Idaho Gov.-elect Brad Little has some big decisions to make. In the next few weeks, he’ll need to put his stamp on a state budget that will spell out how he proposes to implement the Medicaid expansion initiative supported overwhelmingly by the state’s voters last week.
Presumably he’ll want to, at least at the margins, differentiate his proposals for education funding from those of his longtime boss, retiring Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter. Maybe he’ll propose a grocery tax repeal and a way to pay for it. Additionally a major challenge for the governor-elect is the perception, and remember perception is reality in politics, that he is simply gearing up to preside over Otter’s fourth term.
There is a way to immediately change that perception and it involves how Little will stock the leadership ranks of state agencies. The new governor has two choices: He can tinker at the margins or he can clean house. He should clean house. Not doing so would be a big mistake for one simple reason.
Every governor, whether one that is succeeding a member of his party as Little will be, or taking over from the other party, has one clear moment when he (or we can hope someday soon she) can place a dramatic imprint on state agencies. This is such a moment for Little, a guy who has long prided himself on being a student of government, a kind of cowboy boot-wearing policy wonk steeped in the details of governing in a way that Otter never was.
Idaho has, all things considered, a relatively weak governor model. The governor doesn’t directly appoint some of the most important state agency heads. A governor can have influence, but has no direct appointment authority over the departments of Transportation, Correction, Fish and Game, Lands or Parks and Recreation. Nevertheless what he can control is very important: the state Commerce Department, Health and Welfare, the departments of Administration, Labor, Insurance and Finance, the state personnel chief and the critical job of state budget director.
One can only imagine that Little, still basking in his decisive win on Election Day, has discovered just how many new best friends he now has. Half the GOP members of the Legislature – a conservative estimate – lust after an appointment to a state job, even if the outrageous perk of receiving a big jump in state retirement benefits may soon go away. For many legislators, snagging the good salary and benefits that go with being an agency director has to look pretty good.
Many of the current occupants of these state jobs – all appointed by Otter – will be working overtime to hang on to their positions. The natural tendency for most new governors would be to take the path of least resistance and keep a bunch of the Otter crowd. They’re loyal Republicans, after all, and many contributed to Little’s campaign. They’ll pledge their fidelity and most will want Little to succeed. But Little can’t – or won’t – shape a new version, his vision, without new people, his people, in key positions.
My old boss, Cecil D. Andrus, lived this lesson in 1986 when he was preparing to succeed fellow Democrat John V. Evans in the governor’s office. Evans, a good man and still an underrated governor, had assembled a good team and many of them wanted to stay on into a new Democratic administration. Andrus knew better. He imposed a rule during his campaign that he would accept no contributions from staffers in the Evans administration. He wanted no implied understanding that someone from the outgoing regime might curry favor with the new crowd, while hoping for a job. Andrus angered more than a few people, fellow Democrats mostly, when he made it clear that he was cleaning house. With only a couple of exceptions, he brought in an entirely new cast of state government leaders, people loyal to him, people sharing his vision, people understanding his priorities, people who knew he was the boss.
Little’s immediate staff – a chief of staff, a press secretary, counselors on key issues – will constitute a critical part of his team. He should pick them wisely from among people he knows, trusts and is confident will serve him – and Idaho citizens – with diligence, energy and, as Franklin Roosevelt famously insisted, a “passion for anonymity.”
Beyond his immediate staff, Little would be well advised to put his own person in charge of economic development at the Commerce Department. He should install a seasoned administrator at the Department of Administration, an incredibly important agency that handles everything from computers to risk management, and a place where more than one governor has been tripped up. Most of society’s problems land daily on the desk of the director of the Department of Health and Welfare and the director there best be a person the new governor can both trust and personally hold accountable.
It’s no knock on the Otter crowd that a new governor should want and is entitled to his own team. There are lots of names on doors in state government, but only one name on the ballot. Gov. Little will send a signal about how he’ll run state government by the personnel decisions he makes between now and Christmas. If he’s smart he’ll make a clean sweep. He’ll start fresh and from day one be in a position to hold his own people accountable. He’ll never have a second chance for a new beginning. He’ll never have a second chance to have his own first term rather than Otter’s fourth term.
Johnson was press secretary and chief of staff to the late former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus. He lives in Manzanita, Ore.