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Posts published in “Idaho column”

Lesson from the past

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Idaho

An array of familiar Democratic faces turned up Tuesday at the Boise press conference where attorney Nels Mitchell announced his run for the Senate against Republican Jim Risch, but one in particular may have resonated for people familiar with recent Idaho politics.

He was Mike Burkett, a former state senator and like Mitchell an attorney. Also like him, he has run as a Democrat against Risch. What's remarkable about Burkett is that he is one of the few people ever to beat Risch in a political contest.

That was in 1988, long before Risch was a U.S. senator, but at another time when he was powerfully positioned in the state, as Senate president pro tem. Risch then had been winning elections for 18 years (for county prosecutor, then senator) and had never lost one. He was very smart, disciplined, an excellent speaker and debater and (with his wife Vicki) a fine political strategist, and centrally positioned among Idaho Republicans in his points of view.

There was also a rap on him: That he was arrogant, loved to wield power, stepped on people. Respect was there; likability slipped over time. By 1986 Risch's winning margin was 54 percent, not a marker of strength. In 1988 he made the mistake of backing a primary challenge to a sometimes obstreperous member of his caucus, Rachel Gilbert. Gilbert, as was her wont, shot back, describing Risch as a Statehouse power out to crush independent-minded people like her. She won her primary.

When Burkett ran against Risch that year, he played a role Gilbert could have scripted: As an outsider and an unknown with a small-town demeanor, which didn't stop him from blasting Risch strongly, feeding the narrative of Risch as a powerful insider. Risch lost.

That of course was a quarter-century ago, and Idaho was a different place then, less Republican than now. Risch since has gone on to win more elections. (Disclaimer here: I was campaign manager for one of his opponents, in 2002.) The power-seeker rap wouldn't work nearly as well now in the context of a U.S. Senate seat, where he's one vote out of 100, and in the minority (at present), and working mostly outside the state. (more…)

Water projects

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Idaho

Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter's state of the state speech last week was mostly a recitation of the familiar – education? Check; wolves? Check – but his reference to $15 million he'd like to spend on water projects seemed a little out of the blue.

“Water sustainability initiative projects”? Doesn't sound very Otter-like.

And 2014 would seem to be a year when water matters settle down: This is likely to be the year a “final decree” is issued in the Snake River Basin Adjudication, which at last nails who has rights to what in Idaho water.

Throw in a few factors from here and there, though, and it does begin to fit.

There is, of course, the growing likelihood that this will be a parched water year.

Another was the reference to water not long after he spoke about economic growth in the Magic Valley. Many businesses setting up in that region either rely on a strong water supply, or rely on other businesses that do.

Idaho and its history are richly woven with water projects, the bulk of them more than 50 years old. The collapse of the last major project, the Teton Dam, seemed to slam the lid on big dams in Idaho.

Bear in mind that, although his proposal for $15 million was singled out in the speech and got a fair amount of media attention, the amount of money is, in context, small. To build a single large dam would cost hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars, one of the reasons so few have been built in recent decades. What Otter is proposing are much smaller-scale.

Those include (his budget book says) “acquiring water rights to provide a reliable water supply to Mountain Home Air Force Base ($4 million); conducting studies of the Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer to support the establishment of [city] water rights for long-term needs ($500,000); initiating environmental compliance and land exchange analysis for the Galloway Project ($2 million); completing Arrowrock enlargement and flood control feasibility study ($1.5 million); beginning Island Park Reservoir Enlargement Project ($2.5 million); developing computer infrastructure necessary for the operation of the Water Supply Bank ($500,000); and developing additional managed recharge capacity ($4 million).” (more…)

Janus years

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Idaho

Reviewing the top Idaho news stories of 2013, the Associated Press settled on the big fires of the fall, the monsters that burned and smoked so much of southern and central Idaho, as the biggest. It's a reasonable choice.

The AP may do a repeat at the end of this year. One of the most important factors driving fire ferocity is how much water is on the ground, which depends heavily on how much snowpack developed the previous winter. As 2012 ended (three month's into the standard “water year”), Idaho seemed not to be in bad shape. All but one of its 22 main river basins were running above, mostly well above, the normal precipitation for that time of year – the Salmon River at 126%, for example, the Little Wood at 147%, Henry's Fork at 111%.

