The Big Man In The Big Sky

schweitzerSchweitzer Does It His Way

While most of the nation’s governors have been serving up heaping helpings of bad news in the form of reductions in education spending, layoffs, furloughs and such, Montana’s Brian Schweitzer continues to blaze his own popular, political trail. While it may be too much to call the Big Man in the Big Sky a political original, the Treasure State Democrat continues to be one of the most talented political actors anywhere.

Schweitzer understands intuitively that effective politics often involves effective theater, particularly when the show involves the ability to pick the right fight. At the presidential level, Ronald Reagan and his advisers understood this basic reality. Remember Reagan’s “I am paying for this microphone Mr. Green!” moment during the 1980 New Hampshire GOP primary?

The Great Communicator understood that politics is performance, even as Democrats derided the one-time B-movie actor as nothing more than, well, an actor.

Elsewhere in the Northwest, Cecil Andrus in Idaho and Tom McCall in Oregon were masters of the art of picking an issue that kept them defined as “outsiders” while appealing broadly to their voters. Andrus took on the federal government over nuclear waste storage and McCall opposed storing deadly nerve gas at the Umatilla depot. Wildly popular stands that defined each governor as a crusader and populist. Andrus has joked during his long political career about being able to “throw an instant fit” to make a bigger political point, grab public attention and earn support.

Schweitzer’s most recent “political fit” generated headlines when the governor showed up at a Bozeman City Commission meeting – when is the last time a governor did that – and gave the city’s leading lights a drubbing before the public and the press. The issue was a decision by Bozeman city fathers to spend 50 grand in stimulus money on reconditioning tennis courts. Schweitzer told them spending the money on water treatment facilities made more sense. Wonder where the voters are on that one?

For students of political theater, the Associated Press account of the meeting is all the proof one needs that the bolo tie, cowboy boot wearing governor is in his element when he’s at center stage orchestrating a good ol’ political fight. Part of Schweitzer’s public appeal is that he appears to enjoy the battle so much.

In a perfect world, all our politicians would be brilliant policy wonks and the best ideas would always win out, but that is most definitely not the real world. Democrats, in particular, often seem to ignore or undervalued the fact that politics is fundamentally about the ability to communicate in a compelling, real way. It also helps to be able to see a good fight that is worth the picking.

Like him or not, you have to agree Montana’s Brian Schweitzer is a Democratic exception. He gets it.

A Day for Human Rights

kingRemembering From Whence We Came…

It hasn’t been all that many years ago that Idaho was one of the last states to embrace an official celebration of human rights in connection with Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday. Repeated efforts to establish a state holiday failed in the Idaho Legislature before legislation was finally approved in 1990.

It is important to remember some of the context of those times. The white supremacist Aryan Nations still held court in northern Idaho and the state was regularly depicted in the national media as a haven for the group’s perverted notions of racial superiority. Their annual parades, even when dwarfed in size by those opposing their message of hate, received extensive media attention. Major employers struggled to recruit people of color to live and work in Idaho. Despite having one of the strongest malicious harassment laws in the nation, Idaho’s image was hurting.

I’m convinced the decision to create a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Human Rights Day in Idaho was a major catalyst in changing the then-prevailing perception.

With the inspired leadership of then-Human Rights Commission Executive Director Marilyn Shuler, human rights activists in northern Idaho and then-Governor Cecil Andrus, the holiday honoring Dr. King came to be 20 years ago – long overdue, but finally in place.

Fast forward to 2010 where the Idaho Legislature now considers a proposal to eliminate state funding for the Idaho Human Rights Commission, an agency that has protected the rights of Idaho workers and employers for more than four decades by leveling the field for both. The Commission has been in many, many ways, the focus in Idaho for a common sense, practical approach to human rights and dignity for all. It is a tiny agency with a huge mission, a mission just as important now as it was in 1990, or when it was created more than 40 years ago.

We’ve all heard of the philosopher George Santayana’s famous observation that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Yet, it seems a constant challenge for our public policymakers to remember from whence we came. As our attention spans grow shorter, our memories do as well.

Idaho’s human rights history has traveled a well-worn and rocky path that has steadily – at least since the mid-1980′s – lifted us higher and higher. Republicans like former Governor Phil Batt and current Supreme Court Justice Jim Jones took the issues very seriously back then, as did Democrats like Andrus and Governor John Evans. But it is not a given that we will keep on climbing. A new generation of leaders will need to step forward and keep pushing.

We would do well to consider the message – both practical and symbolic – sent by Idaho if the state appears to be devaluing the work of the Idaho Human Rights Commission. Enforcement of federal anti-discrimination laws won’t go away. Rather the federal government will enforce the law in Idaho if the state is left with a less than adequate effort of its own.

