Doesn’t feel like endorsement season, but if you’re going to have your say about presidential candidates, this would be the time. And the Seattle Times did, in part, today:

“The Seattle Times endorses Sen. Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination for president. He has the grasp, temperament and skills to right our standing in the world. He has broad insight and specific ideas to assuage our own hardworking citizens’ fears of an economy turning sour.”

The Republican endorsement is next Sunday. These have to do with the caucuses on February 9 and primary on February 19. (Yeah, yeah, we’ll discuss later.)

Meantime: Will there be a counterpart editorial in the Idaho Statesman, since Idaho Democrats caucus on February 5?

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bingen in snow

Bingen, Washington, in snow

This morning, back at home and blogging by the fireplace, thoughts return to that scene from last night, out of Dante – not the Inferno but the Icebox – and whatever may have happened to all those people . . .

What follows isn’t political, as such. It certainly is a matter of public affairs, and a reflect on how often people in positions of responsibility lose sight of the point of their work.

Friday was not a good day for travel across the width of the state of Oregon. Saturday looked better, and it wasn’t awful in its easternmost reaches, at least in early to midday; snow fell but the roads remained easily passable. On our journey, accompanied by a rescue dog headed from Nampa to Portland, trouble began with the ice rain, which started clunking down just past Arlington and was becoming inescapable by gasup at The Dalles.

Ahead, it apparently was much worse, at least account to Shell station gossip (which is usually pretty sound on such matters). US 84 had been shut down through much of the Gorge, from Cascade Locks to Troutdale on the east edge of Portland, because ice rain had led to a series of wrecks there. An alternative was to cross the Columbia and head west on Washington Highway 14; in fact, traffic between the Cascade Locks and Portland areas was being formally diverted there.

Sounded reasonable.

Westbound on 14, which is a narrow and sometimes twisty road but in many places more scenic than 84, was efficient – since we had light snow instead of the dread ice rain on the north side – and slowing only after we got through Bingen. Then, around the Carson area, maybe six or seven miles form the small city of Stevenson, we came to a stop. There were small advances, but in the two hours after reaching there about 4 p.m., we advanced little more than a mile. And then a complete stop. Darkness fell, and snow began falling heavily, piling two or three inches around the stopped vehicles.

People dealt with this in different ways. Some relaxed, turned their vehicles off and seemed to snooze. But for others the frustration level rose. Some tried driving on the mostly empty left-hand lane, only to be directed by a police officer to a parking lot (presumably to be ticketed later). Up and down the line, you could start to hear, after an hour or so had elapsed, loud voices. Turning to angry voices. Physical manifestation appeared not far away.

Your scribe tramped through the snow to ask the police officer what was happening. A half hour later, repeating the procedure. Little emerged from those efforts; a question elicited a strong rant against stupid and unprepared drivers, and he seemed little willing to say much else. He was connected with the regional law enforcement world by radio, however; he must have known more than he was saying.

After the stopped-vehicle coconut telegraph said that westbound on 14 was closed, period, presumably for the night, a third attempt at engagement followed. This time, the dialogue went about this way:

“There’s word back there that 14 west is closed, period. Is that the case?”

“Not closed, period,” he said. “It’ll be reopened when the accidents are cleared off. But every time traffic moves ahead, someone slides off or there’s a fender bender.”

“So you don’t know when it may be reopened. Could be hours.”

“It could be.”

“Could be morning.”

“That’s possible,” he said.

“Okay. Staying out here all night will be good for neither my health nor safety, nor that of the dog I’m carrying. You are a law enforcement officer sworn to protest health and safety as best you can. What is your best professional recommendation as what I should do?”

For a moment, that seemed to throw him; this wasn’t a challenge to his authority, but rather a request that he use it to help solve a problem. And after a moment’s pause, he did just that.

He asked for the preferred destination – which was, most directly, Portland – and said, “you can turn around, cross the Hood River bridge, and go west on 84 to Portland. They’ve reopened it. If I were in your shoes, that’s what I would do.”