At the end of this year, every Idaho basin was running below average, below 100%. The Salmon was at 65%, the Little Wood at 47%, Henry's Fork at 84%. Those are spooky numbers.

The precipitation could still turn around – and Idahoans had better hope it does. If not, Idaho could face not only more really bad fires, maybe a round of fires worse than last year's, but significant drought as well come this summer.

As with water, so with much else: Many of the big stories of last year will have counterparts in 2014. Even the Boise State University football coach transition; from the fans' perspective, definite eras ended last year and will commence next season. And the closing out of the Corrections Corporation of America management of a prison at Boise, which took a turn last year (as the state seemed to move away from private management of the prison it has operated) and is likely to reach its destination this next.

The area of Obamacare and health insurance exchanges will see a real mirror image, since up to this new year, everything was in the realm of preparation and transition, and that was a big story in the last few months. Now the practical effects of the new system come home, and that will have its own distinctive effects, on people's lives and on politics.

And then there's politics, where 2013 was in large part a prep for 2014.

More major candidates than usual announced full-throated campaigns well before 2013 was done, to the point that the shape of many of the major races next year in the state already are startlingly clear. The Tea Party and allied activists used 2013 as a major development period, and the battle for the Idaho Republican Party, between that group and what might be considered mainstream conservatives, is well set in place. At year's end we're set for significant Republican primary contests for a whole range of offices, from at least one congressional seat to governor, secretary of state and likely a good many more. Idaho Democrats too have a number of major candidates lined up.

We can't yet know for sure how this will play out. In recent weeks I've repeatedly asked the question of which side likely will prevail on primary election day May 20 (and we certainly will get an answer then if not before). The overwhelming response I heard was that the Tea forces would fall well short of the mainstreeters, and some pointed to the November election results in Coeur d'Alene and Post Falls as evidence.

They may be right, but there's often a disconnect between downtown Boise and activists outside. We still have months to go between here and there.

Let the tale of 2014 start to spin.

Hooking up with the train

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Idaho

One of the biggest events any Idaho political campaign is likely to schedule for 2014 already is on the calendar. It was announced early in December to be held March 29 at the Idaho Center at Nampa, by the campaign of Lawerence Denney, Republican candidate for secretary of state, and it is called, “Happy, Happy, Happy: An Evening with A&E's Duck Dynasty.”

At that announcement, the Dynasty – the Robertson clan, of Louisiana – were a popular attraction on A&E, especially though not exclusively in conservative circles. “They're good family values people and we're happy to have them coming,” Denney was quoted then.

Since, of course, the Dynasty has gotten new attention, and Phil Robertson specifically has become a cultural flashpoint. Many conservatives have rallied behind him; others have blasted him. His comments on gay people and on race, in GQ magazine and expanding elsewhere, are well enough known not to need a repeat here.

So far as I can tell (and please let me know if you find any other instances), Denney's is the only political event in the country the Robertsons have scheduled for 2014. In a really unusual way, Denney and the Dynasty are wrapped tightly together. (First question: How is it that Denney, alone or nearly so among American politicians, got the Robertson's singular attention? There's a story, of some kind, in that.)

Whether Denney knew about or anticipated all this is unclear. The announcement of the Idaho event came in early December, so the the agreement to do it probably happened not far in advance of the recent blowup. And remember that GQ, like other magazines, works with its material for months in advance: The Robertson story was in development long before it went public earlier this month.

And then this about the Robertsons, their producers and other associates: Whatever else they are, they've proven themselves masters of self-promotion. There's speculation that Phil Robertson's quotables were carefully planned to blow up the Dynasty into a new level of cultural prominence. That's not to say Robertson didn't believe what he was saying, only that he may have been using it strategically – as smart media figures often do.

When you set off an explosion, however, the results can be unpredictable. Three months from now, the Dynasty may be bigger than ever. Or cut off at the knees, discredited in many quarters. Or there could be some other result. It's hard to say. (more…)

From another direction

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Idaho

CLARIFICATION: The current megaload shipment across Oregon and Idaho originated in Portland, not in Asia. Other megaload shipments sent across Idaho earlier this year did originate in Asia.

Now that Idaho's Highway 12 seems to have been closed off to megaload traffic, shipments have begun moving in other directions. And that changes the nature of the megaload debate.

