Probably doesn’t feel that way right now to the Boise advocates – Mayor David Bieter among them – of a downtown streetcar, but in denying federal money to the city for that project, the feds may have done those advocates a big favor.

This marks the opportunity, which maybe some of them have been quietly hoping for, to back off.

No doubt Bieter was very serious about creating such a project; it would much change the look and feel of Boise’s downtown, and some positives likely would have come of it. But the questions about how and why it would work, and whether it was the right priority for the area, were almost overwhelming. We’ve been struck by the number of Boiseans who have been long-time passionate supporters of mass transit who could not see their way to supporting this one, even if most of the money for it was federal. Polling suggests that Boiseans overall are highly skeptical.

Streetcars are not necessarily a bad idea. Portland has a good streetcar system (linked to its light rail and bus operations), and picked up $23.2 million today for its program. Tucson and Dallas got money for streetcars too.

And for now at least, Boise city officials indicated they won’t be giving up.

But they may be well advised to see today’s decision as an opportunity to take a pause, step back, and rethink.

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Idaho Oregon

Here is what health insurers would have you believe: That the free market works best when when the sellers of a product get to withhold virtually all information about it, and the consumer are best served by being left in the dark.

The Oregon Insurance Division has “finalized changes to its health insurance rate review process that make all information submitted as part of an insurance company’s rate request open to the public.” (Note that this applies only to some individual, small business and portability plans; most health insurance in Oregon is not regulated by the state at all.) The rule changes follow up on 2009 state legislation.

You might wonder that this information hasn’t been public all along. You might wonder how Oregonians could possibly assess the work of its insurance division when much of the information submitted by insurers is sealed away from public view.

There’s no wondering on the part of the insurers: They are furious at the new rules, and are threatening everything from lawsuits to pulling out of the state in response.

The Lund Report, a fine Oregon health care blog, reported:

Oregon’s five largest health insurers along with the national trade group, America’s Health Insurance Plans, argued in comments to the Division that the new rules would expose trade secrets, harm competition and increase rates.

Several implied they might sue. A representative for LifeWise called the rules unconstitutional, but none put it quite as succinctly as Theresa Neibert, manager of regulatory advocacy and consulting for Kaiser. “These new rules will invite instability, confusion, uneven treatment of carriers and litigation,” Neibert wrote. “This may embroil the division in costly litigation.”

The Insurance Division basically called their bluff.

Lund also notes that in theory, “Rate filings were made public starting in 2006, but consumer advocates who’ve tried to challenge premium increases since then have faced difficulties because insurers were allowed to redact key information. A case against a 26 percent increase on Regence individual health plans in 2008 is still ongoing.”

You have to know that something dark is going on when the fight to keep information – that affects our health and even lives – under wraps is this ferocious.

Kraig E. Anderson, vice president of underwriting and actuarial, ODS Companies (odious?): “We believe that larger competitors, with greater capital resources, could price their products in such a way to gain market advantage. This type of predatory pricing could lead to higher rate increases for consumers, or a situation where it is necessary for ODS to leave the market.”

Ah yes, the great threat to leave the market, should the public ask for basic information about what it is that requires insurers to pump up their premiums so massively every few months, kicking people by the millions off of health coverage and running our country fast over the cliff into bankruptcy.

Sounds from here like the insurers are making an airtight argument for a public option.

At a time when so much fear is mongered about a public health insurance option, what realistic defense of our current health insurers is even possible? There’s only one realistic answer: Health insurers have money, tons and tons of money. And money talks.

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The primary poll numbers in the Oregon Democratic gubernatorial, conducted and released by the John Kitzhaber campaign, are about as you might expect from that source: Kitzhaber 55%, Bill Bradbury 21%, Jerry Wilson 2%, and undecided 22%. (There was a released split by congressional district, which among Democrats said Kitzhaber was strongest in the 4th and weakest in the 2nd.)

The response from Bradbury, the former secretary of state who has been running as underdog (though with some strong out of state endorsements, like Al Gore and Howard Dean), might have been to dis the poll. Instead, the emphasis was this: “This Kitzhaber poll is actually good news for our campaign. For a two term Democratic Governor to be polling barely over 50% in his own party shows a real weakness and an opportunity for us to get our message out that Bill Bradbury is THE democratic candidate in the race.”

