? Will more Idahoans be interested in a self-proclaimed Libertarian? Will an articulate, independent woman draw votes from a Republican or a Democrat or both? With the economy dominating the issues, will a single-issue, pro-life candidate register? What if Kemp, Dunlap and Pro-Life collectively pull seven or eight of even more percent? At whose expense will those votes come? And in which parts of the state?

If this gubernatorial election turns out to a close one, it will be interesting to see the election night totals in the handful of counties where Otter ran neck-in-neck with his hard right GOP primary opponent Rex Rammell. Rammell actually beat Otter in the GOP primary in Benewah and Idaho Counties and came within a few hundred votes of the governor in Twin Falls and Cassia Counties. All told, nearly 45% of all Republican voters in the May primary voted for someone other than Butch Otter.

On November 2nd will these folks “come home” to the GOP candidate? They usually do. Will they decide in some numbers simply not to vote, or might they decide, in the spirit of “none of the above” with regard to the major candidates, to cast their lot with one of the three minor candidates on the ballot?

If Kemp, Dunlap and Pro-Life start to collectively accumulate votes above the historic threshold for minor party candidates in Idaho, and if there is a sizable undecided group that breaks in the next week to Allred or to the minor candidates, election night could be long and interesting. Under this scenario, Allred would need every vote Democrat Jerry Brady got against Otter in 2006 and three or four percentage points more to make it interesting. Brady polled just over 44% four years ago.

Twice in modern times – 1966 and 1986 – a winning candidate for governor of Idaho polled less than 50% of the vote. Both elections involved Andrus who won one and lost one. Could it happen again?

The only obvious path to a win for Allred is to keep Otter close to that 45% number in the recent Mason-Dixon survey and hope that the minor candidates do succeed in grabbing substantially more than their historic fair share of the total vote. Call it the less than 50% solution for Allred.

Then again with a major national tidal wave building for the GOP and with a tradition of Republican-leaning voters returning to their political roots on election day, Otter should be in the catbird seat.

We’ll have to wait and read the Tea Party tea leaves on November 3rd and see if the top spot on the Idaho ballot has been impacted by the automatic 3% or maybe even more.

Beyond the Grave

political booksCan Stevens Ad Win it for Murkowski?

Former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has the unwelcome distinction of having lost a U.S. Senate race to a dead man. It happened in 2000 when then-Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan died in a plane crash just days before the election, but still bested Ashcroft when it came time for the voting.

Now, in Alaska, incumbent Lisa Murkowski is attempting to find out whether an endorsement from a dead man can help carry her to re-election on November 2nd. Murkowski lost the Alaska GOP primary, but has mounted a write-in bid to try and hold the seat.

Murkowski rolled out over the weekend a skillful television spot featuring the late Sen. Ted Stevens’ daughter and Stevens’ endorsement of Murkowski filmed before the Alaska icon died in a plane crash earlier this year. See the spot here.

Murkowski is attempting the nearly unimaginable – a successful write-in. Such a thing hasn’t happened in a Senate race since South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond pulled it off in 1954.

The Alaska race has become as fascinating as any in the country. A Tea Party/Club for Growth backed Republican, Joe Miller, has been leading in the polls, but generated some unwelcome attention over the weekend when a security guard with his campaign handcuffed and detained an Alaska journalist. (That’s one way to keep the press in check.) Miller has declared his personal life off limits to prying reporters. Good luck with that strategy.

Meanwhile the Democrat in the race, Scott McAdams, has been a distant third in the polling, but like Murkowski he has rather skillfully attempted to link his fortunes to the lateTed Stevens in a clever ad that plays on memories of Stevens’ infamous “Incredible Hulk” necktie.

New polls show the race tightening and, as Nate Silver the polling analyst points out, with many Alaska polling places not closing until midnight Eastern Time this race could be hard to call for hours or even days.

We may look back in a few weeks and say the Stevens ad for Murkowski was the real turning point in what is shaping up to be a race for the history books in the Great North.


Senators Worth Remembering

CostiganEdward P. Costigan – Colorado

The Second in a Series…

Democrat Edward P. Costigan had a short, but extremely productive and influential tenure representing Colorado in the United States Senate. Costigan served only one term from 1931 – 1937 and is now mostly forgotten, but his courage in fighting for a federal statue to outlaw lynching puts him in a category of Senators worth remembering.

Costigan’s biographer, Fred Greenbaum, titled his book about the Denver lawyer turned politician Fighting Progressive and Costigan certainly was. Educated at Harvard, Costigan settled in Denver in 1900 and immediately took up the progressive cause helping form a Progressive Party, running unsuccessfully for governor, representing the interests of miners and unions and eventually winning a Woodrow Wilson appointment to the Tariff Commission.

With the Great Depression crushing Colorado and the rest of the country, Costigan ran for the Senate in 1930 promising to work for economic recovery and relief for those hardest hit by the disastrous economic conditions. Once in the Senate, Costigan joined other western progressives in advocating relief measures and he became, if anything, more liberal than Franklin Roosevelt after FDR’s election in 1932.

Costigan was impatient with the pace of economic recovery and pushed for more sweeping effort to aid the unemployed, but it was the championing of anti-lynching legislation hat perhaps assures his place as an early day proponent of civil liberties and worthy of being a Senator worth remembering.

