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America’s Great Problems

1028_retire-early-education-caps_397x278The verdict is in. I haven’t done any scientific analysis, but I’m confident of what I am about to assert – the American attention span is shorter than the time it takes for Auburn to score a touchdown after a missed Alabama field goal.

In other words – short. Very short.

For a few moments earlier this fall we were consumed by the news of a humanitarian crisis and chemical weapons use in Syria. Then the Obamacare website didn’t work. Then Iran seemed to be coming to the international table to negotiate over its nuclear weapons program and then China started issuing orders about disputed airspace in the Far East. Oh, yes, throw in a train wreck, a few tornadoes and an NFL lineman who is a bully. So much news and so much noise that much of the media and most policy makers seem to consistently miss the truly great issues confronting the nation.

Most of us continue to look – silly us – to our political leaders to help us understand what is really important, but people in elected office, even the smartest, most dedicated seem more victims than masters of the nation’s collective attention deficit disorder. We certainly don’t lack for controversy and crisis. We do lack a leadership that helps define a sense of national priorities. What might we agree on as a nation that would really make a difference?

Syria, Iran, China and inadequate health insurance websites are all legitimate problems to be sure, but they are truly dwarfed by two more fundamental issues that, at the risk of hyperbole, really threaten the nation’s long-term viability. For the most part political leadership is missing in action. The issues are growing income inequality and the profound challenges confronting the nation’s education system at every level. As if to render the issues even more complicated, we need to recognize that income inequality and educational attainment are actually two sides of the same coin.

A few statistics to put the great problems in sharper focus:

State-level funding for education at all levels, and particularly higher education, has been tumbling since the 1980’s and at the same time – if you’re putting kids through college you know this – tuition rates have spiked. In Idaho, in-state tuition is up by about 45 percent in less than a decade. There have been comparable increases in Oregon and Washington. Arizona led the nation with a 70 percent increase in the last five years, while the national average increase has been 27 percent. Little wonder there is a mounting crisis – $1.2 trillion worth – of college loan debt.

The American Council on Education, a respected advocacy group of college and university presidents, said in a recent report appropriately entitled A Race to the Bottom, “The 2011 funding effort [for higher education] was down by 40.2 percent compared with fiscal 1980. Extrapolating that trend, the national average state investment in higher education will reach zero in fiscal 2059. In other words, states are already 40 percent of the way to zero. At this rate of decline, it will take another 48 years to finish off the remaining state support for higher education.”

Another data point: The country’s standing in terms of the number of young people completing post-secondary education is in decline compared to much of the rest of the developing world. As the Washington Post reported in September, “Instead of gaining ground, the United States has fallen from 12th to 16th in the share of adults age 25 to 34 holding degrees, according to the report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It trails global leaders South Korea, Canada and Japan and is mired in the middle of the pack among developed nations.”

The attainment rate for college graduates in the United States has actually crept up to 41 percent, but as the Post noted, “in South Korea, which has become the world leader, the rate has reached 63 percent. Canada and Japan rank second and third, respectively, with attainments of about 56 percent.”

In terms of college attainment the United States now trails Russia, Ireland, Norway, New Zealand, Australia, Denmark, Israel and Belgium — as well as Luxembourg, the United Kingdom, France and Sweden, all of whom passed the U.S. in the latest rankings.

No doubt you’ve heard that a college degree, more costly than ever, just isn’t worth all that much in terms of economic value. It’s just not true.

Eduardo Porter, a very well educated fellow, writes the Economic Scene column for the New York Times and recently wrote this: “On a pure dollars-and-cents basis, the doubters are wrong. Despite a weak job market for recent graduates, workers with a bachelor’s degree still earn almost twice as much as high school graduates. College might be more expensive than ever, but a degree is worth about $365,000 over a lifetime, after defraying all the direct and indirect costs of going to school. This is a higher payoff than in any other advanced nation, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.”

Now let’s try to connect the dots of educational attainment and income inequality.

In September – you remember September, we were focused on shutting down the government, I think – the Census Bureau reported that 15 percent of Americans now live in poverty and a typical American family is making less on an annual basis in 2013 than it was in 1989. From about 1993 until about 2000, median household income was increasing steadily, but that upward trend ended and has, with the exception of brief uptick in 2007, been headed down…and down.