Highway 12 was an unusual case. For a U.S. highway, that mountainous riverside stretch is challenging for even drivers of standard passenger cars, and highly challenging for drivers of semis and the like. The idea of an enormous 900,000­pound megaload, carrying huge pieces of equipment shipped from Asia and destined for the tar fields of Alberta traveling that road seemed, simply, like madness. As the joke would have it: What could go wrong? Well, plenty.

But now we have new routes for the megaloads, and they bring different kinds of questions.

Permits under review at the Idaho Transportation Department would allow for megaloads to run from Lewiston up Highway 95 to its intersection with I­90, on which it would run deep into Montana. Assuming the bridge issue can be finessed (the loads are so large they cannot fit underneath bridges), that might be a better alternative, since that stretch of U.S. 95 is now a better road than it once was for larger vehicles, and interstates are built with the idea of handling large loads.

Somewhere in between that and U.S. 12 is the peculiar shipment now underway, slowly, slowly, from the Port of Unatilla in eastern Oregon, to the Idaho border near Homedale, around Mountain Home, over to Arco, north to Salmon, and over the Lost Trail Pass on U.S. 93 into Montana.

Those of us who have driven these roads know them mostly – the bulk of their miles – as long, flat and straight. The desert countryside on much of the way can be spectacular, but most of the route is easy driving and relatively low risk. In most places drivers may be able to make their way around the megaload, something impractical almost anywhere along Highway 12. There are some exceptions, such as the road leading up to Lost Trail Pass and the stretch north of Mountain Home leading up into the Camas Prairie. These still are easier drives than Highway 12. (more…)

Is the difference enough?

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Idaho

There now being a partisan 2014 campaign for governor – at least one substantially-organized member of each major party – maybe the first thing to do is to fresh our memories of 2010.

The Democratic nominee that year was Keith Allred, a specialist in conflict resolution, a former faculty member at Harvard, a businessman, an Idaho native – he grew up around Twin Falls – and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He had never been a candidate for office before, but he had been involved in Idaho politics as a leader of the non-partisan group Common Interest, which had some successes at the Idaho Legislature. This fresh face was polished, articulate and seldom gaffed; he was obviously a very bright man, but carried that without projecting a sense of superiority.

He campaigned with some rigor, and pulled in support from across the aisle. The Republicans for Allred group may have had the most impressive roster of identifiably Republican members ever to cross parties in such a high-profile race, a string of well-respected former state senators and county officials among them.

Why was this long-avowed independent running as a Democrat? From his web site: “Like many Idahoans, my independent streak runs deep—I like good ideas and good leaders wherever they come from.  When the Democratic Party asked me to become their gubernatorial candidate, they told me that they were offering to enthusiastically support the sort of leadership I’ve provided at The Common Interest.” More there, in other words, about Democrats agreeing to support him, than about him supporting them and their agenda.

On election day, Allred pulled 32.8% of the vote, to Republican incumbent C.L. “Butch” Otter's 59.1%. Holding Otter below a 60% true landslide was about as far as he could push it.
The other Democrats running for statewide office ranged from 24.9% to 39.5%, so Allred actually did a little better than average. But despite the many real pluses he brought, Allred in the end attracted few votes outside the Democratic base, though bipartisan support was supposed to be his big wild card.

This year's new Democratic candidate for governor is A.J. Balukoff, a successful Boise businessman and a veteran member of the Boise School Board (meaning he has run for office, albeit nonpartisan). Apart from a biographical details, he has a lot in common with Allred – smart, presentable, a (to most of the state) fresh face. Bi-partisan (he was listed as a Republican supporter of Democrat Walt Minnick in 2008). Very strongly interested and active in education. Mormon. Articulate. Energetic. (more…)

Original opinions

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Next year, after you cast your vote for the high-profiled offices like governor and United States senator, your ballot will include choices of a non-partisan variety: For judges and (Supreme Court) justices.

Critics have been skeptical for a long time of putting the offices up to a popular vote, partly because of the difficulty in campaigning for them (talking about specific cases or legal issues is considered an ethical violation), and partly because of campaign finance issues (Who gives to judges who subsequently hear contributors' cases?). But there's also this: Many voters know little about the actual work that judges do, and in most cases have little useful basis for deciding whether for vote for them.

