My weekly column from the Lewiston (Idaho) Tribune…
A few takeaways from the midterms.
The State of the Union – Divided: The red gets redder and the blue gets bluer. The story of the 2018 midterms will be that the deep political divisions in the dysfunctional American family are destined to only get deeper. Rural America – and rural Idaho – will continue to embrace a remarkably divisive president who articulated a blatant election appeal based on racial and class division that would have made George Wallace blush.
There is something for every partisan to celebrate in the results. Democrats won control of the House of Representatives and repaired some of the party’s recent damage in the Midwest. Democratic control of the House will return some level of balance, if not bipartisanship to national politics.
Republicans can celebrate the pick up of several Senate seats and as a result Senate Republicans will be even less inclined, which is saying something, to police administration actions. Given the abject lack of Senate oversight of Trump’s foreign policy – Idaho’s Jim Risch will now likely become an even more shameless Trump apologist as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee – look for the president’s incoherent approach to the world to become more erratic, less predictable and more dangerous.
Bottom line: Trump has further consolidated his control over a Republican Party that now completely owns his ballooning deficits, serial lying, a fear and loathing message of racial division, disdain for the most basic level of ethics and in the pre-election period a politicization of the American military to deal with the phony issue of “a caravan.” Nationally the party has shredded any appeal to suburban women, younger voters and those with a college education. Republican voters actually re-elected two members of the House who are under indictment and in Nevada a dead man who owned a brothel – he was regularly referred to as “a pimp” – won a legislative seat. This is not the party of Ronald Reagan.
Meanwhile, national Democrats have room to grow a diverse coalition but lack a natural leader, which may be the best news of all from the election for Donald J. Trump.
Simpson’s New World: Second District Congressman Mike Simpson is adjusting to a new reality. Simpson, the most accomplished Idaho federal lawmaker since the late Senator Jim McClure, is a legislator of uncommon common sense. Now he will have to learn new tricks as an appropriator in the minority. Had Republicans held on to the House of Representatives Simpson had an outside shot at chairing the immensely important House Appropriations Committee. At least Simpson would have remained chairman of an important subcommittee. Now, the man who brings home the bacon of the Idaho National Lab and regularly attends to home state issues will need to apply all his skill as a bipartisan dealmaker to continue to wield influence in a Democratic House. Simpson will, on the surface at least, have a better relationship with new First District Congressman Russ Fulcher than he ever had with Raul Labrador. While Fulcher will join a House were his natural allies – Labrador’s old “Freedom Caucus” – will be severely neutered and where he will labor in the least attractive position in politics: a rookie in the minority.
Idaho Republicans Sweep – Again: Governor-elect Brad Little ran a textbook Idaho GOP campaign and crushed Paulette Jordan, his badly overmatched Democratic opponent. Jordan, with little to show for her vacuous, personality driven campaign other than a scrapbook of national news clippings, did nothing to change the trajectory of Idaho’s beleaguered Democratic Party. In fact, Jordan may have retarded the progress of rebuilding a credible minority by blowing what might have been a historic opportunity. Republicans have held the governor’s office for 24 years and, as prolonged, uncontested power inevitably does, they have accumulated a litany of scandals minor and otherwise. Little was effectively running for Butch Otter’s fourth term – never an advantageous political position – and in a year when women candidates nationally made major strides. But Jordan never put together a real campaign, never had a compelling message and never succeeded in turning the lanky rancher’s white Stetson black.
Jordan’s anemic showing did no favors for the one statewide Democrat, superintendent of public instruction candidate Cindy Wilson, who seemed to have a path to victory and even in defeat ran well ahead of the top of the Democratic ticket. Rural red Idaho did Wilson in, however, while old-time Democrats, now mostly gone and forgotten, in places like Nez Perce and Shoshone Counties are spinning in their graves.
The scope of Little’s win – and Jordan’s loss – is illustrated by one telling election statistic. Jordan spent more than a million dollars to collect 38% of the vote, barely three percent more than the Democrat who put his name on the ballot for attorney general, never campaigned and didn’t raise a cent.
A tiny, but not insignificant glimmer of hope for Idaho’s Democrats was a pick up of a handful of legislative seats, a growing lock on the state’s largest county – Democrats won two county commission seats in Ada County for the first time since 1976 – and the example of the ballot proposition that expanded Medicaid coverage to some of the most vulnerable Idahoans. That well-funded, well-organized, well-messaged campaign was both historic and provides a template for a future statewide Democrat. If any Idaho Democrat ever wins again it will happen because that candidate has a compelling message that reaches voters where they live and builds a new organization at the grassroots that brings new participants, particularly millennial and Latino voters, into the political process.
If the national GOP’s deep problem with suburban women has any, even minor, corollary in Idaho, it is in the Great State of Ada. A young and appealing generation of women office holders now populates the Boise city council and the county commission. The party has to start rebuilding someplace and Ada County is as good as it gets for Idaho Democrats.
My latest column for the Lewiston (Idaho) Tribune on Idaho politics…
It is now clear that the campaign of Idaho Democratic gubernatorial candidate Paulette Jordan purposefully worked to establish a “shell” company in Wyoming, channel at least $20,000 through that company and kept the connections, including who has actually benefited from the campaign’s largess, secret. The convoluted effort was undertaken, the Jordan campaign acknowledges, in order to disguise the ultimate recipients of the campaign’s money. The campaign says the money went to anti-Brad Little Republican operatives who have to remain anonymous to avoid getting crossways with “their Republican patrons.”
Unpacking this subterfuge and the Jordan campaign’s shifting explanation of these shenanigans leads to a couple of obvious questions.
One question: If Jordan has been truly seeking Republican support in her underdog campaign against the GOP Lt. Governor, support she needs to win, why not do the hard work of forming a genuine “Republicans for Paulette” group? For a long time Democrats, particularly former Governor Cecil Andrus, made such efforts a lynch pin of their campaigns. I remember then-Republican Senator Steve Symms walking into my office in the Idaho Statehouse years ago and looking at a framed copy on the wall of a full-page ad featuring prominent Republicans that Andrus’s campaign had utilized during the hard fought 1986 campaign. The ad featured photos of Washington U.S. Senator Dan Evans and Idaho business titan Harry Magnuson, among others. Symms simply said, “That ad elected him.”
Rather than such a transparent, and I would argue effective, tactic, Jordan’s campaign embraced s shadowy scheme to allegedly employ disenchanted GOP operatives to dish dirt on her opponent.
A second question: Is Idaho’s campaign finance disclosure law really so toothless that it permits a campaign to set up what in essence is a secret company (out of state), route money through that company and keep the ultimate recipients of the cash secret? We don’t really know for sure what the company – Roughneck Steering, Inc. – did for the campaign. We don’t know who did whatever was done and we can’t contact the firm because it’s really only a mail drop in Sheridan, Wyoming with a “registered agent” who won’t return a phone call.
When I inquired a couple of weeks ago the Jordan campaign told me that Roughneck’s agents (whomever they are) had made “polling calls” approximately “8,270 calls (in August), in September the calls were made to 9,023 Idahoans.”
But the story shifted when Jordan’s campaign manager Nate Kelly later spoke to reporter Betsy Russell of the Idaho Press. “They ended up doing a bunch of not polling, but push-polling,” Kelly said.
For those not versed in the terminology of sleazy campaign practices, a “push poll” is designed to persuade, or more often misinform, voters under the guise of being a legitimate public opinion survey. Typically a heap of entirely negative material is shared with the person getting a call in hopes of planting the notion that a certain candidate is a scoundrel. The practice is held in such low regard that it violates the code of ethics of most real pollsters.
Kelly also told Russell that Jordan’s previous campaign manager, Michael Rosenow, who resigned in September apparently to protest the campaign’s involvement with a federal political action committee, established the Wyoming shell company. Of course we can’t ask Rosenow about that because he signed a non-disclosure agreement with Jordan’s campaign.