It is not terribly surprising that educational attainment is generally the worst in communities with the worst economic conditions. One example from Las Vegas where, as the Review-Journal reported recently, “With rare exception, school ratings are higher district wide when the surrounding neighborhood has a higher median household income and more college-educated residents, regardless of whether parents have degrees.

“Schools do progressively worse when their neighborhoods have higher rates of high school-only educated residents, families falling below the poverty line, and minorities.” In other words, education equals better economic conditions.

To summarize: state-level support for education at all levels (but higher education particularly) has been plummeting, more Americans than ever are acquiring education beyond high school (in part because the recession sent many folks who were out of work back to school), but most of the rest of the developed world – our economic competitors – are getting more advanced education then we are, and more education is still the surest path to a better economic life, particularly when real family income in the United States is as flat as a pancake.

The progressive “think tank” Think Progress says this about the growing economic divide in America. “Income inequality has been growing since the 1970s, as the richest 20 percent of Americans saw their income grow much faster than the bottom 20 percent. But things have accelerated in the economic downturn. For the past three years, those at the top of the income ladder saw their incomes grow by 5 percent while everyone else’s income dropped. The top 10 percent of the country’s earners took home half of the income in 2012, the largest amount on record.

“And things at the bottom have been declining. The bottom 60 percent of earners have experienced a ‘lost decade’ of wage growth, seeing their compensation fall or stagnate. Many forces have contributed to this trend, but the growth of low-wage jobs that replace middle class work during the recovery has helped it along.”

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that more education for more Americans – college degrees, technical skills training, even an English degree – is the one sure path to a better standard of living and, I would argue, a stronger, more diverse economy. It is past time that our budget and policy priorities got in sync with this reality.


What Next

Idaho’s Battle Over Education Reform

There was never a real chance that supporters of a recall of Idaho’s Superintendent of Public Instruction would be able to collect the nearly 160,000 valid signatures needed to force a recall of the controversial superintendent. Now that the recall effort is officially dead, the question becomes whether opponents of Tom Luna’s education reform ideas can keep the public concern – even anger – at a level sufficient to make a 2012 referendum, already qualified for the ballot, successful?

I’d argue the failure of the recall is a significant strategic setback for those who think Idaho’s education policy is headed in the wrong direction. The decision to mount the recall was, with perfect hindsight, a miscalculation that will now be portrayed as a sign of weakness.

Recall organizers, like Jim Allen in Pocatello, claim a moral victory with the recall effort despite not putting the superintendent’s job on the line.

“We’re not here whining and crying because it didn’t happen. We wanted to send a message and I think we succeeded in doing that,” Allen said.

We’ll see, but moral victories never win elections.

For his part, Luna said recall backers have made the issues surrounding education reform “personal,” while he’s focused on implementing the laws. After upsetting the status quo, the superintendent now is the status quo and so far he seems to be doing a credible job of playing both offense and defense. Luna is turning out to be, whatever you think of his policies, one of the more media savvy Idaho politicians in a long time.

If opponents of what Luna engineered in this year’s Idaho Legislature hope to overturn those laws next year they’ll need three things that may be hard to manufacture: money, a really compelling message and a level of public outrage that can be maintained for the next 17 months.

Recall opponents spent little money gathering signatures over the last few week – there are conflicting stories as to how short they fell – and they never came up with a consistent message about why what Luna and legislative Republicans have done is so harmful. They’ll need to do a lot better in the months ahead and history would indicate that they will need serious money to run a real campaign.

You can take it to the bank that the pro-reform forces will be organized, disciplined and well-financed.

In his statement in the wake of the recall failure, Republican Party chairman Norm Semanko seemed to indicate that he wants the continuing debate to stay focused on what became the GOP talking points during the 2011 legislature, namely curbing the union power of teachers.

Semanko said, in part, the efforts to place “Union interests ahead of the true recipients of public education, the students, have failed in Idaho.” That line of argument, coupled with a desire to control spending on education, essentially carried the day for the reform efforts during the legislative session.

