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What Little said, and didn’t

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Like many State of the State speeches by Idaho governors, Brad Little’s first speech to a joint session of the Legislature this week was notable for what the new governor said and what he left unsaid.

No one will accuse Little of scaling many oratorical heights, but his compact, workmanlike 35-minute address did help to both establish his agenda and begin to define his governorship as distinct from outgoing Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter. Little paid tribute to his political partner for the past decade, but then pivoted on a dime and said, “I stand here today not to reminisce about Idaho’s past, but to look to our future.”

The Otter era is over and something new is beginning to unfold.

Little’s rhetoric about the importance of improving education in Idaho was short of aspirational flurries, but the sentiment he expressed about the importance of education seems entirely genuine.

“I know there’s a strong correlation between our education system and the attractiveness of our state to entrepreneurs and businesses,” Little said. “Most importantly, a strong education system helps ensure we keep our best and brightest here in Idaho.”

The challenge to Idaho of keeping the best of the state’s talent at home to gain an education and then land a good job will only increase, and Little seems to instinctively grasp that better schools equal a better economy. His stated determination to keep education at the head of his agenda will serve him well and, I suspect, eventually put him at odds with the skinflints in the Legislature. And that highlights what was left unsaid by the new governor.

There was virtually nothing in Little’s speech to challenge the overwhelmingly Republican Legislature and in fact he took two potentially contentious issues off the Legislature’s plate, at least temporarily.

By finessing the first half-year funding for the Medicaid expansion approved overwhelmingly by voters in November, Little left that fight for next year.

Likewise, while citing uncertainty about state revenue collections, the governor effectively postponed another battle about eliminating the sales tax from grocery purchases, a position he had campaigned on but now acknowledges he lacks the cash to pay for.

In politics, a decision postponed is a decision made and this can was kicked down the road. We’ll see how long the can keeps rolling.

To his credit, the new governor stepped up to assume responsibility for what he called “accountability to Idahoans” for such things as the recent customer service snafus with driver’s licenses. But pointedly Little did not extend the idea of accountability to the ethics of lawmakers or to improvements in campaign and personal financial disclosure, areas where Idaho continues to be very old school and very far from transparent.

Little also declined to challenge legislators with any big plans for really addressing Idaho’s woeful record of high school graduates advancing to further education.

He passed on pushing for meaningful pre-kindergarten education, an initiative broadly supported by the business community and by virtually everyone who understands the importance of giving kids an early educational launching pad. The Legislature has long dithered on such issues and this year at least the new governor seems content to let the dithering continue.

As Boise State University professor Stephanie Witt wisely pointed out, the governor’s speech was also devoid of “fed bashing,” and happily so.

Poking a stick at a federal agency or two has been a standard feature of State of the State speeches in the recent past. Instead, Little struck a cooperative, collaborative tone with talk of working with public land managers. Little’s approach is a welcome change, especially if he sticks with it.

Also missing entirely from Little’s accounting of the State of the State was anything about great and pressing issues that consume Washington, D.C., and threaten the economy.

“Idaho remains a heavily trade-dependent state,” Little said, “with around $2 billion in agricultural exports. When markets are open, agriculture makes the most of those opportunities. When markets are disrupted, we feel it.”

Well, markets are being disrupted, thanks to the simple-minded trade policies of a president who never met a market he didn’t seek to upset. Idaho’s dairy, fruit and potato growers, even the state’s upstart brewing industry, have felt the sting and there was no mention of Idaho’s trade future in China and Mexico, where the state actually has offices to push exports.

One has to assume that pointing out unwise trade policies promulgated by a Republican administration, even when those policies hurt Idaho industries, is apparently too sensitive an issue to raise in a room where 84 of the 105 legislators are Republican.

No single speech, even a new governor’s first State of State, can possibly articulate the full vision of a new administration.

Little may have wisely limited his first year agenda to schools, keeping the economy strong and providing careful stewardship of the state budget. What the governor’s vision lacks in aspiration is balanced by its careful and modest practicality.

