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Local power

Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles

It is often said “power corrupts,” and “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

There are exceptions to that rule and one exists in Benewah County.

For almost 40 years one person has worn lightly with grace and humility the crown of absolute political power in this north Idaho county: County Commissioner Jack Buell.

Now 76 years young he has served the public interest well, won many friends along the way, and most would admit made some enemies also. Jack wears his heart on his sleeve. He personifies the old adage, “show me a man with no enemies and I’ll show you a man with no character. If you stand for anything in this world you make enemies.”

By this definition Jack may have lots of character. Two entities that have felt the lash of his tongue and done little to endear themselves to him over the years are the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and the Idaho State Police.

Jack is also what a fan of his, former Governor Cecil D. Andrus, would call a “lunch bucket” Democrat – a person who cares about jobs and people having decent-paying jobs where they make an honest day’s wage for an honest day’s labor so they can provide for their children’s education while also enjoying Idaho’s quality of life on weekends.

Given that both Cece and Jack come out of the “slab, sliver and knothole” business it is no coincidence there is a casual mutually respectable affinity between the two.

As the founder of Jack A. Buell Trucking he has provided jobs for many folks in and around Benewah County for many years. His unique “Jack Buell green” (reportedly a registered color) trucks which started by hauling logs but now also haul chips are a familiar sight on the roads and highways of north Idaho.

What few know is that Jack understands loyalty and believes in investing in people. He is especially loyal to his employees and their families and he knows too that it is a two-way street. During economically challenging times he strives to keep as many workers employed as he can and loathes laying anyone off.

People don’t forget that kind of loyalty.

For years now anyone who holds any statewide public office, or aspires to hold such offices, make it a point to trek to St. Maries, the county seat, to court and cultivate Jack. A shrewd judge of people and character, his recommendations about who to support and why he was voting for or against someone becomes an implied command for the many who respect him.

Though nominally a “business Democrat” he tends to the conservative side and thus has supported many Republicans running for high office. One doubts he has ever voted a straight ticket.

Long ago Jack mastered the art of ruling by humor, as well as the power of suggestion and the judicious use of a well-placed, well-timed killer question. While conducting the public business rarely does he flat order something be done. Nor does he make the mistake of thinking his personal business somehow magically merges with and becomes the public interest.

Jack would be the first to tell you he is not perfect. He has a temper and little patience for fools or connivers. He would probably acknowledge as valid the criticism that he does NOT exercise his influence and power as often as he could or should. Some believe he could pick up the phone and should pick it up more often to communicate his view of things be it to Governor Otter or Idaho’s congressional delegation.

He sometimes waits to be asked instead of making sure others in power know where he is on a particular issue.

Jack truly loves his community. His countless acts of both acknowledged and anonymous charity are the stuff of legends. He and his employees actively participate in most all of the many organizations in St. Maries. Jack also devotes considerable time to the varied and numerous state boards and associations he belongs to, where he again exercises considerable influence.

Like many workaholics it is hard to find Jack sitting still. About his only indulgences are cars and his plane, which he loves to fly.

A good example of the kind of public servant he is can be seen early most Sunday mornings. An early riser, he and good friend Richard Schumacker usually can be found mowing the courthouse lawn, or shoveling snow off of sidewalks in the winter, or doing litter patrol.

Will Rogers once said of land that “they just aren’t making it anymore.”

Nor is God making politicians like Jack Buell who understands that true power comes by truly being a public servant for all.

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

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