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Posts published in “Idaho column”



While much of the nation watches rapt on election night to see who wins where, what will Idahoans have to watch?

Idaho, by and large, is commonly regarded as a baked-in done deal: If an “R” rather than a “D” is attached to the name, then - with some exceptions, as in the city of Boise and a few other places - that candidate will win. The Republican for president, for Senate, for legislature and so on. For example, the FiveThirtyEight website, one of the most careful numbers analysts around, never assigns 100 percent probability to almost anything but does put (dryly) the likelihood of a Donald Trump presidential win in the Gem State at more than 99 percent.

That’s not quite the end of the story. In cases like Idaho, and other places - this applies to both parties - part of the story is in, not just who wins, but by how much, and where. These details have their own stories to tell.

To tell them a little more clearly, it helps to set some benchmarks against which the numbers on election right, or election week, can be measured.

For example, four years ago, Trump won in Idaho with 59.2 percent of the vote. That left a little more than 40 percent for others, but Democrat Hillary Clinton accounted for just 27.5 percent of it. An independent, Evan McMullin, got much of the rest. (Four years before that, Mitt Romney got 64.5 percent.) With no third party candidate on the ballot this time, what’s Trump’s percentage? Well above 60 percent, more like Romney, or below it?

The state hasn’t been polled a lot. The most frequent polling has been by SurveyMonkey, which is not a highly rated pollster; its numbers in September and October have put Trump at around 58 percent and Joe Biden at around 41. But that’s not a lot to go on.

At the U.S. Senate level, Republican Jim Risch, like Trump, gets a 99-plus percent chance of winning in Idaho. One poll from late summer by Spry Strategies showed Risch at 53 percent and Democrat Paulette Jordan at 28 percent, an advantage of about two to one, with a large chunk of voters undetermined. Six years ago, Risch received 65.3 percent of the vote (and six years before that, 57.7 percent). How does this year’s percentage stack up to those earlier numbers?

You can pose similar questions for the U.S. House members. In the first district, Republican Russ Fulcher two years ago received 62.7 percent of the vote against a low-key Democrat (and a tribe of independent and other candidates); Fulcher’s opponent this year, Rudy Soto, has been highly energetic and visible. And in the second district, Republican Mike Simpson in 2018 took 60.7 percent against Democrat Aaron Swisher (his opponent again this time), which was actually his lowest general election number since he won the office in 1998. How well will Fulcher and Simpson do this time? Are the numbers from recent elections indicators of a crack in the wall, or just minor fluctuations in the status quo?

The Idaho Legislature, overwhelmingly controlled by Republicans as it has been for close to three decades, is not likely to change much: The odds are that the Senate, with its six Democrats and 29 Republicans, and House, with its 11 Democrats and 59 Republicans, will not shift dramatically.

But there may be changes, and probably will. At least one Senate seat, in west Boise, is a strong prospect for flipping from Republican to Democratic control, and a few House seats (I’m watching a couple in Moscow and Idaho Falls especially) are also prospects. Republicans are not sitting still either, and the party’s new chair, Tom Luna, has made clear that winning back some now-Democratic seats is a high priority for the state party, and in Idaho few Democratic office holders are really safe.

On the local level, a number of county offices (I’m keeping an eye here as well on Ada County, where two commission seats flipped Democratic two years ago) merit watching.

So it shouldn’t be said of Idaho a week from Tuesday that there’s nothing to see here. The drama is lower, but the lessons could be meaningful.

Are we listening?


Whatever else you think about Democrat Rudy Soto’s campaign for Congress in Idaho’s 1st district, whether you approve of him and his platform, this much is clear: He’s doing what a candidate should do.

Soto is traveling the first district - no small place, 500 miles or so from top to bottom - intensively, and getting some news coverage. He’s holding events, and has made himself available to voters. He’s issued a pile of press releases (not in unreasonable numbers, but plenty of them) on pertinent and sometimes thoughtful subjects. He’s held his incumbent opponent - Republican Representative Russ Fulcher - to account, dissecting his record in some detail.