Little’s real test will be whether he’s willing to use the full power of the office he now holds to shape legislative outcomes he truly cares about.

His predecessor often seemed reluctant to engage and occasionally confront a Legislature that has rarely in Idaho history cared much about what George H.W. Bush famously called “the vision thing.”

Governors can, if they wish, create a vision and with real leadership push and pull a Legislature to be better than the status quo. Little has all the necessary preparation for the job. His first big speech provided some broad brush hints at what he wants to do.

Check back in April to see if he leads the Legislature or if, more in the style of Otter, he affirms what lawmakers ultimately decide to do.

Johnson served as press secretary and chief of staff to the late former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus. He lives in Manzanita, Ore.
 

Brad speech, Butch speech

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Brad Little now has two major addresses - inaugural and state of the state - under his belt as Idaho governor, and they might have given a focused indication of what he will do.

But not exactly. We’re probably going to have to keep watching to figure that out.

The speeches were capable, professional and appropriate. But they were not revelatory; he almost seemed to be holding back rather than expounding on how he thought things should be.

The inaugural was a hello, a thanks and a pointer to the upcoming state of the state speech, delivered as usual on the first day of the Idaho Legislature regular session.

That speech, at about 4,000 words, was shorter than all but one of predecessor C.L. “Butch” Otter’s speeches (and maybe even shorter than that one, from 2017). But otherwise, beyond a slight difference in tone - attributable to different personalities - Little’s address was a lot like most of Otter’s. Little, of course, was present to watch and learn from his predecessor; he was on the podium just behind Otter while most were delivered.

Some of Otter’s earlier speeches leaned heavy on ideology: free markets, limited government, Washington is awful, etc. The last of those came in 2011, and since then Otter - while of course never leaving his philosophy behind - spent most of his SOS speeches talking about policy specifics.

Senate Democratic leader Michelle Stennett was quoted as saying of the Little speech, “I did a happy dance. Because really, much of what he said is something that as Democrats we have been talking about and trying to pass for 10 years — at least as long as I’ve been here. ... Education, the highlights of his speech, are things that we have been working very hard toward.”

That suggests this speech marked a clear change in direction from the last gubernatorial dozen years (at least). Maybe that will materialize, but the speech provided little evidence.

I asked one veteran observer of these speeches what differences he saw; he cited a higher visibility for the first lady and representatives of the state’s Indian tribes, and no real Washington-bashing. But that was about all.

Consider education, to which Little devoted a large chunk of his speech. He had quite a few specifics on offer and some policy changes, though nothing as prospectively dramatic as Otter’s recent proposal to upend the structure of Idaho higher education. But then, Otter has talked about education quite a bit too. In all of his last half-dozen speeches, at least, he devoted about as much discussion to education as Little did. Education accounted for almost a quarter of his longest address, in 2018. And he put his discussion of it in strong terms, as when he started in 2013 by saying, "Like you, my highest priority remains public schools."

The most-noted specific in Little’s speech: “On election day over 60% of voters approved Medicaid expansion. For months I made it clear I would honor the will of the people. I intend to work with you to implement Medicaid expansion using an Idaho approach. We need spring in our safety net so that there are multiple pathways for the gap population to move off Medicaid and onto private coverage.”

The first part seemed definitive enough, but what did the last part mean? Was he calling for work requirements, and if so what kind, or something else, or would that be a misreading? What are the parameters he would or would not accept? Little’s short statement on the subject was treated almost as a break from Otter, but Otter repeatedly (albeit unsuccessfully) tried various compromise approaches in the Medicaid-expansion area, up to and including 2018. Would Otter have said something much different about the Medicaid initiative if he were still governor today? Not a bad question.

How the Little Administration will differ from the Otter Administration, other than in personnel (locus of many changes) is something we’ll need more time to process.
 

No it didn’t

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Shortly I'll get around to an overview look at the first state of the state speech delivered by new Idaho Governor Brad Little. But before I get to that, one allegation contained in it deserves a review.

