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The Case for Jeannette

Poor old Alexander Hamilton. He’s about to lose his coveted spot on the $10 bill and be displaced by a woman. It’s way past time for that but still, he was Alexander Hamilton.

A Founding Father about to be displaced.

A Founding Father about to be displaced.

The first Secretary of the Treasury, inventor of American governmental finance and a top aide to General Washington, Hamilton probably should have been president. But was also born out of wedlock, got mixed up in a very messy love affair during the height of his political career and then got killed by Aaron Burr in a duel. He could have been a great president, but like Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, William Jennings Bryan, Adali Stevenson – all remarkable men who might have been great presidents – Hamilton sadly never got there. Now apparently he’s toast on the ten spot.

I come not to bury old Hamilton, but rather to praise him, but also to make the case for the woman who should grace the nation’s currency as Hamilton rides off into assured oblivion as the Founding Father most likely to be forgotten. There are a number of woman worthy of gracing the folding green – Eleanor Roosevelt for sure and Harriet Tubman, Frances Perkins and Rosa Parks, just to name a few – and I would gladly slip a few $10 bills carrying the image of any number of remarkable American women into my money clip.

Rankin shortly after his first election to Congress in 1916.

Rankin shortly after her first election to Congress in 1916.

But my choice is a bit different, a woman from the West, a champion of hard working miners and loggers, a supporter of organized labor, a liberal Republican (when there were such things), an advocate of women and children, a politician without guile or spite, but full of passion and principle, the first woman elected to Congress – even before woman could vote in many places – and, perhaps above all, an unabashed and stunningly courageous advocate for peace. An elegant fashion plate, too, who was surely a commanding figure on the stump. Her broad-brimmed hats and carefully tailored clothing created a political fashion craze decades before Hillary’s pant suits.

I say let’s put the incredible Jeannette Rankin from Missoula, Montana on the currency.

Rankin was pacesetter, role model, remarkably accomplished woman and elected official and she would be a powerful reminder that peace, humility, decency and equality are American values that must not be quietly tucked away in history books, but held forth as what we – what Americans – really should be all about.

Elected to Congress the first time in 1916, Rankin is best remembered for her vote against U.S. participation in the First World War. Her vote was a courageous and controversial move, but one completely in keeping with her values and beliefs. Nearly a hundred years later that vote doesn’t look too bad. Rankin ran for the U.S. Senate in 1918, lost the Republican primary in Montana, and ran in the general election as a third-party candidate. After losing that election Rankin re-grouped and re-dedicated herself to the cause of peace. She worked tirelessly for that cause between the world wars, while continuing her advocacy for women and children.

Rankin campaign button.

Rankin campaign button.

In one of the great ironies of American political history, Rankin ran for Congress a second time in 1940 just as the United States started in earnest down the path to involvement in the Second World War. When Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Rankin was back in Congress and facing her own moral and political crisis – whether to vote for a declaration of war. Agonizing over the decision – her brother and political confidante told her a “no” vote would amount to political suicide – Rankin nonetheless refused to vote for war. She stunned the House of Representatives and many of her constituents when, her voice filled with emotion, she said “I cannot vote for war.”

15 Jan 1968, Washington, DC, USA --- A group of women belonging to the Jeanette Rankin Brigade march in protest of the Vietnam War. Jeanette Rankin, the first female congress member, stands holding the banner at center (wearing eyeglasses). --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

January 1968, Washington, DC — A group of women belonging to the Jeanette Rankin Brigade march in protest of the Vietnam War. Jeanette Rankin, the first female congress member, stands holding the banner at center (wearing eyeglasses). — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Rankin’s lone vote against war in 1941 effectively ended her political career if not her anti-war activism. Rankin retired from elective politics, but was still leading marches against war – this time in Southeast Asia – as a spry 90 year-old in the early 1970’s. She died in 1973.

I’ve read all the Rankin biographies (and the one on her very political and very wealthy brother, Wellington), tried to understand her place in Montana and American history, even looked through some of her correspondence carefully preserved at the wonderful Montana Historical Society in Helena, but strangely still don’t feel I know everything I want to know about this remarkable, passionate and principled woman. By most accounts she had that effect on most everyone she encountered.

Mike Mansfield, for example, who replaced Rankin in the House of Representatives in 1942 and went on to his own distinguished career in the Senate, profoundly admired the elegant, outspoken woman from Missoula. I talked with Mansfield about Montana politics shortly before his death and when the conversation turned to Jeannette, Mansfield in his candid and clipped way said simply, “She was remarkable.”

Jeannette Rankin

Jeannette Rankin

My favorite comment about Rankin comes from an unlikely source. After her vote against war in 1941, the famous Kansas editor William Allen White, a strong advocate of American aid to the allies before Pearl Harbor and therefore on the other side of the great foreign policy debate at the time, wrote in his Emporia Gazette newspaper:

“Well – look at Jeannette Rankin. Probably a hundred men in Congress would like to do what she did. Not one of them had the courage to do it.”

“The Gazette,” White continued, “disagrees with the wisdom on her position. But, Lord, it was a brave thing: and its bravery somehow discounts its folly. When in a hundred years from now, courage, sheer courage based on moral inclination is celebrated in this country, the name of Jeannette Rankin, who stood firm in folly for her faith, will be written in monumental bronze, not for what she did but for the way she did it.”

I say put Jeannette Rankin on the $10 bill. She would be a fantastic reminder that personal and political courage make American heroes.



Boise and Baseball

BoiseHawksStadiumColor8-17-10-1It is likely good news that the Boise Hawks baseball team has a new Major League affiliation. At first blush, the Hawks’ four-year development deal with the Colorado Rockies makes more sense than the former relationship with the hapless Chicago Cubs. The Cubs never seemed to pay much attention to Boise and it’s been amazing to me that one of the most popular franchises in the great game (not withstanding 100-plus years of World Series futility) never figured out how to help market the local team. Just for example, you can buy any kind of Cubs’ merchandise in any shopping mall in the country, but not at Memorial Stadium.

The Rockies seem like a more natural fit, geography included.

A new, more engaged ownership group also seems to be a positive sign. The previous ownership of the Northwest League team were the worst kind of disengaged, absentee landlords. It’s no secret that they have been shopping the team for some time. Here’s hoping the new owners follow up on initial promises to breath new life into the organization and get really engaged in the community.

But what about a new facility? New ownership can help bring new focus to the decade-long conversation about the need for a new ballpark in Boise, but the underlying dynamics impacting a plan for a new sports venue really don’t seem to have changed very much. I hope I’m wrong.

With full disclosure, I’ve been riding this “new stadium” hobby horse for a long time and I continue to think the logic speaks for itself – secure professional baseball (and maybe soccer) for the long-term, create a new multi-purpose entertainment center, revitalize a neighborhood that needs some love, and create more local economic activity. If only it were that easy.

