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Carlson: Beware your friends

Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles

One of many political verities in politics is that it is always your friends who get you in trouble. Jimmy Carter had his Bert Lance, Bill Clinton his Webb Hubbell and George W. Bush his Karl Rove.

From one’s enemies a public officeholder expects animosity and treachery. From one’s friends, though, there is an assumption of loyalty and that loyalty should preclude stupidity and/or treachery. More often than not, however, when controversy arises, an officeholder has let his or her reverse loyalty blind them to the folly a friend is exhibiting. And when the smoke has cleared, it is the friend that has been the cause of the downfall.

The Idaho Statesman’s political editor, Dan Popkey, prompted this reflection after reading his excellent March 22 column regarding Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter’s recent pattern of dodging the press and minimizing contact now that he no longer has to face re-election. After 28 years in the public eye, Butch apparently will be taking off the spurs and not be on the ballot in 2014.

Popkey ends his column deploring this turn of events and the attitude that undergirds it by pointing out that the Governor, while not available for the media, can and does make time for his lobbyist friends. He references the photo that appeared recently on their business website.

The picture is worth the proverbial thousand words, and one need look no further than that to know the Governor has received only encouragement from those three to diss the media and disregard their existence. If the idea did not originate with one of those three, it certainly has been reinforced by them.

Of the three, Phil Reberger, an ex-officer in the military and the former chief of staff to Gov. Dirk Kempthorne and Sen. Steve Symms, is a likely candidate for either originating or encouraging the idea of cutting off the media’s access to the Governor. After all, that’s pretty much what he did when his horse was governor.

Not even Kempthorne, though, was foolish enough to bypass the annual invitation to address the “Headliner” luncheon of the Idaho Press Club. After all, the media is both an interest group and a power center. Like all “influentials” it expects to be courted, considered and respected.

Popkey correctly recalls the traditional annual appearances by a Governor started with then-Gov. Cecil D. Andrus in the early 1970’s. To be more precise, it was 1973 and Andrus addressed an issue near and dear to the hearts of the media: whether Idaho needed a “Shield Law” to provide further protection for the media from law enforcement demands that in some instances sources had to be revealed and notebooks turned over.

There were strong and conflicting views within the media on this subject, with some reporters and editors holding the view that the Constitutional guarantee under the free speech amendment was sufficient protection. Showing his deft touch for sticky wickets, Andrus took the position that the media should answer the question and give him a consensus view. If they wanted it, he would sign it. If they didn’t either he would work to see that it didn’t come before him or veto it as unnecessary if it did.

The point is Andrus recognized the critical role the media plays in informing the public, and fully respected the role they play in our democratic society. Sure he has chaffed at coverage, at times had his disputes, but he never deliberately embarked upon a strategy of cutting off access or hiding out. In the end, he has always recognized that answering questions is part of the job and more to the point not only shows respect for the media’s role, but respect for the public both politicians and reporters serve.

It is all the more appalling that at a time like this, the Governor’s friends choose to brag about their access when the media is being cut out. They do a disservice to Butch just as he is doing a disservice to the public.

One cannot help speculating that uber lobbyist, Roy Eiguren, is also cheering Otter on in this misguided course. Eiguren, according to some, feels the media badly mistreated him over the issue of his multiple and conflicting client interests that came out in the course of the debacle over the University of Idaho’s Boise Center complex a few years back and the ensuing lawsuits.

It is said that Eiguren never met a conflict he didn’t think he could tap dance around. In politics, however, a perception of a conflict is a conflict. It should be noted that as recently as February, Eiguren resigned from the board of Spokane-based Avista Utilities, reportedly because the utility felt he was conflicted by his representation of a major wind energy client. Wind energy legislation has been a big issue this session that may require Otter to pick among his lobbyist friends n Eiguren representing wind energy producers and the governor’s former chief of staff, Jeff Malmen, working for Idaho Power.

For people as bright as Reberger, Eiguren and Pat Sullivan, one wonders if they really just don’t understand rules of the game that call for respect for all the interests, but especially the public interest. Or perhaps they are so besotted with their influence that they can ill-serve a friend and patron like Governor Otter.

There is another political rule violated at one’s peril: don’t pick a fight with folks who buy ink by the barrel.

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