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Carlson: Robins in context

Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles

So why do students of Idaho political history, and the 30 men who have been its governor, rank the former town-doctor of St. Maries, C.A. Robins, so highly?

To put the answer in medical terms, he wrote needed prescriptions that are still bearing results 60 years after his single four-year term (1946-1950) that governors were then allowed. Many of the advances and reforms he pushed came out of his first legislative session as governor in 1947, a session that long-time Idaho political player and observer Perry Swisher ranks along with the 1965 session as the most accomplished in Idaho’s history.

For openers, take his solid support for public education where he achieved comprehensive reforms, unlike several of his Republican successors, including current Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter. Governor Robins found Idaho bursting with 1,118 school districts in 1946. With the help of the Legislature, hundreds of small school districts were consolidated into less than 200, saving property taxpayers money in unnecessary overhead costs.

In 1947 he also obtained a significant increase in pay for teachers, appalled that Idaho’s teachers were then the poorest paid in the nation. (Some things, though, don’t change, with Idaho teachers again being ranked near the nation’s bottom in base pay.)

He was a major driving force for the transformation of the University of Idaho-Southern Branch into a stand alone Idaho State College independent of the University of Idaho. That set the precedent for the emergence of Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston and the stage for the transformation of Boise Junior College in the early 60’s into Boise State College.

One could argue that with 20/20 hindsight Idaho would have been better off to have stayed with a one university system structure, but that opportunity is long gone.

The politically savvy governor obviously had a great bedside manner. Having been the Senate president during his third legislative term from Benewah County, he knew how to work constructively with lawmakers to achieve passage of needed legislation. He was elected to a fourth term and surely would have been returned to the Senate presidency but resigned before the session commenced rather than leave St. Maries without any doctor. The other doctor in town had left during the time between his election to a fourth term and the beginning of the session in January of 1945.

As Idaho’s governor, he was the force behind the creation of the Department of Labor, the State Tax Commission, the first State Building program, and reformed and modernized the worker’s compensation system. He also abolished the Board of Pardons and replaced it with the three-member Board of Corrections with the purpose of providing more professional management of corrections.

Additionally, he de-politicized the State Highway Department, making it an independent agency that previously had operated as a patronage system in which loyal party workers were given the job of maintaining highways in local areas and knew they could keep their jobs if they worked hard on the campaigns of winning gubernatorial candidates.

It was during Doc Robins tenure that the Snake River Compact with Wyoming was negotiated which became the basis for subsequent Idaho water law and policy.

According to Steve Crump, the opinion page editor of the Twin Falls Times-News (and to whom I am indebted for help in compiling this list), without access to Jackson Lake “the Magic Valley wouldn’t be so magic.” Crump also wonders whether the Bureau of Reclamation would have built the Palisades Dam without the compact first having been in place.

Being from northern Idaho, “Doc” did support legalized gambling, a vice that had been tolerated during World War II and well into the 1950’s. Debate over legalizing gambling continued to be a factor in Idaho politics until the last pro-gambling candidate, Lewiston’s Phil Jungert, lost in 1966 Democratic gubernatorial primary.

According to Crump, Robins did not shy away from letting property taxes rise to accomplish the things he wanted to get done. Had he not been term-limited, one could easily speculate he might have accomplished some of the things Governor Robert Smylie, achieved during his 12 year tenure, which followed Robins’ successor, Len. B. Jordan.

In particular, Robins probably would have successfully pushed a sales tax to support education much earlier than the 1965 year in which the Legislature and then the voters (in 1966) finally sanctioned one.

By today’s political standards, Doc Robins’ record of achievement looks more like that of a Democrat, not a Republican. Times do change though.

One other significant accomplishment should be noted. He was the first major political figure to recognize Louise Shadduck’s talent, making her his executive assistant. Her progressive attitudes obviously influenced him.

As Idaho political junkies know, Shadduck had a long career in Idaho politics, serving as Bob Smylie’s first director of what became the Idaho Department of Commerce, working for Senator Henry Dworshak, serving as chief of staff for Second District Congressman Orval Hansen, heading up the first Idaho Forestry Association while nurturing a number of Idaho’s successful Republican officeholders.

She died in Coeur d’Alene a few years ago, her passing mourned by many. Sadly, that stood in marked contrast to her mentor’s funeral services. When C.A. Robbins died in Lewiston on September 20, 1970, only a few medical colleagues and family were in Lewiston’s Episcopal Church of the Nativity for the services.

The only politicians at his services were Louise; an aide to Senator Frank Church on loan to Cecil Andrus’ gubernatorial campaign, Marty Peterson; the last elected Mines Inspector, O.T. Hansen, and then Governor Don Samuelson. There should have been many more.

A native of Kellogg, a former teacher at Kootenai, and a former journalist, Chris served as press secretary to former Idaho Governor Cecil D. Andrus for ten years. He is the founding partner of the Gallatin Group, is now retired and he and his wife, Marcia, reside at Medimont.

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