If, as the Jordan campaign says, there are “anti-Little” forces determined to damage Little’s candidacy that would be some news and would certainly underscore the deep fault lines – or perhaps just bitter animosity – that continues to exist in the Idaho GOP after Little won a tough primary in May. Of course, because the Jordan campaign won’t tell us we can’t even be sure there are mysterious GOP operatives hoping to sabotage their party’s nominee. My own checking turned up suspects, but no evidence.
Kelly rejects any suggestion that the Jordan campaign has engaged in subterfuge in order to obscure the final dispensation of campaign funds. He called Roughneck “a contracting firm” that merely processed payments to individuals who had done the actual work for the campaign. He contends such arrangements are typical in the corporate world. Kelly, a California attorney, is also the owner of another Wyoming company that has received several payments from the Jordan campaign.
Despite his role in shielding the names of those really behind Roughneck Steering, Kelly recently told the Associated Press that Jordan’s campaign was all “about transparency.” And he added, “We want to be an open book and not be distracted. Everything is on the up and up.” That statement is Donald Trump-like in its credulity.
Deputy Idaho Secretary of State Tim Hurst points out that the purpose of Idaho’s voter approved campaign disclosure law is pretty simple and the intent is not to hide information from voters about how money is raised or spent by candidates. Hurst referenced the stated purpose of the law: “To promote openness in government and avoiding secrecy by those giving financial support to state election campaigns and those promoting or opposing legislation or attempting to influence executive or administrative actions for compensation at the state level.”
Another section of the Idaho law says: “No contribution shall be made and no expenditure shall be incurred, directly or indirectly, in a fictitious name, anonymously, or by one (1) person through an agent, relative or other person in such a manner as to conceal the identity of the source of the contribution.”
If the state of Idaho can’t enforce the law in the face of the Jordan campaign’s obvious efforts to skirt real disclosure then the state’s “sunshine law” isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.
Thirty years ago this month then-Idaho Governor Cecil D. Andrus willfully and with malice aforethought sparked one of the most consequential confrontations of the nuclear age. The Idaho governor, a rangy, bald-headed one-time lumberjack from Orofino, took on the federal government in a way few, if any, Idaho politicians ever had before, or has since.
I have many vivid memories of working for Andrus those long years ago, but no memory remains more evocative than when the governor of Idaho called the bluff of the Department of Energy over nuclear waste. We are still feeling the ripples of that encounter and Idaho, thanks to dozens of subsequent actions, including a landmark agreement negotiated by Andrus’s successor Phil Batt, has gotten rid of a good part of its nuclear waste stockpile. If current state leaders are half as smart as Andrus and Batt they will fight to retain the leverage Idaho has to get rid of the rest.
On a crisp fall day in 1988 Andrus and I flew to Carlsbad, New Mexico, a town in the southeastern corner of the state at the time better known for its caverns than for its starring role in a governmental showdown. Carlsbad was once the potash capitol of the country and had long been a place where extracting value from the earth dominated the economy. When potash ceased to be an economic driver for the region the powers to be in Eddy County went looking for a future. They found some level of economic salvation in nuclear waste. Andrus was there to help realize their expectations and in the process help Idaho.
Years earlier, as Secretary of the Interior, Andrus had become a Carlsbad favorite for his attention to local issues – Carlsbad Caverns National Park in the domain of the Interior Department is nearby – and because of the respect he enjoyed the locals made him an honorary member of the Eddy County Sheriff’s Posse. As a member of the august group Andrus was able to sport the outfit’s signature Stetson, a big hat hard to miss in a crowd. The Stetson was a scintillating shade of turquoise.
Wearing his colorful headgear, Andrus arrived in Carlsbad thirty years ago to “tour” the then-unfinished Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), a massive cavern carved out of the deep salt formations under southeastern New Mexico. Years earlier the Department of Energy (DOE), then as now the single most incompetent bureaucracy in the federal government, had determined that the salt formations would be the ideal place to permanently dispose of certain types of extremely long-lived radioactive waste. Encased thousands of feet below ground in salt that had existed for hundreds if not millions of years and never touched by water, the waste would be safe. The science was sound even if DOE’s execution of a plan to prepare the facility for waste was deeply flawed.
Andrus’s WIPP inspection left him convinced that the only way to move DOE’s bureaucracy was to manufacture a crisis. His motive, of course, was to shine a light on DOE management failures, but also advancing the day when nuclear waste that had been sitting in Idaho for years would be permanently removed to New Mexico. He returned to Idaho and closed the state’s borders to any more waste, declaring, “I’m not in the garbage business any more.”
I remember asking Andrus if he really had the legal authority to take an action that seemed sure to end up in court. He smiled and said, “ I may not have the legal authority, but I have the moral authority. Let them try to stop me.”
The audacious action had precisely the effect Idaho’s governor intended. The nation’s decades of failures managing its massive stockpile of nuclear waste became, at least for a while, a national issue. The New York Times printed a photo of an Idaho state trooper standing guard over a rail car of waste on a siding near Blackfoot. DOE blinked and eventually took that shipment back to Colorado.
A now retired senior DOE official recently told me Andrus’s action was the catalyst to get the New Mexico facility operational. His gutsy leadership also highlighted the political reality that Idaho’s rebellion against the feds might easily spread. Subsequent litigation, various agreements and better DOE focus, at least temporarily, lead to the opening of the WIPP site in 1999 and some of the waste stored in Idaho began moving south.
With the perfect hindsight of thirty years it is also clear that Idaho’s willingness to take on the federal government did not, as many of the state’s Republicans claimed at the time, hurt the Idaho National Laboratory. Republican Governor Phil Batt’s 1995 agreement, which Andrus zealously defended up until his death last year, continues to provide Idaho with the best roadmap any state has for cleaning up and properly disposing of waste. Idaho would be foolish to squander any of the leverage it has thanks to the work Andrus and Batt did to hold the federal government accountable.
But, of course, some Idahoans continue to talk about waste accommodation with DOE, even as deadlines for more removal and clean up are missed and the DOE behemoth stumbles forward. A former Texas governor who once advocated eliminating the agency now heads DOE. As Michael Lewis demonstrates in his scary new book The Fifth Risk, DOE Secretary Rick Perry is little more than a figurehead acting out a role that is both “ceremonial and bizarre.” According to Lewis’s telling, Perry didn’t even bother to ask for a briefing on any DOE program when he arrived.
Meanwhile Perry’s boss recently announced in Nevada, a state where waste is about as popular as a busted flush, that he’s opposed to eventually opening the Yucca Mountain site as a permanent repository for very high-level nuclear waste. Donald Trump made that statement even as his own budget contains millions of our dollars to work on opening the very facility.
Federal government incoherence obviously continues. Cece Andrus confronted it thirty years ago. He was right then and we can still learn from his leadership.
Paulette Jordan, the Democratic candidate for governor of Idaho, has created in a way rarely seen in the state’s recent political history a small donor fundraising juggernaut. Jordan has tapped into thousands of small donors in Idaho and across the country. From Clinton, New York to Longview, Washington from Aiken, South Carolina to Denver, Colorado people have been sending her money and in the process she has raised more than $1 million, a respectable figure for an underdog Democrat in Idaho.
A substantial percentage of Jordan’s fundraising haul has come from small, individual contributions, some as small as $5 and many less than $100. And many donors have given to her campaign multiple times. It is the kind of broad based fundraising that candidates dream about. Jordan’s contribution profile differs dramatically from her opponent, Lt. Governor Brad Little, who has mostly relied on the standard sources of GOP campaign cash – industry PACs, businesses, lobbyists and well-heeled supporters from across the state. As a result Little has outraised the Democrat by a lot and in the home stretch has held on to more cash for a final push.
Yet there is a confounding mystery at the heart of Jordan’s campaign: little of her cash seems to have made its way into what you might call a real campaign – direct mail, billboards, TV, radio, newspapers and social media. Rather hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on out of state consultants and, as the Idaho Statesman’s Cynthia Sewell documented recently, on food, travel and lodging – much of it out of state – by the candidate.
