Egan, Guest Post, Idaho Politics, Polling

Fussing Over Polls

idahoWhat to Make Of Early Polls

A new Rasmussen poll out last week, not surprisingly, shows Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter with a commanding lead over his Democratic challenger and first-time candidate Keith Allred.

Typically, the two camps had different takes on the new numbers and in a curious way, I think, both are probably right. The governor’s camp takes heart that he is ahead, perhaps quite comfortably. The poll has the race at 60-28. Allred’s campaign has a point that a horse race poll at this stage, particularly in light of all the media attention Otter has received over the last two weeks, may tell us a good deal less than meets the eye.

[Rasmussen’s results and methodology have its detractors – most from the liberal side – and I’ll look at that and offer other thoughts on polling tomorrow.]

Still, last week’s Rasmussen poll does help cement the developing storyline that Otter is the prohibitive favorite. There is a lot of time until November, but that perception is starting to set. The poll, among other things, should be a wake up call to the Democratic campaign. In would appear that the buzz Allred created with his announcement in December was temporary and this race now has many of the makings of settling into the same kind of contest Idaho Democrats have lost every four years since 1994. For example, if the Rasmussen numbers are taken at face value, Allred – a one-time independent turned Democrat – has barely begun to solidify the puny Idaho Democratic base that I think can reasonably be calculated at plus or minus 30%.

The State of the Race

In any poll right now Otter, a long-time fixture in Idaho politics with a very high name ID, will score well. He’s been in the news constantly for the last few weeks, shutting down the legislature and suing the feds over health insurance reform. In an Idaho that we instinctively know is very wary of the recently passed reform legislation, anyone pushing back against that legislation is bound to look pretty good. Legislative Republicans and the governor certainly understand that dynamic and have attempted to ride the wave. Even as many commentators predict failure for the lawsuit strategy, unless Republicans overplay their hand, even in defeat, the lawsuit may prove to be good politics in Idaho.

Additionally, the high profile critique of what has been happening in Washington has helped Otter shore up his own standing within the fractious Idaho Republican Party. The governor will dominate statewide news again this week with an announcement tour that is certain to garner much local media attention.

The Rasmussen poll also highlights the huge challenge facing Allred. He not only needs to introduce himself to hundreds of thousands of Idahoans, he needs to present a compelling story for why he, in a year strongly tending in the direction of Republicans, deserves their votes. Allred may live to regret not maintaining a higher profile during the contentious legislative session just ended. He might have been able to begin to more fully sketch out the rationale for his candidacy in the midst of all the attention the public and media were lavishing on budget cuts, particularly to education, and bashing the feds. This, after all, is the legislature that found plenty of time to debate meaningless memorials to Congress, but couldn’t get around to banning texting while driving. The governor concluded the session by praising the lawmakers. There is the making of a message in there somewhere.

So, taken all together the Rasmussen poll – without too much focus on the specific numbers – is probably a reasonable snap shot of where the race stands today. Otter – well known with a big lead and riding a popular wave. Allred – yet to define himself or his issues and likely having squandered a defining place on the stage during the recent legislative session.

Tomorrow…Reading the Polls

Egan, Idaho Politics

Wait Until Next Year

idahoA 21st Century State…a 20th Century Tax Structure

The Idaho Legislature stumbled to adjournment on Monday after reducing state spending by 19% over the last two sessions. Now, you might ask, what next?

At some point – in the not too distant future, one hopes – the economy starts to grow at a stronger clip and the revenue streams at the state level start to produce the dollars needed to rebuild an education system and sustain other basic services. Education gets a lot of attention, as it should. For two years running state support has been reduced in real dollars. That has never happened before. At the same time, a number of other agencies – like the Departments of Environmental Quality and Water Resources – that consume a small slice of the budget, have been close to crippled.

Despite election year rhetoric about holding the line, the budget outlook this year and next is nothing less than bleak. The line hasn’t really been held, it has been moved backward.

Even as the session was dominated by the scramble to patch and scratch a budget together, some legislators were seriously floating the notion that taxes, particularly the income tax, should be cut. Others, like the state senate’s budget leader Dean Cameron were more realistically suggesting that the 2011 session will need to find a way a raise revenue. Cameron told the Statesman’s Dan Popkey that next year could “be even more difficult.”