As I’ve written in the past, local governments in Idaho have been placed in handcuffs by the state legislature and the Idaho Constitution. The ability to support and finance local projects in Idaho is extremely limited. The miners and cowboys who wrote the state Constitution wanted to make certain that the state – and local governments – operate on a cash basis, so Idaho mostly does. The ability to create a special taxing district or levy a tax on entertainment tickets or rental cars, the types of financing tools available in most other places, just doesn’t exist in Idaho. In order to get a project like a new baseball (or soccer) venue off the ground – assuming there must be a role for government – requires a near immaculate conception of united interests. A city, a redevelopment agency, an auditorium district, and a private developer must align interests to pull off a four-way bank shot of financial and political support. It rarely happens and never will happen without local political leadership.

For a long time I’ve thought that the Northwest League with teams from Vancouver, B.C. to Boise, from Spokane to Eugene would do almost anything to keep a team in Boise. zwhillsborobaseball098jpg-bd16f1c282f8ce34Southwestern Idaho represents a large market by minor league baseball standards. Boise is a sports town. There is a track record. But, the announcement this week that the Hawks will have new owners and a new Major League affiliation for four years, while good news, may also represent the last chance – really the last chance – for professional baseball in Boise.

Here’s why: In the season that just ended, the Hawks had the second worst attendance figure in the Northwest League. Boise narrowly kept out of the attendance cellar by besting only the Tri-Cities at the turnstiles. Spokane, with an older, but lovely facility, lead the league in attendance, as it often does. The Indians drew in excess of 100,000 more fans than Boise and actually had one less home game than the Hawks. The newest team in the League – Hillsboro, Oregon – drew 50,000 more fans than Boise and won the league title for good measure. Hillsboro, a bedroom community west of Portland, has a spiffy new ballpark that came about when nearby Portland opted (perhaps wisely) to be a soccer town. Without a new facility in Boise, baseball’s importance will continue to decline right along with the league’s patience for a large market with a shrinking fan base. There is nothing inevitable about professional baseball staying in the Treasure Valley, particularly when other places can  and – as Hillsboro has shown – will step up and create exciting venues where fans want to go.

Here’s hoping the new Hawks’ owners sharpen up their promotions, create new engagements in the community, and do what the previous owners never did – put a monetary commitment and not just a rhetorical one behind a new facility. And here is also hoping that some local political leadership finally emerges to knit together the necessary coalition of interests that keeps Boise a baseball town. Local elected officials do this all the time in other communities and you can bet that it won’t happen in Boise unless local officials decide a new facility and new opportunities for professional sports is a real priority.

Just Google “new baseball parks” and you’ll find, among others, that Kokomo, Indiana has a 4,000 seat stadium under construction. Kokomo? Yup. And the team that will inhabit that new stadium next year won’t even have a relationship with a major league team.

What was that Joni Mitchell song? “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”

Politics, War and Death

image028_w200When labor organizer Frank Little came to Butte, Montana in the summer of 1917 he had to have known that he was stepping, even on his one good leg, into the middle of a political powder keg. But going from frying pan to fire was fairly typical for Little. He’d been in Bisbee, Arizona earlier in 1917, another hot bed of labor and political upheaval, and along with a thousand others had been deported out of town and out of the state.

Trouble had a way of following Frank Little.

Ninety-six years ago on August 1, 1917 Frank Little was kidnapped at 3:00 am by a half dozen armed men. Having suffered a broken leg while in Arizona, Little hobbled out of the boarding house where he was living and into the street. His kidnappers tied him to the rear bumper of a big touring car and savagely pulled him through the dark streets of Butte. On the outskirts of town a rope was fastened to a railroad trestle and Little’s kidnappers and torturers became his murderers. When his body was cut down the next morning the IWW “radical,” who had come to Montana to recruit union members, agitate for better working conditions and oppose the United States’ involvement in The Great War in Europe, had a note affixed to his clothing. The note warned other “radicals” of a similar fate.

No one was ever charged with Little’s murder. It was a gruesome crime, a milestone in American and international labor history and remains to this day a near century old “cold case.” Newspaper editorials at the time essentially said Little had it coming. He was unpatriotic, the power structure contended, because he had openly challenged the war and should have been arrested for preaching sedition and attacking President Woodrow Wilson. In other words he was acting out his First Amendment rights.

Was Little murdered by agents of the mine owners of Butte? That’s my guess, but others have pointed to rival labor leaders or even citizen-vigilantes who were worried about what a prolonged period of labor unrest would mean for business and the profits flowing from a fully mobilized war economy. Maybe the killers were local law enforcement agents acting on orders from anti-union political leaders. I spent a day some months back digging in vain in the recently opened archives of the once-powerful Anaconda Mining Company, in its day one of the largest mining companies in the world, for any clue that “the Company” ordered Frank Little’s murder. Whomever did Little in covered their tracks pretty well.

Butte in 1917 must have been a hell of a place. One historian has called the one-time copper mining capitol of the world the only mining camp in the country that became an industrial center. Butte was home to vast, almost unimaginable wealth, but also desperate and unrelenting poverty.

One-time Butte Pinkerton detective turned detective writer Dashiell Hammett set his classic novel Red Harvest in a town that sounds a lot like Butte. “The city wasn’t pretty,” Hammett wrote, “an ugly city of forty thousand people, set in a ugly notch between two ugly mountains that had been dirtied up by mining. Spread over this was a grimy sky that looked as if it had come out of the smelter’s stacks.” I imagine that to be a pretty good description of Butte in 1917.

 The mines operated, at least when miners weren’t striking, 24/7 and the taverns and whore houses did, as well. The “company” men – the shorthand for the swells who ran the Anaconda Mining Company – generally lived on the west side of Montana Avenue in grand houses. The Silver Bow Club – J.P. Morgan was a member – was as fancy as any New York “gentlemen’s club.” Caruso and dozens of other great acts played the theaters of Butte.

The miners came from Cornwall and County Cork, Finland and Serbia. The “no smoking” signs in the mines were printed in a dozen languages. If you needed to campaign for the state legislature or the city council you could best reach the voters in one of the dozens of bars in Butte where buying a round for the house constituted a wise campaign expenditure.

In June of 1917, just before Frank Little showed up to pour IWW gasoline on the already raging labor-management fires of Butte, 163 miners had died under awful circumstances at a mine in north Butte – The Speculator. A cable being lowered into the deep mine came in contact with a miner’s lamp and quickly flamed into a torch that  ignited timbers in the mine. Most of the miners died quickly from the smoke although some struggled for days to breath and live while waiting for the rescue that never came. The disaster still ranks as the worst in American hard rock mining history.

