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Allred at the town hall

Keith Allred at the Boise town hall/Randy Stapilus

The setup was sweet for a candidate for governor. While there’s something of an embunkered feeling to the re-election campaign for Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter, his Democratic opponent Keith Allred holds – about three blocks from the Idaho Statehouse, at the grand old Egyptian Theatre – an open, come-all town hall meeting. (Can anyone active in Idaho politics imagine Otter this year doing something similar?) The pitch: Come and talk to the candidate.

The results delivered just that, on one frequency, and did not deliver on another. It was as promised a straight-up Q & A, and it had plenty of substance. Presumably it did exactly what Allred, trained by profession as a mediator, wanted and intended it to do – and all that it should do if campaigns were a matter of evaluating policy. Some other frequencies were missing.

Somewhere between 150 and 200 people were there, and generally not the political usual suspects. Not many of the people you’d expect in Boise to appear at a Democratic governor campaign event, did; of the dozen Democratic legislators from Boise, just three or four turned up. The best-known Idaho political figure in attendance was former state Senator Laird Noh from Twin Falls, a Republican co-chairing the campaign. (Like Allred, Noh is naturally low-key, a smart policy wonk and a skilled legislator willing to work with anyone to achieve a carefully considered objective. The match in personal approach and style is easy to see.) Allred was drawing in some new people; some of the stalwarts seemed less in evidence.

His opening statement, and responses, seemed of a piece with where he had been before, with a mix of policy suggestions and a proposal to try to leverage the views of Idahoans to try to budge the intractable – on tax policy, notably, though other subjects as well. He appealed to the mind, but less so to the gut. If there, as people have remarked about his approach, an absence of red meat, there was also a general absence of emotional content. He made a case for the inadequacy of various Otter-related policies, but he didn’t make the full-throated case of a crusader, exhorting the crowd to join him on a glorious mission to fire the bastards. The setting, alone (but for the moderator, Boise City Council member T.J. Thomson, well off to the side) under the spotlight was ideal for that kind of tub thumper. But this was an appeal to the intellect. This was a prolonged campaign talk with no real red meat, hardly any sound bits, only few applause lines, and those few seemed inadvertent. (There were a few sharply turned lines, though, even if they weren’t punched hard, such as one having to do with education: “Folks, that is the American practice.”) Those weren’t his thing.

Easy elements of theater were missing. As a practical matter, Allred was fully engaged with the attendees, talking with many of them at length before the show, directly answering questions they put. The format, one often used at crowded congressional town halls, called for questioners to fill out a card, which would be read by a moderator. The questions were demonstrably real; the names of the questioners were usually mentioned, and Allred would ask them to raise their hands. But the personal electricity, showmanship and theater that would come from candidate and supporter directly talking to each other, in the setting of the event itself, wasn’t there. Some of the juice was missing.

At the same time, while Allred’s approach via the Common Interest, the lobbing organization he led which used membership efforts to press for legislation, offered plenty of opportunity to dodge answers to the more divisive questions, he didn’t seem to use it as an excuse to dodge. He talked fluidly about health care, education, taxes, immigration and more with clear knowledge of the subject matter and the politics involved. His line of discussion was not standard-issue rhetoric of any clear origin other than his own opinions. It did put on display Allred’s smarts and articulateness. It didn’t seem to offer a common thread. You could walk out with a clear sense that this was a brainy guy, but not much feel, in an easy summarized way, about what he would actually push for as governor.

There is this: Allred will represent, in approach even more than in specific policy ideas, a drastic distinction from Otter in his campaign approach. Otter personally is certainly not ignorant of policy details, but his preferred mode of campaign speech is a solid run of simplistic libertarian philosophy with large slabs of bloody red meat tossed in at regular intervals. The appeal is to the gut, a wilful turning on of some people and a turning off of others, and intended to reflect the idea of Otter as a crusading leader. That approach, it has to be said, has been working for Republican major office candidates in Idaho for a long time now.

As much as Otter himself, that may be Allred’s real opposition.

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