There are candidates who file for the office and then maybe show up for the debate but mostly just wait for the results on election night. Soto isn’t one of those: He’s a serious candidate.

There are other serious candidates out there, too, and these days, many of them - those running where they’re in a partisan or other minority - often feel frustrated, and often for good reason.

So my question, pointed not at the candidate but at the constituency: Is anyone listening?

That’s not a call for simply accepting his campaign case. It’s a call for giving it some serious consideration, something that’s probably not much happening.

Back a generation and more ago, more of us probably did listen more. When the heated Senate race between Democrat Frank Church and Republican Steve Symms was underway, both of them campaigned everywhere in the state, and people heard them out. Minds sometimes were changed. Many people resisted the urge to simply hop on Team A or Team B, and actually struggled with what they should do.

Now many of us live in a bubble, and we tend to dismiss people and arguments from outside it. Ask a Republican running in Seattle or Portland (there are a few) what kind of a listen they get in those places. You’d probably find the same for Democrats in Idaho outside of Boise and a few other small places: A reception that's ordinarily polite, but effectively dismissive.

This is not the way we the people are supposed to do politics: Take in one simplistic label (that of a party, usually, but sometimes something else) and decide that’s enough information. It isn’t, not if we’re correctly doing our jobs as self-governing citizens .

It’s a sad turn of events. In generations past, getting information at all about candidates, about the issues before us, was far more difficult than it is now; today, our access is broad. Our wisdom in making use of that access is what seems to be falling short.

We have no lack of useful options.

During the fall seasons of odd-numbered years, our household television is tuned mostly to C-SPAN and its showing of candidate debates around the country (the only kind of reality TV I can abide). They’re plenty dramatic and educational as well. When you hear arguments from South Carolina or Iowa reprised in Idaho, you get a fresh light on them; which make sense, and which don’t. You get a larger, broader picture than you might from a single local debate in which many of the issues may be personalized.

Debates and forums are well worth watching, and we watch as many as we can. (On the presidential level, I watched my first general election debate in 1976, and haven’t missed one since. This next week’s, if it happens, may be especially noteworthy.)

That’s one option, and there are many more. On the flip side, we try to be careful in parsing what we see in social media and other places where agendas often drive facts, rather than the other way around. It’s easy to drown in misinformation.

But one way to make smarter choices is - and this is actually not too hard to do in this season - to listen to the candidates. To Rudy Soto, and Russ Fulcher. And all the others. If they’re willing to put themselves out there to do your work, you can put forth a little effort to listen to them, and think about what they have to say. And then make up your mind.

What needs protection


Responses to presidential tweets aren’t typical material for this space, but this was an Idaho-focused tweet, and it seems worth a few more than 280 characters.

President Donald Trump’s missive, part of a Wednesday tweetstorm, said, “DEMS WANT TO SHUT YOUR CHURCHES DOWN, PERMANENTLY. HOPE YOU SEE WHAT IS HAPPENING. VOTE NOW!” For reference, it was attached to a video showing arrests at Moscow of people involved in a “psalm sing” held by a local church.

Arresting people in the midst of religious activity sounds, on its face, pretty bad. But before you judge, you need to consider a few facts, as the president should have and probably didn’t.

Moscow city’s rules about wearing masks in public places (where distancing is not possible or unreliable) have changed over time, but they are not arbitrary. Latah County, mostly meaning Moscow, has reported more than 600 cases of Covid-19. The city describes its intent: “A combination of physical distancing and face coverings in Moscow is required when in public. In public spaces, social distancing is the most challenging piece of the puzzle to define. For instance, while any patron may fully intend to physically distance themselves from another in a store aisle, sometimes the best intentions don’t work out. These instances are when face coverings or masks are a great tool to help protect our friends and neighbors.”

The point is respecting and avoiding harm to other people, which I learned in Sunday School as a core principle.

Moscow Christ Church took exception. Moving beyond online activities (which many churches use as a prime option), and even moving well outside its church building, a group of parishioners parked themselves in front of Moscow City Hall and started a maskless and loud “psalm sing” - the kind of activity that has been shown, in hundreds of cases around the country, to spread Covid-19.

