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Posts published in “Idaho column”

ID presidential: Result clear, fluctuation not

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The electoral college has narrowed serious campaigning for president to so few states that analysts now talk of no more than a couple of dozen counties, in a third as many states, as being especially crucial. None of those counties, obviously, are in Idaho.

Like every state it borders (debatably excepting Nevada), Idaho’s electorate votes for president are already very nearly locked. The Gem State’s four almost (remember: the voter isn’t over till it’s counted) certainly will go to Republican Mitt Romney. No surprise there. That puts Idaho in line with Montana, Wyoming and Utah, and on the other side from Washington, Oregon and (probably) Nevada.

Presidential years usually are good years in Idaho for Republicans (the reverse applies in most blue states), but that can vary. An especially strong Republican vote for president can carry down the ballot, shifting otherwise races. The number of legislative seats Democrats win this fall, for example, may relate to just how large a majority Romney wins.

This fluctuates more than you might think.

Taking the very long range of history, the highest vote percentage (78.1%) Idaho has ever given to a presidential nominee – Ronald Reagan included – was to a Democrat, though for that you have to go back to 1896, when the nominee was William Jennings Bryan. The last Democrat to win Idaho was Lyndon Johnson in 1964, though he led by only about 5,000 votes over Barry Goldwater, who went down to major crashing defeat nationally.

Since 1968, Republicans have won every time with decisive margins, but less uniformly as you might think. Reagan peaked at a very strong 72.4% in 1984, but his successor George H.W. Bush took just 62.1% - quite a comedown. And in 1992, eight years after Reagan’s smashing win, when Ross Perot won a piece of the vote, Bush got only 42%. (Is that an indication that, under certain circumstances, a portion of those Republican votes can be peeled off?) Four years later Robert Dole again won an outright majority, but only barely, at 52.2%. And the 90’s was when the Idaho Democratic Party already was in collapse, when it was elected near-record low numbers of legislators and county officials.

George W. Bush did considerably better, getting about two-thirds of the Idaho vote in his two races. But in 2008, a year when Idaho Democrats did a little better locally than they often had in presidential years, John McCain was back down to 61.2%. The odds are Romney will do a bit better, but by how much we have yet to see. The Republican presidential norm seems to be in the low sixties.

One other note is about counties. Blaine County is the only Idaho county to have voted Democratic in each of the last five presidential contests, and it was the only one in Idaho to do so in 2000 and 2004. (Before 1992 it had not done so since 1964.) But in 2008 only two other counties, Latah and Teton, joined it, and in 1996 just four counties (Blaine, Latah, Nez Perce and Shoshone) went Democratic. The pattern has shown some shift away from the old Democratic resource counties like Shoshone and Nez Perce, and toward counties with other bases, like resort-oriented Blaine and Teton. What will the pattern show this time?

That may turn a great deal on just how close this presidential contests turns out to be.

Help with water

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Most of the United States – the lower 48 at least – is in drought, has been for many weeks, and various kinds of disaster loom in many places.

Idaho is luckier than most of the country. In this year of water trouble in many places, it has two advantages.

One is the part Idahoans have no control over. The Northwest generally got lucky this year, with decent winter snowpack and adequate spring rain, coupled with mostly (and relatively) moderately temperatures this summer. Most of the country wasn’t so fortunate.

The other part, which Idaho has been able to affect, is water management. And that may come into important play in the next few years if Idaho’s summers start to match more closely with the nation’s.

For all the rustic and rural feel of Idaho’s water system (it doesn’t seem especially high-tech), it is one of the most sophisticated water management systems in the country. It is thoroughly developed, both in close watch of the water supply and in overseeing how the water is used. Aquifers are not unusual underground water systems nationally, but Idaho’s seem to be better managed than most; aquifer recharge, to make up for normal drawdowns, is a significant part of water management in the Gem State. None of this is to suggest that Idaho’s system is perfect or that there aren’t any legitimate criticisms, but an Idahoan familiar with his state’s system would have some cause to look down on what many other states do.

The Snake River Basin Adjudication is a major part of that. The SRBA, now about 25 years old, may seem to many Idahoans an eternally running, neverending court case that achieves little. And they would be wrong. Most western states have adjudications. And generally, they have been running far longer than the SRBA and are nowhere near as close to completion, and that includes adjudications far smaller than the Snake River’s. (The SRBA is the largest water adjudication in the country.) Idaho probably stands as the nationwide leader in this area.

