"I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors." - Thomas Jefferson (appears in the Jefferson Memorial)

A note by way of followup and expansion.

On September 5 we ran a list of legislative races to watch in Idaho, races that seem in a number of cases to be potentially close but also worth watching for other reasons.

Today, the Idaho Statesman‘s Dan Popkey came up with an expanded list, which overlapped with those races mentioned here and adding some others as well. A few words about those.

A specific note: The race for House seat 4B, now held by Democrat George Sayler, maybe ought to have been mentioned here as the House seat most likely to be taken over by the opposing party – by a Republican, Kathy Sims. It was left off because the flip seems so likely, but it will probably mark a change – reducing from two to one the number of Democrats in the Legislature from the Idaho Panhandle.

A general note: Popkey lists an array of Democratically-held seats, mainly in the Boise area but also in Lewiston, the Blaine County area and around Pocatello, as at-risk. He’s right: They may be, if the Republican tide in Idaho is high enough. In fact, if the tide is high enough, it could sweep all but seven or eight Democrats from the legislature; in the Boise area, for example, only the three in District 19, two others who are unopposed and maybe one or two others beyond that can be considered truly safe. On the other hand, the tide would have to be extremely high for such a result, and it would have little to do with the individual races.

But check out the Popkey list; the rundown gives a good look at state of play.

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Our gradually (over the last half-decade) skepticism about polling is unabated. (A fine Daily Kos blog post evaluating the likely/registered polling screens, out today, does nothing to alleviate that.)

That said, the Seattle Times-Spokesman Review poll out today, conducted by Elway Research, has enough depth and breadth to warrant a close look.

Notable line from the Times story: “The national narrative is: There’s this big wave of change coming,” Elway said. “We’re certainly seeing people who are frustrated and mad, and tea-party voters. But overall, that is not manifesting itself to a huge wave of change in Washington.”

Beware of self-fulfilling narratives.

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In case you’ve wondered what Bryan Fischer, formerly of the Idaho Values Alliance and more recently moved to a group based in the south, has been up to …

A useful summary is available. He’s speaking at a conservative national conference this weekend.

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The announcement of a committee of people from one party to support a candidate of the other is a campaign staple – most campaigns with any energy at all take a swing at it. Normally, though, it doesn’t amount to much. Yes, the people in the crossover group may have some credentials from the other party, but usually not many very major or deep. Even if a number of real, major, highly active member of one party actually do personally support a candidate from the other, they mostly keep it quiet: They’d have a hard time winning any trust in their own party again. (Or worse.)

Considering these groups is a matter of evaluating the people in them. And on that basis, the group of Republicans backing Democrat Keith Allred for governor (over incumbent Republican C.L. “Butch” Otter) is one of the most impressive the Northwest has seen in a long time. And says something about the way Idaho Republican politics is developing.

Allred has positioned himself, from before his candidacy, as a centrist in between the two parties, and has had plenty of friends among Republicans. Some of them have stuck with him throughout, such as former state Senator Laird Noh, who is a co-chair of Allred’s campaign.

This week, the Republicans for Allred web site was released, listing a batch of others, some but not all previously announced. Of the 10, five were former state senators (Noh, John Hansen, Judi Danielson, Hal Bunderson, Dennis Hansen), one a former state representative (Larry Bradford), one a former Ada County sheriff (Vaughn Killeen), one a county commissioner (Lloyd Rasmussen of Caribou County), one a mayor (Kirk Hansen of Soda Springs) and one on the non-partisan Idaho Falls city council (Sharon Parry). (Evidently there are others as well, but those are the named highlighted on the “who we are” page.) The batch of a half-dozen former legislators is the most substantial group of partisan elected officials to cross over to an opposing candidacy in a major Idaho race in … a long time at least.

One curiousity here is the number of officials from the very Republican southeast corner of the state, around the Soda Springs/Preston area (Dennis Hansen, Kirk Hansen, Larry Bradford, Lloyd Rasmussen). And as a group, they’re more rural than urban – just two from Ada County.