The challenge for those who succeeded in putting the reform package on the ballot next year is to have the resources, the discipline and ability to make the referendum about something more fundamental – the future of education in Idaho. They may well have passion on their side, but they’ll need a strategy and money to overturn what is now the status quo in Idaho education.

A month can be a long time in politics. Seventeen months can be a life time.


Education Reform?

Idahoans Aren’t Convinced

New statewide opinion research finds Idahoans distinctly unsure that the educational reform efforts that dominated the state legislative session this year will help Idaho students be better prepared for learning beyond high school and to enter the workforce.

My public affairs firm teamed up with respected pollster Greg Strimple and the Idaho Business Review to conduct a 400 sample survey in late April that was aimed at understanding more about where the Idaho economy may be headed and the priorities voters attach to various issues. The poll has a +/- of 4.9%.

(Strimple served as Sen. John McCain’s pollster in the last presidential election and works nationally for major clients like AT&T, the National Football League and GE. He lives in Boise.)

In a previous post, I noted the wide demographic splits that characterize attitudes about the economy in Idaho. In a nutshell, many older, less well-off, and less educated Idahoans are pretty content with the Idaho they have long known, including an economy dominated by agriculture and the state’s natural resources. A younger, better educated group thinks about the future economy quite differently. They believe innovation, education and technology hold the keys to the future.

We asked a series of questions in our survey about education, including a basic question about education reform: “In your opinion, will the recent education reforms passed by the state legislature make students better prepared to enter college and the workforce, less prepared, or make no difference?”

Idahoans in our survey were almost equally split: 24.5% said the Luna efforts would make students better prepared, 27.3% said less prepared, 28% said the reforms would have no difference. The rest didn’t know or declined to answer.

Looking more deeply into the internal numbers reveals that the level of division about the effectiveness of the reforms in terms of student preparedness cuts across virtually every demographic and ideological boundary. Even the most conservative folks we surveyed are split on whether the reforms will better prepare kids for more school and future work.

In fact in no demographic group – males, females, very conservative people, younger folks or older, etc. – does the reform package command a 50% majority who are convinced it will make students better prepared.

Perhaps this has something to do with the tone of the legislative debate around school reform. As the debate unfolded from January to April it was, by and large, a back-and-forth about teachers and money. That debate continues on an almost daily basis with Luna recently warning educators to be careful about mixing politics and school business and teachers accusing the superintendent of violating ethics rules. The entire conversation around education reform has been much less about student outcomes, including particularly what Idahoans might reasonably expect following such a long and difficult debate around a subject they obviously care a great deal about, and more about ending tenure and using more computers in classrooms.

And there is more: Idahoans who say they prefer a future economy focused on exporting goods and services, encourging innovation and fostering an entreperneurial culture are the most skeptical of Superintendent Luna’s reform package. This group thinks, by a 2 to 1 margin, that the reforms will result in students less well prepared for further education and future work.

We also asked our survey group to identify the initiatives “most important to helping Idaho’s economy grow and create new jobs?”

Providing better K-12 education and increasing the number of students that pursue higher education was the top choice of 43% of respondents. A favorable tax and regulatory policy was second with 21%.

We also asked what “government policies” are most important “to helping Idaho’s economy grow and create new jobs?”

Perhaps not surprisingly, nearly 32% of respondents said attracting new businesses and promoting job creation through incentives was the top policy priority. Developing a more highly trained workforce was second at 29%.

Our survey shows that Idahoans believe education policy is important to economic growth and job creation. Many may also think reforms will save money, curb the influence of the teachers union and emphasize technology in classroom, but they aren’t convinced – at least not yet – that students are going to benefit as they prepare for post-secondary education and a life-time of work.

Meanwhile, the long-shot effort to recall the state superintendent continues, as does the substantially easier job of obtaining the signatures that could force a referendum vote on the education package in the fall of 2012.


Failing at Politics and Policy

Expelled from Politics

On Tuesday, the Idaho House approved the most political piece of State Superintendent Tom Luna’s “education reform” effort and sent it on to receive a sure signature from Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter.