When the SRBA is done, water use for nearly all of Idaho will be codified, and people throughout the basin (which takes in 87 percent of the state) will know where they stand – how much water there is, and who gets to use how much and for what. That’s powerful knowledge.

Just how powerful could easily turn up, before long, in Idaho politics.

Idaho is becoming increasingly urban and especially suburban. Most of the water used in the state is used by irrigators, to water sometimes water-intensive crops in a near-desert climate. Up to this point, there’s been generally enough water to go around – mostly, and most of the time. But recent years have seen a series of water calls (insistence on delivery by senior water right holders) in agricultural areas. What happens when the water supply is stretched thinly enough that urban areas are told: Your junior water rights mean you may be cut off?

Things may not unfold quite that way. But a few more dry years and more urban population growth could put the long-running rural domination of much of Idaho politics to its most severe test.

Tracking the money

Idaho isn’t ground zero for congressional campaign money. Its media markets are relatively small – political advertisers get more for the dollar in the Gem State – and its races aren’t ordinarily high-spending. When they are, spending levels aren’t always indicative of much. In 2010, Democratic 1st District incumbent Walt Minnick outspent Republican challenger Raul Labrador by about three and a half to one, and lost by a large margin. Money isn’t all. Often, though, people place their bets on prospective winners.

This year’s two Idaho U.S. House races offer an occasionally surprising overview of the landscape.

The Federal Elections Commission has a much-improved web site (at fec.gov) listing campaign finance disclosures, but most of what follows comes from the Center for Responsive Politics, at www.opensecrets.org. It is clear and well-organized, and easy to follow.

In Idaho’s first district, Labrador still hasn’t raised as much as he did in his (in the context) modestly funded campaign two years ago; he has (as of June 30, the date reflected in all these amounts) raised $551,568, and spent about two-thirds of it. Democratic challenger Jim Farris has raised $37,388, and has spent about two-thirds of that.

In the second district, Republican incumbent Mike Simpson has raised $955,983 and spent the bulk of it. Democrat Nicole Lefavour has raised $156,016 and disbursed less than a quarter.

Where did the money come from? The pairs of candidates from party rather than from district look most alike. None of the Idaho candidates is “self-financing,” or running the campaign out of personal funds; both are raising what they spend. Close to half of Labrador’s money comes from political action committees – PACs. Nearly all the rest ($271,274), all but a sliver, comes from what OpenSecrets calls “large contributions.” Simpson’s picture is similar – nearly two-thirds ($593,352) coming from PACs, and the bulk of the remainder ($302,128) from “large contributions.” Less than a tenth of donations for either candidate come from “small contributions.”

But the big contributors are different. In Labrador’s case, four gave $10,000 each. One of those is nationally well-known Koch Industries – the well-known Koch brothers Charles and David. (They were not among the top contributors to Simpson, though.) The others were Auld Investments of Boise, the Every Republican is Crucial PAC and LCF Enterprises. Simpson’s $10K-and-up top contributors were different: The increasingly controversial Monsanto Company (his top contributor, at $13,750), the Associated General Contractors, California Dairies, Lockheed Martin, the Potlatch Corporation and – get a load of this – the National Education Association. An eclectic group.

And the Democrats? They’re more reliant on small contributors, but not entirely. Farris got about a fifth of his money from PACs (the International Association of Fire Fighters gave $3,000), and about half of his money overall from “large contributions” (the New England Patriots was among them); the rest were small. LeFavour actually got even less from PACs, only $2,900. Of her funds, 55% was from large contributions (Microsoft Corporate was the largest, at $5,000, and Wells Fargo second at $2,500), and nearly all the rest from small givers.

What does all this tell you? It should give you some insight about who’s friendly with, and has strong relations with, who. And that tells you something about what these people do, or would do, in office.

On the substance border line

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In remote mountains at about 7,000 feet, above the small Idaho farm town Grace – there must have been some crooked smiles among purveyors of the illicit as they passed through – developed one of the largest and more sophisticated criminal enterprises Idaho has recently seen.

A mass coalition of law enforcement agencies, even including the state national guard, last week swept into the Carbou County backcountry and found an estimated 40,000 marijuana plants. Street value estimates in such cases often are inflated, but it had to have been large. There was law enforcement talk of possible connections to a Mexican cartel; the size of the operation would argue in favor of that theory.