“Our budget is full of places where we have robbed from one fund or another to keep programs or services going,” Cameron said. “Now, we’re at the end of it.”

Here is the reality: even when you account for the many tweaks that have been made to the Idaho tax system over the years – sales and income tax rates have increased over time, for example – the essential structure has gone unchanged since the historic decision in 1965 to create an Idaho sales tax. What has changed is a steady deterioration, made worse by the awful economy, of revenue to support critical services like public and higher education. Public school support, to a substantial degree, has shifted from the more stable property tax to the more volatile sales tax. Meanwhile, sales tax exemptions have grown like noxious weeds with each exemption eating away at the state’s general fund and, by definition, diminishing the state’s ability to support education.

Somewhere on a shelf in the spiffy, remodeled Statehouse is a box full of studies analyzing how the state’s tax structure has become the sick man of Idaho. Every serious look at Idaho’s “three legged stool” of sales, income and property taxes has concluded that the basic structure is badly dated. Those past studies have accumulated dust and not influenced policy and the just adjourned legislature – after two years of slashing spending by 19% – couldn’t even bring itself to study the system one more time.

That famous 1965 legislative session designed a tax structure for its time. Idaho had a resource dependent economy in those days. The timber industry was in full flower and the Coeur d’Alene mining district was producing vast amounts of silver and creating family wage jobs. Agricultural production was the dependable staple of the Idaho economy.

Forty-five years ago, Hewlett-Packard wasn’t in Boise, Micron either. The service economy hardly existed. Idaho’s corporate community, including mainstays like Albertson’s and Morrison-Knudsen, created stability and jobs. Now much of that is gone or at least diminished. Many things about the Idaho economy are vastly different today, yet the tax structure remains pretty much the same. No less an authority, and advocate for Idaho business, than former Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry President Steve Ahrens outlined what needs to be done at a Boise City Club event during the first days of the legislative session back in January. Was anyone listening?

A question for the next Idaho Legislature is how much more cutting can the state really stand? At some point, a 21st Century economy will require new investment and new thinking about a 21st Century education system. Good jobs require better schools and a trained workforce. The millions in revenue lost to Internet sales (at a detriment to hometown businesses) or left untaxed due to exemptions may not represent comfortable rocks to look under, but the alternative, if Idaho wants to grow a 21st Century economy, is unsustainable.

At the federal level, a few smart people know that spending restraint and tax increases are the only way to get the ballooning federal deficit under control. At the state level, lawmakers have done the cutting. It will take real political courage – and a view to the long term – to confront the need for new revenue.

The 2011 Idaho Legislature will need a Pete Cenarrusa, a Perry Swisher, a Cecil Andrus and a Phil Batt. Those guys, and others lost to history, made the tough decisions in 1965 that put in place a tax system that served the state well for a generation and ushered in the modern Idaho. What next?

Egan, Idaho Politics

The Sorry State of Idaho Democrats

demosLast One Out Turn Off the Lights

I have started to believe that Idaho Democrats have been down for so long that they might be suffering from the Stockholm Syndrome. That’s the psychological phenomenon named after a small group of hostages in Sweden in 1973 who, despite being held against their will, came to closely identify with their captors.

OK, I’m being a little facetious. Still as one who believes that a genuine two-party system just might serve Idaho better in the long run, it’s difficult when looking at the shape of the 2010 contests not to think that Idaho Democrats are destined to be down for a long, long time. Like the Stockholm captives, they have gotten so very used to the GOP calling all the shots it has become difficult for Democrats to envision an alternative reality.

The Idaho Statesman’s Dan Popkey noted, as of the election filing deadline a week ago, that Idaho Democrats have already conceded two of every five legislative seats statewide. There is no serious candidate on the Democratic side for the U.S. Senate, the 2nd Congressional District, Lt. Governor or Secretary of State. No Democrat filed at all for Attorney General, Controller or Treasurer. Furthermore, the D’s lost some of their best legislators, people who might actually be able to run for something else some day, when Senators Kate Kelly and Clint Stennett and Rep. James Ruchti all opted not to seek another term.