Idahoans who care about schools – and politics – may look back on the vote to strip collective bargaining rights from the state’s teachers and make tenure more tenuous for new teachers as a true watershed moment.

Like the great Jack Dempsey, knocked out of the ring in a 1923 title fight, the Idaho Education Association’s once-powerful role in the state’s politics has been knocked for a loop, perhaps never to recover. Dempsey somehow pulled himself back in the ring against Luis Firpo and eventually won his famous fight. The IEA has rarely demonstrated that kind of agility.

It seems unfair to kick someone when they’re down, but the reality in these events is obvious, just as the politics is raw. The IEA has failed at both politics and policy and when the legislative moment of reckoning arrived in 2011, the state’s teachers were vilified, marginalized and defeated badly. This has been a long time coming.

Over the last 15 years, as Idaho’s politics has shifted dramatically, the IEA has clung to an old and outdated strategy. Rather than try to elect allies to the legislature or cultivate those already there, the teachers have seemed to focus, without success, on top of the ticket races like governor and state superintendent. The folly of the approach was well documented in a good piece of reporting recently by the Idaho Statesman’s Dan Popkey.

Popkey got the quote of the current legislative session out of former Democratic State Sen. Brandon Durst who complained about IEA’s focus on thwarting Luna’s re-election bid rather than winning a handful of potentially decisive legislative elections, his included.

“They’re my friends, so let me characterize it a little bit more diplomatically,” Durst told Popkey. “They blew it. Their decision to put all of their resources, not just financial but also human resources, behind [Luna’s] campaign and his campaign alone, really hurt races down the ticket.”

But this failure of political strategy goes deeper than misfiring in one election cycle. The IEA has something like 13,000 members in every corner of Idaho. That represents a grassroots organization that most interest groups would kill for, yet the teachers seem not to have been able to really mobilize these local foot soldiers and use them to build broader coalitions. This represent a failure of strategy that ignores a fundamental tenet of politics at every level: organize, organize, organize.

At the same time, Idaho’s teachers have become a punchline and a punching bag for what’s wrong with education. Teachers have become the Idaho equivalent of the old story that everyone hates the U.S. Congress, but most of us still like our own Congressman.

Most Idahoans like the teacher who helps educate their kids, they have just come to hate the teachers union. At the risk of blaming the victim, IEA must shoulder a good deal of the blame for letting this damaging perception take root. The teachers, sorry to say, didn’t fight back effectively against the ceaseless drumbeat that they are a major part of the problem with education.

Which bring us to policy. Whether its fair or not, perception is reality in politics and the perception hangs that teachers have not engaged constructively in the raging debate over why our education system fails to meet almost everyone’s expectations. Playing defense all the time is not a political strategy and it has become for the teachers a recipe to become politically marginalized.

Successful movements – and interest groups – eventually need to stand for something, educate folks about the wisdom of the position and build broad support. I’m guess that even most of their supporters in the Idaho Legislature really don’t understand the IEA’s policy agenda, assuming there is one.

IEA’s leadership justifiably complains about not being at the table when Luna’s reform agenda was hatched, but the teachers also had a chance to build their own policy table and haven’t. Unfortunately, this is not just an Idaho-based failure, but a broader national failing of professional teacher organizations. Look no farther than Wisconsin or Ohio for proof.

At the IEA website, there is a link called “Why Politics?” A click at the link takes you to a short page that explains that the organization is involved in politics because decisions in Idaho and Washington, D.C. effect teachers.

Then there is this sentence: “Time and again, over the last century (emphasis added) IEA members have won major victories to both defend and set new standards for public education in Idaho.”

It’s hard to remember in this century when Idaho teachers won a major or even minor victory. It may be a long time – if ever – before that happens again. If it ever happens again, it will be because Idaho’s worn down and increasingly hard pressed teachers, and the organization that represents them, adopts a real political strategy that can help them climb back into the ring.

Bashing Teachers

chipsTeachers as Targets

Like most everyone, I suspect, I had a favorite teacher growing up. (Actually, I had a hopeless crush on my high school chemistry teacher, but that is another story and probably goes some distance to explain my very weak performance in her class.)