After thanks and a nod, that is just what happened. The road doubling back toward Hood River had just been snow plowed (we followed a plow part of the way) and the traffic back was light. The rickety wire bridge was passable, and they waived the usual 75 cents toll. I-84 was snowpacked at Hood River through Cascade Locks, turning to slush and ice and finally plain rain after Multnomah Falls through to the Portland metro area, but ultimately passable.

What kept popping up, alongside the tight focus on a slow and cautious drive, was that scene of more than two miles of vehicles backed up near Carson. (A phrase from a character in the TV series Lost came to mind: “It’s gettin’ to Lord of the Flies time.”) And the question: Knowing what he did, why didn’t the police officer spread word through all those drivers, scores at least and maybe several hundred, that the way to go was back through Hood River? Why leave them to sit out in the cold and heavy snow? (And yes, there were pangs of guilt as we drove back; but how to communicate with them all?)

No doubt the cop was right that there were plenty of foolish drivers creating unnecessary problems up ahead. But why could he not have taken the next step: Actively trying to help those people stuck out in the deep freeze in the middle of the night, instead of waiting for someone to phrase the question in just the right way?

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As long as they keep acting this way, we’ll keep posting about it. Today’s latest case of inanity, courtesy the Boise airport (this account of it, though, courtesy of the Idaho Statesman):

About 400 passengers at the Boise Airport about noon Friday had to go through screening a second time after a California man seeking a shoe shine entered the secure area through the exit corridor, Transportation Safety Administration officials said.
TSA officials said the man, since identified as 38-year-old Jesse Flores, of Victorville, Calif., could not immediately be located in the terminal after he bypassed security. The breech caused the Boise Airport to be closed for about one hour and 20 minutes as Boise Police and the TSA investigated.

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Idaho

Obama headquarters

Obama headquarters at Boise

The Barack Obama headquarters in Idaho are tucked away in the central Boise bench, but the fact of its existence is a little remarkable: This is the first real, long-run, fully-staffed presidential headquarters in Idaho, at least in a long time and maybe ever. No one else in either party comes close.

Their offices, which we toured this afternoon, have ongoing staff and plenty of volunteers running in and out. It’s pretty much what you’d want to see in a campaign headquarters, and it’s been ongoing since well into last fall. In addition to heavy phone calling, door knocking and the like, there’s what sounds like solid caucus training, which is useful stuff for the maze-like process. Combine that with the long roster of Idaho Democrats who have endorsed him (including most Democratic state legislators) and you get a picture of a probable lopsided Obama caucus win on February 5. That’s not evidence of whatever may happen in other states, but Obama does seem to have Idaho largely wrapped.

The Hillary Clinton forces do exist, but they’re much lower key. The discussion this week has to do with the personal calls to some key Idaho Democrats (who either hadn’t endorsed yet, or who were thought not to have) from no less than Bill Clinton. One on one, that could have some effect.

But in the one Northwest participant (Democratic side only) on Super Tuesday, much of the battle seems over. Unless that turns into yet another in the long series of political shocks this season.

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Oakridge long has been one of those remote, rural communities commonly described as stagnant at best, or maybe depressed and headed down. But not so fast. A lead from the Eugene Register Guard: “Hundreds of new jobs at the city’s industrial park? An outlet mall along Highway 58 in the middle of town?”

Oakridge, something like an hour southeast of Eugene and genuinely remote from population centers, would seem an unlikely candidate. But maybe it has some lessons to teach.

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Washington courts The key line in today’s Twin Bridge Marine Park v. Department of Ecology Washington Supreme Court seems so self-evident that you almost wonder how a serious court case could develop around it: “When disagreements over property development arise between these two entities that exercise regulatory powers under the SMA [the Shoreline Management Act], private citizens must not be forced to choose between conflicting edicts.” Even if the law in question is something other than the SMA.

This one has to do with a turf battle between Skagit County and the Department of Ecology; a marina developer has been caught in the middle. The Supreme Court noted that “Twin Bridge is a dry-storage marina that has been properly permitted by local, state, and federal agencies after years of litigation. At argument, Ecology conceded there were no continuing environmental concerns.” But the battle has gone on, at some length.

