Writings and observations

For a generation, Idaho has had a fine feature in its political campaigns that many other states do not: An informal yet institutionalized structure of televised political debates that major office candidates as a matter of course take part in. In many states, the decision of whether the participate is renegotiated every election cycle; in Idaho, for many years, declining to participate simply isn’t done.

Well, it’s done now.

The debates have been set up through the League of Women Voters and Idaho Public Television. There’s nothing necessarily sacred about their doing the debates, and over the years other groups and broadcasters have aired other debates as well. (When it comes to debates, the more the merrier, we always say.) But the IPTV-League debates have a special place, partly because they offer historical continuity – they’ve been done continuously for a long time now – and because they are a complete set. A commercial broadcaster might be interested in a race for governor or Congress, but might be less inclined to put an hour of prime time into a contest for, say, state controller or treasurer. The IPTV debates have created a framework of expectations: A run for major office on a major party ticket will mean you’re expected to show up at a particular time and place organized by a group of people who have developed standing over an extended period.

This year, more than before, that’s being challenged. Some days ago, Jim Risch, the current Idaho governor running as a Republican for the office of lieutenant governor, backed out of the IPTV debate, instead saying that he’ll accept an invitation to appear at a KTVB-TV debate. And today, Republican gubernatorial nominee C.L. “Butch” Otter said he will do the same thing.

They’re still appearing at debates, true. And the KTVB debates – they’ve done them a number of times over the years – certainly are professional too.

But those pullouts seriously weaken a debate structure under pressure in recent years. Its backers will have to do some hard thinking over the next cycle to make sure it doesn’t weaken further in 2008.

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The new Greg Smith & Associates poll, just out this afternoon, has one startling result in it, one certain to start some debate rolling among Idaho political watchers.

It is so startling because little else in it is.

The last Smith poll, using the same methodology, emerged in early July. In the 1st District U.S. House race, the premier contest at the monent, that poll gave Republican Bill Sali a lead of 41% to 25% over Democrat Larry Grant, with the remainder (34%) undecided. The new poll, conducted shortly before Labor Day, gives Grant a lead – 22% to 14%. And 61% undecided.

That’s a double-headed stunner. If the numbers are right, then the number of undecideds in the race has nearly doubled, with almost all of that increase coming out of Sali’s hide. It doesn’t reflect acceleration on Grant’s part; his numbers are almost identical, even down by a hair. Nevertheless, if a mass of former Sali backers have started easing away, that ought to be a cause for deep concern on the part of that campaign. (Could it be related to the recent defensiveness we’ve noted earlier?)

Are the numbers right? Well, you’re never wise to put too much weight on any one single poll result. But consider this: All the other races polled both months – governor and lieutenant governor – show results almost unchanged from six weeks ago. And in two other races just polled, 2nd District U.S. House and superintendent of public instruction, the results show strong Republican leads, as you’d expect. Smith suggested that “The change is clearly a result of changing voter sentiment, not a change in polling methodology.”

We’d like to see whether this result is backed up a second time, or whether the next Smith poll swings back somewhat in the 1st CD. But the moment, with caveats noted, the poll suggests the 1st is a district to watch – one with a substantial number of voters not nailed down.

In the other results, there’s less of note.

Office Republican % Democrat %
Govenor Butch Otter 42% Jerry Brady 18%
Lt Gov Jim Risch 46% Larry La Rocco 23%
1st US House Bill Sali 14% Larry Grant 22%
2nd US House Mike Simpson 61% Jim Hansen 19%
Supt Publ Instr Tom Luna 40% Jana Jones 29%

No great surprises elsewhere, other than that the number of undecideds is holding fairly strong elsewhere, too. This may be an unsettled, and unsettling election cycle yet.

