Last week a national political reporter asked me what how I thought Idaho’s new governor, Brad Little, was doing. Was he he thriving? Was he managing okay? Was his struggling?
It seemed like a good time to pause and consider the new governor, for a couple of reasons.
First, it’s a six-month mark, and time enough has passed to get a sense of what this new administration is like; the effective date of many new laws has just passed, and that seems like a fair official marker.
There’s an unofficial one too, with the election last weekend of Raul Labrador as state Republican Party chair. Last year Little and Labrador were competitors for the Republican nomination for governor, and the fight turned fierce at times, involving both hammer and tongs. Political tradition has it that a governor more or less gets to choose, or at least have some say over, the choice of their party’s chair. That hasn’t been the case in Idaho for more than a decade, but the sight of a former - maybe future? - harsh critic of the party’s governor is highly unusual. It may also say something about the real distinction between Little and large parts of the party’s structure.
So as Little is, and will be, watched, what is there to see?
In some ways, not a tremendous lot has changed. You start running out fast when you try compiling a list of individual things Little has done that his predecessor (and the man who set him on the road to the job), C.L. “Butch” Otter, absolutely wouldn’t have done - that is, anything that’s a real reversal of the former policy. You probably can scratch out a few items, and there have been a lot of personnel changes, but nothing very large or sweeping comes to mind. And he has retained or renewed many of the visible devices of the Otter years, like Capital for a Day and the education task force (both of which were useful ideas then and now).
In spite of the limited direction change, the Little Administration so far is far different from the Otter Administration.
It is much more active. In its energy level it resembles the brief administration of Jim Risch, who served as governor for a few months in 2006 and seemed to cram the work of most of a full term into that time.
The governor himself seems to be popping up at events and meetings all over the state, meeting with lots of people, at a faster pace than Idaho is accustomed to. His office often has been launching new ideas, task forces and proposals two and three a week, becoming far more active than it had been in many years.
Early times for a governor often are measured by relationships with the state legislature. Little’s has been the most effective and productive in a very long time. He did not issue many vetoes - though he showed he was willing to, and did in an extreme case - but then his office’s work with the legislature was more behind the scenes than on-stage. Legislators, including Democratic legislators, talked about how closely the governor’s office now was reviewing legislation and talking directly with lawmakers about it, at the staff level and even personally by the governor, in ways they had not experienced before. That doesn’t mean everyone always reached agreement, but it does mean communication channels were open and active.
Much of this may not be especially visible to most Idahoans who encounter the governor’s office through statements and news items that often don’t look a lot different from other governors over the last quarter century. But the difference is there,and it may develop into some policy differences down the line.
So in response to the reporter’s question about the governor, I replied that the new Idaho governor appeared to be thriving. That could change. But it looks that way at the six-month mark.