The Speculator fire and all the death outraged the miners of Butte and set off strikes and protests that were seen by Frank Little and others as an opportunity. Little paid for seizing that opportunity with his life. His funeral procession through the streets of Butte was recalled years later by those who saw it as one of the great labor protests in American history.

Montana native Michael Punke’s marvelous 2006 book Fire and Brimstone tells the Speculator and related stories is vivid and tragic detail. Punke notes that “in 1930, a Justice Department official who studied the fire and its aftermath declared that ‘the story of Butte in 1917 was altogether normal for its time. Indeed, in that very normality lies the stories significance. What took place in Butte took place elsewhere as well. When we know the Butte story we know the others.'”

It is easy for us to forget as union membership in the United States continues to decline – down from nearly 18 million workers 30 years ago to just over 14 million today – that workers have long fought brutal battles in an effort to improve their lot. As labor historian Philip Dray has written, “the freedoms and protections we take for granted – reasonable hours, on-the-job safety, benefits, and the bedrock notion that employees have the right to bargain for the value of their labor…were not handed down by anyone or distributed ready-made, but were organized around, demanded, and won by workers themselves.”

The next time you hear a politician attack a labor union – Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, for example – or move to restrict worker rights pause and consider our history. A good part of the battle for the life of the modern American worker was fought in places like Butte, Montana and not so long ago.


No Coincidence

120424_brian_schweitzer_605_apThe abrupt and very surprising announcement last Saturday that former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer would take a pass on seeking the open U.S. Senate seat in Big Sky Country seems proof once again of what ought to be the Number One rule in politics. It’s often said that the fundamental rule in politics is to “secure your base,” but Schweitzer’s decision, sending shock waves from Washington to Wibaux, reinforces the belief that the real Number One rule in politics is that there are never any coincidences.

Consider the timeline.

On July 10, 2013 Politico, the Bible of conventional political wisdom inside the Beltway, ran a tough piece on Schweitzer under the headline “Brian Schweitzer’s Challenge: Montana Democrats.” The story made a point of detailing the bombastic Schweitzer’s less than warm relationships with fellow Democrats, including retiring senior Sen. Max Baucus and recently re-elected Sen. Jon Tester.

“Interviews with nearly two dozen Montana Democrats paint a picture of Schweitzer as a polarizing politician,” Politico’s Manu Raju wrote. “His allies adore him, calling him an affable and popular figure incredibly loyal to his friends, who had enormous political successes as governor and would stop at nothing to achieve his objectives.

“His critics describe him as a hot-tempered, spiteful and go-it-alone politician — eager to boost his own image while holding little regard for helping the team, something few forget in a small state like Montana.”

The story quoted one unnamed Montana Democrat as saying Schweitzer “doesn’t do anything if it doesn’t benefit him…he’s an incredibly self-serving politician.”

Added another: “He’s the most vindictive politician I’ve ever been in contact with.”

Meanwhile, conservative bloggers were zeroing in on Schweitzer with one comparing his frequent flights of colorful rhetoric – he recently said he wasn’t “crazy enough” to be in the U.S. House or “senile” enough to be in the Senate – to the disastrous campaign of Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin in 2012. Other Republicans suggested they had done the opposition research on the man with the bolo-tie and found, as one said, “a lot of rust under the hood.”

Then last Saturday morning Schweitzer, who went almost instantly from a sure-fire contender to hold the Baucus seat for Democrats to a non-candidate, told the Associated Press that he would stay in Montana. “I love Montana. I want to be here. There are all kinds of people that think I should be in the U.S. Senate,” Schweitzer told AP. “But I never wanted to be in the U.S. Senate. I kicked the tires. I walked to the edge and looked over.”

The surprise announcement came as Montana Democrats were gathering in convention. Schweitzer did no real follow up with the media. His advisers had nothing to say. The national media reported that the decision not to run was a blow – as it is – to national Democrats. Then Sunday, the day after Schweitzer’s surprise announcement, the Great Falls Tribune published a lengthy piece, a piece that had been hinted as in the political pipeline earlier in the week, that raised numerous questions about Schweitzer’s connections with shadowy “dark money” groups that are closely associated with some of the former governor’s aides and close political friends. The “dark money” connections are particularly sensitive in Montana, a state that has a long and proud tradition of limiting corporate money in politics and a state that unsuccessfully challenged the awful Supreme Court decision in Citizens United that took the chains off corporate money.

As a friend in Montana says Schweitzer is staying on Montana’s Georgetown Lake rather than head for Georgetown on the Potomac. But there is always more to the story.

Brian Schweitzer had a political gift, the gift of making yourself a unique “brand.” The bolo-tie, the dog at his heels, the finger wagging, blue jeans swagger. He was gifted, perhaps too much, with the quick one liner. He won many fights, but almost always by brawling and bluster and with elements of fear and favor. In politics always making yourself the “bride at every wedding” and the “corpse at every funeral,” as Alice Roosevelt famously said of her father Teddy, exacts a steep price. Brain Schweitzer may have found the truth of another rule of politics: your friends die and your enemies accumulate.

Schweitzer may genuinely want to stay on Georgetown Lake in beautiful Montana or, if you believe in no coincidence, he may have found that his personal political brand had finally reached its “sell by date” and would simply not survive another round of intense scrutiny. Politics is always about personality. People like you or they don’t. They respect you or not. Rarely do they dislike you and fear you and also hope that you succeed.

“It’s always all about Brian,” another Montana Democrat told Politico. “That I think is the root for every problem.” No coincidence.


Appointing Senators

senateSam Ervin, the white haired Constitutional law expert from North Carolina who presided over the most famous and consequential Senate investigation ever, may never have made it to Senate had he not first been appointed to the job. That’s Ervin in the photo surrounded by Watergate committee staff and Sen. Howard Baker in 1972.

Ervin, appointed in 1954, served 20 years in the Senate and is now remembered to history for his drawling, gentlemanly and expert handling of the investigation that exposed the corruption at the very top of the Nixon White House. Ervin is one of about 200 people appointed to the Senate by governors since we started the direct election of Senators in 1913. All but seven of the Senators by stroke of the pen have been men.

As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie considers his enormously high profile appointment to fill the seat vacated by the death of long-time Sen. Frank Lautenberg, it’s worth pondering the unique gubernatorial power under our system to literally create a senator. There is nothing else quite like it in our politics.

In keeping with his flamboyant style, Christie made news by saying he’ll appoint a temporary replacement and then immediately call a special primary election in August and then a Senate election in October, just weeks before Christie himself faces the voters, in order to give New Jersey voters a say in who their senator will be. New Jersey will then vote again for a Senator in November 2014. If all this plotting seems a little too calculating even for Gov. Christie then welcome to the strange world of appointed senators.