This might be reasonable grounds for a task force: To find areas of overlap or conflict in the laws, so that citizens aren’t caught between. Or, of course, we could all just litigate.

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Geddes and Denney

Leaders face the press: Robert Geddes (left), Lawerence Denney

They probably intended to convey a workaday Idaho legislative session, nothing especially exciting here, and if that was the idea, then Idaho Senate President pro tem Robert Geddes and House Speaker Lawerence Denney succeeded.

They were at an Idaho Press Club lunch today, fielding questions on a fairly broad range of subjects, from property taxes to teacher pay to the corrections explosion. But the overarching metaphor for everything seemed to be the legislature’s cramped circumstances.

The Idaho Statehouse is shut down for renovation, for this session and next moving legislators next door to the old Ada County courthouse (now referred to as the “statehouse annex”), much smaller and less comfortable quarters than before. People are stepping over each other (especially in the House), or jamming into small corners. Denney asked reporters trying to interview House members to do it off the House floor, rather than at their seats as they historically had; the closeness of the quarters means legislators might have trouble working with visitors climbing over them.The limits on freedom of movement probably have a psychological effect, too; lack of physical ambition can lead to the mental version as well. (Something like this probably affected the Washington Legislature this decadetoo, in the sessions when it also was bounced from an under-renovation statehouse; those were not especially productive sessions.)

The exploding population in jails, prisons and parole “is a problem we need to address this session,” Geddes said, and probably some movement will be made, whether or not toward the private prison ideas Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter has proposed. Geddes described the problem in some detail, and he seemed quite conversant with the implications of several of the options. But as to what path any of those options might take remained unclear.

And to a larger degree, you got the sense that there isn’t a lot of strong movement on some of the other issues. There was a clear implication that unless votes for the new gay rights bill can be lined up quickly, it will probably stall out just as fast. On the flip side, Denney seemed to wrist-slap Representative Steve Thayn, whose report from a family preservation committee seemed to represent his own views more than others. Denney put it diplomatically – Thayne “was a freshman, he should have had a lot more guidance from us about what to do” with a committee – but his meaning was clear enough. And there’ll not likely be a lot of movement this session from that front, either.

This session, which still shows some signs of turning out shorter than usual, may be represent something of a holding pattern whose main work is on the budget, and nothing especially radical there.

SHOUT OUT The Press Club legislative lunch drew, as usual (saying this having first attended one in 1977), much of the statehouse reporting crew. But what seemed to get attention was the blogger presence. Ran into Dean Ferguson of the Lewiston Tribune later this afternoon at a Boise coffee shop, and he remarked on the bloggers. And so did Kevin Richert, editorial page editor and himself a blogger too, on his blog.

They included Jill Kuraitis and Sharon Fisher of New West, and David Frazier of Boise Guardian (who had some expectedly pungent questions and comments). Richert closed his blog item on this: “A special honor to an old friend, Northwest political blogger Randy Stapilus, who attended this afternoon’s luncheon, after blogging live during a Tuesday night U.S. Senate debate in Pendleton, Ore. New media, old media. There’s still no substitute for getting out in the field.” True enough.

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Idaho

Pendleton debate

Pendleton debate: Candy Neville, Steve Novick, Jeff Merkley, David Loera

Snow is on the ground at Pendleton, and scatterings of ice on the roads in town. The debate for the Democratic candidates competing to oppose Republican Senator Gordon Smith was set up fr a small room in the Pendleton Convention Center, with seating for 30 people or so. By starting time, they had to break away a wall and almost triple the seating space. The debate among these Democrats seemed to draw some interest in Smith’s Republican home town.

The approach was standard press conference (the qiestoners were from the East Oregonian daily paper, which sponsored the event); the candidates had no real opportunity to question each other. But they did cover many of the major topics, from Iraq to health care, immigration, housing finance, No Child Left Behind and Columbia River water withdrawal (a heavy topic east of the Cascades). All four candidates – David Loera of Salem, House Speaker Jeff Merkley, Portland activist Steve Novick and Eugene realtor Candy Neville – and all from the west end of the state, were there.

