Egan, Idaho Politics

Establishment Takes A Beating

What Does it Portend for Idaho Next Week?

The political establishment took it on the chin in yesterday’s primaries in Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Arkansas.

Voters said no to long time incumbents and party-endorsed favorites in both parties and forced Sen. Blanche Lincoln into a runoff that she might well lose.

Any lessons for Idaho? Maybe.

The highest profile race next week in Idaho is the GOP battle in the First Congressional district for the chance to take on first-term incumbent Walt Minnick. By any measure, the establishment candidate is Vaughn Ward who hopes to regain his perceived front runner momentum with a last week visit from once and future candidate Sarah Palin. Ward is trying to get up off the canvas after being downed by a truly amazing series of gaffes; the most amazing series I’ve seen in watching 35 years of Idaho politics.

Still, Ward has a long list of establishment endorsements, including Dirk Kempthorne, Phil Batt and Idaho First Lady Lori Otter. He will outspend his primary opponent Raul Labrador in the range of 4-1. National Republicans have tagged him as the best hope against the Blue Dog Minnick. Yet, all that advantage – considering the political background from Tuesday’s primary – may not help Ward all that much this year.

Things to watch in the last week:

  1. Can Ward avoid another damaging front page story in the last week? The hits the first time candidate have taken have been fierce, but we’ll see if they have been fatal. They range from his wife’s work for mortgage giant Fannie Mae, while he’s attacking the kind of bank bailouts that saved Fannie Mae. Ward is an Iraq war veteran who has had the Marine Corps chastise him for the way he has presented himself in uniform. He failed to pay taxes on property he owns or properly file a required disclosure form. Spokesman-Review reporter Betsy Russell twice caught his campaign plagiarizing other candidate’s positions on his website. That last offense caused Ward to dismiss his campaign manager. As I said, unprecedented incoming fire. Update: The Statesman’s Dan Popkey has a story today that won’t help Ward’s prmary end game. While touting his Marine credentials, Ward – despite promises to do so – hasn’t released records about this service.
  2. Will Ward’s money advantage help him prevail? While the use of a borrowed pickup truck for his first campaign TV spot got Ward some unwelcome attention, the fact remains that he’s been up on TV and Labrador hasn’t. It appears both campaigns, based on the disclosure reports, are running on empty, but many First District voters likely know what they know about the race from seeing a Ward TV spot.
  3. Will the sustained negative media coverage of Ward’s mistakes offset his money and endorsements? Or, put another way – have folks been reading the papers? What is often called “earned media” was once considered absolutely critical to a candidate’s ability to to put across his message. But with generally less coverage of politics by the Idaho media, more specialized attention by bloggers and widespread use of social media and the web, whose to say the barrage of negative coverage of Ward has had as much impact on the voting public as it has, for example, on the state’s political elite who have generally watched his campaign with jaws dropped.
  4. Does Palin’s visit help? Minnick’s campaign poised the question of why she would be campaigning for Ward when he didn’t vote for the McCain-Palin ticket in 2008, another of his gaffes? Ward managed the McCain campaign in Nevada, but didn’t solve the riddle of getting his hands on an absentee ballot so he could vote. Palin will turn out a crowd, but for whom – Ward or the Wonder from Wasilla?
  5. Finally, who shows up to vote next Tuesday? Idaho primaries typically produce the most faithful, most committed voters. Does either campaign have a voter turnout operation? And ultimately will Idaho voters follow the money and big name endorsements, or will they, like in Pennsylvania and Kentucky senate primaries, reject the establishment candidate?

Meanwhile, Minnick continues to pull in his own conservative endorsements and fatten his campaign account.

No predictions here. I’ll just continue to watch with fascination. It’s almost as good as a Red Sox-Yankees game.

Egan, Idaho Politics

Tough Primaries

specterPennsylvania: A Foretaste of What’s to Come in Idaho

One of the most interesting – and toughest – primary elections in the country is nearing an end in Pennsylvania. Party-switcher Arlen Specter, supported by the White House and most heavyweight D’s, is trying to hold off Rep. Joe Sestak and preserve a chance to win his sixth term in the U.S. Senate.