But the common thread between the 10 feels like something else. Most or all of them would describe themselves as conservatives, more than moderates. All of the senators, for example, were apparently considered conservative enough while they were serving to rise to committee chairs or floor leadership spots. (In 1996 the Idaho Republican Party gave Danielson an award as outstanding Republican legislator.) But they also have a track record as pragmatists, guided to an extent by political philosophy but rules less by it than by the facts at hand. A statement of ideology might be a point to consider, but not the only point. The legislators among them at least tended to be fairly well versed in specific areas of legislative action (Noh to an almost legendary degree in the area of natural resources).

As Republicans in Idaho and elsewhere seem to turn increasingly ideological, this may be an area of real split. And that has some significance when you look at the Allred 10.

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A major, but not yet much noted political event in Oregon: Called “A Gathering of the Eagles” at a ranch at Jefferson. It ranks as substantial because of its placement on the state Republican Party site and the guests invited – and groups involved.

The guests include former (and scandal-ridden) House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. (He will be the keynote speaker, and sign books afterward.)

Coalition members will give three-minute speeches. They include Americans for Prosperity (the national Koch Brothers front group), Freedom Works (the national Tea Party organizing behind-the-scnees group), 912 Project (the Glenn Beck outfit), Tea Party Patriots and a number of Oregon conservative or Republian groups.

What will they be talking about?

Well, here is some of what the host, periodic Oregon candidate (including for governor this year, in the Republican primary) William “Ames” Curtright, has to say while welcoming people the event (what follows are short excerpts):

We may go by many different names; Independents, Americans for Prosperity, Freedom Works, 912 Groups to name a few. … This unified group would gather together to share fellowship and inspiration; not unlike when our Lord sat and talked with his disciples and like our nations first leaders who outline those spiritual principles. …

We believe in a Godly nation and a Christian nation. … We believe that Liberalism and Socialism are the enemy of our people. … We believe in Vouchers for private education and that government should stay out of education. … We believe People have the right to bear arms and the duty to overthrow their Government when it fails to perform and when resolution and legislation fail to correct it. We believe administrations who violate our constitutional rights and lawmakers who pass laws they do not read should be held accountable and not only sent home for their wrong doings but punished to the full extent of the law. We the People do not want any more Rinos or half way Republicans. We want true conservative Republicans!

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As we get ready to elect members of Congress in another few weeks, reflect on what members of Congress do. They may espouse positions, and cast votes. But that’s only a small part of what they do. They’re also there to provide some specific services. Some of them do it well, and some … not so well.

At Ridenbaugh Press, we had cause to reflect on this today.

Our small business produces several periodical subscription publications (you can find them pretty easily around this site), and several federal agencies have for some years been among the subscribers. Mostly, we have no problem dealing with them. But one agency (after some thought, we’ll let pass its name) has been difficult in the billing department – not in ordering the publications, or in its willingness to pay, but in the method of payment. We don’t take certain credit cards and – in contrast to other federal agencies we’ve dealt with – that is, this agency said, the only way it will pay.

So we hit a brick wall. For months. Then years.

Finally, yesterday, we decided to call our congressman, or at least his office. He is David Wu (Oregon’s 1st district), and his staff patched us through to a staffer who works with the agency in question. He took the information and promised to get back to us.

Before he had time to, the agency did – within hours. It offered to pay its bill in a way we had previously suggested but it had said was impossible. Of a sudden, it was possible. The bill is now paid. Would not have happened that way but for Wu’s office.

Get into a jam with the feds, your congressman (or staff) often can help out. Constituent service is an important part of what members of Congress do, and it seldom gets noted, and not all members of Congress are equal in this service. How well will your member of Congress work for you, as opposed to spouting positions (and eagerness to do one often seems inverse to eagerness to do the other)? A point worth thinking about as those ballots arrive.

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How can you tell when a candidate really thinks he’s demonstrably ahead? One of the best measuring sticks is an unwillingness to debate, or at least to cut the number of debates as far as possible.