Jordan’s pre-election campaign finance disclosure report is simply one of the most unusual, which is to say unprecedented, documents of its type since Idaho voters mandated campaign finance disclosure 1974. To say the least the report raises more questions than it answers, while the campaign refuses to provide answers to basic questions about how and why it has spent its money. Consider a just few questionable details from Jordan’s October 10 report:
The campaign has paid at least four out-of-state companies in Wyoming, Vermont and Minnesota nearly $50,000 for what it says are various consulting services. Yet the companies appear to be “shells” with no actual place of business only a mailing address and a contact listed as a “registered agent.” One company is identified by the campaign as a Limited Liability Company with a post office box in Peru, Vermont, but the Vermont Secretary of State has no record of the company existing. Another company that has received payments from Jordan’s campaign lists its address as an apartment in Minneapolis.
One company with a Cheyenne, Wyoming address, lists Jordan’s campaign manager, Nathanial Kelly, as its president, secretary, treasurer and only director. Kelly is the same guy who recently tried to explain away why the campaign required its staffers to sign non-disclosure agreements. Kelly’s Wyoming firm only became active in August just about the time Kelly has said he was helping the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, with Jordan’s encouragement, to establish a federal super PAC.
A second Wyoming firm that received two $10,000 payments from Jordan since August is registered at the same Sheridan, Wyoming address as the federal PAC. This firm has not filed more complete information, including the names of incorporators, with the state of Wyoming because it isn’t required to do so until a year after it is formally registered. Meanwhile, the campaign insists that none of its resources have gone to helping establish the federal PAC, which Jordan has refused to discuss beyond criticizing the reporting that disclosed its existence.
The Jordan campaign has employed two different digital fundraising firms both located in Washington, D.C. and paid them more than $110,000. One firm started work after Jordan won the May primary. The campaign also reports payments to two separate campaign reporting and compliance firms with one firm joining post-primary. The campaign, which has had two high profile staff shake ups since May declined to provide information on how many different employees it has paid – it appears upwards of a dozen – has also utilized two different payroll services firms, but has also paid staff directly. (The campaign refused my request to provide information on who has been paid and how.) These set ups beg the question: why are two firms doing what appears essentially to be the same job.
The campaign also reported a $1,000 “contribution” to a California entity that lists the same Novato, California address as one of the reporting and compliance firms. When I asked who received the contribution I was told the money went to “an elected official who is consulting for the campaign as well.” A spokeswoman at the Idaho Secretary of State’s office says failure to disclose the recipient of a contribution from an Idaho campaign committee is a violation of Idaho law. That obviously is a problem for Jordan’s campaign, but her small dollar donors might also be justified in asking why would an Idaho campaign scraping for every dollar make any contribution to a candidate in California?
Campaigns, we all know, cost money. Personnel, technology, advertising and travel require money, the kind of money Jordan has been raising. But the real question for the candidate – and her thousands of small donors – is why so little of the more than one million dollars she has raised has been spent in a way that might actually reach, inform and motivate Idaho voters?
The campaign has talked about the importance of transparency and accountability in state government, but that clearly doesn’t extend to her campaign. Jordan’s latest campaign finance report is a black box of questions, contradictions and head scratching inconsistencies. It all begs another question: where has all the money gone and why?
This year’s race for Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction will test one of my long held theories about the state’s politics. It will be news to some voters, but Democrats have occasionally won elections in Idaho, but generally only when Republicans screw up and put forward a candidate broadly seen as unfit or ill prepared. When that happens a competent Democrat can win and often stay in office for a while.
Frank Church won the first of his four terms in the Senate in 1956 because he faced a flawed GOP incumbent, Herman Welker, who had distinguished himself as Joe McCarthy’s best friend in the Senate. Welker was likely also suffering from a brain tumor, which may have contributed to an erratic personality that offended many voters, including Republicans. Unacceptable GOP candidate equals Democratic win.
Cecil Andrus used to joke that had there not been a Don Samuelson, another bumbling GOP incumbent, he would never have won the first of his four terms as governor. Democrat John Evans beat the hapless Republican gubernatorial candidate Allen Larsen in 1978 only after Larsen, an awful candidate, told live-and-let-live Idahoans that he thought it was possible to legislate morality. That’s why you don’t remember Governor Larsen. Richard Stallings was elected to Congress because the GOP incumbent George Hansen was a serial crook. One judge, obviously giving Big George the benefit of the doubt, said Hansen’s failure to comply with campaign finance law was not necessarily “evil” but “stupid, surely.” Hansen later served time for defrauding a bank.
Which brings us to Cindy Wilson, the earnest, experienced, energetic and personable Democratic candidate for state superintendent of public instruction. Wilson, based on her resume and grasp of issues, should, even in red Idaho, be a serious candidate. She’s taught for 33 years in schools in Orofino, Pierce, Shelley, Boise and Meridian. She’s won awards for her classroom success and Governor Butch Otter appointed her to the state board of corrections, giving Wilson a view of how educational failure contributes to exploding prison populations. That Wilson has a chance to win, however, says as much about the underwhelming incumbent as it does about the challenger.
Republican incumbent Sherri Ybarra is, as one astute observer told me, really “an accidental candidate.” Ybarra, a total political unknown with a shallow resume, came from nowhere to win the GOP nomination four years ago. That was enough for a Republican “fresh face” to win a general election. Since then Ybarra’s often erratic performance has raised persistent questions about her competence and even her interest in the job.
For a politician who is supposed to be an advocate for Idaho’s 300,000 public school students, Ybarra frequently seems to have forgotten to do her homework. Ybarra has been late with her campaign finance reports and has never fully explained why she had to amend disclosure reports going back to 2017 to justify why she paid herself back for a loan to her campaign that she had never disclosed as a loan in the first place.
Ybarra has stressed support for rural schools, but her policy proposals have been thin to the point of non-existence. Gubernatorial candidate Brad Little, by contrast, recently put some specific meat on the bones of how rural districts might actually combine certain services. It is the kind of thing a chief school officer might do rather than a candidate for governor.
Ybarra has touted a school safety initiative – KISS, Keep Idaho Students Safe – but did nothing to coordinate her very expensive proposal with the office state lawmakers specifically established to deal with that issue. As Idaho Education News reported recently the head of the Idaho Office of School Safety and Security was dumbfounded to learn that Ybarra had gone off on her own, ignoring the expertise in his office. “We didn’t even know she was looking at doing any kind of safety initiative until she announced it to the general public,” said school safety program manager Brian Armes.
Challenger Wilson might have simplified her entire campaign by adopting an easily understood slogan: “I’ll show up for work.” Ybarra has frequently missed state board of education meetings, including a meeting this summer that conflicted with her professed need to pack for a vacation. Lately she has been stiffing joint appearances with Wilson, including in the last few days an Idaho Falls City Club event and an educational forum at Boise State University.
Ybarra ducked the Idaho Falls appearance in favor of a fundraiser at a pub in Eagle owned by a former colleague who lost his educational credentials after being accused of multiple counts of sexual harassment. “He was punished for that, and he’s still a friend of mine,” Ybarra told reporter Clark Corbin of Idaho Education News. “We’re not around kids right now, we’re at a fundraiser.” That statement will be remembered as the definition of tone deaf, or perhaps worse.
The last time Idaho had a bumbler in the state superintendent’s office voters overwhelmingly rejected his “education reforms” at the ballot box. And before that an incompetent Republican state superintendent lost re-election to Democrat Marilyn Howard, who went on to serve two terms, carrying on a tradition of professional, competent management of the office that dates back to Jerry Evans and Roy Truby in the 1970s and 1980s.
Having the big R behind your name is often all it takes to win in Idaho, but if voters are paying attention and really want competence in a job critical to kids and parents and the economy, the incumbent state superintendent will be looking for a new job in January.
Breaking: Three top aides to Idaho gubernatorial candidate Paulette Jordan resigned late Friday, according to published reports. The campaign had no immediate comment and two aides said non-disclosure agreements with the Democratic nominee’s campaign prevented them from commenting.
