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Carlson: Farewell, one of the few

Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles

With his closely cropped hair resembling a military buzz cut one would think Denton Darrington was a former U.S. Marine. He’s not, but he is the living personification of the Marine motto – semper fi (Always faithful) — with his fidelity to family, friends, LDS faith, his state and country, the Idaho Legislature and the teaching profession.

After a record 30 years of service in the State Senate, Denton is leaving and returning to his farm full-time since he also retired from the classroom, having been an educator for 33 years. The people of Idaho in general and supporters of education in particular owe him a solid vote of gratitude for a job well done.

Rather than run against good friend State Senator Dean Cameron (R-Rupert), chair of the powerful Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee, when redistricting combined their districts, Darrington, true to his genuine modesty, chose to retire.

A walking encyclopedia of Idaho political history and an excellent practitioner of the art of politics, one wishes the veteran state senator was not so humble about his God-given skills. Urged by many friends to run for State Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2006, Darrington took a pass on grounds he believed he was not qualified.

Instead, the state ended up with the truly unqualified Tom Luna who has alienated most teachers and been the spear point for Republican attacks on the Idaho Education Association over issues like collective bargaining, merit pay, and on-line education.

Many believe Idaho education would not be at the nadir it has fallen to if someone like Darrington, with actual classroom experience and a working knowledge of politics, had been leading the SPI office during these perilous times.

The senator’s farm is outside of Declo, a small farming community a few miles east of Burley at the crossroads of State Highways 81 and 77. Early one morning I recently caught up with him before he jumped on his tractor.

I was following up on a request he’d made when we bumped into each other in Boise this winter. He wanted to provide me with the “rest of the story” on an item in my recent book on Governor Andrus which recounted an incident when I was working for the Idaho State Journal in 1970 and was the only reporter at a hearing on the SPI office budget.

Using hyperbolic language I’d described the hearing as a “kangaroo court” being conducted by two “red-neck” State Senators out to “lynch” then State Superintendent Del Engelking.

Darrington knew I was referring to a predecessor, Joe Preston.

At one time, Preston was a rising star in southern Idaho politics. Elected to the State House in 1964, he became good friends with another rising star, a young state senator from Idaho Falls, Terry Crapo, who through his leadership position was able to help Preston become in his second term the chair of the House Revenue and Taxation committee, the second most powerful position after Speaker, in the House.

In 1968 the district’s incumbent state senator, Don Loveland, vacated the seat for an abortive run for the GOP nomination to be the Second congressional district’s representative (He lost in the primary to Idaho Falls State Senator Orval Hansen).

Denton’s father, like Denton, a teacher and a farmer, and active in Republican politics, decided to run for the Senate seat. Much to his surprise, his neighbor and friend, Joe Preston, called him to say he had decided to run also.

Fair enough except Preston then ran a classic smear campaign against the senior Darrington that maligned both he and his wife, who also taught, for being a part of the state’s new PERSI retirement program, alleging the pair would be “ripping off” the taxpayers and conveniently skipping over facts like their own contributions.

Preston framed the race as a choice between “rip-off” teachers or good ole’ hard-workin’ Joe. Preston’s whole campaign was extremely anti-education. His tactics succeeded as he won, but it was a pyrrhic victory. In the process he so alienated many Republicans that he served only one term and was defeated in 1970 by Democrat radio station owner Bob Saxvik, who held the seat for three terms.

In 1976 Saxvik was in turn defeated by the GOP’s Dean Van Engelen, who held the seat for six years before vacating in 1982 for an abortive run for the GOP nomination for State Auditor (he lost to Nolan Young).

That opened the door for then Cassia County GOP chairman Denton Darrington who won the seat that he should have inherited from his father and held it for 30 years. Interestingly, he defeated then Democrat Bruce Newcombe, a future Republican House Speaker. And that’s the rest of the story.

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