He was one of the most polarizing political figures of the last half-century in Idaho, a union and gay rights basher who was part of the Tea Party before we called it that and before the Republican Party came to be too dominated by, well, guys like Gary Glenn.
Long-time observers of Idaho’s politics – and now Michigan politics – will recognize his name and his tactics, including the brash one-liner, the scorched earth approach to every issue, the politics that reduce your opponent to a beast determined to ruin the culture. Those who long for a politics where opponents aren’t routinely demonized will not be surprised that Glenn, the one-time Idaho bomb thrower, is these days lobbing his grenades as a duly elected state representative in Michigan. You can be forgiven for thinking Idaho’s gain has become Michigan’s loss.
Wearing his religion on his sleeve, Glenn is in the forefront of efforts to deny marriage rights to gay couples in Michigan. Glenn’s American Family Association Michigan chapter – he’s the president – is widely described by human rights organizations as a “hate group.” As a legislator, Glenn is still advocating low taxes – or perhaps no taxes – and opposing a Republican governor’s plan to invest in Michigan infrastructure. And, of course, Glenn has ridden his “right-to-work” hobbyhorse for thirty years, all the way to Midland, Michigan, while preaching “freedom” for everyone but those unfortunate souls who happen to disagree with him.
At a state university in Saginaw, Michigan recently two dozen students showed up to protest an appearance by the former Idaho firebrand. According to the local newspaper the students, taking exception to Glenn’s harsh anti-gay rhetoric, chanted, “Hey, ho, Gary Glenn has got to go” and “2, 4, 6, 8, Gary Glenn is full of hate.” The Southern Poverty Law Center, the civil rights group that once had a hand in driving the Aryan Nations out of Idaho, reports on its website that Glenn offered these helpful comments about gays in 2001: “As with smoking, homosexual behavior’s ‘second hand’ effects threaten public health….Thus, individuals who choose to engage in homosexual behavior threaten not only their own lives, but the lives of the general population.” Some things never change.
The Hired Gun…
If you want to mark a date on the calendar when Idaho politics truly began to change for the worse you could start with the day in 1985, when the Idaho legislature, after a bruising political battle, passed anti-labor “right-to-work” legislation over the veto on then-Governor John V. Evans. When unions succeeded in getting the issue on the ballot in 1986 the resulting campaign was particularly ugly. Glenn, a fresh-faced newcomer to Idaho – some called him not incorrectly a “carpetbagger” – orchestrated that nasty battle utilizing the kind of over-the-top tactics of intimidation and exaggeration – union “thugs” where threatening western civilization – that have become the norm in politics.
Before Glenn and the National Right-to-Work Committee targeted Idaho with bundles of outside money and deployed the politics of “if you’re not for us, you are against us,” Idaho was an organized labor backwater. In modern times the state had little history of labor unrest, but the unionized miners, timber workers and electricians tended to support Democrats who advocated for better schools and better paying jobs. Labor’s foot soldiers and campaign money never – at least not since the early 1950’s – gave Democrats a majority in the Idaho Legislature, but they did help keep the party competitive and helped elect guys like Evans, Frank Church and my old boss Cecil Andrus.
There are endless debates about the economic impacts of right-to-work on wages, job creation and the quality of employment opportunities and you can find studies and experts to support almost any point of view, but it’s beyond denial that the passage of the law in Idaho dealt a big blow to the Democratic Party. This was, one suspects, a big factor in Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s recent push to make that once labor friendly state the latest to put the state between union members and management.
It is also clear that Idaho’s ranking in one important economic category – personal income – is hardly an advertisement for the wonders of anti-labor public policy. According to Department of Labor statistics, “Idaho ranked dead last in 2013 with individual median income at $27,932 — likely aided by the fact it was at the bottom of all the states for the median income for women, $21,908. The Idaho median income for men was $33,623 — good for 48th place.”
If you like one-party government populated by a crop of legislators who now pass resolutions calling for the “impeachment” of federal judges who rule “incorrectly” on same sex marriage, oppose a Hindu prayer to open a legislative session, continue to defund education and deny basic human rights protections to the LGBT community then Gary Glenn deserves honorary Idaho citizenship. The do-almost-nothing Idaho legislature (remember, it wasn’t always so), is a monument to the lack of a political middle in the state and that too has roots in the long ago battles that Glenn and like minded allies stoked for maximum partisan mileage.