The context was Little's statement that "I intend to work with you to implement Medicaid expansion using an Idaho approach," though he didn't specify exactly what that would entail.

Then he made this statement, reflecting some of what he said during the recently-concluded campaign:

While making health care available to low-income individuals we should also do what we can to make affordable, accessible, quality health care available to all Idahoans.
An unintended outcome of the Affordable Care Act is that too many people are priced out of health insurance coverage. In the past two years, the number of uninsured Idahoans increased by 125,000 – almost double the gap population. As Idaho continues to enjoy the fastest-growing economy in the nation, the number of insured Idahoans should be increasing not decreasing.
We must pursue strategies that contain health care costs.

My first response when I heard this (and the many comments like it made by many Idaho politicians) was this:

That's funny. Before the Affordable care Act, I went more than a decade without health insurance; which is to say, without health insurance that would have done me any good. I could have afforded a garbage health insurance policy that would have done me no good, but what would have been the point? A policy like the one I have had since the ACA went into effect was simply out of reach for me then; it would be now but for the subsidies the ACA has provided. (A decade ago, without insurance, I was hospitalized and faced a hospital bill of tens of thousands of dollars, and calculated that if I had been able to afford health insurance then, the premiums would have been so costly that dealing with that massive bill alone was better. Some insurance.) Today and for the last several years I have decent coverage.

My second response was that this isn't just me. Something like 20 million people have been in the same position and gotten insured thanks to the ACA when they otherwise could not (the best efforts of the Trump Administration and Congress to kill their health insurance options notwithstanding).

Priced out of health care? My policy, which covers has been roughly similar through the ACA years, did bump up in price a couple of years ago, actually dropped a bit this year, but throughout has remained decidedly affordable. The numbers of people using marketplace insurance policies has remained more or less stable, which ought to put paid to the idea that "An unintended outcome of the Affordable Care Act is that too many people are priced out of health insurance coverage."

The website Factcheck pointed out, "Republicans say the average family health insurance premium has increased by $4,154 under President Obama. That’s right — and it’s a much slower rate of growth than under President George W. Bush. In fact, employer-sponsored premiums have been growing at moderate rates for the past few years. This is a prime example of what we call a “true, but” claim: an assertion that’s technically correct, but changes in meaning or significance once it’s put in context or fully explained."

And: The RNC’s “fact check” goes on to list more figures from the KFF survey, including the accurate statistic that the average premium for single coverage through employers has gone up 28 percent “under Obama” That’s right again, but much lower than the growth of individual premiums during Bush’s first six years. That increase was 72 percent."

The situation isn't great now, for sure. But it's a massive improvement over what came before it.

That's the ACA marketplace aspect of the picture, of course - not many other aspects of health care. The Medicaid expansion fix is another element of that. The biggest aspect, not much covered in the talk about insurance, is the cost of health care and its many drivers, and the problem of health cost won't really really be reined in until that is addressed.

But let's be clear about this: For tens of millions of Americans, the Affordable Care Act has made the health insurance picture better, not worse. Period.
 

The western secretary

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When in early 2006 Idaho was mentioned as source material for a new federal Interior secretary, I was a little skeptical. But it panned out: The state’s then-governor, Dirk Kempthorne, was named and confirmed to the position.

My reason for being dubious wasn’t specific to Kempthorne. He was a second-term governor not seeking re-election (and presumably looking for his next landing place), with a fellow Republican who would succeed him and no disqualifying scandals or other problems. All of that made for understandable sense as a prospect.

My skepticism came from how Idaho almost always seems to be mentioned for Interior, but has been far more often bridesmaid than bride. Before Kempthorne, just one Idahoan led that department - another governor, Cecil Andrus - but someone in the state almost always seems to be mentioned as a prospect.

I was asked last week why that is, and the answer seems straightforward.

Much of it is regional - as in western regional. The Department of Interior’s activities are national in scope, but they seem to to tilt western. The bureaus of Land Management and Reclamation, two of Interior’s largest agencies, operate mostly in the western states. Western governors and legislators - including Idaho’s - tend to have some focus on environmental and natural resource issues, usually more than most of their colleagues to the east. A lot of BLM and Bureau of Reclamation leaders have come from the western states.