That last point, at least, comes with some solutions at hand. One of my regular weekly news stops is the web page at http://www.isc.idaho.gov/appeals-court/opinions. Let me suggest you bookmark it too.

What you'll find there are the opinions – well, they're more than just “opinions” since they're binding rulings – by the Idaho Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals. Few people other than lawyers make them regular reading, which probably conveys the sense that they're unreadable, or at least too legally wonkish to be accessible to the lay reader.
They're not. And while some of them are of interest to not many more people than those directly involved (the Supreme Court hears a lot of worker compensation, property ownership and insurance liability cases), you get, after reading them for a time, an exposure to the real law and how it actually works. People who read the decisions probably will be a lot less likely to resort to bumper-sticker ideas about how the legal system works, and how appellate decisions are developed.

Most of the opinions aren't very many pages long, and I'm not suggesting reading all the pages anyway. Most of them are structured so that you can get the gist in the first paragraph of the decision, where the decision writer describes what the case is about, what the legal issues are, and usually (although sometimes they save this for the end), how the court ruled.

Here's an example, from November 27, in a criminal case: “Appellant Zane J. Fields was sentenced to death for first degree murder on March 7, 1991. On July 28, 2011, Fields filed his sixth successive petition for post-conviction relief in the Ada County district court. He raised claims of actual innocence, prosecutorial misconduct, and violations of the right to counsel, due process, and the right to a fair trial. The district court granted the State’s motion to dismiss Fields’s petition because his claims were barred by I.C. § 19-2719(5), the statute governing post-conviction procedure in capital cases. Fields now appeals the district court’s dismissal of his petition. We affirm.” If that catches your interest, if it raises questions you'd like answered, read on (in this case, for seven more pages where the details are fleshed out).

The decisions also note which justice or judge is the main author, though as they would quickly point out the text has to be written as a compromise – something that will get support from most of the court. But then, you also see which justices signed on, and which if any didn't.

Here's why doing this is helpful to voters: You can start to understand the reasoning the justices and judges bring. In ways you can't as effectively do with most other office holders, you can trace their chain of logic, and you can decide whether it makes sense to you.

You'd also get an insight into a lot of parts of society – not just crime and law enforcement but business, families, charities and the way people interact with each other generally – that depending on your background may really open your eyes.

For what it's worth, I've generally agreed with the justices' logic, from time to time concluding they blew it. Would those be your opinions? Read them and see.

This exercise is good for the Idaho Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, but less so for district judges and magistrate courts, where web posting of decisions generally is far less frequent. A suggestion: Encourage judges there to do as the appellates do. The voters will then at least have the opportunity to make more informed choices than they realistically can now.

Shaping the campaigns

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Idaho

Thanksgivings abound on the part of those who write about Idaho politics – directed at the political figure of the moment, Russ Fulcher. With his decision to run for governor against incumbent C.L “Butch” Otter, politics in Idaho took on some new coloration.

Maybe the challenges of the activist outsiders like Fulcher and (for the second district congressional seat) Bryan Smith will collapse by primary day. But as of late 2013, the raw materials are there for a really competitive showdown that could send Idaho politics, post-2014, sailing off in some new directions.

Caveats must be noted. Otter, who has won every primary and general election contest he has entered with one exception (for governor, in 1978) over four decades, is a strong campaigner. Fulcher is not nearly so experienced and may not be as strong on the stump (though we'll find out more about that). Otter will have a well-organized and well-funded campaign, likely better than Fulcher's on both counts. In 2012 organized cadres of activist candidates ran against incumbents for a number of legislative seats, and in Idaho's second U.S. House district, and they most failed, often without coming close to a win. There's a fair argument that 2014 could do the same.

And you can make the point that there's not much real policy difference between the two sides here. Fulcher is campaigning as a libertarian, small-budget critic of the federal government and President Obama; that is different from Otter, who has campaigned in the same essential ways (allowing for changes in the presidency) for 40 years, exactly how? (more…)

The third judge

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Idaho

There's not much ideological content to this, so Representative Mike Simpson may not get a lot of attention for his proposal of last week, which my be the most specifically useful to Idaho any of the delegation offers this term. And a repeat from 2010, at that.