My favorite was Mr. Parr, a history and social studies teacher and the 8th grade basketball coach. It’s not an overstatement to say that John Thomas Parr changed my life. I was a pimply faced, shy, decidely underachieving, near teenager when I walked into his class.

I was interested in history. He made me love it.

I wanted to play basketball. He made me want to play for him.

I lacked confidence. He gave it to me. I’ll never forget making both ends of a one-and-one free throw opportunity in a game in Evanston, Wyoming. With 30 seconds left in the game, I couldn’t even think of missing. I didn’t want to disappoint Mr. Parr.

I used to marvel at the way he used humor, a set of firm but fairly applied rules and his moral authority to handle anything that came up in class or during practice after school. Kids not only liked the guy, they wanted to do well – and do good – for him. He reflected his talents and personality back on us. What a great teacher he was.

I’ve been thinking about Mr. Parr – he’ll always be Mr. Parr to me – as I’ve read stories from Idaho to Wisconsin betraying an increasingly nasty undercurrent in the on-going debate over education budgets or, in the Idaho and Wisconsin cases, education “reform.” Teachers as a class are getting hammered. Its both a shame and a major public policy mistake.

In Wisconsin, new Gov. Scott Walker has proposed eliminating many teacher collective bargaining rights and in response thousands of teachers have descended on the state capitol to protest. Meanwhile Democratic legislators have walked out in their own protest. In Idaho, parts of the reform proposal focus on changing the way school districts handle contracts with teachers. I’ve yet to see a story that links improving classroom performance to changing contracts.

In both states teachers complain about being left out of the “reform” discussions. Meanwhile, Education Secretary Arne Duncan seems to offer a more complicated, but perhaps ultimately better approach.

At an education summit this week – collaboration, not confrontation was the theme – Duncan asked teacher unions, administrators and school board members “to take on tough issues such as teacher benefits, layoff policies, and the need for more evaluations of administrators and school boards, not just teachers. ‘The truth is that educators and management cannot negotiate their way to higher [student] performance. The [labor] contract is just a framework. Working together is the path to success.'”

I don’t know if Mr. Parr was “ruled by a labor boss” over at the local teacher union. I never thought about what he got paid or the hours he worked. It was pretty obvious the guy loved what he did. Sure there are bad teachers out there. Gosh, I suspect there are even bad investment bankers, misbehaving members of Congress, even retired NFL quarterbacks who haven’t quite measured up.

There are lots more Mr. Parr’s, too.

Getting kids better educated and creating the workforce for the 21st Century may just require that we focus on the best teachers and finding ways to make good teachers great.

I’d gladly swap all the educational experts for 30 minutes with John Thomas Parr. I’m betting the old teacher and coach would have some ideas. I’m betting he’d begin with the moral authority that goes with common sense.

A Race for Idaho Governor – Part II

idaho state sealSix Things to Watch in Otter vs. Allred

As the New Year unfolds, Idaho voters may experience something they haven’t often witnessed lately – an interesting gubernatorial campaign.

After months of speculation that long-suffering Idaho Democrats might not field a serious candidate against incumbent Republican Butch Otter, a newcomer with interesting credentials jumped into the fray last week.

Yesterday’s post discussed the broad dynamics of the down and out Idaho Democrats and whether Keith Allred’s surprise candidacy can jump start their fortunes. Today: a half dozen things worth watching as this race unfolds.

1) How will the 2010 Idaho Legislature turn? The last two sessions have featured intra-party brawls between House and Senate Republicans and between Otter and GOP legislative leaders. The battles betray the fault lines between the more moderate elements in the party and the more conservative and have helped stall the governor’s legislative agenda, primarily transportation funding. It has been Otter’s fate to preside during a time of severe retrenchment and with the state’s economy still off in the ditch, the coming session promises more budget cutting and service reductions. Having been served this plate of political drama, Democrats haven’t been able to capitalize. So, watch how education funding fares – both K-12 and higher education – and whether continued deterioration in these areas really cause, or can be made to cause, consternation at the state’s kitchen tables.