The analysis of Christie’s strategy has been rich and for a political junkie intoxicating. The governor knows he needs to make an appointment, but by calling a quick election to either validate or reject his appointee Christie (perhaps) can distance himself from his own pick. By scheduling the election three weeks before his own re-election goes to the voters Christie can get the complicated Senate business out of the way in hopes it won’t impact issues or turnout in his campaign. Or…well, offer your own theory.

One thing seems certain in New Jersey. Christie is too smart and too politically savvy to appoint himself. That has been tried and never works. Montana Gov. John Erickson orchestrated such a self-appointment in the early 1930’s and he subsequently lost when voters correctly concluded the appointment smacked too much of a backroom deal. Same thing happened with Idaho Governor-turned-Senator Charles Gossett in the 1940’s. Gossett resigned as governor having cut a deal with his Lt. Gov. Arnold Williams to immediate appointment him to the Senate. Voters punished both at the next opportunity. In 1946 the Senate actually had two self-appointed Senators – Gossett and Nevada’s Edward P. Carville who cut the same deal with his second-in-command. Carville also lost a subsequent bid to retain his self-appointed Senate seat. History tells us there is not a high bar to Senate appointments, but one thing that doesn’t pass the voter’s smell test is an appointment that smacks of an inside deal. Note that Christie made a point in his public comments to say he wouldn’t be part of such a deal, but his appointment when it comes will be scrubbed up one side and down the other for hints of just such a deal.

Idaho is actually in the running for the most appointed Senators – six by my count – with one of that number, Sen. John Thomas, actually appointed twice, once in 1928 and again in 1940. Alaska’s Ted Stevens first came to the Senate by appointment, so did Maine’s George Mitchell (a future majority leader) and Minnesota’s Walter Mondale (a future vice president). Oregon’s great Sen. Charles McNary came to the Senate by appointment and stayed to become a respected Republican leader and vice presidential candidate in 1940. Washington’s three-term Gov. Dan Evans was later appointed to the Senate. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, a great leader on foreign policy during the early Cold War years, was an appointed Senator, so too Mississippi’s James O. Eastland, a power on the Judiciary Committee and a six-term Senator after his appointment.

Virginia’s Carter Glass had a remarkable political career – Congressman, Secretary of the Treasury, appointed Senator who went on to serve 26 years in the Senate and become an authority on banking and finance. The Glass-Steagall Act, a hallmark of the early New Deal regulation of banking, bares his name.

Only a handful of women have come to the Senate by the appointment path and most have replaced their husbands. Rose McConnell Long filled out the remainder of husband Huey’s term in 1935 and 1936, but opted not to run herself. Arkansas’ Hattie Caraway was appointed to fill the term of her deceased husband and then became the first women elected in her own right to the Senate in 1932. She won another election in 1938 and then lost a Democratic primary in 1944 to J. William Fulbright who went on to become one of the giants of the Senate.

Gov. Christie has a lot to ponder as he considers creating a United States Senator with the stroke of a pen. Will he create a Thomas Taggart of Indiana or an Irving Drew of New Hampshire? Both were appointed Senators and, don’t be embarrassed, there is absolutely no reason you should have ever heard of either one. Taggart, a Democrat, served a little over seven months in 1916 and lost an election bid. Drew, a Republican, served barely two months in 1918 and didn’t bother to run on his own. For every Sam Ervin or Charles McNary there is an appointed Senator who is something less than a household name.

Maybe Christie create a Senator like Idaho’s Len Jordan, a former governor appointed to the Senate in 1962 who went on to twice win election in his own right and establish a solid legislative record.

If history is a guide, Christie will reward a loyal and safe member of his own party – former Gov. Tom Kean for example – and someone unable or unwilling to overshadow the governor. The person appointed must also fulfill the fundamental qualification for the office – do no harm to the person making the appointment. Did I mention that appointing a Senator is just about the most political thing any governor can do? It’s going to be rich political theater to watch and analyze the actions of the governor of New Jersey who both wants to be re-elected this fall and run for president in 2016. Let the appointing begin.


Out of Sight, But Important

For a state that hates government so much, Idaho sure has a lot of it.

Idahoans have single purpose districts for airports and hospitals, sewer systems and mosquito abatement. Idaho has government “closest to the people” to handle fires, irrigation, highways, cemeteries and auditoriums. Idahoans hate government so much that they often make it largely ineffective and remarkably inefficient – maybe that is the point come to think of it – by hiding away a five-person board over here and a special purpose taxing district over there.

While the state legislature has been busy creating all this government at the local level, remember these are the same folks who regularly memorialize Washington, D.C. on the inherent evils of a distant and menacing government, state lawmakers grant almost no real authority – as in taxing authority – to Idaho cities or counties. The state constitution places severe limits on government debt and local option taxation has been so unpopular in the legislature for the last 40 years it might as well be a Stalinist plot. There is no funding source for local transit service. Want to build a new library or police station? For the most part, Mr. Mayor and City Council, you have a choice – either save your money or beg the taxpayer for super majority approval to levy a bond. The legislative and constitutional constraints are so severe that the City of Boise had to lead the charge to change the state constitution a while back in order to expand parking at the Boise airport; an expansion that will be paid for entirely from revenue derived from folks who park cars to use the airport. Before the change, which had to be approved by voters statewide, even that type of “user fee” revenue couldn’t be used to upgrade airport facilities.

When you consider the various restrictions on local government’s ability to make investments in brick and mortar it is suddenly obvious why we build so little in the way of local infrastructure, and Idaho is, don’t forget, a state where local control is sacred, until it isn’t.

Lacking the tools that are common in places as politically conservative as Oklahoma City and Ozone, Tennessee – 37 states have local option taxes – Idaho cities are left trying to make the most of what few tricks they can pull from a tiny hat.

Here is a brief tour of around the hat. Boise has a city government with certain limited powers to collect property taxes to finance public services. Most of this revenue is devoted to police, fire, library and general government services. To advance downtown development the city years ago created a urban renewal agency, now known as the Capitol City Development Corporation (CCDC), a quasi-local government agency also with  very limited authority. For instance CCDC has developed and owns most of the parking structures in the downtown area and can use tax increment financing to further certain types of development within its established boundary. In 1959 the legislature authorized and Boise voters approved what became the Greater Boise Auditorium District (GBAD). This additional local government creature of state law is completely separate from the city and from CCDC. GBAD does have a dedicated source of revenue – a hotel/motel tax on folks who visit Boise and spend their money in the capital city. GBAD, within certain limits, can spend this money  – currently several million in cash – on “public auditoriums, exhibition halls, convention centers, sports arenas and facilities of a similar nature.”

