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In Idaho

Assuming this term will be Gov. Butch Otter’s last, it would be a good time for him to be thinking about his place in Idaho’s history. That is, of course, if this ends up being his last term.

But legacy building is taking an ugly detour as a result of the Idaho Education Network broadband contract, which was thrown out in court and the private-prison contract with Corrections Corporation of America, which is under investigation with the FBI. Administration of contracts could be one of the big issues heading into the next legislative session. Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Bone, who chairs the House State Affairs Committee, has told the Post Register he is looking into investigating the IEN issue.

One person who is not letting the broadband issue go away is Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, who is giving the administration plenty of heartaches. Earlier this month, the Midvale Republican circulated a statewide column discussing the broadband contracts and pointing fingers in high places.

“I am not going to let this go away and I don’t think the people of Idaho should let it go away,” said Boyle, who has gained the attention from fellow conservatives and Democrats.

As one of the more conservative members of the Legislature, Boyle says “no” to a lot of things. The broadband contract was not one of them. She sees the value of connecting schools, libraries and state agencies with high-speed Internet and didn’t blink at the $60 million contract.

“Correctly done, it brings the world to Idaho students and citizens, especially in the rural areas,” Boyle said in her commentary. “However, when it becomes illegal and corrupt, I must speak out.”

As with the national debt, the costs for the illegal contracts keep climbing in the form of withheld federal funds and legal fees. And it’s all as a result of former Director of Administration Mike Gwartney, Otter’s right-hand man early in his governorship, changing the terms of the contract – eliminating Syringa, which was supposed to share in proofing the broadband connections. Quest’s name was left on the contract.

Boyle sees the arrangement as an example of “crony capitalism,” which gives special favors to campaign donors. In this case, Boyle says, “the children of Idaho will be the losers” in the deal.

Boyle says her commentary was only a start. The solution is for the Legislature, and possibly the state Department of Education, to investigate further. She has an ally in Democratic Sen. Grant Burgoyne of Boise.

“The Legislature needs to stand up and make sure the money is appropriated and spent properly,” he said.
On the CCA contract, he said, “how did we get in a position where we went for a long period of time with the contractor submitting false billings to us?”
Burgoyne and Boyle are miles apart on many legislative issues, but he admires Boyle for keeping the issue in the forefront.

“Representative Boyle has always stepped up and told people exactly what she thinks,” Burgoyne said. “She’s courageous and outspoken. She does not mislead anybody about what she thinks and her intentions. Those are very good attributes.”

Somewhere, the late former U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth – Boyle’s longtime mentor, employer and friend – must be smiling.

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In Idaho

When Sen. Mary Souza of Coeur d’Alene begins her first session next month, she says she plans to keep her head down, stay quiet and not make waves.

“That will probably last about 15 minutes,” she said laughing.

Souza, who has been a constant thorn to the side of public officials in Coeur d’Alene, hardly fits the profile of “quiet and shy.” Her personality is more suited to leaping tall buildings and tearing down trees – in the name of truth, justice and ridding the planet of political corruption. Two years ago, she spearheaded the unsuccessful efforts to recall Mayor Sandi Bloem and three members of the Coeur d’Alene City Council – essentially painting them and Lake City Development Corporation (the city’s urban renewal agency) as crooks who were robbing from the taxpayers for the benefit of political cronies. Souza’s relentless fury especially was stinging to Bloem, who is more like the Lake City’s favorite grandma than Al Capone.

This year, Souza experienced defeat and victory in the political arena – getting trounced in a mayor’s race, then defeating longtime Sen. John Goedde in last May’s Republican primary election. Souza was a clear beneficiary of Idaho’s closed primaries, which tends to favor more conservative candidates.

Now, this community gadfly – who built her name by making noise and stepping on toes – steps into a different world. Souza now is part of the political establishment. Complaints and late-night phone calls, which go with the territory of an elected official, will now be directed at her.

The target is on her back, but as Souza sees it, that’s nothing new. A person doesn’t go after the mayor, three council members and an established agency such as LCDC without getting some bruises along the way. She says her attacks have never been meant to be personal and adds that some people who meet her say, ‘You’re actually nice.’ That’s a hard line to swallow for the public officials who have been subjected to Souza’s wrath.

Strangely, her critics are not talking openly about Souza going to the Senate. Bloem says she’s “the wrong person to ask.” Former councilman Mike Kennedy, who was subject to the recall effort, said, “I don’t have anything constructive to add to the conversation. As a citizen, I hope she does a good job and I wish her well.”