Earlier Friday my regular column in the Lewiston Tribune dealt with Jordan’s campaign. That column is below.
There are few universal rules in politics, but one rule certainly holds that no challenger wins a contest without making the incumbent the issue. Challengers who don’t take the fight to incumbents lose. Paulette Jordan, the Democratic nominee for Idaho governor, isn’t precisely running against an incumbent in Republican Brad Little, three-term governor C.L. “Butch” Otter’s lieutenant governor, but Little has all the trappings and the potential downside of incumbency.
Little is an “establishment” Republican who vanquished two conservative foes in a divisive GOP primary. He’s been around Idaho politics for years – his father was a long-serving state senator – and he is, in effect, running for Otter’s fourth term, accountable for all the bad and ensured of only modest credit for the good. Yet, seven weeks in front of the November election Jordan, the insurgent challenger, has yet to lay a glove on the incumbent. She certainly isn’t making it clear, as she must if she hopes to win (or even come close), that the election is a referendum on 12 years of the Otter-Little administration. A skillful candidate would by now have exploited some of the many missteps of the last dozen years, but beyond supporting Medicaid expansion and offering pabulum about a more humane government, Jordan hasn’t offered specifics about much of anything.
Jordan, a novice statewide candidate, is also violating Tip O’Neill’s old truism that “all politics is local,” by largely ignoring the traditional means of politicking in Idaho. Jordan has received heaps of attention from CNN and national publications have devoted ink to her resume as potentially the first woman and first Native American governor in Idaho. Yet she regularly avoids engaging with Idaho reporters and was largely missing on the summer fair and rodeo circuit. One long-time weekly newspaper editor told me recently he hasn’t seen the Democratic candidate and doesn’t expect to. He’s given up on ever getting a phone call returned. It’s a common refrain.
Jordan should have taken a page from the surging campaign of Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke who is challenging Texas Senator Ted Cruz and seems to have made that race a virtual toss up. O’Rourke, running as the underdog in a Trumpishly red state, has crisscrossed Texas repeatedly holding town hall meetings with anyone who will show up. During a recent gathering in San Marcos, according to the Texas Tribune, “O’Rourke answered questions about what he thinks about impeaching Trump, how to address the wealth gap between African-Americans and whites and whether he supports Betsy DeVos’ efforts to bring guns to campuses (‘No,’ he said).”
In contrast, Jordan recently swapped time in Idaho for an appearance on a Saturday night CNN show where she avoided discussing any specific issue. Idaho voters, she said, were “ready for true compassion and governance again.” Jordan told CNN host Van Jones that her upbringing stressed love of country, love of the land, love of all humanity, but that such attitudes hadn’t been “reflected in Idaho for the last three decades.” That is a vacuous and dubious claim at best. Going back thirty years, for example, would take us to the third term of the last Democrat to win the governorship, Cecil D. Andrus, a man who championed good schools, fought the feds over nuclear waste storage, presided over a strong economy, advocated for human and civil rights and certainly loved the land. Andrus knew that any successful Democrat has to run with a real and specific agenda.
Jordan does seem to be attempting to expand the electorate, trying to appeal to disaffected Idahoans and younger voters. O’Rourke has much the same strategy in Texas, but he adds the critical ingredients of substance and presence. In other words he shows up and is willing to confront issues, even difficult ones, head on.
I have long argued that Idaho Democrats must find a new approach to running statewide campaigns, including strategies to expand the electorate. They need to focus on younger voters who much research shows aren’t particularly wedded to either political party. They need to play to their one true strength, years of commitment to improving educational opportunities. And they must relentlessly and enthusiastically engage voters. A brief hit on CNN is no substitute for a town hall meeting in Payette, a picnic in Orofino or knocking on doors in Soda Springs.
Jordan has apparently mastered one part of a new Democratic strategy. The University of Virginia Center for Politics and Ipsos, the polling outfit, has created an online 2018 Political Atlas for every major race in the country. The Atlasmeasures, among other things, a candidate’s social media presence and on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram Jordan looks like a winner. One analysis gives her seven times as many Twitter followers as Little and six times as many followers on Facebook. Nevertheless respected political scientist Larry Sabato who helped invent these new measures calls the governor’s race “safe Republican.” That call is based on his detailed analysis of polling, Idaho’s electoral history, the quality of the candidates and other first hand intelligence.
A good social media presence is clearly an element of a challenges strategy, but it’s hardly enough by itself. The vast majority of Jordan’s social media followers appear to be fans from outside Idaho and therefore unable to vote for her in November. Perhaps that’s what you get when you base an Idaho campaign on profiles in The Atlantic or interviews on CNN.
Former Idaho Governor and Secretary of the Interior Cecil D. Andrus died on August 24, 2017 in Boise. He was a day short of his 86th birthday. I was lucky enough to meet him in the mid-1970s and even more fortunate to work with him from 1986 on.
He was simply the best and greatest man I have ever known. I was honored and humbled to offer a remembrance for a packed house of family and friends at a memorial service in Boise last week. Below is what I said about a personal and political giant.
Cecil Andrus had, in almost every respect, a quintessentially American kind of life rising from the most modest beginnings to the far heights of political and personal accomplishment, and frequently his many and varied victories came in the face of the longest of odds.
Reflect for a moment on those humble begins in rural Oregon: The governor told of learning, as a youngster along with brother Steve, how to hunt and fish, and not merely for enjoyment, but because a successful hunting or fishing expedition put food on the family table. You can understand the seeds there of a life long love of hunting, fishing and the outdoors. He would joke in his retirement that with an elk in the freezer he and Carol could make it through the winter.
These early Oregon days were before there was a Bonneville Power Administration or the REA, electricity was scarce in the rural west. He vividly recalled his dad using the car battery to power the family radio set so that everyone could listen to Franklin Roosevelt’s Fire Side Chats. And he embraced throughout his political life the lessons of FDR’s New Deal, as well as the buck-stops-here pragmatism of Harry Truman. Politics, he thought, should be an honorable calling since it should always be about improving the lives of people. And government was the tool to make the improvements.
He never forgot where he came from.
Years after working long days in the woods, after serving in the Cabinet, after meeting the Pope, and presidents, and titans of industry, and after conserving vast swaths of America’s last frontier, he could still walk the walk and talk the talk of a gyppo logger from north Idaho. Some wise guy once conceived of a campaign commercial where the governor donned a hardhat and cork boots and wielded a chain saw to cut down the biggest dang Ponderosa pine you can imagine.
This was 1986, and probably 20 years after his last logging job, and he dropped that tree right where it was supposed to be.
He never forgot where he came from.
To those who had the honor to work for him – with him – he was role model, mentor, inspiration and surrogate father. He was simply a wonderful guy to work with. It was fun, demanding and important work, and, in my case, his taking a flier on me and bringing me into his orbit absolutely changed my life – and all for the good. I even adopted his hairstyle.
A Political Accident…
All of you know the broad outline of his story, but permit me for a moment to draw the big picture that, I think, helps us understand what will be his enduring legacy. He was elected at age 29 to the state senate from Clearwater County by defeating an incumbent Republican. He had never before held political office. Elected governor at age 39 in 1970, he became the first Democratic governor in Idaho in sixteen years. He defeated an incumbent Republican that year by gaining 52 percent of the vote. Four years later, he won re-election in a crushing landslide – 71 percent of the vote.
His political and personal skills and his first-rate intellect next took him to the president’s Cabinet – the first Idahoan to ever serve there.
Following service in the Carter Administration he returned to Idaho, in and of itself a remarkable fact since “Potomac Fever” is a powerful affliction, but it never settled on Cece Andrus.
In 1986, he was trying again to win what he often called “the best political job in the world,” and he won a very close election for governor with just under 50 percent of the vote. Four years later, he won an unprecedented fourth term in another landslide – more than 68 percent of the vote.
I like to say he was elected four times in three different decades, a Democrat in one of the most Republican states in the nation, a conservationist in a state where timber, mining and agriculture were paramount. He built a record of remarkable legislative accomplishment that occurred while his party never once controlled either house of the state legislature.
