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The lioness

Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles

Since the first “Lion of Idaho,” William E. Borah, was an elected United States senator (1907-1940), a case can be made that any aspirant to the title “Lioness of Idaho” also has to have been elected to public office.

If so, the clear winner is the first woman to serve Idaho in the Congress, five term congresswoman Gracie Pfost (pronounced “post”) who represented the First District from 1953 to 1963. The mere fact she could win and then hold the office through four re-elections in and of itself during the 1950’s, when very few women were being elected to anything, speaks volumes for her talent and tenacity.

She accomplished the feat in the face of tough opposition as well. Because of her relentless support for a public owned and operated single high dam in Hells Canyon, the media referred to her as “Hell’s Belle.” She believed strongly in public power, which put her at immediate odds with two powerful Idaho interests, the Idaho Power Company and Spokane’s Washington Water Power.

Both firms supported three smaller dams in Hells Canyon to be owned by Idaho Power. The ensuing acrimonious debate lasted a decade. She ended up being outmaneuvered and lost a key vote in the Interior and Insular affairs subcommittee in the late 50’s. Thus today one sees Brownlee, Oxbow and Hells Canyon dams on the Snake, but fortunately no High Mountain Sheep dam.

In 1962, hoping the Senate would be a better venue, Gracie gave up her safe House seat to run for the Senate seat vacated by the death of Henry Dworshak. She lost a close race (51% to 49%) to former Governor Len B. Jordan, a supporter of private power and its three smaller dams approach.

Legendary Washington, D.C., Democratic operator Robert Strauss once famously said “every politician wants you to think they were born in a log cabin they built themselves. . .” In the case of Gracie, however, it was almost true.

Biographical sketches all note she was born in a log cabin in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas in 1906. The family moved to Idaho in 1911 where she attended school until 16, quitting to take a job at Carnation Milk in Nampa. There she met and married her supervisor, Jack Pfost, who became her life-long political partner.

In 1929, she graduated from Link’s School of Business in Boise which led to temporary work in the Canyon County Clerk’s office that soon turned into a permanent job. From there she jumped into local county politics and for the next decade served as Canyon County clerk, auditor and recorder. In 1941 she was elected Canyon County treasurer and served another decade.

During the 40’s and 50’s she owned a successful real estate business as she steadily got more involved in state and national politics. In 1950 the 1st District’s congressional seat opened up with Democrat Comp White, Sr., from Clark Fork, deciding to retire. White had held the seat since 1932, but lost it in 1946, then gained it back in 1948. Gracie won the Democratic nomination but lost the general election by 783 votes to 72-year-old Republican Dr. John Wood.

With the help of Eleanor Roosevelt who criticized Wood in her popular national column for his efforts to derail the United Nations, Gracie won a rematch in 1952 by 591 votes (out of 109,000) despite the landslide election of Dwight D. Eisenhower to the presidency. She and Jack never looked back.

At various times she was described as tough, tenacious, calculating, a spitfire, but she was a hard worker who did her homework. From 1955 to 1961 she chaired the important Public Lands subcommittee of Interior and Insular Affairs.

A relentless campaigner, in her 1954 campaign she challenged her Republican opponent to a log-rolling contest at a county fair. She lost the log roll but won the election by 9,000 votes. Her constituent service was legendary with every high school graduate receiving a personal congratulatory note and every new parent receiving a book on child care.

In a historic 1956 battle for the first time two women squared off for a congressional seat as major party nominees, and she defeated Republican Louise Shadduck, herself a legendary aide to several Republican governors, by ten percentage points.

Other legislative interests included support for Alaskan statehood and for U.S. Postal Service employees, a federal school construction bill, and legislation to prop up a sagging agricultural commodities market.

Despite Jack’s sudden death in 1961 she went ahead with the Senate race. After losing, President Kennedy appointed her to a post in the Federal Housing Administration. Unbeknownst to many, she suffered from Hodgkin’s disease and died prematurely at age 59 on August 11, 1965 at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins. She is buried in Meridian.

University of Idaho Dean Katherine Aiken is working on her biography which will undoubtedly cement the case for Gracie Pfost to be designated “the lioness of Idaho.”

Chris Carlson is an Idaho writer and former press secretary for Cecil Andrus. He lives in Medimont.

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