It’s a sounded geared at hopefulness rather than irritation, but if you assume the numbers are somewhere close to realistic, they don’t bode well for Bradbury. Other numbers from the poll give Kitzhaber a 69% favorable among Democrats – not super-strong certainly, and now what he should want if running against a strong Republican, but good enough for a solid base at this point among fellow Democrats.

Three months to go for Bradbury to turn it around.

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Look at all the protests – the anti-tax and the countering anti-cut protests at Olympia and Salem this week.

The two sides would seem to be totally opposite in motivation. But look again – turned down the volume and squint at the signs, and what do you see? Anger, simply. This is a time of anger, all over the place.

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Oregon Washington

There’s no perfect answer, and there are always situational answers, to the question of whether elected officials should rigorously follow the polls in deciding what to do. Veer too far from what the public wants, or will accept, and you’ll be thrown out of office, and maybe should be. But the questions facing voters are often different from those facing their representatives.

Public attitudes can be hard to gauge, and they aren’t always what you think they are. Have you seen the recent articles about the polling on whether gays should be allowed to serve openly in the military? A CBS poll says that 51% of Americans favor allowing “gay men and lesbians” to so serve – but just 34% of “homosexuals.” Draw what conclusions you will from that.

Ballot issues should in theory be a more solid base for assessing opinion; but the questions they ask typically are narrow. Would you like lower taxes? You probably would. How about this: Would you prefer a tax cut of x amount with a cut in public services at x level, or not? That result might be a little different, especially depending on the variables.

Washington legislators are grappling with this as they deal with cutting ot the most stringent portions of Initiative 960, which said that “for the Washington State Legislature to raise taxes, the legislature would have to approve any tax increases with a two-thirds supermajority vote or submit tax increase proposals to a statewide vote of the electorate.” It passed in 2007 with 51.2% of the vote (a lot less than it would ask of the legislature to transact conventional business).

Initiatives ordinarily are considered close to untouchable – the people have, after all, spoken directly in those cases. But they periodically are adjusted, in many states (Washington has amended them before), and ordinarily there’s less political blowback than you might expect. (A notable case from Idaho in 2002, when voters passed a term limit initiative aimed in part at state legislators themselves. The legislators swiftly and overwhelmingly repealed the voter-passed limits, with votes so strong they overrode a governor’s veto. The whole subject hardly even came up in the next election.)

When Tim Eyman, I-960’s key backer, tells legislators that there’s strong support for keeping a limit on taxes, he’s undoubtledly right. But consider that point in context.

You can consider, for example, the anti-tax rally at Olympia today, which drew 3,000 people – a substantial crowd. But then, there were also the 6,000 people who showed up at the anti-budget cuts rally.

Then there was the Elway Poll (403 Washingtonians, January 29-31, margin of error 5%) for Eldercare Alliance released today, indicating 47% favoring for lawmakers who “voted to raise taxes in order to maintain services for elderly and disabled people;” 24% disapproved and the other 24% said it would make no difference. Complicating the situation: If a legislator voted to increase taxes “to maintain statewide public services,” support drops to 23% and opposition rises to 37%. In other words, there’s empathy and willingness to pay for specific needs, but not for bland, generalized government – although a large chunk of what government does as an ongoing matter is providing those services.

What seems to be at issue, as a matter of politics, is not whether legislators are upholding an initiative; it is a somewhat broader picture of what legislators are doing. What people think of what their legislators are doing seems to depend a great deal on how you paint that picture.

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Candidates for Congress stress any and all connections they have in the home district and shuffle off to the side their links to money and connections in D.C. But those money and connections often (not going to say always) play a big role in just how well a campaign comes together, and whether it ultimately wins, and what directions it takes (at campaign level, or in office).

So a blog post by former Boise City Council candidate Lucas Baumbach is worth note for some of the ties that might, or might not, come into play in the Idaho 1st district race.

Baumbach has had some issues with the 1st District Republican front runner, Vaughn Ward; his primary opponent is legislator Raul Labrador, and both are seeking to unseat incumbent Democrat Walt Minnick. In a look through Ward’s campaign finance reports, he frequent crossed the name of Erin Casey, a Washington-based fundraiser.