That was not the only big pot bust recently. Southwest of Jerome, 1,100 marijuana plants were found (in an aerial recon), also last week. The week before, they found another 6,500 plants in a Gooding County field.

The fact of these big recent grow finds isn’t proof of major recent growth of an Idaho marijuana industry. But it feels like evidence.

Could even be some cause and effect. Barring coincidence, if large organizations really are behind these big grow operations, what’s happening in neighboring states may have something to do with it.

Eight states may have marijuana-related measures, all aimed at liberalizing pot law, on their ballots this fall. In Oregon and Washington measures to legalize, tax and regulate have hit the ballot, and have a fair chance of passing. Colorado voters will consider a similar option. In these states, if the measures pass, there’ll be a big tussle with the federal government, whose anti-pot laws will not have changed at all. But there’ll also be further growth, probably a balloon, in above-the-table grow operations. In Oregon, there already are a number of large farming businesses openly growing marijuana, under the state’s medical marijuana law. Their formal status is pretty gray-area, even apart from the federal law, but passage of the state ballot issue almost certainly would mean an expansion.

Is it coincidence that more hidden grow operations are turning up in Idaho? Nationally, the Drug Enforcement Agency reports seizures overall fell 35 percent from 2010 to 2011. It may be that more of the pot traffic in Oregon and Washington, and some other states, is becoming internalized as it becomes available through near-conventional means. In Idaho, where even a modest proposal to legalize hemp (which has no psychotropic effect but does have many other marketable uses) has gone nowhere, the underground is, well, deeper underground. There may be less Oregon marketplace for traditional criminal lines of traffic, but these connections are relatively unchanged in Idaho.

State laws matter. When Washington liquor sales moved, some weeks ago, from state stores to private retail sales, prices bounced up. That’s probably a short-term phenomenon, but for the moment at least it has led to heavy traffic in lower-priced Idaho state liquor stores, presumably from Washington residents. (The same thing has happened on the Washington-Oregon border.)

What sort of ongoing effects might Idaho seat if there’s a sorta-kinda pot legalization, and marketplace, west of the Idaho line, and none to the east?

Democrats campaigning on

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Since their summer convention in Boise, Idaho Democrats have spread out across the state to start campaigning.
Campaigning saying what?

What they said at their convention is in part a reflection of Republican electoral success: A good deal of the platform is a refutation of 2010 Idaho Republican convention positions. There’s this, for example, from the party’s platform preamble – actually, this is almost half of it:

“We reject closed, private elections and voter intimidation. We demand that we continue direct election of US Senators. We reject unwanted government intrusion into medical decisions. We recognize the need for a modern federal banking system, and reject a return to the gold standard as inconsistent with a 21st century economy. We reject the position that state governments have an arbitrary right to nullify federal laws, a position that was settled nearly 150 years ago through bloody conflict.”

Probably a majority of Idahoans would agree to that point. But as for clearly saying what Idaho Democrats are for, as distinct from Republican expressions of broader policy, that’s an old problem. The Republicans have honed a short-form mantra (One, two: Lower taxes, less gov – hey, you live in Idaho, you know the drill); the Democrats have not. It’s not that the Democrats have no ideas or principles, it’s that they’re less easily compressed.

John Rusche, the Lewiston Democrat who is House minority leader and informally centerpoint for Democratic legislative candidates around the state, acknowledged: “It’s a hard thing to encapsulate on a bumper sticker.”

One highly important issue for candidates, he said, is support for education, in a traditional sense - “The need for improved performance doesn’t mean depriving students of teachers; it requires investment.” Another is economic development, which takes “more than just tax cuts: You have have to have healthy community, education, and capital available. You have to be able to train and retrain the work force. ... There is a public good, and government has a role.”

While Democrats generally, he suggested, are talking about these things, though their overall messages will be influenced by who they are and what their district is like. Another candidate remarked of the convention, “there wasn’t a lot of comparing notes.”

But after talking to a few Democratic candidates (a larger than usual number of Democrats are running for the legislature this year), a couple of philosophical themes are woven through these policy themes.

One is pragmatism, often expressed as a willingness to work with the other party (an obvious necessity in a legislature dominated by the other guys). Senate candidate Betty Richardson at Boise, for example, running in a traditionally Republican district (something like it has only elected one Democrat to the legislature for one term, ever), spoke of intent to cross the aisle and work with Republican legislators. Hard-core baiting is not on her agenda.