All too obviously, much work remains to realize Dr. King’s dream and live out his courage even as his words speak to us as powerfully as ever:

“Many people fear nothing more terribly than to take a position which stands out sharply and clearly from prevailing opinion. The tendency of most is to adopt a view that is so ambiguous that it will include everything and so popular that it will include everybody. Not a few men who cherish lofty and noble ideals hide them under a bushel for fear of being called different.”

We are not condemned to repeat the past, we need only to remember it.

Like Father, Like Son

churchIdaho Friends, Family Celebrate Forrest Church

It has been 26 years since the death of Idaho’s acclaimed United States Senator Frank Church, but as I listened to the tributes for his acclaimed son on Saturday those years melted away and memory rushed back.

Forrest Church was described during his memorial service at Boise State University as one of the most important theological thinkers of the last half of the 20th Century. His pulpit at All Souls Church in Manhattan was a place were the public intellectual, the political son, regularly confronted the messy reality of a troubled world. Church’s major contribution as a religious leader was, as many have noted since his death, to help us focus on the good in the midst of the world’s reality.

So, being called a great thinker about life, death and religion is an entirely appropriate epitaph and true enough in Church’s case, but Forrest, who died in September after a prolonged illness, was also his father’s son – a complicated, eloquent man deeply committed to social justice and aware enough of himself to be comfortable with unanswerable questions.

Both these men died young and from cancer. The Senator was 59. Forrest died on September 24th, the day after his 61st birthday. In life they shared much, but perhaps nothing more important than the grace and dignity with which they left. In his last days, Forrest Church recorded a long series of interviews with AARP reflecting on life and appreciation, religion and death. The series of interviews is available here and well worth your time.

Forrest was, like his father, a profound and gifted writer. He produced 25 books in 25 years, but he may never have written anything as touching as the eulogy for the Senator – his father – which, upon re-reading, seems like it might have been written for him.

On that April day in the crowded Cathedral of the Rockies in Boise in 1984, Forrest spoke these words:

“In so many wondrous ways, my father taught us how to live…he also taught us how to die. I have never seen a or known a man who was less afraid of death. If religion is our human respnse to the dual reality of being alive and having to die, my father, from a very early age, was touched with natural grace. Because my father was not afraid to die, he was not afraid to live. He did not spend his life, as so many of us do, little by little until he was gone. He gave it away to others. He invested it in things that would ennoble and outlast him.

“In his life, my father was a bit like the day star, rising early to prominence, brilliant in the dusk and against the darkness, showing other stars the way. When it came time for him to go, when his precious flame flickered, he was ready. Peacefully, naturally, with serenity and grace, he returned his light unto the eternal horizon. Like the day star, my father went out with the dawn.”

We are fortunate, indeed, to have been touched by both of these remarkable people – sons of Idaho and men for the world.

Killing Off Big Bird…

big birdIt Has Been Tried Before

Idaho Governor Butch Otter proposed in his State of the State speech this week a four year phase out of state support for Idaho Public Television. Otter’s proposal would eventually eliminate the $1.7 million the system now receives and uses primarily to support its services statewide.

Combined with other holdbacks, the reduction will be more like 33% in the first year.

Otter’s idea has received extensive media attention and, in an irony too rich not to mention, the governor’s speech containing the proposal was carried statewide only on, you got it, Idaho Public Television. Here’s guessing the public pushback is just beginning.

In an editorial, the Times-News made a practical political point that legislators may really want to ponder: “There are few more respected institutions in Idaho than IPTV. It’s beloved by every Idaho parent with a 4-year-old – even if those 4-year-olds have long since grown up.”

The governor and his advisers have said that public TV should hustle up private and corporate support to keep going, but that seems very unlikely given two hard facts.

One, the folks who run Idaho Public Television have mastered the art of looking under ever rock in Idaho for support. They run a lean, mean operation that makes the absolutely most of the checks they collect from Idahoans. In fact, compared to peer operations – states with state licensed systems – Idaho already out performs in the private fundraising arena.

Two, the worst hard times in anyone’s memory hardly seem like a realistic time to tell a state operation that has been around for 40 years to rattle the tin cup more loudly. Every non-profit I know, even the most popular – and public TV is popular – is hurting in this economic environment.

[Full disclosure: I worked for Idaho public television for about eight years back in the 1970's and 1980's, I recently joined the Friends of Public TV Board and I have many long-time friends in the operation. I am not an unbiased observer.]

I do know, from having the weird experience of reporting on the decision, that public television funding was eliminated back in 1981. That, too, was a time of severe budget constraint and legislators were looking under rocks. Part of the discussion then, as now, was also ideological. Some lawmakers, including then-Senator Dave Little of Emmett, the chair of the Senate Finance Committee and father of the current Lt. Governor, simply didn’t think the state belonged in the “government TV” business.