To pause here: Consulting fundraisers have in the last couple of decades become a big part of the scene for both political parties, and a lot candidates use them. (The distortions in politics their trade has led to, for both parties, are serious, but the subject of some other post.) Ward’s federal finance reports show his campaign paying her $17,570 last year (for fundraising), in monthly payments starting in late spring. Baumbach writes that “It’s clear that without her his campaign would be as broke as it was last April.” Maybe: Looking at the campaign from the outside, we’d suggest that’s impossible to know for sure.

But there are a couple of other things we do know.

Casey started her fundraising and events company last spring – just about the same time Ward hired her. A great leap of faith in a newcomer, perhaps. But her most recent job before that may also have been relevant: Before starting her company, she was director of special projects for the National Republican Senate Committee, and before that was field finance director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, and before that was the NRCC director of finance events.

This falls into focus when you wonder about Ward’s early de-facto (if unofficial) endorsement by a number of key national leadership Republicans. The architecture of connections and funding were being built in from an early stage. Very early.

To pick up again with Erin Casey: A job or two before the NRCC, she was working on campaigns for former U.S. Representative Chris Chocola, R-Indiana. He is of interest here for this reason: In April of last year, he was named president of the Club for Growth, which was the key national group that helped power former Representative Bill Sali through his primary and general elections in 2006, when he won (but did not provide support in 2008, when he lost). The Washington Times has reported Chocola “has become the ‘go-to guy’ for endorsements and money for a growing clientele of fiscally conservative Republican candidates for Congress.” There’s been no visible link of Club for Growth to Ward’s campaign so far, but you wonder if it may be coming (some positive notes from them about Minnick notwithstanding).

Sali, we might note again, has not publicly ruled out a race again in the 1st, but has made no active moves toward it, either.

All of this is only part of the story. But a relevant part.

QUOTE OF NOTE In rummaging through the web record, we ran across an interview Casey gave with National Journal magazine, and this Q&A: “If you could only watch one TV news show, what would it be? None – I prefer to read news clips and stories online than watch the news shows. All the TV shows seems to slant one way or the other.” Bravo. Take her counsel: With uncommon exceptions, most news on the tube isn’t worth watching.

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Mostly, we don’t take great notice of school finance and bond levies (other than our own), because often the issues involved are local and not very indicative of wider trends.

But. In the context of the economic downtowns, and passage of two statewide tax measures in Oregon, and widespread assumptions (weakly based, in our view) that the country has turned anti-tax, the latest election news out of Washington state merits some attention:

In the Seattle Times: “Voters were showing their support for most area school districts, with partial returns from Tuesday’s special election favoring passage of billions of dollars in levy and bond measures to operate, maintain and build schools. According to unofficial results released shortly after 8 p.m., ballot measures in 20 of 23 King and Snohomish County school districts were winning approval, although some by very narrow margins.”

In a comment on this at the Horse’s Ass blog: “I did a quick look at election results around the state last night, and most levies were being passed by wide margins, even in very conservative counties in Eastern Washington. Coupled with the results from OR a few weeks ago and the defeat of 1033 last year and populist voter anger over bailouts of big banks, maybe it is time for our elected leaders to look at the creation of a progressive income tax in WA.”

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Our February 2010 Idaho Public Affairs Digest is out, with reports on the opening of the new legislative session, the governor’s proposals for the state, a Tea Party event at the Statehouse and much more. We also take a look at how area businesses and employees are holding up in the recession.

This was not a more substantial month for publication of state rules and regulations. And we include the usual rundown of important court decisions, federal actions, calendar of upcoming events and much more is in full review.

Interested in subscribing, or seeing a sample copy? (Subscribers also get access to the full archives, a detailed recent history of Idaho month by month, going back to 1999.)

Just send us a mail at [email protected].

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Last year the Oregon Legislature passed a bill imposing a 1% tax on certain health insurance premiums; the money from it would be used to pay for health insurance for 80,000 Oregon children who were uninsured. The governor’s office described it when it was signed last summer: “House Bill 2116 provides the funding to cover all children under the age of 19 through the Oregon Health Plan, a cost-share model with employers, or through a newly-created state sponsored private insurance option.”