That’s just about the sum total of scattered and very limited infrastructure “tools” available to any Idaho city.

If all this sounds a little like Afghan tribal politics you’re getting the idea. The city has a mayor and an elected council. CCDC has a board appointed by the Mayor with approval of the council. The city and its urban renewal agency have, to a degree, overlapping membership, but separate staff. GBAD has its own elected board, elected of course from a “district” that has different boundary lines than the city or the redevelopment agency. In a perfect world all these “units of government” would get together, agree on priorities, find a way to maximize the meager resources the control freaks in the legislature have granted them and build some things to create an even better city. But, they haven’t and as a result Boise hasn’t built much in the way of major public infrastructure in many years.

For years the city has had a wish list of public projects, including a new main library, a second neighborhood library at Bown Crossing, a street car system and a new multi-use sports facility that could be home to minor league baseball, soccer, high school sports and community events. The city has made nominal progress on these infrastructure priorities and not for lack of desire, but rather for lack of money.

GBAD has long advocated an expanded downtown convention center and has continued to bank money against that prospect even as doubt-after-doubt has been raised about the wisdom of such a move, particularly in the location the district has reserved for such a building. The expansion idea also lost steam while GBAD board members engaged in a nasty, protracted and distracting public spat about funding for the city’s convention and visitor bureau, a spat apparently now resolved. What remains is the question of what exactly GBAD wants to do with its money and authority, which brings us back to local quasi-governmental entities that are mostly out of sight, but still important.

To put it bluntly, the only local entity with a guaranteed source of revenue, albeit with a limited mandate on which to spend those resources, essentially has no plan for what to do with its money. Does it revisit the idea of a larger, if not optimally located convention center? Does it try to expand at its current site? Does it engage in planning a multi-purpose sports facility? (Full disclosure: I have advocated for the stadium approach.) Or does it, as some are now suggesting, find a way to financially support a downtown theatre space that might work in the old Macy’s department store building? Or…what? And more importantly what does the community really need and want?

On May 21 voters within the auditorium district, again the boundaries are different from the city, will vote to fill three of the five seats on the board. If history is a guide a couple of thousand voters will make the decision and, again with history as a guidepost, the district will quietly fade out of sight without the necessary debate about community priorities. It would be a shame. I’d like to know what each of the candidates thinks are the district’s priorities and just how they might approach getting in sync with those who should be their downtown playmates. Such a conversation in front of an election might give the community a sense of whether any consensus can be found on anything.

I would obviously be delighted to have a robust community debate about the wisdom and wherefore of a public-private approach to a new sports facility for baseball and soccer, but if not that idea – what?

Other cities are on the move. The city of El Paso, Texas – not my idea of a robust and economically powerful place – just began work on a new downtown stadium that will house a Triple-A team next year. Morgantown, West Virginia and Richmond are working on similar projects. San Diego is working on a convention center expansion and Phoenix has completed its expansion. Oklahoma City re-invented itself over the last decade with a ballpark, a convention center and other major public infrastructure.

GBAD built the Boise Centre more than 20 years ago and it has clearly become a major community asset, but ask yourself what else has the community really gotten behind since the Morrison Center was sited on the Boise State University campus back in 1984, nearly 30 years ago? Great cities build great public assets. It was easier in the days when the legendary urban developer Robert Moses waved his fist and a public facility was created in New York City. It’s admittedly much more difficult when the tools are scarce and the few tools you have are so widely dispersed.

Idaho’s convoluted and fragmented system of local government entities almost  ensures that nothing much will happen unless all the local players find a way to get on the same page. As a new nation we long ago ditched the unworkable Articles of Confederation in favor of a government able to make decisions and levy taxes to pay for those decisions. Such an elegant solution seems beyond the state legislature’s capacity. Instead one of the most conservative legislatures in the nation has given us the curious reality of more government than we want and less government than we need. And when all this government can’t agree on much of anything that is precisely what we get – not much of anything.

Pay attention to the GBAD election. It might be a chance to get something done in Idaho’s capital city.


War and Congress

Burton K. Wheeler was a Democrat who served as United States Senator from Montana from 1922-1946. His career, as he acknowledged in his memoir, was full of controversy. Among other things, Wheeler was indicted on corruption charges and fought with powerful interests ranging from the mining companies in his adopted state to Franklin Roosevelt, a man he had once enthusiastically endorsed for president.

The FBI followed him, particularly after he criticized Roosevelt’s foreign policy prior to American entry into World War II. His patriotism was assaulted. He was deemed a Nazi sympathizer by some. He helped stop Roosevelt’s Supreme Court power play in 1937 and championed important legislation impacting utility companies and Native Americans. If you are defined in politics by your enemies, Wheeler had many. His friends included Charles Lindbergh, William E. Borah, Joe Kennedy, Huey Long and Harry Truman. He was considered a serious presidential contender in 1940. FDR put an end to that with his third term.

Wheeler’s kind of senator really doesn’t exist anymore. Senators of his generation were, of course, from their respective states, but they represented more than local interests. Wheeler and Borah and Robert Wagner and Pat Harrison, who I wrote about recently, were national legislators and the Senate was their stage. Wheeler walked that stage most prominently in 1941 when Americans were profoundly divided over how far the nation should go to provide aid to Great Britain during some of the darkest days in the history of western civilization. Wheeler battled, as he called them, “the warmongers” who he thought were altogether too eager to get the country involved in another European war.

Wheeler lost this “great debate,” the U.S. did come to the aid of the battered Brits, Japan attacked in Hawaii and the Montana senator eventually lost his seat in the Senate. This is a story I’ve tried to tell in the most recent issue of Montana – the Magazine of Western History, the respected history journal published by the Montana Historical Society.

At first blush Wheeler’s fight for non-intervention in 1941 seems like ancient history. Americans fought the good and necessary war to stop fascism and the Greatest Generation is justly celebrated. But, like so much of our history, the fight over American foreign policy prior to Pearl Harbor has a relevance that echoes down to us more than 70 years later as the morning headlines tell of President Obama’s parley in the Oval Office with Hamid Karzai.

We are apparently at the end of the beginning of our longest war. Americans have been fighting and dying in the mountains and deserts and streets of Afghanistan for nearly a dozen years. As we prepare to leave that “graveyard of empires” (leave more or less) the question is begged – have we accomplished what we intended?  And when we are gone will we leave behind such a corrupt, incompetent government that the Taliban and assorted other bad guys will again quickly take charge?

Before 1941, when Montana’s Wheeler and others raised their objection to an interventionist foreign policy, the United States was comfortable with a modest role in the world. The county was stunned by the violence and by what seemed at the time to be the ultimate futility of the Great War. During the 1920’s and 1930’s Americans embraced their traditional attitude of remaining aloof from European disputes, gladly eschewed any ambition to supplant the British as the world’s policeman and the country happily retreated behind two deep oceans. After 1941, hardened by the trials of another world war and the threat of Communist expansionism, Americans embraced a national security state and we have never really looked back.

