As Idaho’s political history is written it should be kind, and I expect it will be, to John Victor Evans. Evans, who died on Tuesday at 89, ranks third in the state’s history for length of service in the governor’s office and his accomplishments, not always fully appreciated during his tenure or now, were substantial.
Evans, from a pioneering Idaho family, was both blessed by political luck and beguiled by his political circumstances. It was his good fortune, after a career in the state legislature and as mayor of Malad, Idaho, to win the race for Idaho lieutenant governor in 1974. Then incumbent Gov. Cecil D. Andrus drew a particularly inept Republican opponent in that race and realizing that Evans was within striking distance of winning his own race wisely diverted resources from his final campaign television buy to bolster Evans’ campaign.
The strategy worked and that decision, as my old friend and long-time business partner Chris Carlson properly pointed out in his book Medimont Reflections, made it possible for Andrus to accept the offer made by President Jimmy Carter in 1976 to become Secretary of the Interior. Had Andrus been confronted with turning the governor’s office over to a Republican he never would have made the move to Washington, D.C. On the strength of such details political history is written.
Evans thereafter, and often unfairly, suffered in the Andrus political shadow. He took the reigns of state government and provided a steady and often very successful brand of leadership. During the national economic downturn in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Evans battled a Republican controlled legislature to prevent deep cuts in education and other critical funding. Three times he worked magic as a Democrat in a state dominated by the GOP to raise taxes enough to prevent the kind of broad scale damage to education that we have seen in more recent difficult economic times. The tax work took both guts and political skill.
In the complicated and acrimonious showdown over water rights on Idaho’s mighty Snake River, Evans helped establish the massive adjudication of thousands of water rights in the Snake River Basin, a vast undertaking that took 30 years and its completion will be celebrated later this summer.
Evans became an early advocate of state-level compacts to help manage nuclear waste and created enough public attention around the U.S. Department of Energy’s dubious practice of injecting Idaho National Laboratory process water into the huge Snake River Aquifer that DOE finally abandoned the practice. I remember the day that DOE finally decided to celebrate the end of the aquifer discharges rather than continue to resist John Evans. A media event was held at INL – I still have the hefty paperweight commemorating the occasion – and a smiling Evans helped seal the injection well.
Evans even had to deal with the aftermath in northern Idaho of the volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helen’s in Washington state.
In 1986, John Evans made his last race for public office, a losing effort for the United States Senate in a bitter race against incumbent Steve Symms. Symms finished out his truly lackluster two terms in the Senate and Evans took on his own second act – growing the family business. Today D.L. Evans Bank has become a community banking powerhouse across southern Idaho in no small part because of the same kind of diligence and hard work that John V. brought to his public life.
On a purely personal note, I’ll forever remember John Evans as a truly kind and decent man, which is saying something in our day of too often cynical meanness in our politics. I think it was 1981 when the region’s governors gathered in Boise to help launch the regional energy planning and conservation effort embodied in the Northwest Power Act. As a producer and television host at Idaho Public Television, I hatched the bright idea of trying to pull off a full-blown half hour sit down interview with the governors of Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Montana. Not only did Evans allow us to turn his office into a make-shift television set for a day, but he personally buttonholed the other governors – Dixie Lee Ray, Bob Straub and Tom Judge – and asked them to participate. It may have been the first and last time such an interview was done and had Evans been any less open or accommodating it simply wouldn’t have happened.
While it is a political fact that Evans reached the governor’s office as an “accidental governor,” it shouldn’t be forgotten that he also won two races of his own to keep the job. He faced a tough re-election in 1982 given the sour economy, a fierce battle over right-to-work legislation, and Idaho’s still unfortunate flirtation with a California-style property tax limitation. Republicans nominated popular Lt. Gov. Phil Batt that year.
The Evans – Batt race may well have turned in the final days of the campaign when an independent expenditure committee produced a comic book-style pamphlet criticizing “Big John” Evans. Evans was portrayed as an inept flunky for organized labor, but the caricature didn’t match the kindly, decent, honest guy who Idahoans had come to trust with the governor’s office. Batt was slow to distance himself from the smear and Evans won with 52% of the vote.
When Evans, somewhat controversially, appointed the outspoken, often caustic former legislator and newspaper editor Perry Swisher to the Idaho Public Utilities Commission in 1979, I sat down with Swisher for an extended interview on the afternoon of the day the governor announced his appointment. Near the end of the interview I asked Swisher for a short sentence to sum up John Evans. With no hesitation, Swisher said of the man who had just appointed him to a very important job, “John Evans is the mayor of Malad who by a quirk of political fate became governor of Idaho.”
A true enough statement, but incomplete. Evans took the small town qualities that make a mayor successful – attention to detail, remembering people’s names and needs, and a focus on practical and common sense solutions – and created ten productive years in the Idaho Statehouse. He should be remembered as one of Idaho’s best governors and, moreover, as a very nice and very decent fellow.