UPDATE: The Sali campaign apparently doesn’t handle bad news very well. It shot out a release contending, “The methodology used was so bad that Channel Seven, who commissioned the poll in the first place, has decided not to go with its obviously faulty results. We do not intend to release the results of our own internal polling at this time, for reasons of our own; but suffice it to say that our polling, using credible methodology and done by one of the most experienced and respected polling firms in the nation, bears no resemblance to Greg Smith’s conclusions.”

First, the Sali campaign had no issue with Smith’s numbers in July, which resulted from the same methodology (and showed Sali in a more favorable light). Second, the easiest refutation of Smith’s results would be release of the campaign’s internal polls, which the campaign says it has conducted, but which it is not releasing. Campaigns often release at least the base numbers – if, that is, releasing them puts the campaign in a favorable light. Campaigns that sit on poll numbers typically do so because they don’t look so hot – an argument in favor of Smith’s numbers.

The emotional response suggests that Smith’s results may have touched a nerve.

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Turn on Portland-area TV and, apart from the ubiquitous Ron Saxton ads (we can all repeat them now by heart, one, two. – ) viewers are observing one of the most hardcore pairing of attack ads Oregon has seen in a while – certainly outdoing the ads from the Republican gubernatorial primary.

Darlene HooleyA few months back, this looked like a quiet, unremarkable congressional race, as the others in Oregon are shaping up to be. (The race in the 4th, between incumbent Democrat Peter DeFazio and Republicam challenger Jim Feldkamp, which started earlier, doesn’t look as if it’s taking off.) In the 5th, Democrat Darlene Hooley, who has built a solid case out of Clackamas County, has over the last decade consistently won short of landslides but with a solid core in what otherwise looks like a marginally Republican district. She easily put away a skilled and experienced challenger two years ago. And Portland businessman Mike Erickson is less well known – his ads start with the question, “Who is Mike Erickson?” – and started relatively late in the season.

Mike EricksonWhat has changed the dynamic, simply, is money: Erickson is pouring a pile of his own, about $800,000 so far, into the race, essentially to buy radio and TV time. Some of these ads, which start with the “Who is” line, are simply warm backgrounders on how he grew up as a son of a policeman, founded a successful business, and has been giving back to the community. But on the tube you can spot the ads gone negative: Accusing Hooley of missing loads of votes and, it suggests, when she votes, she’s just a tool of Democratic leadership. As presented, it’s rough stuff.

The Hooley campaign has not sat idle. It has started running counter ads, and they are at least a match for Erickson’s. They first dispute the vote-missing data, then blast at controversies from Erickson’s past campaigns. They accuse him of faking and forgery and such, and ask: Do you see a pattern?

Not to leave that latter part hanging, we can recommend a piece in the Salem Statesman Journal about the controversies past which gives everyone an airing and, while not completely clearing everything up, does sketch out the situation. For present purposes, we’d say Erickson’s level of culpability in these case is a little hard to assess without a much closer look. But we also find completely credible Erickson’s reaction, cited in the story, to bringing up the whole thing: “Erickson is nervous about discussing his past political campaigns and tenure as Portland State University student body president and said he almost didn’t run for fear that past controversies would be dredged up in this race.”

A challenger running against an entrenched incumbent in a year not favorable for his own party is running steeply uphill; what Erickson is carrying as well is some weighty baggage. To what extent will his $800K make the journey easier? (As of June 30, Hooley had $855,980 in cash on hand herself; she’s hardly underfunded.) How far will that late money get you?

We’ll be back. Only the opening act has come on stage so far.

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Okay, this one definitely qualifies as a mistake – a case where the appropriate response would have been a diplomatic version of, “please, don’t do me any favors.”

It was a debatable issue in the case of some other recent political visits. When President George W. Bush visited the Seattle area to raise money for Washington Senate Mike McGavick, that was a marginal call; money was raised and the base was stirred, but in an area where Bush’s favorables are down below the tank, the Democrats probably gained as much. When Vice President Dick Cheney last month did a fundraiser for Idaho 1st District Republican Bill Sali, that was probably a small net plus, but not by much: It roiled the Democrats, and even in Idaho Cheney’s favorables aren’t all that good.