(You could say something similar for secretary of the Department of Agriculture, a job never filled by an Idahoan, with the qualified and partial exception of Ezra Taft Benson.)

These things are true for most of the western states. Consider where the recent Interior secretaries have come from: Ryan Zinke from Montana, Sally Jewell from Washington, Ken Salazar from Colorado, Kempthorne from Idaho, and before him Gale Norton of Colorado, Bruce Babbitt of Arizona and Manuel Lujan of New Mexico. The principle applies the same for both parties. The last non-westerner in the position was Don Hodel, in the Reagan Administration. Of the 26 secretaries in the last century, all but six have been westerners.

Few cabinet jobs seem to have a strongly specific regional attachment, but Interior does.

No wonder that as Zinke heads for the door, the list of possibilities to replace him is strongly western. Names mentioned on the long list include just-departed Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter and Representative Raul Labrador, both loosely plausible from a resume standpoint. Otter, 76 years old and just wrapping 12 years as governor, spent six years in Washington as a member of Congress and seldom missed an opportunity to say how much he wanted leave. Labrador is a better fit in some ways but Interior-related subjects do not seem to have been a high priority for him. He has never been an executive (many cabinet members are former governors). Besides that, he lost the Republican primary for governor last year, a primary many had expected him to win, which would not be the best positioning for building political capital in the Trump Administration.

My best guess for an Interior nominee, at least following the usual political logic, might be to look toward Nevada, which has two departing Republican top office-holders (Senator Dean Heller and Governor Brian Sandoval), both with some established strength in a competitive political environment. No Nevadan has ever been confirmed as Interior secretary, while states around it have contributed. (The same is true of Utah; might that state provide a possibility too?)

I remain a little skeptical for an Idaho answer to the new Interior opening. But there’s always room for a surprise.
 

Rerun: Brad Little’s arrival

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This is a column that first appeared on ridenbaugh.com on January 6, 2009. The occasion was the arrival of Brad Little to his first statewide Idaho elective position - almost exactly a decade before he would assume his second one.

In these days of controversial appointments to high office, here's one that (overwhelmingly) won't be: state Senator Brad Little to lieutenant governor of Idaho. And while you so often see many politicians grappling for higher office, here's one just the opposite: The surprise here isn't that Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter wanted him for the job, but that Little agreed to take it.

For the better part of a couple of decades, Brad Little has been maybe the foremost name on the Republican bench - the logical candidate for whatever office, or higher office, you're probably talking about. That has in smaller part to do with his pedigree (one of the big southern Idaho ranching families, and a very politically prominent father) but more his personal qualities. He is a rancher and businessman in Emmett, very much a part of the older Idaho, but also highly plugged in to the new and technical West and a bit of a policy wonk. He's considered relatively moderate on social issues. But he's not a Republicrat; Otter surely wanted as lieutenant someone he could work with comfortably, and Little will likely be a solid fit. His political skills are very highly developed. And almost all the way across the political spectrum in Idaho, he's very highly regarded.

(You'll not hear many Democrats bad-mouthing him; he is not an ideologue, seeming to have a more practical frame of mind. There are some Republicans, from the hard-core activist crowd, who have blasted him. But the better measure is that Senate Republicans have elected him to leadership.)

For years, the talk has been that Little be an automatically major candidate for almost any office, and at times might clear the field of serious contenders. (Had he wanted the first district House seat in 2006, the betting here is that he would now be entering his second term there, without breaking a sweat.)

But he has been reluctant. People were pleading with him for years to run for the state legislature, before he finally agreed to do it - the kind of thing lots of politicians like to be able to say, but that Little honestly could. Plenty of other Republicans would have been happy to see him run for high office since, but he's not pursued any of those opportunities. Why? The general understanding has simply been his responsibilities to the family business and his preference to stay where he is. He seems to have no hunger for the title.

