Governor C. L. “Butch” Otter sat for a somewhat retrospective look back at his three terms with Idaho Public Television recently. As it is with the governor, there were plusses and minuses. In many respects it reflected the enigmatic nature of the man himself.
For as long as he has been in public office, as gregarious and outgoing as he is, as personable and charming as he can be, few people outside of his wife, Lori, and his old side-kick, Mike Gwartney, really know him and what has driven his yen for public service for so many years.
Like all good politicians, he could present a different side of his personality to different folks at different times and to different audiences. The Butch Otter that loved riding horses on his ranch, or galloping into a rodeo ring, was much different as the international salesman for marketing Idaho products in Cuba, Mexico, China and Japan. He is a cosummate salesman—no one can take that from him.
Much like the man he acknowledges as Idaho’s greatest governor, at least on the Democrat side, Cecil Andrus, Butch remembers names and faces and has a long political memory. Like Andrus he is intensely competitive.
In fact I first met Governor Otter on the basketball court at the Boise YMCA playing noon pick-up games the winter of 1972-73. He was a newly elected rookie lawmaker from Canyon county. One can learn much by just observing others on the hardwood. Mike Gwartney loved to feed Butch the ball; the Governor loved to rebound and was a mite too quick to call a foul, and of course he hated to lose.
After two terms he left the legislature. These were years in which he also was working hard to make his mark at his father-in-law’s corporation, the J.R. Simplot Company. These years also saw his first abortive run for governor in 1978, where he placed a close third in the GOP primary.
Few folks know that Butch came from humble beginnings, that his parents, Regina Mary and Joseph, a journeyman electrician, were Catholics and Democrats. They had to sacrifice to send him to St. Theresa’s Academy, the forerunner of Bishop Kelly, from which he graduated in 1962. He was 20 when he graduated having had to sit out a year because of an accident involving gasoline exploding burning him and his brother.
He received his B.A. from the College of Idaho in 1967 after brief stints at St. Martin’s and at Boise State.
He emerged from these wilderness years, so to speak, still determined to serve the public and was elected in 1986 Lt. Governor, a post he served in for 14 years, the longest tenure for any one, before winning a congressional seat in 2000, where he served three terms before his election as Idaho’s 32nd governor.
In reviewing his tenure the Governor had a hard time citing outstanding successes. He does get credit for fighting for a gas tax hike to pay for needed infrastructure improvements, but he still makes no apology for eviscerating school funding and teacher pay during the early years.
And he still is proud of the $400 million surplus Idaho has in the “Rainy Day” bank.
Now that the economy is rolling along he is trying to close the gap of lost funding, but the state has steadily dropped by most national measurements. He seems to believe that technology improvements will also compensate but most are skeptical.
In the interview he made no reference to some major misteps such as the scandal surrounding the Corrections Corporation of America as well as the awarding of a major technology improvement project that was tossed out by a judge.
Neither does he seem to yet understand why former Governors Andrus and Batt fought him and the folks at the INL over the camel’s nose exception he sought to allow spent fuel rods into Idaho for alleged research. At one point he even referred to the late Governor Andrus as as “my former friend.” He clearly meant my late friend, for he truly mourns Andrus’ passing and there was great mutual respect.
In a way, Otter’s legacy will be written by the voters of Idaho as they weigh who should succeed him. He is backing his loyal Lt. Governor, Brad Little. They share much in common. Little has diligently done his homework, traveling with the Governor Otter all across the state for “Capitol For A Day” visits. In addition, on more than 375 occasions during the years Little has served as next in line he has been the acting governor when Butch is out of state.
Raul Labrador and Tommy Ahlquist are guessing that Idahoans want a change and they see Little as a fourth Otter term. They may be correct, but many others do not see this as a “change” election. Rather they see it as an endorsement of the Otter approach.
When all is said and done Butch presided over some challenging times and some economically good times. Most Idahoans, according to the Boise State issues poll, think Idaho is moving in the right direction. They appear to be comfortable with the Otter/Little approach. This writer’s wager is those rock-hard solid conservative Republicans will cat their ballots for staying the course, and that is good news for Lt. Governor Little’s prospects.