If these were marginal cases, what was Washington’s 8th District Republican, Dave Reichert, thinking of when his campaign set up Bush advisor Karl Rove to raise money for him?

Karl RoveRove will, to be sure, be visiting on September 15 first to fund raise for the state Republican Party. They might have been wiser to leave it at that. If there’s anyone in Washington more likely to boil the blood of Democrats – and a lot of independents – in Washington more than Bush and Cheney, that would be Rove, the architect of recent Republican campaigns, as ideal a symbol as Democrats could wish for in blasting away at Republican control in Washington.

Rove has had legal problems and – his success as a campaign strategist notwithstanding – loads of negative headlines. (The online story about the event on the Seattle Times web site is accompanied by a link to another story: “Rove denies holding exorcism in Hillary Clinton’s former office.”) Money will be raised, but Reichert is already sitting on a large pile of money; even if he’s not been raising it lately as fast as his opponent, that’s not critical. If he ultimately loses, the reason will have little or nothing to do with being outspent. It will have to do with being swept out of office as part of a reaction to events in Washington which are controlled by the people Karl Rove helped into office.

Unwise move.

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Musician Curtis Stigers, one of Boise’s better-known and best musical exports, is back in his hometown this summer, and busy. He describes his activities and the reasons for them in an op-ed piece in today’s Idaho Statesman, and what he has to say makes good sense – all of it save one point.

He talks first about a benefit concert for Victor Pacania, the long-time host of a long-running local Saturday morning music program (much enjoyed by us, among many other listeners) called “Private Idaho.” Pacania is undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer, is without benefit of health insurance, and needs what help he can get.

Stigers goes on to talk about another benefit concert set for this weekend, on quite a different subject: a proposed cyanide leach mine in the mountains northeast of Boise at Atlanta.

A Canadian gold mining company is threatening to open a massive cyanide leach pit mine at the top of a mountain perched above Atlanta, just outside the Sawtooth Wilderness near the headwaters of the Boise River.

The danger of a chemical spill into the Boise River is enormous. Trucks carrying diesel fuel and cyanide will be barreling up and down the tiny one-lane dirt road that follows the Middle Fork of the Boise River, year-round. I drive the road often. It’s very dangerous, even in a small 4-by-4 at low speeds. The river washes the road out several times a year. It was never meant to carry giant trucks full of poisons. And what if a liner at the bottom of one of the huge cyanide leach pits fails and the groundwater is polluted? It very likely ends up in the Boise River.

We Boiseans get 20 percent of our drinking water from our precious Boise River. The river is our lifeblood, supporter of our green trees, healthy crops and our wildlife. The river is what makes our beautiful city possible. Do we want to allow anyone, in this case a foreign mining company, to risk spilling poison into the water that our children drink?

The mining proposal has gotten only intermittent attention so far. Proposed for operation by Atlanta Gold, a wholly owned subsidiary of Twin Mining Corporation, it would have big impacts on the area even absent pollution damage. More than 100 people would be employed to work the operation, now located in a very remote area visited by modest numbers of people. Issues about concerns ranging from water rights to tech failures have been raised. Stigers has hit on something of significance here.

We take issue with one sentence: “This is not a political issue.”

Oh, yes it is.

The decision whether the mine goes forward, and if so under what conditions, will be made by political people. On the federal level there are environmental protection, land and health agencioes, all overseen by elected or politically appointed people. On the state level, there are similar agencies, alongside the governor and the legislature. Who these people are, and what stance they take toward governmental regulation – which is what we’re talking about here – is absolutely central to the future of the Atlanta gold project. If you’ve paid any attention to Idaho politics in recent years (most striking, if you’ve ever heard Idaho’s probable next governor, Butch Otter, hold forth on business regulation and the environment), and hear about a conflict between business regulation and environmental protection, there’s no way you could imagine the subject at hand isn’t political.