But Idaho does need a third federal district judge. An act of Congress literally is required to create a new slot, as Simpson has again proposed. He said that “I recently met with Idaho’s federal judges and heard directly from them about the serious impact budget cuts, sequester, and the lack of an additional judge are having on the federal courts in Idaho. While I am fully cognizant of the budget crisis facing our country, I share the judges’ concerns about delays in the administration of justice and the impact that has on the Constitutional role of the courts.”

He has specifics: “As Idaho’s population has grown, so has the number of court cases.  Between 2007 and 2013 the District of Idaho has experienced a 26% increase in total filings and pending caseloads have increased 30%.  Idaho has a heavier caseload than other rural states that already have three federal district judges (Alaska, Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming).”

If anything, Simpson understates. Idaho's current senior federal judge, Lynn Winmill, has been pitching the case for a third judge for years. The situation in Idaho – which is one of the most understaffed states – has been reviewed repeatedly in recent years, and independent review panels such as the Judicial Council of the Ninth Circuit (earlier this year) have specifically endorsed an additional judge for Idaho.

The understaffing has led to inefficiencies and, ironically, extra costs. Winmill said in one letter on the proposal that “the District of Idaho has made great use of visiting judges to assist with the District Judge caseload. In reviewing the visiting judge statistics for calendar year 2011, we estimate that our visiting judge in-court time will increase by 57% (from 169 hours to 266 hours) in calendar year 2012, which doesn’t include their own preparation hours.” (more…)

Idaho man of mystery

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Idaho

We tend to demand to know a lot about the background of those people who would be president, somewhat less for prospective members of Congress. Down to the level of state legislature, we usually ask fewer questions.

But here we have Mark Patterson, a state representative from west Boise, Republican, for whom background has become a real issue, partly because of a dispute with the Ada County Sheriff over a denied concealed weapons permit. But there's more to it.

We know he heads a business called Rock N Roll Lubrication LLC, said to employ five people, which manufactures lubricant for bicycle chains, motorcycles, and sporting equipment. The product has gotten excellent reviews, with (apparently) some cache not only nationally but internationally. The first Idaho state paperwork for it dates to November 2007; Patterson's name is alone on papers filed in state business records for that firm. Before November 2007 … nothing.

Patterson's legislative bio describes him as a “businessman and manufacturer specializing in building manufacturing companies from the ground up that serve the national and international markets.” He uses the plural, but persistent searches turn up no second or third manufacturing companies.

Most legislative candidates tell you where they were born and grew up, and give you an idea of the contours of their life. Patterson mentions that as a child he was in the Boy Scouts and the Civil Air Patrol, and that he lost much of his hearing at age four. That's about all. Usually, if a candidate went to college, they say where and when; if they did something else, they usually say that. Patterson's different. An Idaho Statesman article about him – after the weapons permit issue hit – said he was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, “but declined to say where he has lived or list his occupations over the years.” His campaign in 2012 said he attended the University of Southern California and that he had worked as a petroleum engineer, but has since acknowledged neither was true. He said in 2012 he studied at “numerous colleges and universities,” but specifics are lacking.

Something we know: Patterson was 21 in the spring of 1974 when at a bar in Tampa, Florida, he offered a woman a ride home. Police records say she accused him of raping her. He pleaded guilty to the charge of assault with intent to commit rape, later receiving a withheld judgment. He has said since that he has no memory of that night, but later described it as “a bizarre encounter with a woman.” In 1977, in Cincinnati, he was again accused of rape. That case went to trial; he was acquitted.

Those are at least definitive times and places. Otherwise, Patterson's background seems almost invisible until 2007. At least from readily available public documents, including campaign materials, we know not where he was or what he did. Patterson's campaign web side offers his “background is in science and technology. Mark worked in oil, gas and geothermal exploration for 17 years.” Where? For whom? And what else did he do in the three decades between his court appearance in 1977 and his Idaho business filing in 2007? What brought him to Idaho, and when? Was he associated with any groups, professional or otherwise?

How did Rock N Roll Lubrication launch and go international with such lightning speed, with no apparent backing noted on the records other than one person? If this was a brilliant exercise of business management, that would be a great story to hear. (You'd expect he would share it.) If not that, then what?

This isn't a matter of tracking down every last detail about a relatively junior member of the Idaho House. I raise all this here because you likely cannot find a similar gap in the record for any other Idaho legislator, current or recent, or even not so recent. It's a gap unlike anything I can recall in four decades of watching the coming and goings of elected officials.

Who is this guy?