But her history as a conservative activist raises questions about how effective she will be in the Legislature. Politically, she’s polls apart from moderate Senate leadership and influential members such as Sens. Dean Cameron of Rupert and Shawn Keough of Sandpoint. Can she work with them? At what point will she be painting moderate colleagues with the same broad brush as Bloem and Kennedy?

Souza says she’s going to the Legislature to listen, learn, do a lot of reading and represent her constituents from District 4.

“People will think what they want and I’m not going on a crusade to make them like me,” she said. “I didn’t run for this office to fill out my resume in life. I feel comfortable with what I’ve done and who I am. The reason I did this is because real, regular people need to be involved in government.”

Souza has plenty of friends going in – including Rep. Kathy Sims (also of District 4) and Rep. Vito Barbieri of Dalton Gardens.

“She’s well educated, has a good grasp of the issues,” said Sims, who worked with Souza on the recall effort.
Barbieri thinks Souza will “fit in nicely” in the Senate and work well with the leadership team and some of the more conservative members. “She’s personable, analytical and darn intelligent,” Barbieri said.

Souza, as with Sims and Barbieri, takes the conservative side on most issues, but bristles at the “tea party” label.

“I’d be happy to take that label if you tell me what it means,” she said. “Does it mean I am racist? No, I am not. Does it mean I am radical religious and feel everybody is going to hell? Do I hate kids, hate education, hate development and hate businesses? No.”

But if “tea party” means a desire for a smaller government, she said, “OK, I’ll take it.”

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In Idaho

I love playing golf, but I hate hitting irons.
One day, I heard somebody talk about the key to better iron play. “Get rid of the darn things,” he said. I did, and my golf game improved dramatically with my odd assortment of fairway woods.

The same principal can apply to elections in Idaho. Get rid of the darn things – at least as they are now. General elections at the top of the ticket have all the suspense of old communist Russian ballots, where only one name counts – the one with the “R” label. Democrats have become irrelevant. But as bad as general elections are, primary elections are worse. The voting turnout in late May is disgustingly low – especially with the closed primaries. But the open primaries also were a disaster in terms of low turnout.

Secretary of State-elect Lawerence Denney has said he favors eliminating primary elections and letting the parties figure out how to nominate their candidates. Actually, he’s on the right track because it’s ridiculous for the state to be spending money on primary elections that draw less than 20 percent of eligible voters. Since some 80 percent of the people have made it clear they don’t want to exercise their right to vote, then maybe they should lose that right. If nothing else, the howls of protest would offer some entertainment value.

A better idea is to find something else that does work. Oregon voters rejected an interesting idea that is used in Washington and some other states: End closed primaries and open the elections to all comers. The top two vote-getters for a given office would square off in the general election.

That means, two Republicans could be running against one another in a general election – which often would be the case in Idaho. If the top-two format were used in Idaho in the governor’s race, Gov. Butch Otter might have been going against Republican State Sen. Russ Fulcher instead of Democrat A.J. Balukoff. Voters in rural Idaho – which holds all the power in elections – then would have a real choice.

Idaho is not a two-party system in a traditional sense, but there are two distinctly divided factions in the Republican Party. There is, in lack of a better name, the “Tea Party Crowd” (TPC), led by Congressman Raul Labrador and at least half of the state’s House leadership. That group has a name for the other side: RINO – “Republicans in Name Only,” with Otter and Congressman Mike Simpson being among the charter members. The TPC prides itself on being “traditional Republicans,” who oppose anything to do with President Obama, Medicaid expansion and government-sanctioned education standards. The RINO group doesn’t like Obama, but are friendlier to selective “moderate” causes.

Sen.-elect Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, has a bill prepared that’s similar to the one rejected in Oregon and I hope he introduces it. Burgoyne has a few other ideas – including merging the primary and general elections and eliminating party labels.

“Political parties have outlived their usefulness,” he said. “Republicans and Democrats are a net negative in my view at the national level, and that’s becoming more true on the state level.”

Coming up with a perfect system probably is not possible, but as Burgoyne says, “everything we’re talking about is better than what we’ve got, which tells you something about what we’ve got.”

And what we’ve got is only a little bit better than Communist Russia – where, I think, my old golf irons are resting in misery.

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In Idaho

Elections are over, but the groaning continues from the “enlightened” elite, which saw beloved Democrats get kicked in the teeth.