If the Christ Church group had simply wanted to engage in worship, they could have done that at their church, or another private location, and almost surely would have been left alone. (We’ll leave aside that these kinds of events, too, have been super-spreader incidents.) Choosing the location at City Hall was a political provocation much more than a religious activity, evidently intended to draw a response from city officials. A few arrests, including one of a county commission candidate (you can get a hint of the political purpose here), gave them what they presumably wanted.

A pastor of the church was quoted, “We wanted to make a statement we’re ready to head back to normal.” Deliberately engineering a street confrontation with local police sounds like an innovative way to do that.

The Christ Church building and organization have been unaffected; they were not shut down, or threatened (as they shouldn’t be).

But what some of its parishioners seem to have forgotten - as many anti-maskers have - is that the restrictions and rules around the pandemic are not just about their own freedom and even their own willingness to risk sickness and death. Personally, I don’t have a problem with their willingness to do those things as long as they don’t affect other people.

The problem is that events like a “psalm sing” in the middle of downtown in the middle of a pandemic do affect other people. It’s not just their own lives these singers were putting at risk: They were risking other people’s health and lives as well, and they have no right whatever to do that. They are making the same argument as (I’ve remarked this before, and probably will again) a drunk who wants to drive and justifies it with, “If I want to take the risk, why not?” The why not is that everyone else on the road is at risk too.

So the president’s tweet fails on two grounds.

First, no churches were shut down in Moscow. Christ Church continues to offer worship. Worship continues in America.

And second, the president fails to account for all the people put at risk of immediate harm. Public safety is one of the core services governments, local and national, are supposed to provide, and doing that is supposed to be part of the president’s job.

The third wave is here


After long enough, a change in conditions often are taken for granted or dismissed as not meaning much, and for some people the Covid-19 epidemic may fall into one category or the other. A significant number of people, having survived intact over the last half-year or so, may decide enough is enough: Is this still a big deal?

It’s an understandable question. But yes, it is a big deal.

The retired CEO of St. Luke’s Health, David Pate, who has been watching the situation closely, last week remarked, “I think we are a week into our third spike that is going to be bigger than either of the ones before it. … Every week we are opening up another school and we are putting more kids in classrooms.” And he appeared to be speaking very much with Idaho in mind.

You may be among those thinking that’s just fear mongering.

It isn’t.

The Covid-19 epidemic, with us now since late last winter, clearly will be with us in the next one, and its impact is not slowing down. Historians of pandemics such as this, point out that they tend to come in waves - large bunches of cases followed by smaller numbers, then another large batch. That was the case with the Spanish flu epidemic a century ago, and it seems to be the case with Covid-19 now.

Idaho doesn’t often come to mind as a key pandemic state. It was relatively late to the game in picking up cases, and its population, small among the states, means its raw numbers are lighter than many others.

But Idaho’s ranking among the states ought to be sobering. In midsummer, the state ranked in the 40s (among the 50 states), the bottom in cases per capita and most other measures. Not any more. At present it has the 18th most cases per capita among the 50 states - above the national average (it had been far below) and worse than such long-running hotspot areas as Illinois and the District of Columbia. Idaho has had more cases per capita than New Jersey, and almost as many as New York. Chew on that.

Idaho has more than 8,000 cases more than Oregon, which has more than two and a half times the Gem State’s population.

But Idaho has been a national hotspot for months, and last week it showed signs of picking up again; several areas (especially in eastern Idaho and the Magic Valley) were breaking records for the most new cases in the last day or week. At this writing, Idaho is at 42,561 cases; two months ago, the state was at 21,114. Two months before that - just four months ago - the number was 2,839.

The deaths are climbing steadily. Almost three-quarters of Idaho’s counties now report at least one.

The pandemic is not limited in its spread, either.

Most of the attention goes to the bigger counties, like Ada with its 13,256 cases, or Twin Falls with 2,424, or Kootenai with 2,773. (Last spring such numbers would have sounded fantastical to many people.)