Appeals like Stigers’ are not unusual. Some causes (depending on who you are) seem to so right that – well, there couldn’t be a rational political response against that, could there? (You’d be surprised.) And much of politics has become so ugly and partisan in recent years that many people recoil from it, and want to be bigger or better than that. Why get into the muck?

But if the action needed to deal with it is public or governmental, then it damn well is political. You say it’s a serious problem and you want to do something really constructive about it – be it Atlanta Gold or helping the vast population of the medically uninsured, Victor Pacania among them?

Then we say to you: Here’s the muck, and start wading.

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Polling numbers for U.S. House races, where much of the action is nationally (and to an extent in the Northwest) have been rare this year. But the firm Constituent Dynamics does have numbers up for about 30 House races around the country, including one in the Northwest.

That would be the premier race in the region, Washington’s 8th congressional districts, between incumbent Republican Dave Reichert and Democratic challenger Darcy Burner. It shows a tight race with Burner ahead – 49% to 46%.

It’s only one poll, and we don’t know a lot about the methodology. But it is another chunk of evidence that this contest is very much up for grabs at least. And if it continues trending as it has, it could start to tilt Democratic in another few weeks.

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Yes, it’s a private-sector company, so it can do what it wants (as long as, it being publicly-held, stockholders are given first priority). But you have to wonder about a policy of water-torture information releases; it seems to do more all-around damage than good.

IntelTop officials at Intel Corporation, the world’s largest computer chip manufacturer, which is Oregon’s largest single private sector employer – of about 17,000 people mainly in the Washington County area – said Tuesday they are planning to lay off about a tenth of its total work force, about 10,500 people. That cutback is expected to occur over the next couple of years. Beyond that, the only detail released was: “Most job reductions this year will occur in management, marketing and information technology functions, reductions related to the previously announced sale of businesses, and attrition. In 2007, the reductions will be more broadly based as Intel improves labor efficiency in manufacturing, improves equipment utilization, eliminates organizational redundancies, and improves product design methods and processes.”

There was nothing about just when or where these cuts would fall, just as there was none months ago when Intel announced a cut of about 1,000 companywide in management personnel. People in Hillsboro and Beaverton are going to be stunned, but not least because they have no idea what to expect. Other than that significant numbers of people locally probably will lose their jobs. Eventually.

There could be other impacts. Rob Enderle, principal analyst for the Enderle Group, was quoted as suggesting, “This is not the way you typically do layoffs to minimize the pain and maximize the productivity gains … When you are cutting this many people and keeping them off balance for a fairly long period of time, it does tend to impact productivity over and beyond the layoffs.”

A wire news story said that In Enderle’s opinion, “Intel CEO Paul Otellini should have copied his counterpart Hewlett-Packard Mark Hurd, who made all of the large cuts for his company at once rather than allow the layoffs to linger.”

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The numbers are large enough to give you pause about taking the ol’ car out for a spin.

Prompted (presumably) by the Mike McGavick DUI admission, the Seattle Times set about considering just how many DUI cases the state of Washington has had in recent years. So: Since 2000 – in this decade so far – it has had 220,640 DUI cases. Not allowing for duplication, that’s somewhere around eight out of every 100 people in the state.

But the total number of offenders isn’t quite that large, of course. The Times also considered duplication, and it turns out that of the drunk drivers in those cases, more than 30,000 were charged with the offense more than once.

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The proposed rule change considered this year by thr Washington Board of Pharmacy, to allow pharmacists to decide on their own whether to dispense certain legal prescription drugs, seems to bounce up against another state pharmacy rule, WAC 246-869-150, which says “The pharmacy must maintain at all times a representative assortment of drugs in order to meet the pharmaceutical needs of its patients.”

pillsYou could theoretically establish different types or levels of pharmacies; some of that kind of thing already has been done. But for the time being, most people walking into a pharmacy with a legitimate prescription in hand have an expectation that they can get it filled at most any licensed pharmacy. That seems to be the point of WAC 246-869-150.