I remember going to Marsing during that 1986 campaign and seeing a pick-up truck with an Andrus sticker on the left rear bumper and a Steve Symms sticker on the right rear bumper. That is the definition of bipartisan appeal. He never would have won all those elections without having remarkable appeal all across the political spectrum.
And there was a discernible pattern in his political life, and his victories were no flukes. He would win an election narrowly, as in 1970 and again 1986, and then, after showing voters how well he led and how much he cared – in other words the more the voters saw him in action the better they liked him – he won the two greatest victories in modern Idaho gubernatorial history. You need to go all the way back to 1896 and Frank Steunenberg to find another gubernatorial election won by a larger margin that Cece Andrus’ margins in 1974 and 1990.
And after he won he led, and he governed. Permit the editorial opinion that we could use a little bit more of that formula in our politics today.
Historians will sort this out, but I think it is fair to argue that no politician in the history of Idaho had a bigger impact for good for more people for a longer period of time than Cece Andrus.
He was, to appropriate the title from Bernard Malamud’s great novel, he was indeed The Natural. He believed, as Churchill said, that you had to be an optimist – it simply wasn’t much use to be anything else.
I have rarely met another person, let alone a politician, so completely comfortable in his own skin as was Cece Andrus. He was the very definition of the old saying: What you see is what you get. No pretense. No artifice. No overstuffed self-importance. Cece Andrus never met a stranger and never had to master the politician’s trick of faking sincerity.
He liked being Cece Andrus – and who wouldn’t?
What you saw is what he was: confident, decisive, almost always the smartest guy in the room, but never one to believe it of himself. He rarely – as in never – seemed to have a bad day. He had an amazing capacity for work and analysis, but also a remarkable ability to make a tough decision and never second-guess that decision. He also displayed, more than any other quality, a genuine regard for people, which I would submit was the secret sauce of his astounding political success and why he remains, nearly a quarter century after leaving public office, the most popular Idaho politician of the modern era. He really liked people. And they liked him precisely because he was – to use a phrase political consults employ today – he was authentic.
To Carol, Tana, Tracy, Kelly, Monica, Morgan, Andrew and great granddaughter Casey and all the extended Andrus family: At this difficult time and while still coming to grips with such a great loss please know we hold all of you in our hearts and in our prayers. While we gather today to celebrate the governor’s remarkable life and legacy we are all too aware that no words can really ease the hurt you feel.
Still, it would be our collective hope that the sentiments, the images, the music and the outpouring of love and affection from all gathered here, as well as the collective memory of what he has meant to all of us, will begin to bring some degree of peace.
We confront today, each of us, the realization that no matter how large the hurt, no matter how awful the loss, we can – and we should – take profound inspiration from Cece Andrus’ life. He would tell us, I think, that when faced with adversity we have only one choice – to move ahead, to step confidently, as he would, toward the bright sunshine on the next high hill, to envision and work for a better future, and to never indulge in the darkness of despair.
He once said, in reflecting on his long career, that when things change we need to change to meet the new circumstances. He was nothing if not an agent of change, and he was always – always – focused on the future.
And we remember that great sense of humor, those flashing eyes, and the perfectly delivered self-deprecating joke. We all have a Cece story.
Here is a favorite of mine: it was August 1986, and he was locked in a tough campaign for a third term as governor. As well known as Cece Andrus was at that time, he had been off the ballot for a dozen years, away from the state for four years and he was a blank slate for a significant number of Idahoans. Practicing the best kind of politics – the retail, handshaking and visiting kind of politics – we were trying to get him in personal contact with as many voters are possible. But on this particular hot August day we didn’t have a blessed thing scheduled – no Rotary Club speech, no parade, nothing. Not one to waste a campaign day, he had his tiny paid campaign staff – Larry Meierotto, the campaign manager, Clareene Wharry (of course) and me gather at his office on Bannock Street downtown. He wanted to know what we could do that day to meet some voters.
Larry shuffled through some papers in his lap and said: Well, the Owyhee County Fair starts today. We could drive out to Homedale – as you all know a Democratic stronghold – and work the fairground. Strategy decided we took off mid-afternoon for Homedale. As we arrived at the fairgrounds something just didn’t seem quite right. For one thing no one was around. The fairgrounds were deserted. Armed with a handful of Andrus brochures, the governor set off to find some voters, any voters, and we finally spotted four guys sitting in the shade drinking Coors out of can and smoking cigarettes. He introduced himself and asked these guys where they were from. Nevada, they answered. They were the “carnies” setting up the carnival rides for the Owyhee County Fair that would start – the next day. We went to the fair on the wrong day.
For the rest of my life in the wonderful orbit of Cecil Andrus the Owyhee County Fair became shorthand for anything that didn’t turn out quite right. All he had to do to make a point about a lack of planning or execution was to say those words – “Owyhee County Fair.” And he would frequently add, twinkle in his eye: “That was a real high point of the campaign, talking to four guys in Homedale, all from Nevada who couldn’t vote for me.”
When his hunting mule Ruthie delivered a serious blow to his head during an elk hunting expedition and he was helicoptered off a mountain up above Lowman, I went sprinting down to the emergency department at St. Luke’s not knowing how seriously he had been hurt. About the first person I saw was the National Guard helicopter pilot who had delivered him to the hospital. “How is he doing,” I asked. “I think he’s going to be fine,” the pilot said, “the first thing he asked me when we got him strapped in was whether there was any chance we had a cold beer on board the helicopter.”
He was not the kind of leader who expected perfection, but rather competence. He wasn’t in any way a harsh taskmaster, but he did demand honesty, hard work and really insisted that you harbor a sense of the awe that he felt in having the privilege and responsibility of working for the people of Idaho.
He wasn’t a memo writer and he rarely issued orders, but he did expect everyone who worked for him to be on his or her A-game all the time. And he had standards: Tell the truth; no surprises – if you had a problem you’d better let him know, he didn’t want to read about it in the newspaper – no funny business with expense reimbursements – if you cheated on the small stuff, you’d cheat on the big things, he said – and no drinking at lunch. Think of the problems those simple rules avoided.
When things went wrong, he took responsibility. When things went well, he shared the praise. Ask anyone who ever worked for him and you’ll find that he inspired incredible loyalty. You wanted to work for the guy and no one ever wanted to disappoint the boss.
He led the best way – by example. A good way to measure the character of a politician is to see how people who worked for an elected official regard their experience. I believe I can speak for the so-called “Andrus Mafia” in saying that working for Cece Andrus was the absolute pinnacle of our professional lives.
The Andrus Legacy…
He loved to hunt and fish. And the outdoors, in addition to Carol, his daughters, grandchildren, and great granddaughter, were his great personal passions. He also had, I think, three great political passions. Perhaps above all he valued education. He admired and cared for students and teachers. I’ve always thought one reason he placed such great stock in education was due to the fact that he did not have the chance to complete his own college education. Lord knows that never hampered him, but he always knew that education was the way ahead in the world. He believed every single youngster deserved a first-rate education and he was determined as a legislator and as a governor to do everything he could to emphasize and improve education. It is one of the Three E’s of the Andrus Legacy.
His second E was the economy. First you must make a living, he said, and then he acted on that idea. He promoted Idaho products – like the spuds in those great commercials – and he courted those, like Hewlett-Packard and Micron, who would bring about a diversification of the Idaho economy. But he was also a shrewd and pragmatic dealmaker. He told David Packard that Idaho would be glad to have a big technology company like H-P locate here, but to not expect a bunch of tax giveaways since that wouldn’t be fair to companies already here. H-P came.
Micron needed engineering education in Boise. He found a way to get it done.
He had an astute sense of leadership that helped him navigate domains as different as the Albertson’s boardroom, the White House Cabinet Room, a Land Board meeting or an elk camp. Only after I observed him in action for a while did I conclude, without a doubt, that this guy could have literally done anything in business or in politics. He inspired people to be better than they were and they followed him – the very essence of a great leader.