Surveying those puny pickings leaves the battered Democrats with only a trio of seemingly serious hopefuls at the top of the ticket. All the marbles are on races for Governor (Keith Allred), the 1st District Congressional seat (incumbent Walt Minnick) and Superintendent of Public Instruction (Dr. Stan Olson). Even in Idaho’s largest city, where Democrats have made inroads and held them over the last 10 years, no Democrat filed for the Ada County Commission.

By contrast, and by my quick count, Republicans filed against all but three incumbent Democratic state legislators and the GOP will have contested primaries involving more than 20 of their incumbents. It’s not hard to see which party enjoys the enthusiasm advantage headed toward November. Democrats better hope for many, many nasty GOP primaries but, in politics like football, basing your strategy on a hope that the other side will fumble is not a very smart path to end zone.

Randy Stapilus has a pretty good round-up of the filings at Ridenbaugh Press.

So, what do Democrats need to do in Idaho that they haven’t been doing? Where to start. Here are three steps that might begin to form a strategy.

First, Idaho Democrats need a full-time party chairman. That chairman should then go to school on Phil Batt’s playbook when he brought Idaho Republicans back from a series of defeats that culminated in Democrats reaching their high water mark of modern political success in 1990. After that election, ancient history now, Democrats held three statewide offices, both congressional seats and managed an even split in the state senate. Republicans were stunned and turned to Batt to devise their comeback. He downplayed ideology, traveled the state, held countless meetings, preached the gospel of organization and cooperation, recruited candidates and, not incidentally, positioned himself to run for governor and win in 1994.

Batt did most of this work out of his own pocket, which would be ideal for Democrats who are always strapped for money. No matter. Reality dictates that resources must be found – or donated – or the Democratic status quo will continue. The work Batt did for the GOP was hard, time consuming, under the radar organization and planning. It is the type of work that Idaho Democrats have never been very good at doing.

It’s darn hard to begin a comeback without a leader and Idaho Democrats haven’t really had a “face and a name” since Cece Andrus left the stage in 1995. A full-time chairman would provide a focus and a face.

Second, Idaho Democrats must embrace a youth and minority strategy. At the national level, thoughtful GOP strategists realize that unless Republicans find a way to consistently appeal to younger people, Hispanics and African-Americans they will be the minority party forever. No less a big political thinker than Karl Rove knew that the GOP had to make a stronger appeal to Hispanics and he crafted an approach for his boss that did just that in 2004. The one sure demographic that will grow in Idaho over the next decade are folks of Hispanic heritage and new, first time voters. Democrats better get after them.

Third, Democrats need to stand for something that has broad appeal. And they have to systematically sell to Idahoans a version that is different – and better – than not just being a Republican. They also need to shun litmus tests. Any appeal must take into account the fundamentally conservative nature of most Idahoans.

The message is about jobs, schools and a place to recreate on the weekend. As governor, Andrus was a champion of all that, but especially education. So was John Evans. Both spoke with conviction about creating a “quality of life” in Idaho that combined jobs, good schools and a conservation ethic built around hunting and fishing. The GOP-dominated legislature has just approved significant cuts in education, at every level, for the second year in a row. I know, we’re in a recession and every state seems to be cutting education, but some day – I hope – the economy will improve. Meantime, what do Democrats really stand for? How do they articulate what a better education system looks like and what it will do for kids, the economy and more and better jobs? Where is the personality? Where is the brand? Without a vision – and a much more compelling message – the party perishes.

Re-building ain’t easy even with Republicans offering up some tempting targets and struggling with their own Tea Party problems. A Democratic resurrection in any of our lifetimes will require the small handful of real leaders in the state party to admit the obvious. What they have been doing clearly isn’t working. A little public soul searching wouldn’t hurt. Maybe the party need to convene a very public discussion about priorities and shortcomings. They need to take some risks and they might start by airing out the corpse.

The first step on any road back is to have a plan – a real plan – that realistically puts one foot in front of another on the long slog back. As they say, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for different results.