The other philosophical is a sense of “the common good.” This tends not be pushed as far as it might, but a sense of some degree of community, which was once a larger part of conservatism than it is now, seems to be working its way into Democratic arguments, even in more conservative and Republican areas. A decade or two ago, that might not have made for much difference from many Republican candidates; now, it could.

As to what messages gain some traction, we may have to wait till fall, or so, to see.

Idaho, now and at birth

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Imagine an Idaho with no government at all.

Actually, you don’t have to imagine – we’re coming up on its anniversary. 2013 marks 150 years since Idaho Territory was established, and the date will be celebrated – efforts are already underway – as the Idaho Territorial Sesquicentennial (century-and-a-half). The centennial was celebrated in 1963; a special “territorial centennial edition” Idaho almanac sits on my bookshelf.

The key celebration date probably will be March 4, when Abraham Lincoln signed the organic act formally setting up the territory. But as a practical matter, there was no territory until a governor was sworn in, and that happened the following July 10, which was 149 years ago this week.

In between, and for a while afterward, government in Idaho was more theoretical than real. The first towns – Lewiston, Orofino, Franklin – were only a year or two old, a little more primitive than the first season of the TV program “Deadwood.” Idaho was split from Washington Territory partly because officials at Olympia realized they could not practically administer the newly-developing mining communities. The job proved, at first, about as difficult from the new territorial capital of Lewiston.

The first governor was a friend of Lincoln’s, former Illinois attorney William Wallace, then Washington territorial delegate to Congress. Figuring he might lose the next territorial election, he accepted the Idaho governorship. But that was even more problematic. When he got to the territory in July and declared Lewiston as the capital (as he had authority to do), he immediately enraged southern Idaho, whose population in the Idaho City and Boise area already was outnumbering the north. Not only that, Idaho Territory was then heavily Democratic, populated with ex-southerners: Not fans of Lincoln.

A judge, John R. McBride, declared that because the territory’s organic act hadn’t specified what laws would go into effect in Idaho, that it had no laws at all, until the territorial legislature (which hadn’t been elected yet) adopted some. When southern Idaho Democrats tried to elect county officials, Wallace declared those elections were illegal, and appointed all-new Republicans to the posts.

You think we’ve got partisan rancor today? The centennial Idaho courts history Justice for the Times told of “a territorial judge who tried to hold a term of court in Florence (a now-vanished mining town) in 1862. The grand jury which convened promptly indicted Lincoln, his Cabinet, various Union Army officers and the judge himself – all for high treason. Whereupon the judge promptly adjourned court and left town. When he reached Walla Walla he resigned.”

Wallace himself promptly stood for election as Idaho’s first territorial delegate to Congress and, in one of the most bitter and fraudulent elections Idaho has had, won. The territory had no government to speak of until two governors later.

What was Idaho like then? Dangerous, above all – dominated by the most violent, with little help for anyone else. Property was what you could defend with a gun or a knife. Good and services were what you could get if you could arrive at terms of exchange. Few women were interested in moving there.

Later, Idaho settled down. Communities were build, laws crafted and enforced, society structured. But in these days when the utility of government is so much at question, a harder look at Idaho’s territorial sesquicentennial might have more than usual usefulness.

Idaho column: What will the Republicans do?

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The Idaho Democratic convention may generate a few headlines but the Republican next weekend in Twin Falls may tell a larger story, when it makes decisions on picking a new chairman and approving platform and resolutions.

The chairmanship is opening with the end-of-term departure of Norm Semanko, and there’s not only no obvious heir, but also no now-obvious battle lines. The chair fight in 2010 was not about different gradations of “conservative,” or even ideology, but more about ins vs. outs. The outs (under Semanko’s banner) won. That may have taken a little air out, since winning breeds satisfaction rather than roiling energy. And this year, Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter evidently is (wisely, after losing two years ago) staying out of it. The divisions this year seem not nearly as sharp as two years ago.

A bunch of names have been floated. Some are not prominent statewide (the county chair of Elmore County, for example). At least one is well known – Dean Sorensen, a former legislator who (fairly or not) for some bears the “moderate” tag, not a good sign for election inside this party. A dark horse could yet emerge.

Then there’s Lawerence Denney, speaker of the Idaho House, quoted as saying he might be willing to serve as party chair and leave the speakership. This is an eye-catcher, since party chair is not nearly so powerful or influential an office as House speaker – or even, probably, most House committee chairs. Speculation here: It’s an indication Denney thinks he may be unseated in the organizational session in December by Representative Scott Bedke, the now-Assistant Majority Leader running for speaker, who seems to have deep and broad support.