Conventional “enlightened” wisdom is that those ignorant hicks in rural Idaho didn’t know what they were doing. If unenlightened rural folk read the Idaho Statesman, the flagship paper of the Great State of Ada, they surely would have voted for Democrat A.J. Balukoff as governor. Better informed people also would have voted for Jana Jones as state superintendent of public instruction, Holli Woodings as secretary of state and Deborah Silver as state treasurer. I’ve also heard speculation that Democrats lost because they failed to field quality candidates in this cycle.

Hogwash. Rural Idahoans knew exactly what they were doing on Election Day and the Democratic ticket was plenty strong. The only problem with Democrats is they were from the wrong party; people in rural Idaho simply don’t trust Democrats. State Rep. Judy Boyle of Midvale, a former congressional staff member of Helen Chenoweth, says the “enlightened” few have it all wrong.

“People in rural Idaho are well educated and very independent, and that’s why we live here,” she said. “We like coming up with our own ideas, doing our own research and we don’t need to receive a daily paper with liberal tripe telling us how to think.”

With few exceptions, rural Idahoans think Democrats belong in California, or the East Coast – but not in any position of authority in Idaho. As Boyle explains, Democrats tend to be for gun control and more taxes, and liberal concepts such as Common Core and Obamacare.
Voters from Idaho’s heartland knew little about State Superintendent-elect Sherri Ybarra, who had the closest race of the night. “But they figured an ‘R’ was better than a ‘D,’” Boyle said. Rural Idahoans were not about to go against Secretary of State-elect Lawerence Denney of Midvale, who was about as rural as a candidate can get.

“He’s a farmer and he’s not afraid to say, ‘I believe in the Lord, believe in the family and believe in our country,’” Boyle said. “Those are basic Idaho principles.”

Abortion, gay marriage and gun control – staples of the Democratic platform – are not among the basic principles in rural Idaho.

Boyle celebrated the GOP’s victory in the mid-term elections, saying “the American people figured out what was going on.” But she is not pleased to see another four years of Gov. Butch Otter, which Boyle said has produced “backroom deals, the whole dang thing with the prisons, the (Idaho Education Network), the crony capitalism that is going on.”

Boyle’s friends and neighbors saw the “good-old-boy” side of Otter. “He goes around, slaps everybody on the back and has a drink with them,” Boyle said. “People don’t know how vindictive he is, how hateful he is and how he says one thing and does the totally opposite.”

But those factors didn’t come into play on Election Day, and it probably would not have made a difference if news about the IEN’s broadband contract came out before the election. All that mattered was that Otter had an “R” by his name.

To rural Idahoans, a flawed Republican governor is far better than the best candidate that Democrats can field.

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In Idaho

Ten years ago this month, a cardiologist told me I was a prime candidate for dropping dead at any moment because my heart was clogging up, as if Elmer’s glue was flowing through my veins. I checked into the hospital the next day, and doctors were cracking open my chest for a five-way heart bypass that saved my life.

I’m telling this story because November happens to be American Diabetes Awareness Month – a time to focus attention on a growing disease that hits 30 million people in America and more than 80 million people who are diagnosed with a ticking time bomb called “pre-diabetes.” If we do nothing, it is projected that one in three people will have diabetes by 2050 and I can only imagine what that will do in terms of health care costs.

As I celebrate my 10-year anniversary of my new lease on life, this also is a good time to reflect on what I have been through, what could have happened and maybe offer some hope for those who are battling this disease. A clogged up heart was only one of the complications I have experienced since being diagnosed with diabetes 15 years ago. I lost a toe in 2001, essentially lost my vision two years later and left my job as an editorial writer with the Idaho Statesman.

Nobody dies directly from diabetes; it’s the complications from this silent killer that can make death a welcome relief in the later stages. Heart disease, kidney failure, stroke, amputations and nerve damage are among those complications. If I didn’t have the bypass surgery 10 years ago, I wouldn’t be around to tell this story. Instead … I’m 64 years old and feeling great. My heart is strong and healthy, my eyesight has fully recovered. I don’t know if my recovery was the result of the grace of God, or dumb luck, but I’ll take the result.

Diabetes is a horrible disease, but it is not a death sentence. It can be managed and some of the effects can be reversed (I’m living proof). There’s plenty of help for those with the disease, including the American Diabetes Association. The ADA also provides expertise in management and offers tips for a healthier lifestyle – such as more walking and smarter cooking. So, it’s isn’t all gloom and doom – although there’s enough information that can scare the daylights out of people. Diabetes is the leading cause of kidney failure and two of three people with diabetes die from heart disease or stroke. The rate for amputations for people with diabetes is 10 times higher than for people without diabetes. The national cost for treating the disease is estimated at $245 billion.