For Idaho Democrats, the 2010 election looks a lot like 2008, 2006, 2004, 2002…and the captives don’t seem very restless.

Climate Change, Egan, Human Rights, Idaho Politics

Speaking Out For Human Rights

human rightsBipartisan Group – Business, Political, Religious Leaders – Urge Legislators to Sustain Idaho Commission

Dick Hackborn isn’t exactly a household name in his hometown of Boise, Idaho. Mention his name, however, in a room full of technology industry folks and most would quickly acknowledge that Hackborn has been one of the giants of the industry. He’s the guy who built – invented even – Hewlett Packard’s wildly successful printer business.

After nearly 50 years at H-P, while in his retirement, Hackborn served on the company’s board, including a short stint as Chairman. According to the informed financial press, Hackborn played a key role in ending Carly Fiorina’s less than spectacular tenure as H-P’s CEO.

The obvious point: Hackborn knows his way around business and, while he typically maintains a low profile in Idaho, he has always been an unflinching advocate for diversity in the work place and for human rights. When Hackborn was approached last week to sign on to an “open letter” to the Idaho Legislature urging continued funding of the state’s Human Rights Commission he immediately said yes.

The same can be said of Greg Carr, the Idaho Falls native, who made his fortune with Boston Technology and later served as chairman of Prodigy, an early global Internet provider. Carr has lived out his concern for human rights with the creation of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard. His work in Africa has been featured on 60 Minutes. Carr supported creation of the Anne Frank Memorial in Boise and put up the bucks to purchase the former Aryan Nations compound near Hayden Lake, Idaho. That ground, once home to hate, the very antithesis of human rights, is now dedicated to human rights.

Carr’s name is on the “open letter” along with Dick Hackborn.

Savvy business people don’t need much prompting to make the connection between equality and diversity in the work place and business success in a global economy. Both Hackborn and Carr harbor deep commitments to human rights, but they also know that their support – Hewlett Packard has long been a leader in this area – puts out the welcome mat to a skilled, diverse work force.

Former Boise H-P executives Don Curtis and Rich Raimondi and their wives also signed the letter to the legislature.

For 40 years, the Idaho Human Rights Commission has been the focus – often thanks to the moral leadership of past directors Marilyn Shuler and Leslie Goddard and current director Pam Parks – for acting on the belief that human rights are a genuine priority in Idaho.

Unfortunately, Idaho isn’t all that far removed from the awful public image that haunted the state when the Rev. Richard Butler and his self-proclaimed Aryna Nations white supremacists gained international attention, while preaching a gospel of hate and camping out in northern Idaho.

The Twin Falls Times-News editorialized on all this yesterday. The paper noted that the white supremacists are “mostly gone now, but their stigma endures. We can see the headlines across the country now: “Idaho joins Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi in nixing rights commission.”

Former Democratic Governors Cecil D. Andrus and John V. Evans remember those days battling the Aryan Nations, as does former GOP Lt. Governor David H. Leroy. They all signed the letter, as did more than 50 other religious, human rights, business and political leaders.

The Times-News editorial yesterday also made a point that Dick Hackborn or Greg Carr would likely embrace: “Why does [Idaho’s image] matter? It matters because the standard in the private sector nowadays is zero tolerance of anything that hints of racism. Companies make decisions about whether to invest, expand or relocate expecting their employees will be treated equally under the law.”

That, in a nutshell, is the massive job of the tiny Idaho Human Rights Commission.

The Commission’s total state support is less than $600,000 – .00025 percent of the total state budget, less than 50 cents per Idahoan. A pretty good value to continue to have a daily, statewide moral and legal focus on issues that really matter to our culture and our economy.

Climate Change, Egan, Federal Budget, Human Rights, Idaho Politics, Martin Luther King

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.

Egan, FDR, Idaho Politics, Public Television

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.

Economy, Egan, Idaho Politics, Otter

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.

Egan, Fathers Day, Idaho Politics, Idaho Statehouse

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.

Allred, Economy, Education, Egan, Idaho Politics, Otter

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.

Allred, Economy, Education, Egan, Idaho Politics, Otter

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