This session it’s been targeted in House Bill 3603, a simple repeal, prime-sponsored by Representative Jim Weidner, R-Yamhill, and co-sponsored by a dozen other Republican House members. It has virtually no chance of passage, but it was granted a hearing before the House Health Care Committee. And there, Chairman Mitch Greenlick, D-Beaverton, asked Weidner the question about the bill: Are you okay with kicking 80,000 Oregon children off health insurance?

Weidner’s inartful, sheepishly grinning dodge to that question – repeated several times (mercilessly) – has almost to be seen (see the clip above) to believed. Of course, the only honest answer, short of coming up with another way to fund the insurance, would have been: “Sure, kick em off. Opposition to taxes is more important than the lives or health of thousands of children . . .”

There may be a reason that it was a first-term legislator who got stuck as the prime sponsor of this bill.

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The Idaho House this morning passed 52-18 House Bill 391, which isstructured essentially as a protest to whatever the federal government might do by way of health care policy. (Several of the supporting legislators acknowledged, accurately enough, that they don’t yet know what that might be.)

The bill “codifies as state policy that every person in the state of Idaho is and shall continue to be free from government compulsion in the selection of health insurance options, and that such liberty is protected by the Constitutions of the United States and the State of Idaho. The bill removes the authority of any state official or employee from enforcing any penalty which violates the policy. It also tasks the office of the Attorney General with seeking injunctive or other appropriate relief , or defending the state of Idaho and its officials and employees against laws, enacted by any government, which violate the policy.” It’s highly unlikely to survive a court challenge.

Two points of discussion by its advocates during debate, though, are worth a quick highlight.

Bill supporter Representative Lenore Hardy Barrett, R-Challis, said the issue was simple: This bill was supportive of the constitution, and “Either you believe in the constitution of the United States or you don’t,” and either you take your oath of office seriously, or not. A Democratic representative objected: The clear implication was that anyone who voted against the bill was trashing both the constitution and their oath of office. House Speaker Lawerence Denney, a conservative by any definition who voted for the bill, agreed that Barrett’s characterization amounted to hashing the character and motivations of the opposition (impugning the motives of another legislator in debate is counter to House rules), and asked her to withdraw her statement. She wouldn’t – she made completely evident that trashing the opposition and its motivations was entirely her point.

There’s a world of commentary in that.

The other point of interest came from Representative Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, who took a distinctly different tack. We need health care reform, he said, just not on the federal level: “We need to have state reform.”

A question, then: In Idaho, where is it? And what does Labrador propose the state do to insure the uninsured, keep the sick and previously-ill insured, and cut costs of both insurance and health care? What has any sitting Idaho Republican legislator done along those lines?

ADDED THOUGHT This morning, at the same time the Idaho House was debating and then passing a measure blocking federal health care reform, the Oregon House was debating and then passing, unanimously, House Bill 3631:

“The House today unanimously voted in favor of a bill brought forward by Representative Suzanne VanOrman (D-Hood River/Sandy) that prohibits insurers from discriminating against victims of sexual violence by treating that victimization, or physical or mental injuries sustained as a result of that victimization, as a preexisting condition that would exclude or limit coverage.”

Would the Idaho Legislature pass that one? (No such bill has been introduced so far this session.)

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Idaho Oregon

The idea is to increase security around the act of ballot casting – ensuring that only actual Idahoans who are legally qualified to vote actually do so. (The political point here doubtless has to do with the unlikely prospect of votes by people in the country illegally, but it would apply to anyone who legally can’t vote.)

The plan, in the bill by Idaho state Representative Mike Moyle, R-Star, introduced today, is that when people show up at the voting place, they have to show a valid picture ID before they get their ballot. On its face, that sounds reasonable enough, provided voters get ample warning of the requirement before they travel to vote.

The catch is . . . well, there are several. What about people who vote absentee, or by mail – military personnel, or Idahoans spending time in another country? Or what about elderly people, or others, who don’t have a drivers license or other picture ID? In such cases, apparently, the prospective voters would just have to sign a form saying they are who they say they are.

