News reports have proffered a shorthand description of Perry Swisher, who died Wednesday, as a legislator, utilities commissioner and newspaperman, which is accurate. But nowhere near explanatory.
The closest anyone has come to explaining Swisher in a single sentence may be this, from a profile of him in the Lewiston Tribune upon his departure from that paper:
“As a journalist, legislator, gardener, publisher, guru, crusader, advisor to the mighty and the molested, critic, bard, counselor wondrous, administrator, confessor, orator, pundit laureate and consummate pain in the posterior – to place the adjective ‘former’ in front of those titles is not to know the man – Perry Swisher has been handing down observations and decrees ever since he presided over his Owyhee County birth 55 years ago.”
He was 88 when he died, and the description still fit. And still leaves out so much.
Swisher made his mark at Pocatello, as a reporter, political activist and candidate (not mutually exclusive then). He became a businessman, running a bookstore and a weekly newspaper. That paper, the Intermountain, covered regional and state politics, with other subjects, and Swisher wrote nearly all of it for more than a decade. His range was tremendous, from detailed commentary on government to “Madame Fifi,” an Ann Landers parody. (Great reading about the time and place even now.)
(One correspondent wrote today to remember: "One of my best recollections of Swish was when he was still knocking out the Idaho Intermountain weekly, even though it consistently operated in the red. It was kind of like Public television. Very few people actually bought it, financially supported it, or admitted that they saw it. However, somehow everyone seemed to know what was in it.")
The only business he ran that made money, he once said, was a restaurant – nicely located across the street from a movie theatre, toward which the fans’ exhaust was directed.
But his sense of public service was strong enough that he won legislative office regularly as a Republican in Democratic Bannock County. In 1966, after more than two decades of intense political and governmental work, he threw away his livelihood and his standing in his political party to mount a hopeless run for governor as an Indpendent because, he felt, someone had to be out there supporting the newly-enacted sales tax, which the the voters were about to either sustain or reject. (They voted aye. Swisher is one of the main reasons Idaho has a sales tax.) In the next decade, he returned to the legislature for one term as a Democrat, but this was no usual conversion: He could be as harsh about his new party as his old one.
He was an unpredictable speaker because he never stopped thinking and learning. A cup of coffee with Swisher was a journey on a switchback trail through first one topic (say, low-head hydro), across to another seemingly unrelated (the rate of worker comp insurance) to yet another (maybe a local election in Burley) and on and on – it was to see the connections and causal relationships, different angles of lighting, otherwise not obvious at all. This journalist was always a wonderful interview, partly because of his absolute blunt candor with a twist. He described Lewiston as “caught in a time warp,” a place where the mayor should be Rod Serling and all the cars should have tailfins. On appointment to the utilities commission Swisher, who strongly favored utility regulation, said he wasn’t a “consumer advocate” because he didn’t approve of heedless consumption. He was a font of ideas, and of thinking them through to reach practical conclusions.
Swisher was unique. His legacy in thought and practice that will influence Idaho for a long time.