As an historical footnote, I remember some Idaho Republican legislators in the 1980’s who were dubious about right-to-work asking why it was OK to mandate that every Idaho hop or potato farmer pay an assessment to support a state-mandated commodity commission, but the principle of every union member paying dues to support has bargaining organization was “coercion” and “a denial of freedom.” One man’s freedom is another’s “compulsory” union dues or, if you prefer, mandatory, state-sanctioned assessments on pea and lentil growers. I’m still waiting for the Idaho “freedom” movement to outlaw mandatory assessments on farmers, which exist, of course, in order to market products and advocate political causes for a special interest group. Journeymen plumbers are obviously in a different class. Talk about a closed shop.
Right-to-work legislation has never about “freedom,” as Glenn peddled the concept, but rather represented a cynical two-pronged strategy to weaken collective bargaining and erode support for Idaho Democrats. It worked like gangbusters and had the additional benefit of depressing wages.
After steamrolling the right-to-work effort in Idaho, Glenn was hired as the political operative for the state’s cattle ranchers and tried, with some success, to use that platform to create his own path to political power. The cattle lobby was a “voluntary” organization were members paid “dues,” but you won’t find many cowboys who don’t volunteer and ante up. More freedom, I guess.
Cece Andrus famously refused Glenn admission to the governor’s office in those days and did not, as Glenn’s partisans incorrectly claimed, “throw him out” of the big office on the second floor of the Idaho Statehouse. Andrus, with no use for completely partisan hired guns like Glenn, loved to say that he most certain did not “throw” Glenn out, which would have been impossible since the hired gun never got his brand new Tony Lamas across the door jamb.
Glenn next brought his polarizing brand of partisanship to the Ada County Commission and spent two contentious terms mostly preening for television cameras and fighting with other elected officials. Before long he lost a Republican primary for Congress and decamped for Michigan and, one might hope, obscurity. But not so fast. In 2012 Glenn unsuccessfully sought the Republican U.S. Senate nomination in Michigan, but that run merely served to open his third act and he captured a seat in the state legislature in 2014. You have to give the guy credit; he is a political survivor.
The Third Act…
I believe Glenn when he says, as he did in an Idaho Statesman piece marking the 25th anniversary of right-to-work coming to Idaho, that he is a “true believer” in his brand of ultra-conservative politics, the kind of politics that gains him regular attention from civil liberties groups who monitor the hateful drivel of Glenn and other divisive personalities like Glenn Beck and the radio preacher Bryan Fisher, two more professional agitators with Idaho antecedents.
Glenn is a true believer, but also a first-class opportunist, one of those people in politics who live to divide and chide. He’s made a living pumping out his anti-gay, anti-union, anti-tax mumbo jumbo, but beyond being against people not like him you have to wonder what he has to show for a lifetime of agitation?
Gary Glenn reminds me all these years later of the great question Lyndon Johnson asked of another fear and hate monger, George Wallace, during the darkest days of the voting rights struggle in 1965. “George,” LBJ said to the blustering Alabama governor, “what do you want left after you when you die? Do you want a Great…Big…Marble monument that reads ‘George Wallace – He Built?’…or do you want a scrawny pine board laying across that harsh, caliche soil, that reads, ‘George Wallace – He Hated?’”
Glenn left a questionable and negative mark on Idaho and now builds a dubious mark, as successful opportunists tend to do, in a new venue where, one suspects, all his nasty history is little understood. Still, his long “career” begs the question of just what has he built and what has his disdain for those who think differently really accomplished? He has certainly succeeded in keeping himself in the public eye and, ironically for someone who has so consistently preached the anti-government gospel, Glenn has once again landed on the public payroll, a perfect place from which to lament all the evils of government. As the same time, and in the name of “liberty” and “freedom” he has long championed causes that deny rights to others, while helping breed the absurd levels of animosity that are at the center of what passes for politics these days.
Michigan must be proud. Hate has a new lease on life. Mr. Glenn has opened his third act.