But every county has reported cases, and that may be most striking in some of Idaho’s smallest - by population - counties. The county with the fewest cases at 26, is Oneida. This is a county which came to the pandemic late, and contains only about 4,500 people, which translates to one case per 173 people. But that statistic is actually far from the worst. Owyhee County, as rugged and rural as you can get, has a case of Covid-19 for every 35 people (335 cases). Clark County, with a population under 900, has 35 cases - which means one for every 24 people.

When I think of counties like Camas or Clark or Owyhee or Oneida, I think of wide open spaces and people who already are naturally and almost extremely socially distanced. The idea that Covid-19 has landed significantly in these places comes as a shock.

But there it is.

I wrote months ago that this threat is real and should be taken seriously. I say it again. Just watch the numbers, if you can. Watch them grow.

An Idaho case and the Notorious RGB


This is from a column I wrote June 13, 2013, with some seeming resonance now . . .

To most non-lawyers, the Idaho-originated Supreme Court case of Reed v. Reed is a little obscure, not one of those few like Roe v. Wade many people could grasp immediately.

But Reed was a pivot in modern society, and it’s especially worth recalling with the death last week of Allen Derr, the soft-spoken Boise lawyer who improbably pushed it to the highest court in the land and was a central part of changing the law as it applies to men and women in America.

(Disclosure here: Last year I worked for a time with Derr on a book about the case; he apparently was still at work assembling materials for that project at the time of his death.)

Up to 1971, the law often treated the genders differently. Illinois had a law barring women from practicing law; the Supreme Court upheld it. It also upheld an Oregon law limiting work hours for women but not for men, and a Michigan law keeping women from tending bar. There were many such laws around the country, and for decades the Supreme Court had a perfect record of sustaining them.

The Idaho law that got Sally Reed’s, and Allen Derr’s, dander up, seemed just one more of the kind.
In March 1967 Reed’s son, Skip, died and left behind a few personal effects and $495 in a savings account. (That was the treasure over which a nation’s laws would change.) She and her ex-husband Cecil, the boy’s father, each applied in probate court to be administrator of Skip’s estate. Cecil got the appointment, but not, as the judge acknowledged, because Sally Reed was in any way disqualified. It was because the Idaho Code on probate said this: “Of several persons claiming and equally entitled to administer, males must be preferred to females, and relatives of the whole to those of the half blood.” Cecil had an automatic preference because he was male.

It was that automatic preference Sally Reed and Derr wanted to challenge. Early on, Derr decided to attack the statute as unconstitutional, and he got mixed responses in the Idaho courts, winning in district court and losing at the state Supreme Court. Expenses were piling up, but the two headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, despite its long history of supporting state laws of this type.

Once the case was accepted for hearing, Derr did get help from a number of quarters. One of the central workers on the case with Derr was a then little-known attorney, now a Supreme Court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But it was Derr who personally argued the case before the court.

Changing course, drastically, the court ruled that, “To give a mandatory preference to members of either Sex over members of the other, merely to accomplish the elimination of hearings on the merits is to make the very kind of arbitrary legislative choice forbidden by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

It was the first time women had been specifically included in equal protection provisions. Although the case strictly was about probate administration, Reed has turned out to be a major precedent in many Supreme Court and lower cases ever since in the area of women’s rights.

An Idaho case. An Idaho lawyer. Who died last week.

. . . That’s from 2013. Back in the now, a week ago saw the death of another major and essential participant in that story: Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Supreme Court justice.

The attention focused on RBG, and the resulting politics and conflict, in recent days has somewhat obscured the actual work she did and the effect she has had on the lives of specific Americans. This Idaho story seems worth recounting partly by way of pointing out her impact: The Reed case, times many, many more.

And it may sharpen our perspective a little on the decisions of today, when we try to think ahead to consider what life effects on actual Americans her replacement on the court will have had, seen from a perspective of many years hence.

Risk and the attachment of strings


Earlier this year, most of us received a federal payment for $1,200 - twice that for many households with two qualifying people - that came about as close as anything does to being free money.