Sestak has put up one of the most effective ads I’ve seen in a while reminding Democratic primary votes in Pennsylvania that Specter was a Republican until two years ago. Sestak, a retired three-star Navy Admiral, has now taken a tiny lead in the race. While Snarlin’ Arlen tries to hold on against charges that he is a conniving opportunist, Sestak is fighting off demands that he release his Navy records against a backdrop that includes the allegation that he was relieved of his command forcing his retirement.

The race shows how tough a primary election can become when candidate are scrapping over the base voters in a party.

The Republican primary races in Idaho’s First District has taken on a similar tone as Vaughn Ward, a Marine Corps reserve major and the favorite of many establishment Republicans, tries to hold off the challenge of very conservative state legislator Raul Labrador. The race could turn in the final days and makes the Tuesday head-on-head debate on Idaho Public Television really important.

Both candidates have roots in the southern part of the huge district making populous Canyon County the battleground and both candidates are clearly trying to out appeal the other with the Tea Party crowd.

Last week, Labrador gained the endorsement and help of long-time conservative activist Dennis Mansfield who claims the momentum in the race is moving Labrador’s direction. Labrador also picked up endorsements in Canyon County. Again, like the Pennsylvania race, the GOP primary battle in the First District reflects the fault lines in the increasingly conservative Republican Party.

Expect some tough shots in the final days. These guys, like Specter and Sestak back east, are battling for the heart and soul of their party and it’s winner take all.

The winner in Idaho goes against first term Democrat Walt Minnick who has had the luxury of not facing a primary challenge allowing him to build his ample war chest for the fall.

Egan, Idaho Politics

Political Purity

political booksPassing the Litmus Test

With apologies to Reed Smoot – the Smoot of the Smoot-Hawley tariff – a once powerful U.S. Senator from Utah, by the weekend an even more powerful U.S. Senator from Utah may join Smoot in the history books.

If the tea leaves are correct, three-term Senator Bob Bennett is close to being history. He’s having trouble passing the litmus test.

The popular Republican governor of Florida is no longer a Republican. The leading candidate for governor in Rhode Island is an independent. Idaho’s lone Democratic office holder is too conservative for some of the puny band that call themselves Idaho Democrats.

What’s going on here? Think of it as the further polarization of American politics. The far right dominates the GOP, the far left the Democratic Party and the broad middle ground is increasingly becoming no candidate land.

What do Republicans like Bennett, Gov. Charlie Crist in Florida and former Senator Lincoln Chafee have in common? Each is apparently too liberal for the GOP in their states. Calling Bennett a liberal is a little like calling Babe Ruth a good singles hitter. The label doesn’t fit the man, yet Bennett may well not survive this weekend’s Republican convention in Utah where the party insiders pick the candidates.

Polls indicate Bennett’s standing is OK with most Utahans, but not the very conservative majority that will attend the convention this weekend. The Salt Lake Tribune recently quoted a delegate, Kristina Talbott, as saying: “We need some new blood. Most of it is anger toward Washington and the Republican Party … because people think our party has been letting us down lately. And a lot of people think Bob Bennett is back there and he’s not stepping up to the plate like he should be.”

Crist has abandoned the Republican Party in Florida and will seek the senate seat there as an independent. Chafee is taking the same path in Rhode Island.

Litmus tests go down the ballot, too. In Idaho’s most populous county, the Republican Central Committee recently took the unprecedented step of endorsing candidates in a contested primary for, of all things, two county commission seats. The challengers to two incumbents were not deemed Republican enough even though current Boise City Council member Vern Bisterfeldt and former GOP commissioner Roger Simmons have been elected in the past as Republicans. Simmons even served in an appointed position in Gov. Dirk Kempthorne’s administration. Bisterfeldt and Simmons sin, apparently, was that they have had the independence a time or two to actually support Democrats, thereby failing the litmus test. Oh, and they haven’t shown up for Central Committee meetings.

Some of this reminds me of the storm kicked off in 1986 when my old boss, Cecil Andrus, rolled out a list of “Republicans for Andrus,” including the then-GOP Senator from Washington State Dan Evans.

Andrus’ GOP supporters also included, among others, Harry Magnuson of Wallace, often referred to by the press as a “mining magnate,” wood products operator Dick Bennett of Princeton and former GOP legislator and gubernatorial candidate Larry Jackson of Boise. Some may remember Jackson from his 14-year Major League baseball pitching career with the Cardinals, Cubs and Phillies. He had an impressive career in politics, too, including serving as Chairman of the Idaho House Appropriations Committee and seeking the governorship in 1978.