Legislators came to rethink – and some, perhaps to regret – the “unfunding” and state support was partially restored a year later. Also in 1982, the legislature mandated a statewide merger of services that created the streamlined, efficient system that exists today.

Personal opinion: I don’t believe Idaho Public TV can survive in anything like its current form, covering virtually every corner of the state, with the kind of Idaho-specific programming and reach without state support. It simply won’t happen.

This discussion is really about whether statewide public television service and programming will continue – period. Removing state funding will also serve to squander the substantial investment Idaho taxpayers have already made in a more-or-less state of the art delivery system. As a very practical matter, translators will sit unused on many mountain tops.

The state is big enough – no statewide newspaper, two time zones, diverse political and social culture – that public TV here, in more than any state I know, pulls the population together. It’s been a bargain for 40 years and will be a bargain this year and next and beyond, even at twice the price.

Changing the Fabric of Idaho

smylieLegislatures and Lasting Legacies…

When Idaho Governor Robert E. Smylie cut a deal with the wealthy Harriman family in 1965 to take title to the family’s fabulous Railroad Ranch in eastern Idaho, the agreement included a provision that Idaho would create a professional parks department in exchange for the land.

That deal – and, yes, many of Smylie’s fellow Republicans disliked it – created the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation and the department has become a lasting legacy of Smylie’s three terms as a progressive Republican governor.

The Idaho Statesman’s Rocky Barker correctly describes what might happen to Idaho’s parks now that – 45 years on from Smylie’s historic deal – Governor Butch Otter has proposed folding the department into the state Department of Lands, effectively eliminating the agency.

Too no small degree, Otter’s legacy is going to be shaped by how the budget debate that began on Monday, and will involve parks, schools and other state functions, unfolds over the next few weeks.

Make no mistake, times are tough in Idaho, nevertheless, what Otter has suggested – and he has proposed elimination of several small agencies, including the 40-year-old Idaho Human Rights Commission – is more about philosophy than budgets. Otter has suggested, by virtue of his budget proposals, that parks, the Human Rights Commission, public television, and the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Commission, among others, are not legitimate functions of government. The governor has also proposed an unprecedented second year of real cuts in public school, community college and higher education support.

This tees up the kind of debate that some folks in Idaho have long relished – what is the legitimate role of government in good times and bad? It will be fascinating to watch.

In 1965, Bob Smylie had to push and prod the Idaho Legislature to not only create a professional parks department, but to also put in place the elements of the modern Idaho tax structure, including a sales tax. By common belief, the ’65 session produced more of lasting value for Idaho than any legislature before or since.

In 2010, the Idaho Legislature may find itself pushing back against a governor who seeks a different kind of legacy; a legacy that truly will change the fabric of life in Idaho. Idaho will be a different place without an emphasis on parks, a statewide public television system or an state agency devoted to sorting out employment disputes between workers and employers. Suggesting that there are other sources of funding for such services is mostly political rhetoric, not realistic policy.

Bob Smylie always contended that his “successes” during the1965 session sealed his political demise a year later when he lost in the Republican primary after alienating many fellow Republicans. Legacies do have consequences.

Tomorrow: More on the Idaho Legislature.

The People’s House

statehouseThe Renovation is Spectacular, But…

To state the obvious: the two and a half year, $120 million renovation/expansion of the Idaho State Capitol Building has been accomplished in spectacular fashion. The workmanship, the meticulous attention to detail, indeed the elegance – even opulence – is nothing short of awe inspiring.

Thousands of Idahoans toured the building this weekend as it officially re-opened on the eve of what may prove to be the most difficult, most draconian legislative session since, well, maybe since 1933. The governor and legislative leaders have promised more deep cuts in education spending and even that distasteful strategy will almost certainly require additional deep cuts or proposed elimination of many other current state services. Stay tuned. We may well see a very different kind of state government come mid-April. Don’t buy the predictions of a quick and dirty session. Dirty yes, not quick.

Governor Butch Otter, who initially opposed much of the Capitol rehabilitation project, particularly the new underground “wings” which will house individual offices for each legislator and expansive new hearing rooms, was asked about the irony of moving into the spiffy “new” Statehouse in the midst of such a troubled economy. The governor acknowledged “there is some unease there.” But, frankly not much. Republicans and Democrats alike resist any real acknowledgement of the enormous cost of the project and what it just might say about the state’s priorities.

The public ceremony and press coverage have centered on the magnificence of the restoration and new construction – and it is magnificent – as well as on what may turn out to be the great myth of the Statehouse story – that the building will continue to be “the people’s house.”

Perhaps the best thing that can be said about the Statehouse project is that it has served to undo the often shoddy, make do amendments to the building that took place in a generally haphazard manner over the years.