Considering that there seems to be no great problem of fraudulent voting in Idaho (or in most other states, either), the whole idea comes down to blocking what might be a handful of instances. Would those really be stopped by the high hurdle of having to sign an affidavit? A fence, after all, is only as strong as its weakest links . . .

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Don Benton

There is this to say about Vancouver Republican state Senator Don Benton‘s prospective run – which he said today he’s planning – against Senator Patty Murray: He would be the lead Republican in the field, and as matters stand would be well positioned to win the primary over six other prospects.

There’s that. But you have to suspect Murray’s not losing a lot of sleep tonight; at least not yet.

The move is in line in some respects: He has been raising his profile lately, especially with his testimony and argument against amending Initiative 960, aligning himself with Tim Eyman’s backers and the Tea Party people. So he could be starting with a base.

Benton has lots of political experience. He was a state Republican chair in 2000; he departed after eight months, a period the Seattle Times called “short and troubled.” He has been a legislator for a while now – elected to a term in the House in 1994 (a good year for Republicans), and to the Senate in 1996 (51%), 2000 (53.1%), 2004 (56%) and last year (51.1%). You can more or less tell from the numbers that Benton hasn’t been a towering vote-getter, and his run of wins isn’t unbroken: He was the Republican that Democrat Brian Baird beat in 1998 (55%-45%) to win the 3rd U.S. House seat he’s held since.

He’s had periodic bad headlines over the years. Some of the most interesting came in 2005 when he tried to launch (no, you won’t find it active), a web political report evidently related to Washington state politics. The Tacoma News Tribune reported his pitch (apparently aimed in part at Statehouse people including lobbyists) said to connection with the $565 annual fee, “What will it cost you NOT to subscribe? That could be a princely sum indeed! . . . If you want to continue to be the best informed and highest paid, frankly y’all better pony up quickly, to ‘put your money where your livelihood is.’ Otherwise, I’ll have to say: I told ya so, and you’ll be back to wondering why you were the last to know everything.” (Got harsher at the Seattle Weekly.) Then there was the hot exchange with state ethics officials in 2001 over campaign contributions (his campaign committees were fined by the Public Disclosure Commission). And there was the occasion in 2002 when he made the ethical but impolitic argument in favor of the state Senate keeping, during a budget crunch, a private chef and dining room. Don’t imagine this is the last you’ll hear of those items if the race actually heats up.

The items in the preceding paragraph, by the way, were noted in a scathing post at Sound Politics, a Republican-oriented blog. (The comments on the post continued in the scathing direction.)

Murray’s campaign people may even be looking forward to this.

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In Oregon, the campaign against two tax measures on the ballot – which passed – was centered around the idea that those taxes were “job-killing.” In Idaho, the very notion of a tax increase of any sort is way off the table, in large part because of that same assumption, that taxes imposed on people and businesses will kill private sector jobs. (There’s probably a grudging acknowledgement that public sector jobs would be saved, but that appears to be a lesser factor.)

But consider this point from the latest Idaho Reports program from this weekend, reviewing the state of the budget-setting Idaho. The matter of jobs may not be quite so simple.

The subject was the state budget and jobs, as discussed by three members of the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. Here’s Democrat Wendy Jaquet:

“What bothers me as we lay people off because we don’t have this revenue, or we think we don’t have the revenue, then we have kind of a multiplier effect. I asked the director of the Department of Health & Welfare how many private sector jobs would be lost [under current budget proposals] because most of our [services] are done by private providers. And he estimated on the worst-case scenario, which is where we’re headed, it would be about 8,000 private-sector jobs. So its like we’re creating a downward spiral, and that’s what I find really worrisome.”

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The Oregon gubernatorial candidacy of Chris Dudley has prompted Salem Statesman-Journal Executive Editor Bill Church to ask whether athletes can make good politicians.

Best reply, from Tim Pfau:

Do investment bankers make good politicians?
So Union organizers?
Do porn stars?
Do editors?
Do aluminum window salesmen or ministers, or teachers, or unemployed factory workers?

Goofy questions, aren’t they?

Does Dudley? That’s a better question and maybe what you meant to ask.