Our tax dollars paid for it, of course, but we recipients didn’t pay taxes on it, and we weren’t limited in what we could do with it. Some people may have put it in a savings account, but many probably used it to buy things, from beer to medical supplies to a household utility.

For some people this may have felt like a simple windfall; for others, who lost work or otherwise saw financial pressures, it may have been a lifeline. From a national, big-picture, perspective, there was another benefit. The economy, cratered by a pandemic, was experiencing a massive loss of circulating money, which in turn hurt businesses and other organizations and the people who were paid by them, and - in another turn of the wheel - damaged the governments and non-profits on which people rely.

That massive infusion of money helped; our economic situation would be worse if it hadn’t happened. In the case of the individual payments, part of what helped was the simple fact that we recipients didn’t have to worry about how we could use the money. Whatever we did, as long as the money was put to use, would help keep the wheels turning.

Another part of the massive federal payout was the part of the CARES Act that, in a somewhat similar way, gave to state governments big piles of money to spend, partly with the same goal in mind - to keep economic activity chugging along. Governments, more than individuals, ought to take care to spend wisely, and the states have adopted a variety of approaches for doing that. Sometime soon, someone ought to analyze those approaches and try to determine what worked best.

In Idaho, Governor Brad Little tried to be deliberate about the money and, as would make sense, get as much value for it as possible. But this federal money didn’t arrive entirely without strings attached. Among the requirements was that the money be used for a purpose that related to dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.

One of Little’s efforts was this: Give about $200 million in grants (some of it but not all to counties) as reimbursement for public safety costs linked somehow to Covid-19. The money would be used for public safety budgets (possibly including some public health costs), which account for a significant piece of the cost of a county budget, so you might think the counties would swiftly grab for the bucks.

Some of them have. But not all. A number of counties are turning down the free money, and their reasons don’t relate to simplistic ideology or stubbornness. They do have practical concerns.

Idaho’s second-largest county, Canyon, is turning down about $10 million. Why? The county’s controller was reported as saying, “the U.S. Treasury guidance says funds can be used for expenses reasonably necessary for coronavirus response, while the Office of the Inspector General states documentation for payroll expenses must be available to prove the expenses were related to COVID-19.” It might mean, for example, the sheriff’s office would have to document how its activities have been driven by the pandemic - which costs and how many working hours are specifically related to it. That might be hard to do, and could be easy to challenge.

The county clerk warned taking the money “could be trouble down the road.”

Some other counties, including Latah, have expressed similar concerns.

Others are less worried. Ada County is taking its $16.4 million, and officials there - and in a number of other places - said that normal financial recordkeeping should be enough to demonstrate the money was used for pandemic-related purposes.

They could be right. But the unease is not unreasonable either.

The rules, limitations and restrictions on the spending of the money are there largely to ensure the money isn’t spent irrationally or with an eye to graft or corruption, and that’s fair enough. But if the money is going to accomplish its larger purposes, a certain amount of freedom of action will be needed too.



With no Republican Platform and four more years of “the Disrupter in Chief” looking likely, we better start embracing disruption.

I have argued the health care industry in this country could use it. We have a huge, wasteful medical industrial complex that isn’t serving our “health”. It serves our 401k’s maybe, but we are not getting the health care we pay for.

But we keep buying it.

The Affordable Care Act was not an attempt at disruption, despite what the Freedom Foundation claims. It tightened some insurance industry regulations, it mandated universal coverage through a tax penalty and it tried to make individual coverage affordable. But it was essentially based on the current health insurance system. Democrats howled that the “government option” wasn’t included. Obama tried to buy Republican votes. He didn’t want too much disruption. Maybe that’s really what the Republicans want, major disruption.

Maybe when our President is reelected and his Supreme Court nominees get to hear the Republican lawsuit to overturn the law, they will find it “unconstitutional”. Then we can go back to the good old days when 40 million were uninsured. No doubt it will be many more now, with the higher costs and higher unemployment. Losing health insurance coverage, through loss of a job or unaffordability, or through SCOTUS decision in the middle of a pandemic will be a disrupter. Maybe that’s what America wants, disruption.