We have heard a good deal lately about certain people who know the art of the deal. Most of them don’t. Cece Andrus did. Since we are here today on the Boise State University campus I want to relate one of my favorite stories about Andrus the dealmaker. Back in 1974 – long before Bob Kustra – Boise State College was the poor stepsister of Idaho higher education, but even then the Broncos had big aspirations, aspirations shared by the largely Republican delegation from Ada County…and by Cece Andrus.
Here is the art of the Andrus Deal.
The legislation to create Boise State University – rename it from a college – was sitting on Governor Andrus’ desk in 1974 at the precise moment the state senate was considering whether to confirm the nomination to the Public Utilities Commission of a crusty former labor leader from Pocatello by the name of Bob Lenaghan. To say the least, Bob Lenaghan was not a GOP favorite, and Andrus knew he would need a handful of Republican votes to get him confirmed. A potential yes vote rested with a Republican state senator from Ada County by the name of Lyle Cobbs, who just happened to be the sponsor of the legislation to create Boise State University. You may see where this is going.
Literally while the roll call to confirm – or not confirm Bob Lenaghan’s PUC appointment – was proceeding on the senate floor the governor of Idaho dialed the phone and it rang on Senator Cobbs’ desk.
“Lyle, this is the governor…anxious to know how you intend to vote on the PUC appointment.” Long, silent pause on the other end of the line. “Lyle, just so you know, I have your BSU legislation sitting right here on my desk awaiting action…”
The vote to confirm Bob Lenaghan was 18 in favor, 17 opposed. Senator Cobbs cast the deciding vote in favor. At the signing ceremony for the BSU legislation – by the way there is a great photo on the BSU website of the occasion with a rather anxious Lyle Cobbs looking on – the senator quietly asked the governor: “You wouldn’t really have vetoed that bill would you?” Andrus, smiling, said: “Lyle, you’ll never know will you?” The governor got his PUC commissioner, and he helped launch a fine university in one fell swoop.
The third E in the Andrus Legacy is, of course, the environment. He championed the environmental long before it was popular and long after some attempted to make conservation a purely partisan issue. Alaska is the greatest piece of his conservation legacy, but we should remember as well smaller, but no less important victories.
He shamed a timber company in northern Idaho into changing its forest practices when he personally took photographs of a logging job that had messed up a stream.
He told Jack Simplot to clean up the effluent from his potato processing plant on the Snake River or the state would shut it down. Simplot complied.
And all the while he was also a pragmatist. You could have it both ways, he believed, you could build and sustain a strong and vibrant economy, but you could also protect public lands for his generation, for mine and for our kids and grandkids. “First you must make a living,” he said, “but you must have a living that is worthwhile.”
I suspect at one time or another all of us have pondered a fundamental question of human existence: can one individual really make a difference? Can one person in a big and very complicated world make a lasting mark? Cece Andrus’ life is all the proof any of us need that one person can make a difference. If you take nothing else away from this occasion today, please take that lesson from his long and impactful life – one person can have a profound influence for good.
And he showed us how to do it by: Pushing for kindergartens, putting the first women on the Idaho Court of Appeals and Supreme Court, unflinching support for Marilyn Shuler and human rights, the courage to confront the DOE, one of the earliest to question the excesses of the National Rifle Association, one of history’s great crusaders for conservation.
The words repeated over the last few days – Giant, Icon, Legendary – are all true. And Cece Andrus will be remembered for many things not least for his courage and his humanity, not least for the fact that indeed his life did make a huge and lasting difference.
The Best of Us…
Cece Andrus was our North Star – our beacon – inspiring us to be a little better, to think a little bigger, to act a bit more boldly. He was the ultimate people person – big-hearted, generous, fair, and the most loyal of loyal friends. He made us want to walk toward that sunshine on the next high hill.
John Kennedy had inspired him in 1960 at the beginning of his political life, and Barack Obama did much the same nearer the end. Reflecting on the improbably of a black man in the White House, Cece Andrus said, “I can still be inspired. I can still hope.” In turn, he always gave us hope, which is after all along with the love of our family and friends, about all we can surely count on in this world.
His optimism and his sense of hope, his personal decency and his rock solid integrity, and of course his caring is why we loved him, and followed him, and believed in him, and it is why we mourn him. Long after all of us go on to our own just rewards they will still be talking about Cece Andrus.
And, of course, we will continue to admire him and miss him in the days and years to come and we should all try to give him the best possible tribute and live out his example.
We will never, ever forget what he did for his country, his state and for each of us.
The Lewiston Tribunethis week published my remembrance of Mike Mitchell a long-time Idaho legislator and one-time chief of staff to Idaho Governor Cecil D. Andrus. Here’s the piece, written with a smile and a heavy heart.
Generally speaking there are two kinds of people in politics: the show horses and the workhorses. The show horses are often in the game for the title, the attention and because its makes something of them. The workhorses are different. They don’t crowd to the front to take the bows. They go to the meetings, read the bills, master the budget and are in politics because they think they can do something, not just be something.
Long-time Lewiston state legislator Mike Mitchell, who died last week at 91, was a workhorse, or more correctly a draft horse. He pulled the heavy loads in state government and he did so for decades motivated by a fierce commitment to Nez Perce County, his state and to those people at the edges of our system who never seem to have a platform, but deserve an effective voice.
I first met Mike Mitchell in the late 1970s. I was a very junior statehouse reporter. Mitchell, already a legislative veteran, was a minority Democrat on the powerful Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, the legislature’s budget committee. It didn’t take long for even a novice political reporter to appreciate his encyclopedic grasp of the state budget. He was approachable, authoritative and incapable of the kind of partisan animus many politicians can’t seem to avoid. He was funny, often at his own expense. My regard only grew as I came to know him better and better.
During his long years of public service Mitchell mastered the hard, essential, but not very unglamorous work of government. He forgot more about the state budget than most legislators ever learn. He was an expert on corrections and education and, of course, Lewis Clark State College. He knew more about roads and bridges than most Idaho Transportation Department district engineers. Mike was a student of government and his fingerprints are all over Idaho from social work licensing to services for troubled kids.
It is often said, incorrectly, that government must operate more like a business. Mitchell knew something about business – he was a successful businessman, too – but he also knew that government is different than the private sector. Operating successfully in the public arena, particularly as a Democrat in Republican Idaho, requires an appreciation for facts, a commitment to accommodation and a belief in the art of the possible. Success depends on build relationships and trust and credibility, all of which Mike did and that is why so many people who knew him and worked with him praise his ability to bridge the partisan divide. To know him was simply to like him and respect him.
Mike Mitchell wasn’t a big guy, but his heart was. It was made of gold and his backbone made of steel. Mike wasn’t one to shy away from a fight, but he was more comfortable making things work and he did make things work time and again.
I had the singular honor of my life to work with Mike Mitchell and for Cecil D. Andrus, the man Mike replaced in the state senate when Andrus was elected governor for the first time in 1970. Mike became a mentor, a friend, a golfing partner and one of the best joke tellers I’ve ever laughed with.
When he “retired” after Andrus’ 1990 re-election – that retirement didn’t stick and he had a whole second act in politics and public service – I followed him as chief of staff to the governor. I didn’t replace him, however. No one could. He was Mike Mitchell.
There was only one of his kind. He is missed already.
Conventional political wisdom holds – we all know how “conventional” the current campaign has become – that Bernie Sanders has no (nadda, zip, zero) chance of becoming the Democratic nominee for president, let alone reaching the Oval Office.
Unthinkable, the Beltway Gasbags say, that the former mayor of the People’s Republic of Burlington wins, even though Vermonters have been sending him to Washington since 1991.
Sanders must then be doomed by his age? He is 74-years old.
Or maybe it’s his unruly shock of white hair that looks like it was styled in a wind tunnel. Maybe he’s too Jewish. Maybe its because he comes from Vermont, a small, weirdly shaped state that unless you are from New Hampshire (or Canada), most Americans couldn’t find on a map.