In the two major contests in Idaho, gubernatorial – between Republican incumbent C.L. “Butch” Otter and Democrat Keith Allred – and the 1st District U.S. House – between incumbent Democrat Walt Minnick and challenger Raul Labrador – debates have or will occur. (The gubernatorial candidates already had one faceoff in Idaho Falls.)

But … in this last week, we’ve seen Otter, who’s favored in polls for re-election, back off from a Lewiston debate. And Minnick, who has similarly seen some good poll numbers, easing back from a debate set up by KTVB-TV. Both candidates apparently had earlier given tentative approvals to appearing in both events.

The internal polling must be looking good, too.

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weekly Digest

Labor Day over, the fall season is getting underway – and that means politics are heading into higher gear. Some of that showed up in this week’s Digests as candidates either participated in debates (one of them was on the cover of the Oregon Public Affairs Digest) or debated about them.

Of course, that’s far from all. A number of reports and suggestions developed during the week, including analysis of the Washington ferries system and the suicide rate in the region.

As a reminder: We’re now publishing weekly editions of the Public Affairs Digests – for Idaho, Washington and Oregon – moving from a monthly to a weekly rundown of what’s happening. And we’re taking it all-electronic: The print edition will be moving to e-mail.

That means we can include more information, and get it out a lot faster: The weekly Digests will be in your in-box first thing Monday morning. If you subscribe, of course: That’s $59 a year, for 50 issues and the yearbook. Yes, including the yearbook. The Idaho Yearbook, which we published for years up to 2002, will return early in 2011 – in printed book form – and Digest subscribers get it for free with their subscription. And the Oregon and Washington yearbooks will be coming out at the same time.

If you’d like to take a look at one of the new weekly Digests, here’s a link to the Idaho edition, to the Oregon edition and to the Washington edition. If you’d like to subscribe, here are the links (through to PayPal) for Idaho, for Oregon and for Washington.

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Dino Rossi
Dino Rossi
Patty Murray
Patty Murray

Neither Republican Dino Rossi nor Democrat Patty Murray, the candidates for the Senate, looked especially comfortable or happy at the Seattle Times endorsement interview – they were getting through it. (Both have been endorsed in various past races.) Neither gaffed terribly or scored a knockout.

A lot of it had to do, as most candidate debates do, with the issues of the moment – the economy and federal spending. Neither said anything terribly new or out of character, but in that same way the session would be a useful voter primer.

There weren’t a lot of direct attacks either, though Rossi let fly some points doubtless honed on the trail. He said that all congressional earmarks should be banned (hitting directly Murray’s bacon-bringing, probably a wise tactical move but risky anyway). He said on the tax cut extensions – on the split between taxes for those over or under $250,000 a year – “Senator Murray is going to play the class warfare game” – although, in this matchup anyway, she didn’t … And there was a point, unspoken by Murray, that the federal tax burden has been steadily moving away from the wealthy and on to the middle class and below for a generation now, and the cut expiration for the upper income levels would be at most a minor corrective. But that went unsaid.

And there was Rossi’s reference to the “death tax” – which doesn’t exist: It’s an estate tax – and the often-debunked argument that great masses of small business people would be heavily impacted by it. (That was an argument that will, though, no doubt hit directly with the Times, whose owners would love to see it abolished.)

Murray also didn’t address directly Rossi’s argument that families would face an effective $1,800 energy tax if a cap and trade bill is enacted. Murray didn’t note that there are varied bills in the wings and none has been brought out for a vote, and she hasn’t voted for any. A casual listener would get the sense that she supports an $1,800 tax increase.

She made the argument – but indirectly and in circular fashion – that if Rossi is going to tag her with the current deficits, that she ought to get some credit for the federal budget balancing in the 90s. Rossi, of course, is always quick to point out his own role as a state senator in developing a balanced state budget seven years ago.

Rossi was generally best on the economic and financial side, though. His best and strongest single point may have been about the ongoing changes in the tax and other laws. Business people do need reliability to be able to plan ahead, and planning in the face of moving targets is difficult.