There weren’t, in sum, a lot of policy differences here; nor breakthroughs, or any particular crash or burn. Nor were there any fireworks; the candidates all focused their fire on Smith and President George W. Bush. (They did say they approved of one part of Smith’s record, that dealing with the Indian tribes, which have endorsed the Republican.) The only real inter-candidate shot, briefly and not clearly explained, came from Loera of Salem, against Merkley (having something to do with a meeting at the legislature). Merkley’s and Novick’s supporters have been blasting each other of late, but the candidates themselves did not at Pendleton, even going out of their way to agree on various specifics.

We’d not seen Neville in action before, and considering her newness to the field came off quite well – passionate, energetic, generally knowledgeable and good at making connections. (She came up with some nice homely metaphors, at one point drawing a neat connection between a poorly-grounded electric stove and the No Child Left Behind program.) Her keynote issue seems to be Iraq, but she had a good deal to say on other topics. Against candidates much more experienced at this sort of thing, she held her own. If Neville doesn’t clear this primary (and the odds are against), you can imagine Eugene Democrats seizing on her for another race down the road.

Loera was a less clear presence. He seemed mostly in agreement with the others (though his stance on illegal immigration seemed to be a “throw the doors open” approach not mirrored by the others).

Merkley and Novick mostly stuck to their usual limes, but each got off some good lines. Merkley nicely framed a lot of the economic-related discussion by suggesting, “The Bush economy isn’t working for any of us.” Portlander Novick did the fun line of the evening, saying the question from Umatilla County had to be: “How can a kid from a small city like Cottage Grove represent a big city like Pendleton? I’ll give it my best shot.” It got a laugh.

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Are you about ready to give up on polls after having seen their performance in the presidential contest so far this year? Our inclination is to bag early-early poll numbers; to many people seem to hold off a lot of decisions until close to election day, and too many of those turn out to vote alike, to allow for easy early projections.

But you still may find some readable thoughts in Peter Callaghan’s column today in the Tacoma News Tribune, on the most recent numbers on Governor Chris Gregoire‘s approval ratings (close to two to one favorable) versus her numbers in opposition to Republican challenger Dino Rossi (47% to 42%, an at-risk figure).

Reconciling the two is Callaghan’s subject. It also may be Topic A in Washington this year.

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Washington

Over in Kitsap County, a former (2004) state legislative candidate accused of identity theft.

From the Kitsap Sun: “Frank W. Mahaffay, 35, is believed by sheriff’s deputies to have paid about $1,400 worth of his wireless phone bill with another man’s bank account information, sheriff’s office documents say.”

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ALarger Question: Is there too little water in the Northwest – referring here mainly to the drier parts of the region? Conflict over water use and supply has been rising steadily. Are we about to hit a wall?

The Larger Picture answer seems to be: We’re hitting a wall on water only to the extent that we continue to use the way we do. Somewhere upwards of four-fifths of the region’s water, for example, goes to irrigated agriculture; change our agricultural practices, take a little desert land out of cultivation, and water supplies soon look a lot more adequate.

So, the story today about water rights held by Washington State University at Pullman. The university has won a decision, being sharply contested by critics, on its water use. The decision only gives WSU the right to use as much water as it is already using (from a critical regional aquifer which, by some reports, is in decline). But significance is that the university has been finding efficiencies in many of its water uses, and the permission has to do with tripling the water it uses to keep its golf course green.

So what do we use our water for? That may be the key upcoming question.

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There’s what’s become an article of faith in Idaho that things would be great if only government would get out of the way and let the free market do its thing.

So you wonder what consternation there may be in the area on reading this paragraph today in the Idaho Statesman, about the recent super-heated growth followed by slowdown in the new city of Star, in northwest Ada County:

“One of the last major Valley towns with no planning and zoning commission and no design review committee, Star has a free-market mayor who didn’t want government to stand in the way of private development. The boom and bust have left the city with unsold homes, half-built neighborhoods and even dangerous holes in the ground that developers abandoned without filling or covering.”

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Idaho