So, as noted, the bigger surprise may be that he was willing to move up. Part of it may be that lieutenant governor is a part-time job. But it does raise the question anew of whether Little might be willing to go for a major (full time) office down the line. It now enhances his position on the bench.
 

Something new?

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Two data points are not much to draw conclusions for the future of a state for a whole year. But we may - may - have something to judge against in the preparing-for-office moves of Idaho’s two top incoming elected officials.

Governor-elect Brad Little has been announcing appointments to his impending administration, and they’re a varied (in Idaho terms) group. Some are people repositioned from the current C.L. “Butch” Otter Administration. Quite a few are brought in from outside. There are familiar names in the group (which for these purposes includes the transition committee), but many not so well known around the state.

In some respects this should be no surprise. Little is as broadly connected across the Idaho business, governmental and political community as almost anyone could be. He’s run a very long campaign which has brought in a lot of people around the state, and probably has exposed him and his closest staffers to people around the state who ordinarily might not appear on the radar.

It didn’t have to be that way. While there is plenty of precedent for incoming governors of the same party (and of both parties) changing out staff when a new chief executive comes in, this was an unusual case. Little and Otter were close, for a very long time. Otter appointed Little as lieutenant governor, and the two have served together in the top two jobs for about a decade. Little was a key personnel officer for the administration, too, vetting many of Otter’s appointees. Little ran in large part on the (honest enough) idea that he would be continuing much of what Otter has been doing. (His declaration that he will continue the Capital for a Day program was a smart early move.) You could easily imagine Little deciding to stick with most of the same people Otter had put in place, often with Little’s involvement.

That he didn’t offers some indication that, while he won’t be taking off in a wildly different direction from that of the last dozen years, he is open to making some significant changes. If so, we may see some indicators in the days ahead, as he delivers his first state of the state speech. It may be the most useful one to watch in some time.

The other incoming elected official signaling some change is the new first district representative, Russ Fulcher. He will be replacing Raul Labrador, a fellow Republican of like mind philosophically (don’t be surprised if Fulcher also joins the Freedom Caucus) but who also indicated he has interest in practical governing. In a 2015 New Yorker interview Labrador made clear that he was fine with government shutdowns, and his comments were cynical enough and reflected so little interest in doing anything useful that I could say in a column three years ago: “Labrador’s view seems to be that the whole project of governing, or at least of self-government, is terrible. And damaging to his political party.”

Ain’t nobody going to call Fulcher any kind of liberal. (Or shouldn’t, though in Idaho, almost everyone becomes a suspect eventually.) But I found notable some of his recent comments on getting started in Congress, in which he had little to say about bringing torches and pitchforks to the battle in D.C.

Instead, in interviews with newspapers, he spoke of putting strong emphasis on constituent service and working on the issues people brought up to him on the campaign trail, including areas like health care and natural resources.

And there was this: “My biggest fear is not the swamp or the corruption and it’s not the process — it’s doing something wrong because I didn’t know or didn’t have the right information in front of me.” That actually is - I can say unironically - a confidence builder, or should be. Same with this quote: “I’m trying to be as effective as I can be.”

A significant change from the Labrador days seems indicated here. Little and Fulcher will merit close attention in this new year to come.
 

How not to celebrate Christmas

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The Christmas season is based in religious practice but has other meanings as well. President Calvin Coolidge called it “a state of mind. To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas.” Clergyman Thomas Monson suggested, “Christmas is the spirit of giving without a thought of getting. It is happiness because we see joy in people. It is forgetting self and finding time for others.”

We do see this around us, and we can rejoice in it. But Christmas brings out not only our better angels but sometimes our darker selves.

Welcome to Christmas at West Hayden Estates, in rural Kootenai County, where Christmas season has brought anger, death threats, lawsuits, donkeys, gun-packing and lights. Very bright lights.

