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RIP, Pete Cenarrusa

carlson CHRIS


On September 29 Pete Cenarrusa, died in Boise at the age of 95. The longest serving secretary of state not just in Idaho history but in all of American history, the former Speaker of the Idaho House and state legislator, a farmer-sheep rancher from Carey and a staunch conservative Republican, never lost an election.

Blaine County voters first elected him to the House in 1951, and re-
elected him seven more times until Governor Don Samuelson appointed him as Secretary of State on May 1, 1967, to fill a vacancy created by the death of Edson Deal. In November, 1970, he was elected in his own right and re-elected until he chose not to run again in 2002. That’s 35 years.

Despite his conservative political views, he was well known for his fairness, honesty and decency. He worked well with the two Democratic governors that served during his tenure, Cecil Andrus and John Evans.

It was this sense that a man’s word was his bond that leads to the many stories surrounding what was known as “the Little Wood River” list.

Few, if any of the obituaries rightly praising Cenarrusa for his public service will even reference this item, but it provides an excellent insight into Pete’s sense of propriety and emphasis on one’s word.

Some folks thought the list referred to the six or seven legislators who allegedly said they would vote for Pete, but did not, when he sought and won the Speakership over Boise legislator, Bill Eberle, in 1963.

Some think the list refers to successfully withstanding a challenge in 1965 from another Boise legislator, Larry Mills. It is neither. In his memoirs (Bizkaia to Boise, Center for Basque Studies, University of Nevada at Reno, 2009) co-written with former AP Statehouse reporter Quane Kenyon, Cenarrusa explained that it was a list of legislators who had not helped him pass in 1953 a modest $10,000 appropriation to fix levies and build some small dams to control flooding on the Little Wood River in his county. Because he had earlier crossed some party pooh-bahs, he was punished by having his bill killed and the appropriation redirected to a project in eastern Idaho.

Pete vowed then and there to become Speaker someday and to get even with those he felt betrayed him. It took ten years, lots of patience as well as tenacity, but in 1963, to the great good fortune of Idahoans especially concerned about the state’s parsimonious support for public education, he was elected Speaker.

Thus it was that he played a key role in wielding the gavel during two of the most important legislative sessions in Idaho – the 1963 and 1965 legislatures.

Along with the legislative session of 1947, during C.A. “Doc” Robins first year as governor, these three sessions are considered by most Idaho political historians to be the most important in the state’s history. These were the legislative sessions that voted to put a three-cent sales tax on the ballot to provide much needed and heftier support of public and higher education.

Other noteworthy accomplishments while Pete was Speaker included creation of the Permanent Building Fund to underwrite construction of “bricks and moater” on school and college campuses; creation of the state retirement system fund, PERSI; and, legislation creating the Idaho Water Resources Board and a Department of Water Resources as well as creation of a Department of Parks and Recreation.

Much will be said about Pete’s deep love for his Basque heritage and for the Basque country, as it should be. For my part I just want to salute the man.

Perhaps it is because early in his career he taught and coached at a rural high school, as I did. Perhaps it is because he was a Naval aviator in Corpus Christie, Texas, where my father washed out. Perhaps it is because he was a Marine for I have a son who is a Captain in the Marine Corps. Perhaps it is because he personified love of family, devotion to children and grandchildren, love of country.

I suspect though it is because he always manifested his love for Idaho and Idahoans by placing what was in the people’s best interests, the greatest good for the greatest number, ahead of partisan politics. He would not have passed most of the Tea Party litmus tests. However, he always passed with flying colors the voter’s periodic reviews.

As he stands now before St. Peter, rejoined with his beloved son, Joe, killed in a 1997 plane crash, I’ll wager anyone he is hearing the words “Well done thou good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy prepared by Thy Heavenly Father.” Well done indeed.

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