2) By late summer or early fall will there be any discrenible improvement in the economy? Every incumbent would like a crystal ball on this question. At Christmas week, the state’s unemployment rate stands at a shade over 9%. If we could predict where that rate will stand on Labor Day and whether jobs and economic issues become a centerpiece of the coming campaign, we would have a better idea of whether an Otter-Allred match up will feature a real election or merely the run-up to a second term Otter coronation.

3) Can Allred gather the resources to run a credible race? The last two gubernatorial elections showed there is probably a million dollars available for any Idaho Democrat who works hard and seems credible. Still, carrying the fight to a well-financed incumbent is always an expensive proposition, particularly when one has to buy name recognition.

4) Will 2010 be a “throw the bums out election?” And, if it becomes an anti-incumbent year generally, will the notion of change gain steam across the political spectrum and in Idaho? Change was a powerful winning factor in national and state elections in 2008 and all the polling at the moment indicates folks are mad as hell and not anxious to take much more. Next year’s politics could be about change all over again, particularly if challengers, regardless of party, are able to make the case that the folks in office are part of the problem. That is, historically speaking, a tough sell for a Democrat in Idaho, but there is a populist wave building in the country and the smart candidates my try to ride it until November.

5) Does Allred’s personal story help him connect? The new candidate hails from Twin Falls, has a ranching background, a Harvard education, has served as an LDS Church leader and, until his announcement, could claim strong, non-partisan policy expertise. Does all that give him a chance to make his case in areas of Idaho – the Magic Valley in south central Idaho and the Upper Snake River Valley in the east, for instance – where Democrats are seldom heard and even less frequently considered worthy of a vote? While southern and eastern Idaho may seem a tempting target for a Democrat like Allred, historically the party’s successful candidates have had to play well north of the Salmon River and there the personal story will be dissected and debated for its relevance to many voters who still think in terms of timber and silver, salmon and wheat. I’ve always thought an acid test for an Idaho Democrat was being able to campaign at the gate of the Bear Lake County Fair in Montpelier and at the Border Days Rodeo in Grangeville, while not looking out of place in either locale. No Democrat since Cece Andrus have been able to pull that off.

6) And, can Keith Allred write a fundamentally new Democratic narrative in Idaho? And, will his adopted Democratic Party let him? He will need to fashion an updated, compelling 21st Century message, build a new electoral coalition, craft a new statewide organizing principle and, oh yes, there is that money. Democrats in Idaho also always need a major dose of luck – self-made generally.

A young John Kennedy warned tired and dispirited national Democrats in 1956 – with himself no doubt in mind – that the party needed “new ideas, new policies and new faces.”

Kennedy could have been talking about Idaho Democrats over the last 15 years. And while the political math for Democrats remains extremely difficult, a definition of “a new idea” would be nominating for governor a southern Idaho ranch kid turned Harvard professor, who is an LDS Bishop, sits a horse well and just happens to be a state government policy wonk.

Will a new face like that play in Grangeville? And will Allred’s consensus approach to policy catch on Bear Lake County? Stay tuned.

A Race for Governor in Idaho

allredCowboy Wonk Vs. Cowboy Governor

Since 1994, the Idaho Democratic Party has been living the truth of the old saying about insanity. The definition of insanity, it is said, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. Four times in a row, Idaho Democrats have run essentially the same campaign for governor and four times in a row they have lost, badly.

The next Idaho gubernatorial election may – too early to tell for sure – may offer a different narrative. Twin Falls native Keith Allred threw in with the Democrats last week and barring some big surprise will be the party’s candidate against incumbent Republican Butch Otter. I say “threw in” because until his announcement, most who have known him since he moved back to Idaho five years ago would have been hard pressed to divine his partisan leanings.

After establishing a name for himself in political and media circles as a scrupulously non-partisan policy analyst and founder of a non-profit group – The Common Interest – Allred has decided to try and apply his notions about what he calls “collaborative polling” to a run for the state’s highest office.

Allred is a very smart guy, well spoken and engaging. He is also a first time candidate matched against a guy who has been on the ballot continuously since 1986. Allred is also, and I say this with genuine regard, a policy wonk. If an Idaho election could be decided on the basis of who knows the most about the gasoline tax, Allred would be a shoo-in, and, of course, if smart, wonkish guys always won elections, we’d be remembering the tenure of President Bill Bradley. Politics rarely works that way.