And he was definitive enough to maybe block one argument: “I have not said that I would privatize Social Security.” (Murray didn’t counter directly.)

He was vague on Afghanistan and seemed not to know what net neutrality was; Murray discussed both with more detail. On financial reform (“there were some good elements in it”) and health care (he liked the exchanges and some other aspects), Rossi seemed to acknowledge that something needed to be done, and had some specific criticisms, but had little to say about what concretely he would do. Murray was more specific in those areas.

Who gets the endorsement? A close call.

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Cornilles and Wu
Rob Corbilles (left) and David Wu at Portland/Randy Stapilus

Watch the (admittedly uncertain) evidence of yard signage around Oregon’s 1st district, and you’ll see a lot of it for Republican Rob Cornilles, the Republican candidate for the U.S. House seat and maybe the toughest challenger Democratic Representative David Wu has faced. Some of that is the Tea Party atmosphere of the day, but some of it probably has to do with Cornilles too. He’s pretty good at presenting himself (that’s not a knock, just an essential candidate asset), a task which – as this business consultant must know – starts with understanding your audience, and relating to it where it is.

On Friday Cornilles debated Wu in a conference center just south of downtown Portland – lockdown Democratic territory. He, and his campaign, did two things to make the best of the situation. One is that his campaign pushed to get a sizable number of backers to the event; despite a prohibition on cheers or boos, you could tell they were there, and that they outnumbered the Democratic opposition in the audience of 150 or so. The other thing he did, which he might be doing elsewhere around this mostly Democratic district too, was to carefully modulate his message.

The task was eased by the core subject at hand: The weak economy, and the federal government’s spending and taxes. Broadly, there wasn’t a lot of disagreement between the candidates that those were the big subjects, and that better work needs to be done on them. It fit with Cornilles’ own backgrtound, as owner of a consulting business called Game Face, and with staying way from some of the more overtly ideological stances and statements many Republican candidate make this year. At the same time, he presented himself as a mainstream Republican; the line was carefully drawn.

Cornilles sent a blast at paperwork imposed on business, on the size of the health care bill, on federal spending and debt, the need to cut government spending, and cut taxes – all standard-issue subjects for Republican candidates. He also described himself as an environmentalist (no details offered), as a strong supporter of education and the need to place a priority on it (though no more details were proffered), a backer of health care reform (details missing, though he’s opposed generally to the current law) and so on. His framework was very much based around the need to think in business terms – “This is why we need people like me who have run a business for 15 years.”

He spoke crisply and energetically (he sounded like an excellent motivational speaker), but the pieces didn’t always fit: Cut government, but get more serious about education spending, and some regulations are okay sort of but government paperwork is drowning businesses . . . It sounded like a base foundation of conventional Republican talk, but with an overlay of other items intended to qualify and seemingly moderate. As definitive as he sounded at any single moment, the overall pieces didn’t cohere well.

Wu didn’t offer a single big picture statement either, but he did have several pieces that worked together overall. His strongest hit, and the biggest point of disagreement, was on the scheduled-to-expire tax cuts for people making more than $250,000 a year. Wu took after them as tax cuts for the wealthy. Cornilles replied that he was dismayed “whe we demonize classes of our society. It’s not helpful” – and said the cuts should be made permanent. Wu noted that “what he’s not saying” is that continuing the tax cuts would deepen the federal deficit, about which Cornilles had been complaining, by about $700 billion over the next decade.

There was also a sharp set of jabs after Wu said that Cornilles has proposed cuts in Social Security and Medicare, Cornilles said he had not, and Wu suggested that he had it on tape. (We’ll take a look around to see what we can find on this.)

It was a civil debate, though, albeit one with a sort of unfinished feel. At the end, Cornilles offered to debate Wu more times, up to one in each county in the district. Wu didn’t directly reply. But it might not be a bad idea to do that; this debate felt more like the start of a conversation than the end of one.