Time magazine noted in a 2002 article that, “lynching evolved into a semiofficial institution of racial terror against blacks. All across the former Confederacy, blacks who were suspected of crimes against whites–or even “offenses” no greater than failing to step aside for a white man’s car or protesting a lynching–were tortured, hanged and burned to death by the thousands.”

Lynching became a form of domestic terrorism against blacks and by one estimate more than 4,700 lynchings took place from the late 1800 to the 1960’s.

Costigan was outraged by the crime and was determined to see the federal government pass a law. With another liberal Democrat, Robert Wagner of New York, Costigan drafted the Costigan-Wagner Act that sought to require local authorities to protect their prisoners from the mob, while making lynching a federal crime. Oregon’s great Sen. Charles McNary was Costigan’s chief Republican ally on the legislation. Costigan worked tirelessly on the bill in the early 1930’s, possibly to the detriment of his own health, but could never get it passed.

In Senate debate arguing for the anti-lynching legislation, Costigan eloquently said, “no man can be permitted to usurp the combined functions of judge, jury and executioner of his fellow men; and whenever any State fails to protect such equal rights, I submit the Federal Government must do its utmost to repair the damage which is then chargeable to all of us.”

Roosevelt offered only tepid support for the federal anti-lynching concept, perhaps on practical and Constitutional grounds, but also because he was fully aware that such an “anti-state’s rights” measure could erode Democratic Party support in the still “solid south.” FDR was also correctly convinced that southern Democrats would filibuster the legislation putting his own legislative agenda at risk.

Costigan’s health deteriorated to such a degree that he was unable to seek re-election in 1936 and died in 1939 having never realized his dream to end one particularly heinous crime of domestic terrorism. It wasn’t until 1946 that a federal civil rights conviction was gained against lynching.

Edward P. Costigan of Colorado is another Senator worth remembering.

Down to the Last Out

Too Good to Be True

When the Tamarack Ski Resort in Valley County, Idaho opened back in December of 2004 no less a newspaper of record than the New York Times lavished praiseworthy ink on the place.

“When the work is done in 10 to 15 years,” the Times enthused, “Tamarack will be a $1.5 billion destination resort with 62 runs, 7 chairlifts, at least one 18-hole golf course, a medical clinic, a fire department, an amphitheater and some 34 stone and wood buildings in a base village area that will merit its own ZIP code. Property owners will have access to exclusive resort benefits: unlimited skiing, unlimited golf, early-bird ‘fresh-tracks’ chairlift services on powder days, the best tables in the best restaurants and catering services.”

Reading those words almost hurts today, particularly when you realize the hype over Tamarack was always better than the business plan. Tennis stars Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi were going to invest in a five star hotel there. The resort would rival Sun Valley as an Idaho destination. Politicians couldn’t get enough of the place. George W. Bush, at the behest of then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, visited for a mountain bike ride.

As a U.S. Bankruptcy judge tries to decide this week whether to give the interests trying to keep the kaput resort on life support – the “last clear chance” their attorney called it – it seems worth contemplating whether Tamarack, and Valbois before it, don’t fit comfortably in the long tradition of speculative real estate development in the American West that, in retrospect, should have been seen for what it was – just too good to be true.

If the bankruptcy judge authorizes a loan to buy time to try and find a new owner, the money could get ski lifts running this winter and “would pay for a $250,000 state land lease…the winterization of unfinished buildings and bankrolling of a chief restructuring officer in efforts to complete a sale.”

The federal bankruptcy trustee called the idea an “exotic remedy” that amounts to “substantial overreach.” In other words, a fourth down and 40 yards to go Hail Mary play that could continue to leave creditors holding bags of unpaid debts.

When the resort idea was originally hatched back in the late 1980’s, cooler heads asked some all-too-obvious questions. Does the location actually work? Is the transportation infrastructure in place to support tens of thousands of visitors? What are the environmental trade-offs associated with Cascade Lake? Are the pockets deep enough?

As it turned out the original Valbois, also bankrupt, soon morphed into the newly-born Tamarack and a speculative real estate development continued for years to masquerade as a ski resort. Eventually the logic of the obvious questions got lost in the flood of glowing PR like this from the one-time chief promoter Jean-Pierre Boespflug, who told the Times back in 2004, “Rome wasn’t built in a day. We have a project here that’s only slightly smaller.”

If the Valbois-Tamarack history ever gets written, it will likely be noted that the pivotal event that pushed the development forward as the agreement by the state of Idaho to provide that long-term lease of state land. Developers had struggled for years to secure federal approvals – never an easy task with a ski resort – but the state, eager for dollars and even more eager to believe the hype, gladly made a deal.

”When Tamarack came to us with a proposal, I thought, ‘How can we make this work?’ ” Kempthorne told the Times in 2004. The newspaper went on to note that Kempthorne, “wearing Harley-Davidson motorcycle boots and standing in the snow near the resort’s summit on opening day,” said, ”we now have another world-class resort, not just a ski area, that adds to the pulse of Idaho. It’s a long story, but it has a happy ending.”

Not so much.

The Story of the Decline and Fall of Tamarack came about a good deal faster than the fall of Rome, but with analogous consequences. As of this week, Tamarack, the speculative real estate scheme that once went to market with $500 million in property sales, had $57,000 in the bank. Tamarack is a cautionary tale of how irrational exuberance can stampede common sense. Unfortunately, lots of people are now living with less than a happy ending and lots of other people should have known better.