Andrus won that election only because he was able to appeal to moderate Republicans and independents who, I still believe, appreciated the fact that he, too, was an independent spirit often at odds with his national party. Former Sen. Steve Symms walked into my office in the Statehouse in 1991 and remarked upon seeing the framed newspaper ad of the Republicans for Cecil hanging on the wall, that the “ad elected him governor.”

Republicans certainly smarted from the fact that some of their own had abandoned the party’s candidate in 1986 and the GOP-controlled State Senate subsequently refused to confirm Jackson to the state tax commission or several other of the GOP turncoats to other state boards or commissions.

There is an old saying in politics: Don’t get mad, get even. But, in this case the “getting even” only served to cement the Andrus reputation as a Democrat who could attract Republican support. The Republicans who publicly supported him were denied some jobs, but that hardly hurt the governor who continued to enjoy a lot of Republican support.

In any event, it’s clear that both parties are finding it harder and harder to put up with anything other than political orthodoxy as defined by the extremes on the Republican right and the Democratic left. The broad middle is up for grabs, but few dare venture there – its a political minefield these days.

And we wonder why there is so little bipartisanship.

Egan, Idaho Politics

Politics Still Ain’t Beanbag

political booksAre Spouses Fair Game?

Finley Peter Dunne was an Irish-American writer and humorist and the creator of a once-popular character – Mr. Dooley – who Dunne famously had say in the 1890’s that, “politics ain’t beanbag.”

Mr. Dooley’s full quote, even more appropriate perhaps to the latest news out of a heavily contested congressional race in Idaho, was a bit more expansive. “Politics ain’t bean bag,” he said. “Tis a man’s game; an’ women, childher, an’ pro-hybitionists’d do well to keep out iv it.”

Idaho Republican Congressional candidate Vaughn Ward, the perceived front runner to take on Democrat Walt Minnick in the sprawling 1st District of Idaho, has been dealing with the enduring truth of Mr. Dooley’s famous quip the last couple of days.

The Idaho Statesman’s Dan Popkey wrote a long takeout on Ward’s family situation this week that centered on the fact that the candidate’s wife is a decade-long employee of the mortgage giant Fannie Mae. The relevance of that fact to Ward’s candidacy is that he has made a centerpiece of his campaign his opposition to federal bailouts of the big financial institutions that helped cause the mortgage meltdown. By inference, one of those financial institutions is the employer of Ward’s wife whose salary has allowed him to campaign full-time for high public office.

Ward blasted back at the story, saying he “never thought” his wife would be attacked. A careful reading of Popkey’s piece, played with up most prominence on page one under a headline stating that Ward’s family is supported by the bailout he opposes, indicates more emphasis on what some might see as Ward’s effort to have it both ways – attack the bailouts that arguably preserved his wife’s job – than any real attack on his wife. The newspaper, meanwhile, pushed back saying that the story was entirely appropriate, in part, because Ward had himself created the issue.

Still, the story begs the question: just what is fair and what is off limits when it comes to a political spouse? The simple answer: there aren’t any rules.

Was Michelle Obama’s comment during the last presidential campaign that for the first time she was “proud to be an American” relevant? Were Hillary Clinton’s long ago trades in cattle futures relevant? Montana Senator Max Baucus’ ex-wife had a run in at a garden store some years back that made headlines. Was that relevant?

Politics is a fish bowl where the water gets changed every day and it sure ain’t beanbag and never has been.

In 1989, Dan Popkey wrote a series of very tough articles focused on the nomination of then-Idaho first lady Carol Andrus to the board of then-Boise based Morrison-Knudsen Corporation. The allegations, at their core, were about integrity and struck at the potential for a conflict of interest. I know first-hand how tough the pieces were because I was serving as then-Gov. Cecil Andrus’ press secretary and had the unwelcome responsibility of fielding Popkey’s questions. When a prominent GOP legislator jumped on the story, it went quickly from personal to very political and Mrs. Andrus, a highly intelligent, thoughtful and very private person, alone made the decision to withdraw from consideration for the corporate board.