Not so far.

So far, he’s just delivered canned, and remarkably empty speeches.

I have no more idea what his policy positions are now than I did when he played semi-pro basketball for the Blazers.

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Jeff Kropf

Jim Campbell (left) and Buckskin Bill on the Salmon, 1980, shortly before Bill’s death/Judy Lemmon

The river guide and travel business in Central Idaho’s River of No Return-Frank Church Wilderness seems as though it has been around forever, but floating and guest ranch activity is actually fairly young as a major tourist business. It kicked into high gear in the 70s when a number of central players figured out how to make it work in a very effective way. With float permits in Hells Canyon, the Middle Fork, Main Salmon, Owyhee and Lochsa rivers, the Wild Rivers Idaho business that Jim Campbell created and developed was one of the handful of businesses that contributed to building float trips into a mainstay.

Campbell was a researcher at what is now Idaho National Laboratory in the 60s before the backcountry drew him in. With two of his work associates, he started river trips which grew into operations in river running and resort ranches, and those were among the central activities in turning the region into such a popular visiting location. With his love of the country and its history he gathered a group of premier river guides outfitter/ranchers who taught him the back country history. (Two of the people in that group were Johnny Carrey and Cort Conley, who went on to tell those stories in a series of books about that area.) Few guests departed the rivers or Shepp Ranch without an appreciation of those who originally settled that rugged, inaccessible area.

After selling Shepp Ranch, Jim moved across the river to the Polly Bemis property where he built what he’d planned as a retirement home – but retirement was not on his agenda, and he began the development that became the Polly Bemis Resort. He left the backcountry in the 90s, and spent time after that in Las Vegas and Phoenix before settling, in this decade, in Costa Rica. He died there this week.

Linda Watkins, who spent time with Campbell in the backcountry in the 70s and 80s, has a recollection.

It’s hard to know where to start, or what to say about Jim Campell’s death last Thursday. He’s been a part of my life for over three decades (more than 2/3 of my life) – in some ways, more of a family member than most of my own blood relations. I think of his death as I did of my father’s: Relief that he’s finally free of the pain and frustration at growing old that he’s lived with for the last several years.

Jim was an extrovert who drew his energy and strength from others; he didn’t like to be alone, but in order to keep people near him he promised more emotionally than he could deliver. When he met you, he had that politician’s gift of making you feel that you were the most unique person in the world. He was a wonderful host, and even on our last visit to him in Costa Rica he displayed remnants of that gift: providing guidance and ideas for things to do without intruding or “managing” our activities.

Running Wild Rivers Idaho, Shepp Ranch, and finally the Polly Bemis Ranch, Jim perfected his talent for hospitality. Sadly, the alcohol eventually took over and at the end of his tenure on the Salmon River the man his old acquaintances experienced was not the man they’d met several years before.

Jim was one of those larger than life figures; people who knew him had different perspectives on him, but nobody ever was indifferent to him – Jim could not allow that. It was his need to be something more that drove him, both in business and relationships. Sadly it drove him to make some poor decisions that often pushed people away and left them with less than fond memories; and it’s what drove him to make some really bad financial decisions that left him dying virtually alone in a hospital in Costa Rica while his daughter in Idaho Falls was frantically trying to make arrangements to get down there.

There’s usually some mention in obituaries of the family a person leaves behind. If you’re talking about blood relatives, the list for Jim is short: his daughter Kristy, and grandson Mikel; an aunt and a cousin. Those who preceded him in death: his mother and father. But when I think of Jim’s family, I think of all the people he touched in his lifetime. Kristy – definitely. No relationship with Jim was ever simple and theirs was one of the more complex. I also think of the many others that have survived him; none left untouched. We know who we are – and we know that in some way Jim’s presence in our lives was not insignificant.

And there is the “family” that preceded him in death: Paul Filer, Johnny Carrey, Homer Rhett, Charlie Clelland and the others of their generation: the story tellers, the boatmen, and the cowboys; men Jim admired for being what he was not.

Say what you will about Jim Campbell; whether you loved or hated him, admired or reviled him, whether or not he owed you money – this world is a little less interesting, the sun shines not quite so bright with his departure.

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