Or perhaps it’s the native New Yawker in Sanders, who sounds like a Big Apple cab driver, well at least he sounds like the kind of cab driver New York had before all New York cab drivers started sounding like they grew up in Somalia or Pakistan.
None of his apparent political shortcomings – age, hair style, positions – fully explains why Sanders has a “he can’t be elected” problem. His real problem is the “S” word – he’s a s-o-c-i-a-l-i-s-t.
Actually, Bernie describes himself as a “democratic socialist,” which in real life – and in Europe and Canada – means he believes in the democratic political process – things like elections, representative government, trying to convince others to agree with you. But, he also believes the system is too often rigged to leave out the little guy. What a radical idea. He’s actually been very consistently saying this for, like, 40 years.
Still, in our politics describing yourself as a “democratic socialist” is a little like being convicted of child abuse while reading Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book. It is the kiss of political death this socialism.
But why? Why has only the United States among the rest of the world’s industrial and, yes democratic societies, never had a particularly serious socialist political movement? Canada, France, Great Britain, Denmark, Sweden, on and on have a 20th Century tradition of what Sanders calls democratic socialism, but not the United States.
But before we lock up the women and children and worry about nationalizing the railroads, let’s consider what Sanders (and others of similar ilk) have actually said and done over the course of American history and why the term and the idea have become such political kryptonite.
In their book It Didn’t Happen Here – Why Socialism Failed in the United States authors Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks observe that an American “working class party,” with a foundation of trade union members, never caught on in the U.S. precisely because what social democrats offer is what many Americans already believe they have – “a democratic, socially classless, anti-elitist society.” The authors call it Americanism.
In essence, although most Americans would never say it this way, we have long embraced a political philosophy – Americanism, if you will – that is wrapped up in our aspirations, our myths, and our ideas of exceptionalism. Americanism is also deeply rooted in our notion that our political system is in no way separate from free market capitalism and that by extension, capitalism translates to “a democratic, socially classless, anti-elitist” society.
As a result, when a political candidate suggests that capitalism might not be the complete answer to American issues like wide spread poverty, racial or class inequality or, just to mention one of Sanders’ key issues, making certain every young person who wants a higher education gets one.
Capitalism = Democracy…
For most of the 20th Century the Americanism equals capitalism construct has defined American politics. To suggest that capitalism might not be the answer to every one of society’s issues has been a good way to get branded with, well, the socialist label. Suggest that the really wealthy need to pay a greater share of taxes because, well, they can afford to do so and you are guilty of “class warfare,” the ugly twin of socialism.
But it wasn’t always so. Once the Sanders’ notion of “democratic socialism” was seen as a legitimate alternative to the policy prescriptions of conservative Republicans and more left of center Democrats.
In the election of 1912, one of the most interesting, complicated, and important presidential elections in our history, four major candidates sought the White House. Two of the contenders – Theodore Roosevelt, running on the Bull Moose ticket, and the election winner, Democrat Woodrow Wilson – were certainly not socialists, but did advocate a robust form of progressive politics that included sweeping attacks on the excesses of big business, support for organized labor, and improvements in the lives and economic conditions of working Americans.
A third candidate, incumbent Republican President William Howard Taft, was a kind of “establishment Republican” of his day and ours. Taft would not be out of place or uncomfortable in the modern Republican Party of John Boehner or Jeb Bush. Taft was a candidate embraced by big business, a big man with little interest in the kind of “activist” presidency that Roosevelt or Wilson personified.
The fourth major candidate in 1912 was a socialist – Eugene Victor Debs, an Indiana-born, railroad union leader who ran for president five different times. Debs captured nearly a million of the 15 million votes cast in 1912 – his issues then were essentially Sanders’ issues now – and that election proved to be the high water mark of American socialism.
Eight years later Debs was running for president again, but this time from behind the bars of the federal penitentiary in Atlanta where he was doing time for speaking against U.S. involvement in the Great War, a victim of the era’s hysteria about “radicals” who dared to veer from conventional ideas about American patriotism.
The “Radical” Ideas of Eugene V. Debs…
At the end of Debs’ trial – he was convicted under the Sedition Law of 1917 – he spoke to the court and said, in part:
“In this country—the most favored beneath the bending skies—we have vast areas of the richest and most fertile soil, material resources in inexhaustible abundance, the most marvelous productive machinery on earth, and millions of eager workers ready to apply their labor to that machinery to produce in abundance for every man, woman, and child—and if there are still vast numbers of our people who are the victims of poverty and whose lives are an unceasing struggle all the way from youth to old age, until at last death comes to their rescue and lulls these hapless victims to dreamless sleep, it is not the fault of the Almighty: it cannot be charged to nature, but it is due entirely to the outgrown social system in which we live that ought to be abolished not only in the interest of the toiling masses but in the higher interest of all humanity…”
In his fascinating history of the Socialist Party in America, historian Jack Ross details the number of elected officials in the country who were elected on a Socialist ticket, most of them at time Eugene Debs was the American face of socialism. Ross’s list makes for interesting reading.
When Milwaukee and Many Other Cities Elected Socialists…
In the first two decades of the 20th Century, hundreds of Socialists were elected to city councils, as mayors, and state legislators in nearly every state. Wisconsin – take that Scott Walker – elected literally hundreds of Socialists and Milwaukee had a Socialist mayor nearly continuously from 1910 to 1960. One of those mayors, Daniel Hoan, served from 1916-1940 and another, Frank Zeidler, from 1948-1960.
These so called “sewer socialists” sounded a good deal like Bernie Sanders in their demands for greater focus on the needs of the working class and they governed well, providing efficient and effective city governments. They would not have been re-elected time and again had they not been good at the nuts and bolts of governing and a good place to look for evidence of Sanders’ version of democratic socialism is his time as a small town mayor.
Butte and Anaconda, Montana had Socialist mayors before the Great War. Socialists were elected as county clerk and sheriff in Minidoka County, Idaho in the same period, a place where no Democrat has been elected in decades. The city of Sisseton, South Dakota had a Socialist mayor and Nebraska elected a Socialist to the state board of regents. But no more.
With the exception of the owners of a few Che Guevara posters leftover from the 1960’s, American socialists are about as prevalent today – and relevant – as, well, Che Guevara.
“Socialism only works in two places: Heaven where they don’t need it and hell where they already have it.” – Ronald Reagan
My own theory as to why the socialist philosophy failed to gain greater political traction in the United States relates to the aggressive and very effective demonization of American socialists that began in the post-Civil War era, accelerated during the Red Scare of the 1920’s, climaxed with Joe McCarthy in the 1950’s, and has remained a key fixture of conservative political rhetoric ever since. The steady branding of “socialism” as far outside the American mainstream, combined with the conflating of “democratic socialism” with Soviet communism sealed the political fate of the heirs of Eugene V. Debs.
In post-World War I America, the Palmer Raids, initiated by the attorney general in a Democratic administration, rounded up thousands of “radicals,” many of them immigrants, and hundreds were deported because of their alleged leftist or un-American attitudes. America suffered a “red scare” that tended to feature more violations of civil liberties than any real threat to national security.
Congressional committees and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI later lavished attention on leftists in Hollywood, the media, and in government. Increasingly little if any distinction was made between “democratic socialists” and communists, even though you can plausibly argue that anti-communism (and anti-socialism), with all its excesses, has been a far more powerful force in American politics than any theory advanced by Karl Marx.
Joe McCarthy’s “red baiting” in the early 1950’s briefly made him the most feared and loathed man in the country and his reckless methods destroyed careers and reputations. Every Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt has been called a socialist or a communist by someone on the political right. Roosevelt, a New York multi-millionaire, was no socialist and, ironically, may have actually saved the country – and American capitalism – from moving to a radical leftist place during the Great Depression. Still the far right, even now, laments the “socialist” agenda of the New Deal.
Even FDR was a “Socialist…”
Roosevelt did accomplish some radical change – massive spending on public works, breaking up the huge and often corrupt utility holding companies, creating an old-age pension program that has proven to be kind of popular ever sense – and FDR did try to implement large scale planning of the economy with the National Industrial Recovery Act. The Supreme Court told him no.
