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Peterson: The case for Barnes

Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles

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.

Barnes also became active in the Young Democrats and became national vice-chairman, a position of considerable influence and stature during the Roosevelt era. During that time she became friends with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. In her later years, one of the few ornamentations in her office was a portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt above her desk. It was Franklin Roosevelt who gave her the single piece of advice that became her operational hallmark. “A good staff person,” Roosevelt said, “should have a passion for anonymity.”

In 1945, she went to work on the staff of newly elected Senator Glen Taylor from Idaho. Following Taylor’s defeat in 1950, she became an assistant to Congressman Harrison “Pete” Williams of New Jersey. But her roots were in Idaho and, with the election of Frank Church in 1956, she joined his staff, first serving as his governmental liaison and then as his chief of staff. In that position, she became Church’s chief political strategist and the de facto chief political strategist for the entire Idaho Democratic party.

Rumor had it that Barnes never slept. She was tireless and, during political campaigns, it wasn’t uncommon for key campaign workers to get a call at 6:00 a.m. wondering why they weren’t at the office. Barnes would spend much of her working days on the telephone, talking to contacts throughout Idaho and Washington, D.C. Even when she was in Washington, she generally knew more about what was going on in Idaho than anyone else. Republicans were in awe of her, knowing that in a particularly tight race, her arrival in Idaho always meant generating an additional 10,000 votes that otherwise would not be.

Without Barnes’ political efforts, it is quite likely that Frank Church would have been a one-term Senator. He only lost after she retired and that loss was by a mere 4,000 votes. But her most lasting impact was probably with the rise of Cecil Andrus. Andrus lost the 1966 primary election to Charles Herndon. But after Herndon was killed in a plane crash, Barnes began working the phones and eventually Andrus won the nomination from the State Democratic Central Committee by a signal vote. Although he lost the 1966 election, four years later Barnes was back in the trenches. Using the statewide voter identification program she had put together for Church in 1968, along with much of Church’s campaign volunteer base, plus the recruitment of several Church staff members working in a “boiler room” effort, she played a pivotal role in Andrus election success in 1970, opening the door for what would become one of the most successful political careers in Idaho history.

Barnes suffered a stroke and died on June 9, 1980. She is buried in the Parker, Idaho, cemetery near St. Anthony. Bill Hall, the then editorial page editor for the Lewiston Morning Tribune, noted in an editorial , “They say that Verda Barnes died in her sleep the other night. But that’s preposterous. Verda Barnes never slept.”

Marty Peterson is retired and lives in Boise. As a member of Senator Frank Church’s staff, Verda Barnes was his mentor.

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