But Denney’s candidacy, like others, is uncertain till the convention. It could be a relatively quiet and easy contest; a string of candidates each without much support each could drag things on; or there could be a squabble over issues.

Bringing us to platform and resolutions, subject of much discussion after the 2010 meeting when Tea Party favorites like repeal of popular election of senators, return to the gold standard and other such issues either were embraced or nearly so. There’s some discussion this convention might focus more on national issues and on lining up support for presidential nominee-apparent Mitt Romney, which would make for peaceful quiet.

Or not. The batch of proposed resolutions mailed to convention delegates includes, again, a bunch of hot-button items (one calling for a reversal on the closed Republican primary). Resolutions committee co-chair is Representative Bob Nonini of Coeur d’Alene, who may not shy from the hotter stuff.

The platform could go two ways too. Last time, the party called for sending out to candidates a checkoff form called variously a “survey” or a “loyalty oath,” in which they could declare which platform elements they support or not. Those responses apparently will be brought into discussion in the platform committee, which is slated to run about twice as long as usual. Based on that and longer debate, the platform might be softened from 2010, or the delegates might decide to get more creative.

Each of these choices will tell us something about Idaho Republicans this year.

Perry Swisher

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Perry Swisher

News reports have proffered a shorthand description of Perry Swisher, who died Wednesday, as a legislator, utilities commissioner and newspaperman, which is accurate. But nowhere near explanatory.

The closest anyone has come to explaining Swisher in a single sentence may be this, from a profile of him in the Lewiston Tribune upon his departure from that paper:

“As a journalist, legislator, gardener, publisher, guru, crusader, advisor to the mighty and the molested, critic, bard, counselor wondrous, administrator, confessor, orator, pundit laureate and consummate pain in the posterior – to place the adjective ‘former’ in front of those titles is not to know the man – Perry Swisher has been handing down observations and decrees ever since he presided over his Owyhee County birth 55 years ago.”

He was 88 when he died, and the description still fit. And still leaves out so much.

Swisher made his mark at Pocatello, as a reporter, political activist and candidate (not mutually exclusive then). He became a businessman, running a bookstore and a weekly newspaper. That paper, the Intermountain, covered regional and state politics, with other subjects, and Swisher wrote nearly all of it for more than a decade. His range was tremendous, from detailed commentary on government to “Madame Fifi,” an Ann Landers parody. (Great reading about the time and place even now.)

(One correspondent wrote today to remember: "One of my best recollections of Swish was when he was still knocking out the Idaho Intermountain weekly, even though it consistently operated in the red. It was kind of like Public television. Very few people actually bought it, financially supported it, or admitted that they saw it. However, somehow everyone seemed to know what was in it.")

The only business he ran that made money, he once said, was a restaurant – nicely located across the street from a movie theatre, toward which the fans’ exhaust was directed.

But his sense of public service was strong enough that he won legislative office regularly as a Republican in Democratic Bannock County. In 1966, after more than two decades of intense political and governmental work, he threw away his livelihood and his standing in his political party to mount a hopeless run for governor as an Indpendent because, he felt, someone had to be out there supporting the newly-enacted sales tax, which the the voters were about to either sustain or reject. (They voted aye. Swisher is one of the main reasons Idaho has a sales tax.) In the next decade, he returned to the legislature for one term as a Democrat, but this was no usual conversion: He could be as harsh about his new party as his old one.

He was an unpredictable speaker because he never stopped thinking and learning. A cup of coffee with Swisher was a journey on a switchback trail through first one topic (say, low-head hydro), across to another seemingly unrelated (the rate of worker comp insurance) to yet another (maybe a local election in Burley) and on and on – it was to see the connections and causal relationships, different angles of lighting, otherwise not obvious at all. This journalist was always a wonderful interview, partly because of his absolute blunt candor with a twist. He described Lewiston as “caught in a time warp,” a place where the mayor should be Rod Serling and all the cars should have tailfins. On appointment to the utilities commission Swisher, who strongly favored utility regulation, said he wasn’t a “consumer advocate” because he didn’t approve of heedless consumption. He was a font of ideas, and of thinking them through to reach practical conclusions.

Swisher was unique. His legacy in thought and practice that will influence Idaho for a long time.