I love the story of Roosevelt’s Labor Secretary Frances Perkins testifying before Congress on the legislation we now call Social Security. A skeptical senator, probing for the Achilles heel of the idea that the government might create actually create a program we all pay into in order to provide a degree of security for all of us in old age, pressed Ms. Perkins: “Isn’t this just a tiny bit of socialism,” the senator asked. No, she replied, it isn’t.
Loyalty Oaths, Alger Hiss, the John Birch Society…Oh, My…
After World War II and into the Cold War, Harry Truman, in so many ways an exemplary president and person, instituted “loyalty oaths” to root out communists (who now interchangeably were also called socialists), state legislatures debated the so-called “Liberty Amendment” to the Constitution in the interest of making America more American, the John Birch Society equated American political liberalism with Stalinist communism, and we fought a war in Southeast Asia designed to stop the insidious expansion of the socialist/communist ideology.
Richard Nixon owed his national profile while still a very junior member of Congress to his pursuit of Alger Hiss, one of the few people from the 1950’s who actually did have questionable allegiance to his country. Nixon, according to his most recent biographer, clung to the memory of his victory over Hiss, ironically, all the way to détente with Moscow and his historic opening to China.
You can write your own 21st Century sentence about what we used to call “Red” China, and as you do, remember that the Chinese president recently dined at the White House with the CEO’s of Microsoft, MasterCard, Netflix, Oracle, Walt Disney, and Morgan Stanley – socialists all, I’m sure.
Bernie Sanders probably won’t be president and you didn’t hear it here first, but like many democratic socialists in America’s past – from Debs to Norman Thomas, one of the most impressive Americans of the last century, to Michael Herrington to the old mayors of Milwaukee – his ideas have relevance and, if you listen closely, contain an important message about what America says it is, but has not yet fully become.
None of these socialists advocated or even privately believed, Sanders included, in violent revolution or the kind of reprehensible system Stalin built in Soviet Russia. They believed in using the tools of democracy, including persuasion and elections, to bring about societal and political change.
But, given our often-tenuous grasp of our own history, not to mention inability to consider nuance, that message gets lost, while the label – “he’s a socialist-slash-communist” – stings and sticks.
“In America today, the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer and the millions of families in the middle are gradually sliding out of the middle class and into poverty,” Sanders says. ”In the final analysis, the people of America are going to have to say that the wealth, labor and natural resources must be used to benefit all the people, not just a few super-rich.”
That is not much different than what the old railroad union member Gene Debs said on the eve of going to prison in 1919 for speaking his mind: “I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.”
The Worst Features of Petrograd and the Gilded Age…
It has long been un-American to embrace such language – the workers versus the governing class – but in an age when the super wealthy and super powerful at the very top of our social order display, as historian Jack Ross has written, the “worst features of both Petrograd and the Gilded Age,” the guy who will not win is making lots of noise and lots of people, including many younger Americans, judging by the polls, are listening.
“The concept that motivates us is a community good as opposed to the concept of an individual pursuing their own self-interest and that somehow the public good comes out of that,” Frank Zeidler, the one-time Socialist Mayor of Milwaukee once told the Nation magazine. “Our concept is that a pursuit of the good of the whole produces the best condition for the good of the individual.”
Bernie Sanders may not get to the White House, but he may convince a new generation of Americans – a generation sick and tired of too much money in politics, too much power in too few hands, and too little hope for a shrinking middle class – to think seriously about what that dreaded word – socialism – might really be all about.
It would be easy – even inevitable – given the dysfunctional state of American politics to just say the heck with it – nothing works any longer and nothing much gets done. I’ve been in that funk and may well slip back soon enough, but today I take heart that politics can still work.
The United States Senate this week completed action on a piece of legislation to protect more than a quarter million acres of some of the most spectacular landscape on the North American continent as Wilderness – with a capital W. The action, eventually coming as the result of a unanimous consent request in the Senate, follows similar approval in the House of Representatives. President Obama’s signature will come next.
The Politics of Effort…
The legislation is largely the result of determined, persistent effort by Idaho Republican Congressman Mike Simpson, a legislator of the old school who actually serves in Congress in order to get things accomplished and not merely to build his resume and court the fringe elements of his own party. Simpson is not the type of lawmaker that many in his party might wish him to be – one of those nameless, faceless members who vote NO, do as little as possible, get re-elected every two years and blame Washington’s shortcomings on “bureaucrats” and “Democrats.”
For the better part of fifteen years Simpson has, often single-handedly, championed greater environmental protections for the high peaks, lush meadows and gin-clear lakes of the Boulder-White Clouds area in his sprawling Congressional district in eastern Idaho. Rather than churn headlines denouncing the environmental movement, Simpson invited them to the table along with ranchers, county commissioners and a host of other interests to find a way to resolve controversies in the Idaho back country that date back decades. None of the parties trusted the others, but Simpson made them reason together with the quiet hard work that is the essence of real politics.
Blessed with a fine staff and the instincts of a patient dealmaker, Simpson worked the problem, understood the perspectives of the various interests and pushed, cajoled, humored, debated, smiled, and worked and waited and never gave up. At any number of points along the way a lesser legislator might well have lost patience, gotten discouraged or just said the hell with it, but Simpson never did, even when blindsided by members of his own party who once unceremoniously knifed his legislation after publicly indicating their support.
I wasn’t alone in concluding that the political process in Washington and the “Hell No Caucus” in Mike Simpson’s own party would never permit passage of another wilderness bill in Idaho. Over time the discouraged and disgruntled placed what little of their faith remained with President Obama. Obama, who has only gotten grief from Idaho Republicans the last seven years and owes the state nothing except maybe a thank you to a handful of Democrats who give him a 2008 caucus victory over Hillary Clinton, hinted that he would use “executive action” to declare the Boulder-White Clouds a National Monument. That potential provided the grease needed to lubricate Simpson’s legislative handiwork and the stalemate was broken.
There is an old maxim that dictates that you can keep your opponents off balance and disadvantaged in politics by displaying just enough unpredictability – even recklessness – that they think you just might be crazy enough to do what they most fear. Idaho Republicans, who had mostly not lifted a finger to help Mike Simpson over the years, came to believe that Obama just might be crazy enough to stick his proclamation pen in their faces and create a monument twice the size of the wilderness Simpson’s proposed.
Make no mistake, whatever they might say now, the determined congressman would not have received the support he ultimately did from other Idaho Republicans had they not feared – really feared – action by the president that would have created an Idaho national monument. It also didn’t hurt that Simpson and conservation-minded Idahoans in both political parties demonstrated broad public support for action on the Boulder-White Clouds.
Victory has a thousand fathers…and mothers…
While it is tempting to gloat about the late comers to the grand cause of environmental protection finally having to cave, it is more important to remember that political victory always has a thousand fathers and mothers. This is a moment to celebrate. Mike Simpson deserves – really deserves – to savor what will be a big part of his political legacy. Idaho conservationists, particularly the Idaho Conservation League and its leadership, deserve to celebrate the role that Idaho’s oldest conservation organization played in creating what some of us thought we would never see again – a wilderness bill in Idaho.
There must be praise for visionaries who came before, particularly including former Governor Cecil D. Andrus who campaigned against an open pit mine in the area in 1970 and later attempted to do what has now been done. The late Idaho Senators Frank Church and Jim McClure deserve a big acknowledgement. Both knew the value of protecting the area and never flagged in their determination to see it accomplished. Countless other Idaho hikers, hunters, fishermen and outdoor recreationists played their indispensable roles as well.
Best of all, unborn generations of Americans will now have a chance to experience one the most remarkable, pristine, and beautiful areas in the entire country, if not the world. American wilderness is landscape and habitat and majesty and solitude, but it is also a state of mind. Knowing we have conserved something so special and so valuable not just for ourselves, but also for the future is truly a priceless gift.
On this one occasion and after decades of work, the good that politics can do reigns supreme. A piece of heaven right here on earth has been saved and we are all the richer for it.