The National Institute of Health and the Centers for Disease Control are entities that are working to find a cure. Aside from that, there are no grand government solutions. Individuals have responsibility to help themselves. It starts with the home and parents promoting a healthier lifestyle for their kids, who will be part of this world in 2050.

November is a good time to talk about all of this. But healthier living cannot be confined to a single month.

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In Idaho

Judging by his margin of victory, Gov. Butch Otter sealed the deal on this election long before the Oct. 30 debate on Idaho Public Television. But if there were any doubts about Otter in rural Idaho, where Otter practically is a political folk hero, they were quickly dashed in the debate.

From a rural perspective, Otter, the rodeo cowboy, was going against all the forces of evil. There was a Democratic egghead, a smooth-talking lawyer and a liberal media panel that peppered him with questions about issues that didn’t amount to a jar of tobacco spit – mainly, the prison scandal and settlement amounts.
Otter, the smart politician he is, turned the situation in his favor. He fought back, putting the rich Democrat, the lawyer and the liberal press in their place. A few times, he stood toe to toe with John Bujak, looking him straight in the eye – which, given Bujak’s physical stature, was like staring down Mean Joe Greene.

Somewhere in rural Idaho, someone had to be saying, “You tell ‘em, Butch.” The rural folk couldn’t care less if the settlement amount with Corrections Corporation of America was $1 million, or $1.3 million, or whether he participated in negotiations that gave the CCA a golden parachute. One thing people in rural Idaho can understand is how to deal with tough times, and Otter played those cards just right. It’s easy for people in Boise to talk about spending more for education and raising taxes; it’s a lot tougher for people in rural Idaho to come up with the cash.

For almost an hour and a half, Otter showed a side of him that has been missing for so long. He’s the guy who, as a legislator, voted “not no, but HELL NO,” on a bill he didn’t like. As lieutenant governor, he vetoed a bill to raise the drinking age when the governor was out of town because he didn’t want to yield to the federal government’s blackmail. As a congressman, Otter stood up to a Republican president at the height of his popularity to oppose the Patriot Act, because he thought it trampled on people’s civil rights.

During the talk about the Patriot Act, calls of “You tell ‘em, Butch,” didn’t just come from rural Idaho. Otter was a champion of the people and even the editorial pages gave him credit.

The last time I saw Otter with spunk and energy was in 2009 when Otter was pushing for a 2-cent gas tax to repair Idaho roads. He stood up to Republican legislators, including now-Congressman Raul Labrador, and told it like it was. Idaho roads were crumbling and a 2-cent gas tax was the least painful way of paying for the needed work. Otter was beaten down on that issue by House Republicans and Otter turned into just another politician trying to keep his job. The strategy for Republicans in 2010, when Otter was seeking re-election the first time, was for everybody to be unified. The governor’s office and leadership in both chambers were using almost identical talking points to illustrate how the GOP was effectively managing Idaho through difficult economic times. State sovereignty resolutions poured out of the chute like popcorn during that session – showing that the GOP was firmly committed to standing up to the federal government.

Otter’s go-along, get-along, approach remained throughout his second term. Sure, there was fuss over a state health exchange, common core and Luna laws, but he had the blessing of legislative leadership at every turn. His last State of the State speech, which contained a litany of references about government programs, government partnerships and rhetoric about “what government has, and can, do for you,” was an example of what Otter had become.

So now, Otter is heading for a third term and I hope to see more of the old Butch Otter, who had unquestionably high principles and convictions. I hope to see the Butch Otter who puts the people ahead of the cronies and power brokers. In reality, Otter has nothing to accomplish or prove in the next four years. He’s unstoppable in elections and he already has achieved greatness in the eyes of voters.

The message from this election is that Otter can stay in office for as long as he wants.

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In Idaho

This year’s governor’s race comes down to whether Idaho voters care about crony capitalism, where political cronies and campaign donors profit under the name of “serving the public’s interest.”

Democratic challenger A.J. Balukoff is using the stretch run of this campaign to bring up two glaring examples – the Corrections Corporation of America’s failed private-prison management effort and the $60 million broadband contract, which has turned into a nearly $80 million tab for Idaho taxpayers. Both matters involve people, or entities, that have donated generously to Gov. Butch Otter’s campaign.