The full story of the low-grade fever that has gripped this subdivision is very well recounted in a recent edition of the Inlander newspaper. There’s not nearly enough space here to tell it all, but in summary:

In 2014 an attorney named Jeremy Morris, who is very enthusiastic about Christmas, lived at Hayden. His Christmas decoration of his house that year -- and in subsequent years -- involved lots of light bulbs; many more than in most houses, reportedly as many as 200,000. (This is Las Vegas casino level.) He also planned some associated activities, holding a lighting event with seasonal food and drink and more, at least partly as a fundraiser for local charities. About a thousand families said they would come to visit and, the Inlander noted, he expanded the show a bit: “He called up a woman who owned a camel, recruited kids at Lakeland High School to sing Christmas songs and marshaled an army of volunteers from his church, Candlelight Christian Fellowship, to help out.” Attendees evidently enjoyed it and the charities wound up with good contributions.

At least some neighbors were unhappy, though, about the bright lights, the sound, the crowds and what is described as a traffic jam in the neighborhood. When Hayden city noted that permits were needed for some of his activities, Morris decided to find another location.

This, outside of Hayden city, is at his new house in West Hayden Estates, where the local power is not a city but a homeowners’ association. Informed in advance by Morris of his plans - which he was describing also as his ministry - the HOA expressed some concerns, mirroring some of those of his former neighbors, in addition to violations of the neighborhood covenants. There was also this line in one document (which the writer probably would dearly love to retract): “I am somewhat hesitant in bringing up the fact that some of our residents are non-Christians or of another faith, and I don't even want to think of the problems that could bring up."

And of a sudden this became not just a matter of neighborhood comfort and aesthetics, but one of War on Christianity and War on Christmas. Since we’re talking here about rural Kootenai County, I shouldn’t need to emphasize how unlikely it is that any neighborhood in that area would want to engage in such a war. But the story line quickly became irresistible, nationally.

Before long, the Morris homestead became ground central for all kinds of fierce emotions and activities. And threats; people were talking, darkly, about all the guns they were packing. Weeks prior to the famous sit-in at the Malheur wildlife refuge in Oregon, members of the Three Percenters showed up to offer support for Morris. Morris told one federal judge that a neighbor “threatened to murder me in front of my family, threatened in explicit detail about things that could be done."

Yes, judge, because of course this thing has been all over the court system. It may continue there for a while.

Somewhere in all this, do we still have room for:

Merry Christmas. Peace on earth, good will toward men. And neighbors, too.

Too eager

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You can’t read thoughts, but you do have to wonder if someone at Alta Mesa is thinking this:

We didn’t think they’d respond this way, because on the front end they gave us no reason to think they would.

Cast your memory back to early in this millennium and the enthusiastic response from many people in Idaho, and so many state officials, to the prospect of serious oil and gas production in Idaho.

For decades oil and gas development in Idaho was slight, and even now it’s not enormous; modest in size and largely limited to one corner of the state. But it got serious in 2005 when a private firm began leasing mineral rights in the Payette County and the nearby area, and started exploration wells, which showed enough promise to warrant continued research.

The big player has been Alta Mesa Company, a Texas-based organization whose spokesman in 2014 referred to Idaho’s “very friendly climate and environment for doing the work.” That same year Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter called the prospect of more drilling “very exciting.” During a tour of the facilities he also said, “This is a long-term investment that will not only benefit the companies doing it but also the state of Idaho.” (The next year Otter was rated at a perfect 100 percent by the Independent Petroleum Association of America.)

With all that in mind, Idaho’s laws on oil and gas drilling were changed several times in the last decade, and the commission governing oil and gas spun off from its old role as an alter ego of the state land board and into a free-standing commission. The Idaho severance tax rate is especially low, and the royalty rate is the same as oil-friendly Alaska’s. What’s not for an oil or gas company to like?

Moving forward to late 2018, the picture surrounding Idaho gas and oil extraction looks a little different.

In late November, Idaho regulators settled with Alta Mesa, which now has hundreds of oil and gas leases in southwestern Idaho, on a variety of issues.