Gone is the opportunity like that seized by the late journalist, author and occasional politician Dwight Jensen to move his cot and hot plate into the old fourth floor press center and set up housekeeping. Gone is the dumpy snack bar on the first floor that mostly served the permanent workers in the building. It gave way to an expansive cafeteria where it remains to be seen whether lawmakers will want to break bread together.

I like the new gift shop and visitor center, something the “old” building lacked and needed and the displays recounting Idaho history on the “garden level” are very well done. Still and all, I will miss a certain intimacy and informality that existed before.

What will be vastly different, I think, in the new building is a sense of openness and accessibility. Hearing rooms will be larger, to be sure, providing a seat for observers. Often in the past crowds would gather in hearing room doorways to catch a glimpse of the action inside. Still you were close to the action, almost intimate with the players. Attending a hearing in the new digs will make one feel like a spectator sitting in a courtroom listening in while important people make decisions.

It will now be possible – and because it will be so convenient, I suspect it will happen routinely – for many legislators to move from their private offices down a non-public hallway and into a hearing room. From the new “garden level” offices lawmakers will utilize private elevators to go directly to the third floor where House and Senate chambers are located. In other words, legislators can do the vast majority of their work without ever setting foot in the public parts of the building. This is very different in both practice and symbolism from what has existed for nearly 100 years.

Years ago, as a reporter, I was sitting just behind the Republican chairman of the House State Affairs Committee during a particularly tense hearing. In the middle of the hearing, in walked Senator Art Murphy, a Democrat and one of the legendary lawmakers from northern Idaho’s Silver Valley. Not only was Murphy not a member of the committee, he was a Senate interloper from the other side of the building.

“Pops,” as Murphy was known to all, had a tightly rolled copy of the Kellogg Evening News in his hand. As he passed the head of the table where Chairman John Reardon sat, he was so close that he playfully, but firmly, thumped the rolled up newspaper on the back of Reardon’s head. Everyone who witnessed the moment gasped, then laughed out loud and the tension went out of the room. Nothing like that is likely to ever happen in the “new” building. A Pop Murphy, if there ever is another like him, couldn’t get close enough to the chairman or the action.

Also years ago, a former Associate Press Correspondent, Mark Wilson, who had worked for the wire service in Washington, D.C. and Austin, Texas, marveled at the enormous access Idahoans had to their elected officials. I remember Mark saying, in the short time since he had relocated to Idaho, that he had seen and talked to the governor, the speaker of the house, and state elected officials a hundred more times than he ever had in Austin. If not immediately, over time, such openness is likely to be a major casualty of the renovation/expansion.

Lobbyists – perhaps fittingly now relegated to an huge old walk-in vault – and reporters will figure out how to grab a quick conversation with a busy legislator, but you have to wonder what “beekeeper’s day at the legislature” will be like in the future. In the “old” Statehouse, an enterprising citizen could work the hallways for a couple of hours and button hole half the members of the legislature. Now, you’ll most likely need to make an appointment.

Frank Lloyd Wright or the brilliant men who designed and built the Idaho Capitol – Tourtellotte and Hummel - would tell us that form follows function. The vast majority of the building will sit unused for most of the year. [Look for sessions to grow even long and staff to grow even larger.] Beyond the 90 days or so that the legislature is in session, there will be little reason for the public to visit the building other than to admire the architecture. The Secretary of State’s licensing functions, for example, a reason for real people to visit the Statehouse, are no longer in the building. Outside of the legislative session, the magnificent “people’s house” will feel more and more like a quiet museum.

For nearly eight years, I had the singular honor – and pleasure – of occupying an office on the second floor in the west wing of the Idaho Statehouse. It still gives me pause to think about what it means to have the chance – and the responsibility – to work in such a place, while trying to attend to the public business. I do believe that great public buildings, in the very best way, have an ability to provide inspiration and encourage aspiration. One ought not to walk into the Idaho Capitol – or the U.S. Capitol, or the Supreme Court, or a thousand other great public buildings – without a sense that the grand brick and mortar as a foundation on which a great democracy is built. At their best, great public buildings should remind us that our mortal efforts too often fall short, while inspiring us to do better.

I suspect we will have many opportunities over the next few weeks to reflect, while public schools, higher education and other state budgets are more deeply slashed or eliminated, on whether “it was worth” it to spend scarce public dollars on such a project. I’d be the first to argue for preserving and restoring an incredible public building. But the renovation/expansion has also changed the essential nature of the building and, make no mistake, it will impact the lawmakers and the lawmaking. Time will tell whether Idahoans like what they have bought once the initial shine wears off.

Here is hoping we always benefit from an open, accessible legislature, not to mention an enlightened, forward looking public policy that comes close to matching the new surroundings.