Today, as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders points out, the United States spends more on its military than the rest of the world’s nations combined and we’ve tripled defense spending since the mid-1990’s. Despite the sobering experience of Vietnam, we rather casually, at least by 1941 standards, deploy our troops around the world with certain belief that such power can impact all events. Americans have been camped in Europe since 1945 – 80,000 are still deployed – protecting our NATO allies who increasing reduce their own military outlays.

After a nine year war in Iraq, a dozen years in Afghanistan, with deployments and bases from Australia to Turkey, and given the need to confront a national fiscal crisis one might think that America’s aggressively interventionist foreign policy would be at the center of Washington’s debates, but no. Once the U.S. Senate had such debates; debates that engaged the American public and where Congress asserted its Constitutional responsibility to actually declare war. But even after September 11 the national foreign policy “debate’ has more often been about the need to expand and deploy American power, rather than how to make it more effective. The current shaky state of the nation’s budget would seem reason enough to really have a foreign and defense policy debate again, but even more importantly Americans and their leaders should, with cold and calculating focus, assess our role in the world.

George W. Bush once famously advocated a “humble” foreign policy and disowned “nation building.” Bush’s rhetoric, of course, hardly matched his policy and a dozen years later, with little debate and perhaps even less sober reflection, we wind down a war that likely will again offer new proof of the limits of American power.

Montana’s Wheeler lost his seat in the U.S. Senate in 1946 largely because he was deemed out of touch with the post-war world. His old-fashioned attitudes about expressing American power were out of fashion. But were they? At least he forced a debate; a debate similar to the one that we need again today.


Following More Money

Are Corporations People, My Friend?

It is rare – very rare – that a state Supreme Court rises up on its hind legs and says to the United States Supreme Court we think you blew it.

Yet, that is pretty much what the seven member Montana Supreme Court said just before the New Year with a decision that seems sure to get the ultra-controversial Citizens United corporate campaign finance case back before John Roberts and Company very soon.

Citizens United is the case, you will recall, that President Obama denounced in his State of the Union speech. The U.S. Supreme Court’s January 2010 decision, decided 5-4, not only overturned a century of settled campaign finance law, but served to midwife the unprecedented level of unregulated and mostly undisclosed spendingof the so called Super PAC’s in the current Republican presidential primary process.

According to recent news reports, Newt Gingrich was on the blunt end of more than $4 million in such spending by a group with close ties to Mitt Romney that certainly contributed, if not caused, Gingrich’s dramatic shellacking in the Iowa caucuses. This political nuclear warfare has now moved on to South Carolinawhere Super PAC’s aligned with Gingrich, Rick Santorum and other candidates are going after Romney.

As Romney might say, “politics ain’t bean bags,” so what’s the problem here? The Montana Supreme Court tried to answer that question in its recent ruling involving similar, shadowy, state-level, secret groups intent on influencing election outcomes in a state that historically knows a thing or two about political corruption.

The Montana Court, in a 5-2 decision, upheld the constitutionality of the state’s 99 year old ban on corporate contributions in state races. In doing so, Chief Justice Mike McGrath delved deeply into the history of political corruption in Big Sky Country citing historical works by the great Montana historians K. Ross Toole and Mike Malone. The Judge referenced the notorious Montana “war of the cooper kings,” the extraordinary corporate influence that the Anaconda Mining Company once held over Montana, and the notorious case of William Andrews Clarkwho used his vast corporate wealth to bribe his way into the United States Senate. Here’s one section of McGrath’s opinion:

“W.A. Clark, who had amassed a fortune from the industrial operations in Butte, set his sights on the United States Senate. In 1899, in the wake of a large number of suddenly affluent members, the Montana Legislature elected Clark to the U.S. Senate. Clark admitted to spending $272,000 in the effort and the estimated expense was over $400,000. Complaints of Clark’s bribery of the Montana Legislature led to an investigation by the U.S. Senate in 1900. The Senate investigating committee concluded that Clark had won his seat through bribery and unseated him. The Senate committee ‘expressed horror at the amount of money which had been poured into politics in Montana elections…and expressed its concern with respect to the general aura of corruption in Montana.'”

Chief Justice McGrath then continued his fascinating history lesson, “In a demonstration of extraordinary boldness, Clark returned to Montana, caused the Governor to leave the state on a ruse and, with the assistance of the supportive Lt. Governor, won appointment to the very U.S. Senate seat that had just been denied him. When the Senate threatened to investigate and unseat Clark a second time, he resigned. Clark eventually won his Senate seat after spending enough on political campaigns to seat a Montana Legislature favorable to his candidacy.”

You have to wonder if John Roberts or Samuel Alito has ever read that little bit of American history. The Montana law upheld in the state court’s decision was passed in the wake of the Clark scandal and has been on the books for nearly a century, a detail with wicked similarity to the Teddy Roosevelt-era federal law banning corporate money that was overturned in Citizens United.

In his opinion in the Montana case, McGrath asks the obvious question that applies at both the state and federal levels. “The question then, is when in the last 99 years did Montana lose the power or interest sufficient to support the statute, if it ever did. If the statute has worked to preserve a degree of political and social autonomy is the State required to throw away its protections?”

The group that sought to skirt the Montana corporate ban wasn’t very subtle about its aims. “As you know,” the group called American Traditions Partnership said in its appeal for money, “Montana has very strict limits on contributions to candidates, but there is no limit to how much you can give to this program. No politician, no bureaucrat, and no radical environmentalist will ever know you helped make this program possible.”

American Traditions has said it will appeal the Montana decision.

Two Montana Supreme Court judges dissented and made the case, as indeed may be all too correct, that a state level court is bound to live with a U.S. Supreme Court decision, even as it tries to reason its way around why a state has a compelling interest in regulating its own elections with laws based on its own unique history.

But even in dissent, Montana Justice James C. Nelson expressed outrage at the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision. “Corporations are not persons,” Nelson wrote. “Human beings are persons, and it is an affront to the inviolable dignity of our species that courts have created a legal fiction which forces people — human beings — to share fundamental, natural rights with soulless creatures of government.”

Incidentally, Nelson was born in Moscow, Idaho and graduated from the University of Idaho.

The faux talk show host Stephen Colbert has created his own Super PAC to poke serious fun at this supremely serious business. Even the name of Colbert’s PAC, – “Making a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow” PAC – is an effort to show how the uplifting sounding names of these entities usually hide real motives. They might better be called “The Committee to Assault Mitt Romney” or “The Barack Obama Walks on Water PAC.”

