George Hansen’s lasting legacy

peterson MARTIN
PETERSON
 

When former Idaho Congressman George Hansen passed away recently, the news stories focused on his troubles with the law, times in prison and his trips to Iran during the hostage crisis. There was no mention of any sort of lasting legacy left by Hansen. But the case can be made that he left a huge, although entirely unanticipated, legacy.

Hansen could be described as Idaho’s first tea party Republican. But were his wife Connie to have heard such a remark, she would quickly comment that the Hansen’s had nothing to do with anything containing caffeine. No, while he really was a precursor to the tea party movement, that wasn’t his lasting legacy.

That legacy is tied directly to his 1968 senate campaign against Senator Frank Church. Frank Church was seeking a third term in the senate and Hansen was a formidable opponent. In my mind, the two most effective political campaigners in Idaho’s recent history were George Hansen and Bethine Church. But I would give the nod to Hansen, primarily because he stood nearly a foot taller than Mrs. Church, which gave him the advantage in working a crowd.

Hansen was legendary in his ability to work a crowd and seek support. Nothing illustrates that better than his conviction for defrauding Idaho banks and about 200 investors of $30 million in an investment scheme. Of the 200 individuals he defrauded, 100 wrote letters to Judge Edward Lodge indicating that they had willingly given him their money and that, even though they lost it all, they didn’t feel they were defrauded.

Hansen’s entry into the 1968 Senate race sent a strong signal to Senator Church and his staff. This was going to be an incredibly difficult race and it would require organizing a re-election campaign unlike any that Idahoans had previously seen. Church was an outspoken environmentalist who supported the creation of wilderness areas. He was also an outspoken critic of the war in Vietnam. Both of these issues ran against the grain of many Idahoans at the time.

Church was surrounded by some of the best political minds in Idaho. Carl Burke, a Boise attorney and his childhood best friend, chaired the campaign. Verda Barnes, Church’s chief of staff, was one of the finest and best connected political organizers Idaho has ever seen. He had a highly experienced staff, including Jerry Brady who would later run twice for Governor, who were focused on his re-election.

The resulting Church campaign was filled with many Idaho firsts. Church opened the first congressional field office in Idaho and staffed it with Billie Jeppesen, who would later go to Washington to be the personal secretary for Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus.

It was also the first Idaho campaign to use 4 by 8 foot “Minnie” billboards. A thirty minute campaign film was produced that aired on television and was shown at political functions throughout the state. And there were Spanish language bumper stickers.

But the innovation that had the greatest impact on Church’s re-election effort was the development of a statewide voter identification program. Idaho had never seen a similar effort of this magnitude. Volunteers went door-to-door filling out forms on voter preferences, all in the days before the use of computers and phone banks. The identification of pro-Church, leaning to Church and uncommitted voters was critical to the success of the campaign.

Voters leaning to Church and uncommitted were targeted to bring them firmly into the pro-Church camp. On election day, a well-organized get-out-the-vote program was activated to try to get every last voter leaning to Church to the polls to vote.

On election day, the results were remarkable. Church obtained 60% of the vote and carried forty of Idaho’s forty-four counties.
While Hansen lost and went on to face all of his self-inflicted future problems, he forced Church to do things that had previously been unknown in Idaho political races. And this is where Hansen’s lasting legacy comes in.

Two years later, in 1970, the Church organization had kept much of its 1968 campaign organization in place, including the voter identification and get-out the vote programs. This was of critical importance to Cecil Andrus’ campaign for Governor. It undoubtedly made the difference and opened the door for the rest of his remarkable political career.

Were the last half of Frank Church’s Senate career and the political success of Cecil Andrus the lasting legacies of George Hansen? I think a strong case can be made for that.

Marty Peterson is a native of the Lewiston Clarkston Valley. He is retired and lives in Boise.

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