This wave of Covid-caused unemployment has given us a few months to see what disruption feels like. A survey back in June when unemployment was at 13% found about a fifth of the people who had lost their jobs were now without health insurance coverage. Even more telling, the majority who had lost their jobs did not have health insurance coverage through that now-gone employment. Like always, disruption hits the poor hardest.

It was amazing that the vast majority (74%), Republicans (65%) and Democrats (80%) thought the government should make health coverage available and affordable for them if they lost employment-based coverage.

You get disruption when you tear down a system. Heck, even minor tweaks can get peoples shorts twisted. Remember the outrage, the Tea Party fervor, the Fox News tirades about the Affordable Care Act? They made it sound like this middle of the road proposal was as threatening to our freedom as fascism. Where was Antifa then?

Even if you have a plan to replace what you tear down, the change can be painful. But the “repeal and replace” bumper sticker is fading on the Trumpwagen; no replacement in the Republican Platform. Actually, there was nothing in the Republican Platform at this year’s crowning, ahem, convention except “we want whatever He wants”.

So, we are experiencing pandemic disruption and it’s affecting people’s attitudes toward healthcare. If Trump and Republicans get what they say they really want, that is the repeal of the Band Aid Affordable Care Act, we might find ourselves in just the state of chaos we need.

Then, since Congress can’t act, can’t govern, can’t deliberate, we might get the miracle “Executive Order”. Halleluiah.

And that will mean the end of our representative democracy. We might just be proving we are incapable of governing ourselves. I hope not. I fear so.

Many times, when talking with patients about their healthcare decisions, I sensed their confusion, their frustration with the uncertainty of a choice their health was placing before them. Often, they would ask me to decide for them. “What should I do, doc?” It’s very tempting. Indeed, I have seen many doctors decide for patients what they thought “was best”.

But experience has taught me, people always do better when they have ownership of the decisions they have to live with. And that’s what our representative government system is supposed to promote, shared ownership of decisions for the common good. Let’s not give up on it.

Another widespread risk


Last month’s special special session of the Idaho Legislature had one core topic - the pandemic - on its call, but another subject emerged after the legislators convened:


There’s no way any legislation relating to guns would have been added to the call in any event, but an extra layer of thought about the subject might have developed if lawmakers and others around the Statehouse had seen a new, just-out national report from a group called Everytown Research and Policy.

Released on Thursday, its paper on “The Rise of Firearm Suicide among Young Americans” was national in focus, but it did include state breakouts. The highest rate (per 100,000 population) of suicide by firearm in any state was Alaska (19.78) , which was no surprise since that state long has led the nation in suicide numbers. The second-highest was Wyoming (13.74), then Montana (11.84).

Then, in fourth place out of the 50 states, with a rate of just over 10, came Idaho.

The report noted, “Research has shown that access to firearms is strongly associated with higher youth (ages 10 to 19) suicide rates: For each 10 percent increase in household gun ownership in a state, the youth suicide rate increased by more than 25 percent. States with the highest rates of firearm suicide among young people are Alaska, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and New Mexico. States with the fastest-growing firearm suicide rates among young people over the past decade include Oregon (124% increase), Virginia (109%), Michigan (106%), Idaho (105%), and Missouri (105%).”

The report suggested generally that the numbers have been rising. Idaho is one of the areas where the phenomenon of “deaths of despair” - deaths connected to psychological roots with such direct causes of alcohol, drugs and suicide - have been on the rise, and a report earlier this year on that subject by the Well Being Trust and the Robert Graham Center, prompted in part by the Covid-19 developments, seems to dovetail with the new one.

The despair deaths are usually meant to refer to deaths among older white people, mainly in lower income levels. But the Everytown report zeroed in on some of the suicide causes for younger people that could tie in with those: “such as increased anxiety and depression, social media, cyberbullying, and stigma. We need more research to understand what is driving these increases.”

Idaho’s despair death rate seems to be growing; that study projected that Idaho’s death rate would rank 10th highest for the 50 states in the coming decade, based on existing trends.

