Editor’s Note: This week’s Carlson Chronicle is a guest column by former U of Idaho assistant for government affairs, Marty Peterson, who states the case that the better nominee for “Lioness of Idaho” would be the late Senator Frank Church’s chief of staff, Verda Barnes, who grew up in St. Anthony. Marty currently is the acting executive director for the McClure Center for Public Policy in Moscow. A former executive director of the Association of Idaho Cities, he also served on the staffs of Idaho Governors Cecil Andrus and John Evans, as well as on the staff of the late Senator Church.
Few, if any, readers of this column will have heard of Verda Barnes. That would have pleased her. If she were alive and knew I was writing this, she would have insisted I not. Over a span of four decades, the impact of Verda Barnes’ work was felt by Idahoans throughout the state and few were aware that she even existed.
She was born in Willard, Utah, in 1907 and moved with her family to a farm near St. Anthony, Idaho, the next year. After graduating from high school, she attended Albion Normal School and then Brigham Young University. She was married briefly in the early 1930s and had a daughter. As a single parent, she spent much of the 1930s living in Boise. With the repeal of prohibition, she became the first director of the newly formed Idaho Liquor Commission. Governor C. Ben Ross assumed that by hiring someone from a well-placed Mormon family, she would be above reproach.
In the days before form letters were common, she received a letter from James Farley, the Postmaster General and chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Farley had managed Franklin Roosevelt’s first two presidential campaigns and was widely viewed as being responsible for his political ascendancy. Farley sent out a national mailing challenging people to become a part of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Barnes, assuming it was a one-of-a-kind letter sent to her personally, took up the challenge and, with her young daughter, moved to Washington, D.C. She quickly became involved with organized labor, working with such groups as the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and the CIO as a political organizer. Then she went to work for the Department of Interior as an assistant to Secretary Harold Ickes, and to the newly formed Securities and Exchange Commission, where she worked with William O. Douglas, who later became a Supreme Court Justice. This was also a time when she began compiling what would become a legendary list of influential personal contacts throughout the federal government and in numerous non-governmental organizations. (more…)