The whole point here – re-enforced by the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United – is secrecy and unlimited money.

Colbert’s PAC, to make a point with absurdity, recently put up television ads supporting the owner’s side in their dispute with the N.B.A. players association. As the New York Times reported in a fascinating magazine cover story on Colbert last Sunday:

“These [ads] were also sponsored by Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, but they were “made possible,” according to the voice-over, by Colbert Super PAC SHH Institute. Super PAC SHH (as in “hush”) is Colbert’s 501(c)(4). He has one of those too — an organization that can accept unlimited amounts of money from corporations without disclosing their names and can then give that money to a regular PAC, which would otherwise be required to report corporate donations. ‘What’s the difference between that and money laundering?'” Colbert delightedly told the Times.

“In the case of Colbert’s N.B.A. ads, the secret sugar daddy might, or might not, have been Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, who has appeared on the show and whom the ads call a ‘hero.’ We’ll never know, and that of course is the point. Referring to the Supreme Court ruling that money is speech, and therefore corporations can contribute large sums to political campaigns, Colbert said, ‘Citizens United said that transparency would be the disinfectant, but (c)(4)’s are warm, wet, moist incubators. There is no disinfectant.'”

Exactly. Montana knows something about the need for political disinfectant. Stay tuned and, if you want to understand Citizens United in actual practice, read the reasoned, informed, context rich, real world opinions of the Montana justices on both sides of this fundamentally important issue.


A New Stadium

A Vision of What Could Be

Bob Uecker – “Mr. Baseball” – best known now as a broadcaster, movie star and funny guy, wasn’t much of a major league ball player. Uecker was a lifetime .200 hitter, but he’s been living off the jokes he makes at his own expense for years. Still jokes aside, Uecker had a couple of pretty good seasons in a Boise Braves minor league uniform back in the 1950’s.

Uecker hit .332 in Boise in 1958 and smacked 21 home runs in only 92 games. One of the ex-Boise Braves funniest lines strikes me as a perfect entry point into the community conversation about whether Boise should embark on a plan to site and build a new, multi-use stadium that could be a much improved home for the city’s current professional team, the Boise Hawks.

Uecker once said, “I led the league in ‘Go get ’em next time.'” Boise is on the ragged edge of having to say, “We’ll get ’em next time,” because without a serious and doable plan to improve its baseball venue the city will be without professional baseball sooner rather than later.

Memorial Stadium, the team’s home since 1989, is aging, undersized, under concessioned and has first base seating that during a hot August night is close to unbearable. In short, the stadium isn’t the kind of venue successful minor league organizations call home any longer.

Look around the country at what’s happening in communities where a stadium has been the centerpiece of a community effort to revitalize, renew and recreate. Dayton, Ohio has a wildly successful Class A team in a great facility that recently established the all-time record for consecutive sellouts. Oklahoma City used a ballpark to jump start the rehabilitation of an old warehouse district. You can grab a drink and a steak at Mickey Mantle’s steakhouse next door to the stadium after a game. Louisville recently built a fine new arena to house University of Louisville basketball and the project has offered a major boost to the city center.

Closer to home, the Yakima Bears of the same Northwest League as the Hawks, are planning on pulling up stakes and moving to Vancouver, Washington next summer. Milwaukie, Oregon, a Portland suburb, is moving ahead with a ballpark plan in order to lure a Class A team.

Last week, Bill Connors of the Boise Chamber and I, along with a sizable group of civic and business leaders, launched the Better Boise Coalition to help push the new stadium concept through its next phase. The Coalition will underwrite a site evaluation study that should complement the feasibility study the City of Boise recently completed.

I’m sure we’ll hear from the “don’t do anything, ever” crowd of naysayers and that’s fine – everyone gets an opinion. Here’s mine: Boise needs professional baseball and needs to aspire to eventually attract a Triple A franchise. We’ll never get there without displaying a level of community engagement and commitment and without a first rate facility. A multi-purpose facility fills a multitude of needs, not just baseball. High school teams will have another venue for regular season and playoff games. The Hawks ownership, and to their credit they want to stay in Boise but just need a better home port, has said they’re interested in a minor league soccer team.

You can anticipate the usual voices saying government should have no role in any of this, but that just ignores reality. Think of any of the community assets that make Boise special and you’ll find government fingerprints on everyone – Bronco Stadium, Taco Bell Arena, the Morrison Center, the Boise Centre, the city’s new libraries. Sure private money is critical in many such investments, but government has to be a catalyst or such things just don’t happen.

I hope we don’t wake up in a couple of years realizing the opportunity has been lost and pull a Bob Uecker. It’s going to ring pretty hollow to say, “hey, we’ll get ’em next time.” Next time is now.


No Little Plans

What Next for Boise?

An election that is normally an afterthought for most residents of Idaho’s capitol city takes place Tuesday and, while the five people who run the Greater Boise Auditorium District (GBAD) are not likely to dramatically alter the development arc of Boise anytime soon, the higher than normal visibility attending the race will be a signal of some kind about Boise’s future.

And, the signal, I dare say, is not over a fairly petty issue of how to fund the city’s convention and visitors bureau, which has become a distracting sideshow obscuring the much bigger fish that should be frying in Boise. GBAD runs the state’s premier meeting and convention space and has been struggling for years to determine how to expand.

The stakes for Boise in Tuesday election and beyond, it seems to me, boil down to two very different options: does Boise move boldly ahead with a new wave of public and private investment similar to what took place in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s or does Idaho’s largest city become content to settle in as simply a nice place in the west, but without quite the guts to become a great place?

When I came to Boise a long time ago, the fall of 1975, the city was a sleepy state capitol with a decaying downtown and some modest aspirations. When I think of the changes in the intervening 35 years, beyond the obvious population growth and a general move to the suburbs, I think of what has happened to make the city a better, more attractive place not only to live and work, but a place able to attract significant new growth and investment. Hardly anyone who lives in Boise would say it’s not a nice place. A good parks system, a fantastic river (and mostly underappreciated greenbelt), a mostly attractive and engaging downtown, open space in the foothills for hiking, biking and dogs. For many, the outdoors defines the place and that’s great as far as it goes. But truly great cities are also investment magnets. Bricks and mortar, innovation and aspiration count for a lot in great cities.

I reflect on what wasn’t here when I arrived: the Morrison Center, a world-class concert and performance venue built in 1984; the Boise State Pavilion (I still have trouble with the Taco Bell label) built in 1982, a space that regularly hosts concerts and NCAA basketball; and  the Boise Centre, the state’s largest convention and meeting space built in 1990 and where, because of its popularity and utility, it is increasingly difficult to secure a date for your local, not to mention out-of-town event. Beyond these three essential public facilities, not much in the way of public investment (outside the Boise State campus) has taken place in Boise in 35 years.

