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UPDATE: This column was written before news broke earlier today that former Secretary of State Pete Cenarrusa died at Boise. Condolences to his family and many friends, and to Idaho too: Public servants of this caliber aren’t so easy to find these days, but at his passing his long-time chief deputy and successor, Ben Ysursa, was – as this column strives to point out – upholding the tradition.

In 1976, a deputy to the Idaho Secretary of State resigned after becoming the target of charges that he had improperly been selling copies of the Idaho state code. To the best of my memory, that’s the last time – 37 years ago – the Idaho Secretary of State’s office has been the center of a serious controversy.

Considering that this is the office overseeing, among other things, elections across the state, that’s a remarkable record of cleanliness.
My most regular interaction with the office is on its website, which offers access to loads of records. I can tell you that in most cases those records are more extensive, useful and easier to access than on the web sites of the counterpart offices in high-tech Washington and Oregon.

Absence of malfeasance and quality on-line records may be tangential in evaluating the office and its longtime chief, Ben Ysursa. But they indicate work properly and consistently well done, in an office where the consequences of shoddiness can be a little frightening. Idaho has a long history of clean elections, and capable state oversight has surely been a contributor to that. The office also manages a lot of other records, such as business filings and many other documents, and a good deal of commerce could be thrown into chaos if the unglamorous work of the office were steered into a ditch. It also oversees lobbyist filings and records.

The secretary of state’s office, then, is one of those places you seldom see in the headlines when things are going well, only when they go badly. Take it as a compliment, then, that the office has been largely invisible for decades, the quiet broken most notably on those occasions when Ysursa and his crew went after someone, without any evident favor for any side, for failing to stick to the law.
This comes up became the 2014 race for the office has taken a turn, and Idahoans would be well-served in paying attention.

Ysursa has been almost synonymous with SOS for about four decades, for many years as chief deputy (and in effect the day to day manager) for Secretary of State Pete Cenarrusa, then after 2002 as holder of the top job. He may run for it again next year – he’s 63 now – but hasn’t said yet whether he will. There’s some chatter around Boise that he may not.

Another candidate has surfaced, apparently interested in running whether or not against the incumbent. He is Lawerence Denney, the state representative from Midvale who was speaker of the House until last December when, in an unusual move, he was toppled by his own caucus. Denney has submitted paperwork to run for the statewide job.

The most persistent complaints about Denney had to do with favoritism, spiking a key legislative ethics proposal, backing ethically-challenged legislators (such as former Representative Phil Hart, whose tax problems became epic), retaliating against opposition and doing battle with the independent citizens reapportionment commission (which drew him into some conflict with Ysursa).

Denney may have lost his speakership, but within some Republican circles he still has support and allies, and certainly could mount a credible race for the job. He also is starting early, which usually is an advantage.

The norm has been that the incumbent cruises to another win. But if not, Idaho could encounter a stretch of bumpy road in an area they usually don’t have a lot of cause to think about at all.

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Idaho Idaho column