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If insurance companies may be generating less and less trust these days – this concerning companies whose business it is to provide and whose advertising promotes a sense of security and peace of mind – there may be some good reasons for that.

Look at the Washington Supreme Court case out today in Laura Holden v. Farmers Insurance Company of Washington. Here’s the Washington Supreme Court’s summary:

Laura Holden purchased a renter’s insurance policy from Farmers Insurance Company of Washington. In the event of property loss due to fire, the policy provides coverage for the “actual cash value” of the damaged property. ACV is defined as “fair market value” at the time of loss. FMV is not defined. After a fire at her rented home damaged some of her personal property, Holden sought coverage under the ACV provision, which states that payments will not exceed the lesser of either policy limits or “the amount necessary to repair or replace the damaged property.” Farmers refused to account for Washington State sales tax when calculating the value of the damaged property. We are asked to decide whether, under the terms of this policy, the ACV provision unambiguously supports Farmers’ interpretation, or if instead it is subject to a reasonable interpretation that accounts for sales tax in calculating the FMV of damaged property. Because the ACV provision is ambiguous and accordingly must be construed in favor of the policyholder, we reverse the Court of Appeals and reinstate the trial court’s order granting Holden’s motion for summary judgment.

There wasn’t any question that the policy was in force, and that it covered the burned items. But the company was determined to contest any payout it could – up to and including the relatively minor sales tax component. Our personal experience with insurers in years past hasn’t been so negative. But it seems to be getting that way, more and more. Just read the appellate court decisions that keep coming down on topics like this.

Count your fingers when you sign their contracts.

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Back in 1976, when I started work at the (then) daily newspaper at Caldwell, one of the regular visitors to the newsroom was a bolo-tied local businessman named Ralph Smeed. He came for several reasons. One was to drop off a copy of his weekly column. Another was to visit with his friend the managing editor. But he didn’t rush, and he generally made a point of visiting with other people too, such as the just-out-of-school new local government and cops reporter.

Smeed was what might now be a true oddity, not because of his politics but because of his person. He was a man of very specific political philosophy; it could fit easily on a bumper sticker, or even in a single word: anti-government. It did not adjust to facts; the world, rather, bent around to the philosophy. At the time, the young reporter suspected for that reason his views would not have an especially long shelf life. And the views Smeed held from the 1960s right up to his death yesterday in Boise, at 88, seem to have changed not in the slightest over the course of a half-century and more.

In fact, they have had a lot of impact. By 1976, Smeed’s good friend and co-philosopher Steve Symms already had been elected to the U.S. House, and four years later he would reach the Senate. In 1974 the third man in the Caldwell libertarian troika, Bob Smith, had given Democrat Frank Church a strong run for re-election in a Democratic year. Much more would come. Smeed was a strong influence on a long roster of libertarian-oriented Republicans, not limited to but especially around the Canyon County area, for three more decades. They include, not least, the present governor of Idaho, C.L. “Butch” Otter.

That would make Smeed part of a large Idaho crowd these days, but only a small one back then. And this is what would make him unusual now: Smeed was a happy warrior, a smiling missionary, not an angry man. (For all the large philosophical overlap, it’s hard to imagine Smeed at a Tea Party event.) You might guess from his billboards and from many of his writings that the man was a flinty, suspicious, angry dude. But he wasn’t; he seemed to enjoy just fine talking with any number of people who didn’t agree with him, and he did not often leave a negative personal impression. He maintained a lot of friendships for many years, an unusual thing for a hard-core ideologue, which he certainly was.

Idaho has been moving in a conservative direction for some decades, and no one person made that happen. But Ralph Smeed provided a critical bit of leverage as some critical change was happening; he and some of his early compadres effectively bought low and sold high. If you look at the list of people most influential in Idaho over the last 50 years and extract from it those who have held public office (which if memory serves Smeed never did) or got them elected, who have run major businesses, who have run major religious or non-profit organizations, you might have to put Ralph Smeed at the top of the list. A pretty powerful result for a guy who, 35 years ago, seemed to be part of a remote fringe group shouting in the wilderness.

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