Idaho Politics

Operating at the Fringe

My father used to joke that every little town has its town character; an odd, interesting or off-the-wall person who everyone in town understood to be, well, a half bubble off plum. But, the place he grew up, so my father said, was different — the characters had a town.

Increasingly it seems that Idaho’s political characters now inhabit their own state. Perhaps it’s in the water or more likely it’s a function of a state dominated by one political party that with some regularity produces a dyed-in-the-wool crackpot and elevates that fringe candidate to high public office.

Idaho Representative George Hansen, “he just went ahead and did what he was going to do.”

I’m remembering, for example, the lumbering 6 feet 6 inches of rightwing nut jobbery that for seven terms represented Idaho’s 2nd Congressional District. George Hansen was a member of the Tea Party before there was a Tea Party. Hansen was the mayor of Alameda, an eastern Idaho community, before he went to Congress in the mid-1960s just in time to vote against Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights legislation and everything else that smacked of progress. Somehow it seems fitting that Hansen, whose legislative accomplishments could easily be recorded on the back of postage stamp, was the mayor of a town that no longer exists.

Hansen made a career in the federal government by opposing everything the federal government does. He hated the Internal Revenue Service and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and opposed all forms of “federal intrusion into all our lives.” Hansen was so opposed to regulation that he just ignored regulation when it applied to him.

“There was a certain naivete about George,” his lawyer once said. “He never lawyered up. He just went ahead and did what he was going to do.”

A Republican appointed federal judge eventually sentenced Hansen to four years in prison and a big fine for defrauding a bank and 200 individuals of $30 million in a wacky investment scheme, better described as old-fashioned check kiting.

But you had to hand it to Big George; he was once and always a salesman — he sold life insurance before turning to political snake oil — and nearly 100 of the people he defrauded so believed in him that they sent the sentencing judge affidavits attesting to their continuing faith in the fallen congressman. Hansen’s “victims are offended that the court would take them as victims,” the judge said, marveling at “that kind of blind allegiance.”

Hansen had barely gone to prison before Idaho was blessed with his worthy successor in Congress, the archconservative Helen Chenoweth-Hage who represented the 1st District for three high-profile, zero-accomplishment terms. Like Hansen, Chenoweth-Hage had a knack for generating headlines, the kind of headlines that often makes out-of-staters wonder just what is wrong with Idaho.

Representative Helen Chenoweth-Hage

Chenoweth-Hage was an early adopter of the “states’ rights” cause of the Civil War, and she said Idaho salmon couldn’t possibly be endangered since you could buy salmon in a can at Albertsons. Her idea of good government was to eliminate the departments of Education, Energy, Commerce and Housing and Urban Development — not for any particular reason, just because it made a good applause line.

She infamously condemned the “black helicopters” of the evil U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for harassing Idaho ranchers, even though Chenoweth-Hage eventually admitted there was little evidence that such a thing ever happened.

When Chenoweth-Hage tragically died in an auto accident, her obituary mentioned the helicopters, but there was nary a word about any legislative accomplishment.

Idaho has had more than its share of political characters.

Sen. Herman Welker was Joe McCarthy’s best friend in the Senate before Frank Church made him a one-term wonder.

Congressman Bill Sali was another one-termer best — or worst — remembered for linking breast cancer to abortion. Sali once wondered out loud about why he had trouble following what was happening in congressional hearings. Few who knew him were surprised.

Now it would appear Idaho has a new political character vying for a star on the boardwalk of crazy, the state’s Republican lieutenant governor, Janice McGeachin. Like Sali, Chenoweth-Hage and Hansen, McGeachin is a product of a one-party state where it’s often enough to win an election by merely ending up on the ballot with a “R” next to your name.

In each of her five elections for the Legislature, McGeachin ran unopposed in the Republican primary and four times ran unopposed in the general election.

Idaho Lt. Governor Janice McGeachin with some of her Real 3 Percenter followers.

After 10 years in the Legislature distinguished only by her prominent perch on the outer fringe of the Tea Party right of the Idaho Republican Party, McGeachin ran last year to become Gov. Brad Little’s understudy. She won a five-way GOP primary with less than 29 percent of the vote. Next thing you know, she’s a heartbeat away.

McGeachin has made two big splashes in her first four months in office, on each occasion being photographed fraternizing with Real 3 Percenters, members of a fringe, frequently gun-toting, anti-immigrant, militia-like group. McGeachin, while acting governor, administered “an oath,” the same oath applied to the National Guard, to some of these armed jokers near the Statehouse in Boise. McGeachin had earlier shown solidarity with one of the anti-government types jailed for his role in the Bundy standoff in Nevada.

On the one hand McGeachin’s regular flirtations with anti-government, militia-like groups resembles earlier Idaho fringe politicians who embraced the John Birch Society or the Posse Comitatus movement. But her associations and lack of judgment are also different.

The lieutenant governor isn’t just some legislative backbencher. That she is comfortable with very public associations with the militia movement and its borderline connections to violence and domestic terrorism means McGeachin isn’t really embracing Little’s pragmatic — which is to say serious — agenda. Rather she has gone where too much of the GOP has gone — the radical fringe.

There have been reports of Little’s dismay over his No. 2’s wing-nut behavior, but the governor still recently gave McGeachin a high-profile role chairing a review of state agency services. Here’s betting the governor can’t long have it both ways. Serious politicians shouldn’t long tolerate what can only be described as outlandish behavior, even if being a crackpot has long been a feature of Idaho Republican politics.

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