A few samples show the tenor. In September the state required Alta Mesa to pay overdue royalties and provide other required information. It followed up weeks later with another warning that if the materials weren’t provided by late January, the state “may terminate the leases and begin eviction proceedings.” In October the state sent a violation notice to Alta Mesa for failing to get state approval for working on a well. Also that month, the state subpoenaed the company for other records.

This is the same state government that only a few years earlier went out of its way to encourage the development.

These issues seemed to reach a settlement by the end of November. But the state is far from alone in its concerns about the development.

Back in August a federal district judge held that, as one news story put it, “Idaho officials violated the U.S. Constitution by forcing several landowners to sell their natural gas and oil to a Texas company without giving them a meaningful way to fight the state’s decision.”

And yes, there have been landowner protests which have begun to change the political climate surrounding their activities.

Economic developments no less than political are Newtonian: For every action, an equal and opposite reaction. Sometimes they take awhile to develop, but eventually develop they do.
 

Red, blue and purple

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What’s a red state, or county, or city for that matter? What qualifies as blue? What’s purple?

The lines are not as perfectly clear as we sometimes like to think. The point came back to me with an email from a Democrat in Valley County, who took issue with a characterization I made of his county.

Noting that Valley voters backed Proposition 2 (Medicaid expansion) 67.3 percent, I went on to describe the place as “strongly Republican.” My correspondent countered that Valley is not “very red” and “I would say is a purple county.” In support of that, he cited a Democrat elected to the three-member county commission, and that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Paulette Jordan received 46.97 percent of the vote in the general election. These might be indications Valley is gradually moving toward a less-red hue.

But consider a few other factors.

Democrat Dave Bingaman did win a commission seat, with 46.2 percent of the vote (an independent got some of the rest, denying anyone a majority). But Bingaman was the only county-level Democrat on the ballot. Assessor, clerk, treasurer, coroner and another commission seat all went to Republicans without a contest. That’s not an indicator of a purple county.

Republican congressional candidate Russ Fulcher won Valley 51.2 percent to 41.7 percent, and with one exception (superintendent of public instruction) Republicans won there for all the statewide offices. And for all three state legislative seats (though in one of them the Republican margin in Valley was held to a thin 52.5 percent). Two years ago in 2016, Republicans won all the county and legislative races, most of them uncontested by Democrats. Donald Trump won Valley County with 54.3 percent of the vote - not a close call.

So, with all respect, I’ll stick with the characterization of Valley as a Republican county.

But, a qualification is called for, even in Valley County’s case.

At what point might we say a county is blue or red turf? I’ll suggest: When it routinely and ordinarily (not necessarily always) votes for candidates of one party. It shades purple when these outcomes get hard to predict regularly.

By that standard, there’s one blue Idaho county: Blaine, because of the deep blue vote based in the Wood River Valley.

A few others are more competitive. Consider Teton County, purplish tingeing toward blue. Trump won there in 2016, but by all of eight votes; Republicans won that year for U.S. Senate and U.S. House as well. This year, however, Democrats swept Teton, winning for all of the contested statewide and most of the county offices. Teton has elected local officials from both parties in contested races in recent years; no one should take it for granted. That’s purple.

What about Ada County? While Boise City is blue - look at the legislative delegation there, and the vote percentages Democrats have been getting there - the rest of the county has been red enough routinely to tip Ada Republican. In 2016 Trump won decisively in Ada, as did three Republicans for congressional offices. The 2018 results were far more competitive: Democrats won for governor, lieutenant governor, superintendent of public instruction and lost for secretary of state and attorney general. They won two county commission seats and coroner, lost for clerk and treasurer. The county’s legislative seats split 13 Republican (pending one recount) and 14 Democratic. The two congressional districts in the county went in opposite directions. On the basis of 2018 Ada looks purple. What will 2020 show?

So, Valley County? The growing parts of the county (like McCall) seem to be moving in a purple direction. Possibly one reason Democrats haven’t fared better there is that they have fielded so few candidates locally. Put up a few more, and that purplish tinge might in fact start to grow. Let’s see what it looks like in another couple of years.