The Gem State obviously is not the only place where these issues are important, but they’re a little worse than in most states. And the atmosphere surrounding the pandemic is making all of these things worse, not better.

The culture of gun ubiquity in Idaho (and most of the other high-suicide states) is a contributor to that. (In case you’re wondering why the report focused on firearm suicides: Did you know that just four percent of suicide attempts not involving a gun result in death, while about nine out of 10 attempts using a firearm do end in death?)

The Everytown paper recommended some measures that might help. They weren’t suggesting anything heavy-handed, rather such ideas as improved (and maybe required) gun safety and storage, red flags and so forth.

Quite a few lives are at stake here. The subject certainly would be useful for the Idaho Legislature to take up at its next regular session (not that it necessarily will) and it might almost seem to justify a special session.

Except, of course, that we now know what the attitude toward guns would be at the Statehouse: Locked and loaded. Unfortunately, that’s not an especially helpful mindset when it comes to averting suicide.

It was 40 years ago today, almost


On a warm fall day 40 years ago, I was stranded on a dusty street in Stanley, in the middle of one of the hottest political stories in the nation.

In 1980, in Idaho, the hot political subject without a doubt was the race for the U.S. Senate between Democratic incumbent Frank Church and Republican challenger (and at the time the first district representative) Steve Symms. This contest had been on for a long time, even before either of the candidates had announced. Not only the candidates’ campaigns but many side organizations were deeply involved. And people in Idaho were deeply interested - more, deeply emotional about it, and you had little trouble figuring out who was where.

It was a nationally-watched race, one of the half-dozen or so state contests with widespread import. National news organizations were in and out of Idaho. And several Idaho political reporters spent a lot of time covering it; I spent most of my work hours during that period on it. I thought at the time it was the Idaho campaign of the century; I still think so.

One Monday in October, I drove from my home base in Pocatello to Blackfoot, then caught a ride to St. Anthony, which is where Symms and his rotating campaign entourage of a dozen to two dozen people - campaign volunteers and staff, reporters, a few stray allied politicians - were at the moment. I had arranged to join the campaign bus for a while and report on what I saw.

Symms was a great campaigner, speaking to groups large and small if there were any, or working the grocery stores shaking hands otherwise. The bus made quick stops in small towns, even places like Howe that didn’t quite qualify as towns, and it didn’t linger long. The bus horn hooted when it was time to go, and wheels rolled within a minute.

At Stanley, I tried to phone in a short news story, and had to call from inside a restaurant, there being no outside phones. I missed the horn, and as I dashed out of the place I saw the bus leaving town.

Well, that was a problem: Not a lot of rental cars available in Stanley then (or now).

The problem was soon solved. Symms’ parents, Darwin and Irene, were along on the trip but driving their own vehicle, and their assignment turned out to include picking up stragglers. Someone on the bus had noticed I wasn’t there, so Symms’ parents were dispatched back to Stanley.

I recalled in a report for the Idaho State Journal how they told me “a few days earlier they’d gone back to Glenns Ferry to find a girl dressed in an elephant costume who had missed the bus. She looked forlorn and lost after they located her. But she was easy to identify.”

Such was politics in the superheated year of 1980.

Idaho in 2020 has no such hot races, not at least on the state level.

But our social environment has become poisoned. We hear of baby-eating sex traffickers as definitions of the opposition, meant to be taken seriously. We’re seeing Niagara Falls quantities of lies, some of them from foreign sources, polluting our political discussion. We’re seeing too many politically active people motivated far more by trying to infuriate - or even destroy - the opposition than we are actually in support of someone, or something.

The seeds of this were sown by the time of that campaign in 1980. But they hadn’t really sprouted yet. If the subject of politics came up, you usually could expect the discussion would be civil, and most people would remain friendly. The opposition consisted of human beings, wrong-headed maybe but not demons from hell.

We can still do this. I’ve occasionally attended a Boise coffee group (not so much in this Covid year) including people from all over the spectrum, and we get along just fine.

But we have to make the effort, and sometimes go back, in a friendly way, to pick up those we have left behind, in one fashion or another.