Obviously, 20 years later, I remember many of the details of that story with a certain pit in the middle of my stomach. Was it uncomfortable to deal with? Absolutely. Were the stories inherently unfair? Given the day, I can argue it either way. I do know that it is not realistic to think of any governor’s wife as anything other than a public person. Same goes for a congressman’s wife, or the wife of a congressional hopeful.

I also know, and Andrus says as much in his memoir, that it was a darn painful experience for a close family that knew the rules of the political game and above all valued personal integrity. He adds the observation in his book – with Bill and Hillary Clinton in mind – that “attacking the family has become a kind of blood sport nowadays.”

It is the rare public person who can for any length of time keep the political separate from the familial. True fact: stories like the Ward story have become an expected part of suiting up and climbing in the political ring. Perhaps in a more genteel world it wouldn’t be so, but in that make believe world genuine bipartisanship would exist, as well. What often matters most with such stories is how the politician deals with the adversity, particularly when the adversity involves a family member. In that case, it is not just politics, but very, very personal and in my experience one of the touchiest of all political issues to manage.

So, politics sure ain’t beanbag, but tis surely a game for grownups and it helps as a candidate to have a very thick hide. Helps if the spouse does, too.

Egan, Idaho Politics

Fussing Over Polls – Part II

dewey_defeats_trumanHow Good Is the Data…

The image of the just re-elected Harry Truman holding the front page of the Chicago Tribune is one of the most recognizable photos and one of the most spectacularly inaccurate headlines in American political history.

All the respected pollsters of the day – it was 1948 – got the outcome of that election wrong. Most had quit polling a week before the election certain that New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey had a lock on the White House. It turned out to be an historic mistake that the Truman-hating Tribune was all too eager to believe as the early results trickled in on election night. Truman, of course, staged what it now considered one of the biggest comebacks in political history, likely turning the tide in the last few days of his feisty campaign.

Polling has come a long, long way since Truman’s day and even farther since the Literary Digest famously predicted Alfred Landon beating Franklin Roosevelt in 1936. In that case, the Digest relied for its self selecting sample on folks with a telephone or an automobile registration. Many Americans didn’t have either in 1936.

Yesterday I offered up some observations on the state of the current Otter – Allred race for Idaho governor that were prompted by a recent Rasmussen poll. Rasmussen’s Idaho research – he bills himself as a strictly independent pollster – was one of two or three polls on various political races that he releases every week.

In a nutshell: Otter appears to have a comfortable lead and Allred is still introducing himself as a first-time candidate unknown to most Idahoans. In my view, Allred may also come to regret missing a strategic opportunity during the legislative session to cast himself as the anti-Otter. While the press and many in the public, including education supporters, human rights activists, park users and those who think texting while operating a motor vehicle is a bad idea, were focused on the daily actions of the legislature and the governor, Allred hardly got up on the stage to offer a counterpoint. We’ll see if that turns out to have been a big mistake or not.

The Rasmussen poll shows Otter up 60-28.

How Good Is Rasmussen’s Research?

That is a good question regarding Rasmussen’s poll, or for that matter any poll that finds its way into the public arena. Just how good is the data?

The first thing to say about Scott Rasmussen is that he nailed the 2004 and 2008 presidential races and has a respectable record in state level contests.

Left-leaning bloggers don’t like him and accuse him of partisanship. The respected polling analyst Nate Silver noted in January that Rasmussen’s numbers “tend to be more favorable to Republican candidates and causes than most other polling outfits.” Silver is quick not to accuse Rasmussen of bias. It could be, he says, an issue with the methodology of Rasmussen surveys; he screens for “likely voters” when other pollsters don’t and Rasmussen uses automated data collection techniques that some folks question. And Silver notes, Rasmussen, who did polling work for Republicans and George W. Bush in 2003 and ’04, could be right on with his numbers even as some question his methods.

In any event, Silver’s analysis of Rasmussen’s work and methodology is worth reading, as is a piece by Mark Blumenthal in the National Journal who asks and tries to answer the question of when a poll is “partisan.” The conclusion: it is getting harder and harder to tell.