In terms of private investment, the last major construction downtown, not counting condo development, was the Banner Bank Building, completed in 2007 just before the economy nosedived, and BoDo, the south of downtown shopping, eating and entertainment center. Of the other, newer downtown buildings, the Wells Fargo Building at 9th and Main is of 1988 vintage, the U.S, Bank Plaza dates to 1978, while the Grove Hotel and Qwest Arena came along in 200o. Currently, when thinking about big privately funded civic projects, only the Simplot family’s JUMP project is actually on the drawing board.

I have this notion, reinforced by a little travel, that great cities are defined by great public buildings and venues. If that is true, with the obvious exception of the marvelously renovated Idaho Capitol Building, Boise is still a bit of a cow town.

[I’ll offer up all my disclaimers here: I chair the city’s library board, am a 16 year season ticket holder to the Boise Hawks, just joined the board of the Downtown Boise Association and have worked in the past for the auditorium district and the city. In short, I have lots of connections to Boise, care about the place and my bias here is pretty obvious – Boise has a chance to be an even better place, if it wants. But, it has to want.]

The city’s main public library is squeezed into a re-purposed plumbing supply warehouse. While the city deserves great praise for adding neighborhood libraries in recent years, there can be little debate that Boise needs a bigger, vital, new main library; a public center of the community that makes a statement about the city, its values, its energy and its aspirations.

The Boise Centre may be among the best operated meeting facilities in the country and regularly meets or exceeds its financial targets, but its not of a size to attract major national meetings, trade shows and conventions.

Prior to 1975, Boise hadn’t had minor league baseball in a long time. For two years the Oakland A’s had a Northwest League team here, followed by the unaffliated Boise Buckskins in 1978. In those days baseball was played at a high school field where fans weren’t able to hoist a beer. Imagine.

Aging and increasingly inadequate Memorial Stadium was built when baseball returned in the late 1980’s and it has neither the amenities nor the seats to be considered anywhere close to the class of the league. Securing a long-term future for minor league baseball in Boise simply requires a better ballpark and it ought to be part of a larger effort to revitalize an entire neighborhood.

Just to be clear, minor league baseball teams are moving all the time. The Yakima Bears, another Northwest League team, said last week they want to move to as yet unbuilt ballpark in Vancouver, Washington. The deal will require money from the club owners, the corporate community and the country. As one baseball backer in Vancouver told the Columbian, “This is just a huge opportunity for this community. This is how communities get on the map. This is how communities grow.” Indeed.

Think about a Boise of 2015 or so with a new main library on par with Salt Lake City or Nashville. A world-class convention venue to attract big events and big money. Expanding the existing Boise Centre or building a new facility is about as close to a “build it and they will come” proposition as exists. And then add a near downtown ballpark – Oklahoma City has one for example, as does Reno – and configure it to host minor league soccer, high school football and – one day – AAA baseball and Boise starts to act like a bigger league city.

Sound fanciful? It wouldn’t be easy and will take some urban courage. The business community will have to think bigger than it normally does and so will local elected officials. The state legislature has decided that Idaho cities can’t be trusted with the usual tools of urban economic development like local option taxation or transit funding, so a carefully drawn strategy will be required.

The Morrison Center required a public-private partnership to become reality. When I first came to town a fight was brewing over where to locate the building, but leadership and aspiration won out and a great site was chosen along the river. Can you imagine the excellent Boise Philharmonic playing these days in the Boise High School auditorium? Boise wouldn’t be Boise without the Morrison Center.

The Boise Centre was years in the making, but imagine Boise without it today. No big charity auctions and no 700 person crowds to hear a big name speakers at an Idaho Humanities Council dinner. No Taco Bell Arena?  You’d eventually get use to driving to Salt Lake to see an NCAA tournament game or to Portland to see an Elton John in concert. The next wave of public and private investment in Boise is long overdue, but will it happen? Big projects require leadership, excitement and momentum. We shall see.

There is a strange dichotomy in Boise and Idaho, as illustrated by some recent polling my firm (Gallatin Public Affairs) undertook with pollster Greg Strimple and the Idaho Business Review. The state is split, and in some ways Boise seems split as well, between folks who are pretty comfortable with life as it has traditionally been in Idaho and those who have greater aspirations. Maybe that first group decided there was just too much growth in the last two decades of the last century and they now feel more comfortable with the notion that nothing much needs to happen in the foreseeable future. These folks, and every town has them, will likely write the letters to the editor insisting Boise isn’t big enough, or wealthy enough or smart enough to pull off a big plan that builds for a bigger future. Many in this group are in what one columnist has called the BANANA Brigade – Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything.

We’ve already seen this group put the kibosh on serious planning for an urban street car system, for example, which to visitors from Salt Lake or Portland simply makes no sense whatsoever. If we started the planning tomorrow for a new interurban light rail system (we had one of those once long ago) linking Caldwell, Nampa, Meridian and Boise, with extensions to the airport, Boise State and the North and East Ends, we might be able to break ground in 15 years. It takes that long, just ask Seattle. Yet, beyond a handful of forward thinking elected officials there is no consensus for such ambition and certainly no community will.  With four buck a gallon gasoline, ask folks in the Portland area if they made a good decision to build their light rail and street car system back in 1978?

The other group in our population, and I count myself in this number, wonder where the good jobs of the future are going to come from without this type of long-term strategic investment? With a knowledge based economy becoming ever more important and with smart young people taking their ideas and their businesses where they want to live, cities like Boise will need to compete anew for their attention or be content to see them take their energy and ambition somewhere else. Lots of other places as diverse as Oklahoma City and Asheville, North Carolina and as different as Tucson and Austin are in the hunt for a piece of the new economy and the workers of the future. Will Boise decide to really compete?

A new main library, a bigger and better convention center and a multi-purpose stadium aren’t the be-all and end-all in the race to compete, but each would signal a level of ambition and aspiration that would help brand Boise as a western city of the future and not just a very nice place with limited aspirations.

A year ago, former three-term Seattle Mayor Charley Royer was the keynoter for the Downtown Boise Association annual meeting held, of course, at the Boise Centre. Royer presided over Seattle from the late 1970’s to the mid-1980’s and left office hailed as one of America’s best mayors. Royer made a quip during his speech a year ago that has stuck with me. He was referring, of course, to his city – Seattle – but it is a remark that may fit Boise just as well.

“In Seattle,” Royer said, “we do process well. We can chew, but we can’t swallow.” Chewing, to invoke Charley’s metaphor, is what Boise has been doing for some time.

The great urban planner and architect Daniel Burnham offered the correct prescription a century ago, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.”