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Carlson: The best governors, my list

Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles

A former newspaper editor and sometime reader of this column recently asked who I thought, other than Cecil Andrus, were great Idaho governors.

A bias I have is this: The best governors almost always first served in their State’s Legislature. Why this contributes to success is obvious. Having served in the legislative branch they inevitably have greater respect for their former colleagues prerogatives and unless totally ham-handed have built up alliances and friendships with key legislators—often on the other side of the aisle.

This can come in handy especially if a governor needs to sustain a veto but lacks one or two votes. Andrus could usually count on State Senator Dean Summers (Boise) and State Senator and future governor Phil Batt, (Wilder) when in need.

Additionally, a state legislator has to learn how state government works if he/she is to vote intelligently on agency appropriations. Thus, legislators who have become governors inevitably have mastered the arcane of the budget process. They know what the blueprint that drives each agency is.

Smart legislators also cultivate friendships with key talented civil servants who can be called and provide their governor with an insider perspective that can validate or invalidate what the agency head may be saying to the governor.

When one looks at other northwest states, inevitably the really successful ones that stand out were also former legislators——-Dan Evans in Washington, Jay Hammond in Alaska, Mark Hatfield in Oregon, Ted Schwinden in Montana, Mike O’Callaghan in Nevada to name a few.

My ranking of Idaho governors since 1946 (year of my birth) rated in order of greatness (the first four), above average (the next three), and mediocre to poor (the final three) follows:

1) Cecil D. Andrus, 1971-1977, 1987-1995. Regular readers of this column or my book know the reasons why he was and is the best so far produced. Andrus served in the State Senate from Clearwater County from 1961 to 1967 and from Nez Perce County from 1969 to 1971.

2) Dr. C. A. Robins, 1947-1951. The first of the modern era governors, he set the state on the correct course forcing substantial consolidation of school districts, paying teachers more, removing patronage from the Highway department, establishing the Department of Labor, and the Workman’s Comp program, obtaining separate status for Idaho State University; the list goes on, but you get the picture. He was a doer. Doc served as State Senator from Benewah County from 1939 to 1945 and was Senate Pro Tempore during his last session.

3) John V. Evans, 1977 to 1987. Smart enough to continue along the path Andrus chartered. Brought a congenial collaborative style to the office that enabled him to get along with solidly Republican legislatures. He had served in the Legislature as the State Senator from Oneida County before becoming Andrus’ Lt. Governor in 1976.

4) Robert E. Smylie, 1955-1967. The former attorney general continued the path blazed by Doc Robins including creating a Department of Commerce, and to his great credit supported establishing a sales tax to provide better state support for k-12 and higher education.

5) Phil Batt, 1995-1999. His hallmark includes concluding the states’ negotiations with the Navy and the Department of Energy for the removal of all nuclear waste at INL by 2035.

6) Jim Risch, 2006-2007. Smart, tough, well versed in politics and state government, during his seven months though he gave away the store by reducing property taxes for big corporate contributors at the expense of the general citizenry.

7) “Butch” Otter. 2007-?. Universally liked but ideology has ham-strung his ability, given his experience as Lt. Governor, to create a legacy of improving the camp site better than he found it. So far it is just the contrary.

8) Len B. Jordan, 1951-1955. A better senator than governor where he was a notorious penny-pincher. Lewiston will never forgive his closing Lewis-Clark State and even his admirers questioned his support for High Mt. Sheep dam in Hells Canyon which would have destroyed incredible scenery as well as the ranch that supported his family during the depression.

9) Dirk Kempthorne, 1999-2006. Should have stayed in the U.S. Senate. Many still puzzled why he sought the governorship then did little to nothing with the office. Some opine the real governor was chief of staff Phil Reberger, who made many of the day to day decisions while a diffident Kempthorne rode his Harley and seemed only to enjoy campaigning.

10) Don Samuelson, 1967-1971. Another nice guy who never should have been governor. In the right place though as the only challenger in 1966 to a “worn out his welcome” Smylie, and then handed Andrus his second gubernatorial defeat in the same year in a fractured four-person race.

There’s my list.

CHRIS CARLSON is a former journalist who served as press secretary to Gov. Cecil Andrus. He lives at Medimont.

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