Elections more often turn on other factors – human factors – such as likability, toughness, passion, organizational ability and innovation. Still a deep and wide knowledge of issues sure can’t hurt a first time candidate and it is better to start informed in detail about issues than to have to learn it all during the job interview.

The political and media classes know Allred by virtue of his very solid analytical work on issues like education funding and property taxes. While relationships with the chattering classes helps with early credibility, Allred is far from a household name. To state the obvious, he has a lot of ground to cover to make himself as well know as Otter who has served at Lt. Governor, Congressman and Governor for more than two decades. As the Idaho Statesman’s Rocky Barker correctly noted recently, Otter remains one of the best retail politicians Idahoans have ever seen and retail politics still matter in Idaho.

But, back to the need for a different narrative. The Democratic Party in Idaho, never a real statewide organization, has long lacked an effective plan – including a consistent and compelling message and the leadership to push a message – that might allow it to regain the relevance it lost when Phil Batt came from behind to grab the governorship in 1994. That watershed election ended 24 straight years of Democratic dominance in the big office on the second floor of the Statehouse and Democrats have been struggling ever since.

In the four elections beginning in 1994, no Democratic candidate for governor has captured more than 44% of the vote. The party and its gubernatorial candidate cry out for new approaches, for some innovation and for effective outreach to a new Idaho; the Idaho of young immigrants, Hispanics and high tech entrepreneurs. Having said that, it is admittedly easier to diagnose the problem than to prescribe the precise remedy.

For starters, the state has changed dramatically since 1986 when my old boss, four-term Governor Cecil D. Andrus won a very close election based on his ability to target and carry 13 of the state’s 44 counties. Many of those once reliably Democratic areas have long since ceased to be friendly territory for a Democrat. Organized labor, once a pillar of Democratic strength, is now, thanks in part to right to work legislation passed in 1986, much less a pillar. And the party’s legislative ranks have not proven to be any kind of a farm team of gubernatorial or other statewide talent.

It has been a long time since Democrats have had a successful younger candidate for major office – Andrus was 39 when he was first elected, Frank Church was 32 when he went to the Senate – who could present a new face for the party. One of the brightest potentials of the 45-year old Allred’s campaign is what it might mean in terms of a youth movement for aging Idaho Democrats.

The one thing that may remain relevant from the last successful Democratic gubernatorial campaign is the Andrus message: good schools, a good economy and a good place to live. That basic message, updated for a new century, may be more telling than ever in 2010, but, of course, every good message needs a good messenger.

Meanwhile, with the exceptions of the city limits of Boise and the Sun Valley area, Republicans can, and do, contest and win elections everywhere in Idaho. The GOP does have a farm team and very importantly, as the state’s population has grown over the last two decades, Otter’s home county – Canyon – has become even more critical in a statewide race.

Here is a telling statistic and remember the state’s population growth as you consider this: In losing to Otter in 2006, Democratic candidate Jerry Brady gathered in only 5,400 more votes than Andrus did in winning the governorship 20 years earlier in that very close race against Republican David Leroy. By contrast, Otter won in 2006 with 46,000 more votes than Leroy polled against Andrus two decades ago. Those numbers – growing Republican voting strength and relatively flat Democrat numbers – represent a structural deficit for a Democrat that presents a huge challenge for anyone running statewide.

Nevertheless, at first blush, the Allred candidacy has at least two things going for it: a fresh face backed by Idaho sensibilities and the potential to write a new Democratic game plan. It was no small surprise that respected former Republican State Senator Laird Noh of Kimberly endorsed Allred right out of the box and praised his bi-partisan consensus building skills. Not a bad start, but only a start.

Woody Allen famously said that 90% of life is simply showing up. Ninety percent of politics may be showing up at the right time. Is the timing right in Idaho for a new kind of Democrat? Or, do tough times like the present argue for continuing the politics and personalities that Idahoans have grown comfortable with for 15 years? Such questions make politics winter’s best spectator sport.

Tomorrow: A half dozen things to watch as an Otter-Allred race unfolds