Some pharmacists – a number around the country – have a problem with dispensing certain drugs, especially some contraceptives. The point of the pharmacy board’s proposed rule change was to allow them to decide not to. Deciding not to, of course, runs counter to the expectations of the patients.

That’s the crux of the debate in Washington (as it will be elsewhere, no doubt). In going along on Thursday with language developed after a series of sessions mediated by the governor’s office, the board opted for patient primacy.

There’s always a certain tension in professional regulatory codes between on one hand protecting the interests of the professionals and on the other those of the public. But any board which seems to place internal interests first shouldn’t be surprised when an external reaction develops.

This won’t be the end of it, of course. The Washington Legislature will doubtless weigh in next session. But the Thursday decision may cap the most heated part of this debate, for a while anyway.

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This space has not taken much notice of the formation in Idaho’s 1st House district of Republicans for Grant – Larry Grant being the Democratic candidate for that congressional seat.

But we’ve lately begun to wonder why Idaho Republicans have started to take such extensive note of it. Do they know something we don’t?

There is no voter registration by party in Idaho, which means that if you say you’re a Republican, a Democrat, a Libertarian or most anything else, then you are. Most people are reasonably honest about it, and the people who signed on as Republicans for Grant have to be fairly described as Republicans – all or nearly all (there’s one possible exception) have Republican activity, campaign work and in at least one case a major-office candidacy, in their background. We don’t think their party affiliation is much arguable. And they are prominent people in the state, leaders in one way or another.

And Bill Sali, the long-time state representative from Kuna who is the Republican nominee, does have an unusual and striking set of weaknesses.

Set against that, three factors. First, all or nearly all of these people have crossed the line before, contributing to or at least openly supporting Democratic candidates from time to time. Their support of Grant is not precedent-shattering. Second, there are no Republican elected officials or leading party officials, or even former elected or leading party officials, on the list – that would be an eye-opener. Third, the “Republicans for” approach is far from new; a long list of Democratic candidates in past years have sported such committees. We can’t think of one that proved decisive in a campaign, and some of those included people who were prominent statewide as Republicans. Most such groups faded from memory almost as soon as announced.

This one has not, at least so far. And for that Republicans – for Sali – are responsible.

First, even before the counter-group’s announcement, there was Mike Simpson at the state Republican convention, saying there are no “Republicans for Grant,” only Democrats for Grant.

Then, repeated low-level snipes at the members of the group. Then, acceleration.

Visits by Vice President Dick Cheney and House Speaker Dennis Hastert to pump up Sali’s candidacy – not just to raise money, which would be the norm, but to call for Republican unity. Unity was the text and the subtext.

Saturday, former congressional (and legislative) candidate Dennis Mansfield released an e-mail exhaustively detailing the contributions to Democrats by members of Republicans for Grant. Today, an op-ed in the Idaho Statesman by Mansfield and another former congressional candidate, David Leroy, on the subject of Republican unity. They concluded, “This year we’ll all work to elect Sali to Congress — to help the other three members of Idaho’s delegation fight for Idaho’s interests, and to help retain the all-important Republican majority in Congress. Republican Party members support Sali.”

What’s gotten interesting is this persistent call for unity, which to these ears has taken on an underlying tone of real concern.

That’s what didn’t happen in the races Leroy and Mansfield cite as past examples of the party coming together after a contested primary, in 2000 after C.L. “Butch” Otter won a contested Republican primary, or after Helen Chenoweth did it in 1994. In those races, the party did coalesce around the winner, and it was no big deal. It was simply assumed, and no national leaders or op-eds seemed to be needed to press the point home.

Which raises the question: Are these Republican leaders seeing something going on out there that hasn’t surfaced yet?

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