Thoughts to keep in mind as you read about polls

  1. Most reporting on surveys is less than adequate. Even the big news organizations like the Washington Post and CNN never seem to provide enough context as to how the survey was conducted and what was going on that might influence the results. Idaho reporters are at an even greater disadvantage in reporting on polls since they are often writing about something for which they have no first hand knowledge. An Idaho reporter gets what looks like interesting information from a Rasmussen – or soon you can bet from a more Democratic-leaning pollster – and about all they do is report the findings and add the comments from the opposing camps. When it comes to polls we need more context. We need explanation of how the surveys were conducted. What and how many questions were asked? We need more detail. We need more reporting.
  2.  

  3. The real value in polls is contained in the “internals.” We all love the horse race question: “if the election were held today”…and those results typically get the headlines. The really valuable strategic information is always buried deeper in a good survey. How are the demographics of age, religion and gender sliced? Do Idahoans feel the state is heading in the right direction? What issues make one candidate or the other vulnerable? The horse race is fun and it tells us something, but it is far from the complete picture. I’d love to see such a survey, but that information is going to be held very close to the vest by both campaigns and pollsters like Rasmussen don’t do that kind of sampling, at least not that they make public.
  4.  

  5. Idaho news organizations would do all political junkies and the election process a real favor if they were to develop their own research capabilities. Good research costs money, but perhaps a collection of news organizations could pool the resources – The New York Times/CBS News model – and provide the context and “internals” that would provide real value to voters and policy makers.

Lessons From Distant Campaigns

I have been deeply involved in two statewide races for governor – 1986 and 1990 – and have watched every race since from the back row. One of the surprising findings from our research in 1986 – Cecil Andrus was mounting his comeback that year after having been off an Idaho ballot for a dozen years – was that fully a third of the probable voters didn’t know the former governor and Secretary of the Interior from a bale of hay. He just didn’t register with those voters who had come of voting age or moved to the state since he had been governor in the 1970’s. In other words, the candidate needed to be introduced to these voters.

The lesson: most candidates underestimate the level of public understanding of who they are and what they stand for. This is a particular problem for first time candidates and it often proves fatal.

[A footnote: Andrus relied on Jimmy Carter’s controversial and outspoken pollster Pat Caddell for research in 1986 with mixed results. Doug Schoen, who polled for Bill Clinton, did the job splendidly in 1990. In the small world category, Scott Rasmussen touts endorsements from both Caddell and Schoen on his website. Both Caddell and Schoen often provide contrarian views at odds with national Democratic talking points and both provide commentary for FOX News. Each pollster has predicted massive Democratic loses at the polls this fall as a result of health care legislation.]

Another polling lesson for me comes from 1992 when four-term Democratic Rep. Richard Stallings, who represented southern and eastern Idaho, ran for the United States Senate, I’m going to bet Stallings’ name ID north of the Salmon River never got above 60%. I can’t prove that notion, but the election outcome demonstrated that Stallings was not able to connect with voters in that region of the state. For a guy from Rexburg, the territory north of Riggins might as well have been in another state.

The lesson: being well known in Boise doesn’t mean much in St. Anthony or Sandpoint. Statewide name recognition is a long, hard and expensive slog. You earn it with time or with money or both. It is but the absolutely first step to a successful political campaign. There is an old, old fomulation in politics that holds that every candidate must travel a cycle. First the name must be established, then who they are as a person can be developed, and finally comes the message. But it all starts with name recognition. You don’t have that you don’t have much of a political campaign.

Here’s my guess: Otter is not in quite as good a shape as the Rasmussen poll indicates and Allred is not in quite as bad a shape. Such polls measure name ID and party affiliation and not a lot more. Having said that, and with the acknowledgement that it is early in the cycle, campaigns do develop a certain rhythm and pace – call it the narrative – and this one is starting to firm up. Today it is very much Otter’s race to lose and his name ID, his long record of familiarity with Idaho voters, Idaho’s strong R tendencies and this being a GOP year all put him in solid shape to be re-elected.

A further guess: Otter will run a very traditional, tried and true Republican campaign based on presenting a united GOP front and emphasizing the party’s anti-tax stand. Couple that message – we’re Republicans and you can trust us on taxes – with a strong ground game to turn out voters and that has been enough for a GOP gubernatorial candidate to win every time over the last 20 years.

If Allred is to have any chance of pulling the big upset, he had better start running soon with the political equivalent of football’s “wishbone offense.” He needs something to revolutionize the game. He has to shake up the race in a very significant way, change the developing narrative and move the polls or he’ll find himself on the wrong side of “Dewey beats Truman.”

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.