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Carlson: The real heir apparent?

Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles

Look out, Lt. Governor Brad Little (Or substitute Schools Superintendent Tom Luna, or Rep. Raul Labrador—whoever your favorite is). You may think you’re the “crown prince” and next in line to be the Republican dynasty’s governor of Idaho, but the best politician in the state may be maneuvering to snatch that crown from your grasp and place it squarely on his head of distinguished white hair.

He has never held a political office in Idaho, but all the state’s major players know him. He is unquestionably the state’s best fund-raiser. He holds degrees in political science and demonstrates daily that he understands politics, especially the “rule” that perception is reality.

He reads books and can really talk about them. For nine years he has demonstrated mastery of one of the most politicized jobs in any state.

He is of course Bob Kustra, president of Idaho’s largest university, Boise State. He demonstrated again this month that even at age 68 he is on top of his game.

The evidence clearly shows he is a master practitioner of politics which leads one to wonder if his ambition has truly been satisfied? A yearning for high public office may still linger in his breast. It also goes far toward unraveling the mystery of why now he sacked loyal and long-time Athletic Director Gene Bleymaier.

It was as astute a pro-active, pre-emptive political move as any have seen in awhile. Odds are better than even that Kustra already knows or strongly suspects severe sanctions may be coming down for violations of various NCAA rules by not just Boise State’s nationally ranked football team, but in other sports also.

Among Kustra’s duties is that of Mountain West Conference representative on the NCAA Board of Directors. He also is a member of the BCS’s Oversight Committee. Obviously, it would look bad to be sitting in upcoming meetings not having taken action until after sanctions came down.

Far better to act quickly and decisively before any scandal possibly taints him, as well. So the AD walks the plank, perhaps deservedly, but who really knows? Governor Andrus had an expression derived from the English essayist, Samuel Johnson, which covered these situations: “Nothing like a hanging in the morning to focus one’s attention!”

It is easy also to envision Kustra seeing a governor in the mirror each morning. Few folks in Idaho know that Bob Kustra mastered the Byzantine politics of Illinois, serving ten years in the Legislature before being elected Lt. Governor twice serving on a ticket with Governor Jim Edgar, one of the few Illinois governors NOT to be indicted in recent years.

Any one who runs for Lt. Governor thinks he can be governor, but usually has to bide his time under a more popular person. But “lieutenants” are anxious to drop the “LT” in front of their title—just ask Butch Otter, Phil Batt, Jim Risch and John Evans, as well as Brad Little.

Kustra’s “up or out move,” however, came in his 1996 bid for a Senate seat. He lost in the GOP primary to someone named Al Salvi. He resigned the Lt. Governorship a few months later and plunged full-time into buttressing his academic administration credentials by accepting the presidency of Eastern Kentucky University.

In 2003 he was named president of Boise State and the school hasn’t been the same since.. As a savvy politician he understands the importance of perception as well as marketing and planning. The BSU football team was already on the rise but he watched carefully and supported taking it to the next level and the next as a true key to ensuring the school’s status as the major university in the state and its largest population center.

Kustra reportedly drives staff hard, and is a stickler for detail, but he does his homework, knows his game plan and knows how to stay on message. Though some scoff at BSU’s academic pretensions, he has worked to upgrade admission standards and expand research and PhD. Offerings. Make no mistake, if there had not been progress on this front BSU never would have been invited to the Mountain West.

He also settled on tagging BSU (He insists everyone always refer to the school as Boise State University) as a “metropolitan research university of distinction.” The Carnegie Institute, which rates the nation’s schools and colleges has no such category and indeed does not even rank BSU in the top three tiers. Nonetheless, perception is reality, as Kustra knows.

Finally, he is coming off the most successful fund-raising campaign in Idaho history, having raised $175 million in private donations and this is separate from the drive to expand Bronco Stadium. Nothing succeeds like success.

I’m willing to wager that after ten years as Boise State president, there’s an itch in Bob Kustra to heal over by capping his career with the long desired title of Governor, knowing that nothing does quite succeed as well as success. Brad Little just may have a real fight on his hands.

A native of Kellogg, a former teacher at Kootenai, and a former journalist, Chris Carlson 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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