This isn’t exactly an “October surprise,” since the CCA fiasco, especially, has been in the news lately. And Balukoff isn’t the first gubernatorial candidate to raise issues regarding CCA and broadband contracts. State Sen. Russ Fulcher, who challenged Otter in May’s Republican primary, also touched on those issues. The difference is Fulcher didn’t have the money to make a stink last May; Balukoff does, and he’s flooding television screens with ads and newspapers with press releases.

Balukoff has struck a nerve. After Balukoff ran ads about the CCA, Otter responded with an ad of his own – basically calling Balukoff a liar.

Balukoff is taking a risk. If negative ads work – and history suggests that they do – then the final round of ads will be a big reason why he wins. Or, it can backfire on him if he’s bombarding voters with information that is far too complicated to digest. There is nothing simple about the issues he’s presenting, and Otter supporters couldn’t care less.

Otter’s campaign also has taken a negative turn, mostly using the traditional rhetoric that Republicans use against Democrats. He paints Balukoff as a spend-happy liberal who wants to bleed Idahoans with higher taxes and compromise our 2nd Amendment rights – which probably ruffles more feathers than higher taxes. The ads falsely assume that a Democratic governor has any influence over a Republican Legislature.

There’s not much Balukoff can do that the GOP hasn’t done to itself. Otter and Republican leaders in the Legislature already have established a statewide health exchange program, a centerpiece of Obamacare. They have given their backing to Common Core education standards, a favorite of the liberal social engineers. Balukoff probably will take the lead in promoting Medicaid expansion if he wins, but that’s no culture shock to Republicans. The Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry – the right arm of the Otter campaign – already is on the front row of support for that issue.

If Balukoff wants to invest through the roof on education and bring Idahoans to their knees with higher taxes, good luck getting those proposals through the Legislature. The coffin for those ideas is waiting in the House Revenue and Taxation Committee.
Balukoff already has support of those who want more money for education, and Otter – who is practically a folk hero in the rural communities – has that vote locked up. Balukoff is going after independent, or undecided, voters by centering on the scandals that have given the Otter administration a black eye.

Recently, Balukoff sent out a news release demanding Otter to “come clean” over the $60 million broadband contract and “immediately release to the public and the media all records pertaining to the CCA case.”
Yeah, right. The governor isn’t going to “comes clean” on those issues, or anything else.

Otter is not going to be accountable, because he doesn’t have to be accountable – which is what crony capitalism is all about.

There’s an old saying that applies to this administration: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The broadband contract and the CCA disaster are products of the culture that’s in place and stands to grow with four more years of power, or maybe more. Otter says he will not seek a fourth term, but during the primary campaign he also said would not dismiss the idea of seeking a fourth term. So, what version do we believe? Since there’s no sign of his health slipping, or money drying up, Otter is well positioned to stay in office for as long as he wants.

… Or, until voters take him out.

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In Idaho

Dr. Vincent Muli Wa Kituku, a native of Kenya and motivational speaker from Boise, follows Idaho politics closely, but his evaluation of candidates goes beyond their views on the issues.

Kituku wants to know how a person connects with an audience. Does the candidate stumble over words? Speak without a script? Use stories and humor in their presentations? Show passion? Inspire voters?

Kituku’s standards are high. His opening prayers are better than many keynote addresses. He has written books, made recordings and conducted seminars on public speaking. He’d be an outstanding speaking coach for any candidate wanting to sharpen his/her skills.

But he doesn’t get a lot of takers, because most candidates don’t give much thought to presentations – the part that often closes the deal with voters.
Intellectually, everyone wants to put substance ahead of style. But style is crucial, especially for newcomers challenging longtime incumbents. Steve Symms was loaded with style and flash when he ran against, and defeated, longtime Sen. Frank Church in 1980.

Cecil Andrus won two big races for governor, at least partly due to his ability to connect effectively with audiences. Four years ago, Keith Allred had substance in his run for governor against C.L. “Butch” Otter, but few style points and was no match for Otter in the general election.

This year’s Democratic candidate, A.J. Balukoff, a CPA by profession, speaks with Sabout corruption in the Otter administration and lack of focus on education, but without gusto. Balukoff’s bow tie, which was used in his early television ads, probably didn’t help him, according to Kituku. “I tell people they should stand out, but that does not mean looking silly.”

Kituku says Otter is no great speech-maker; the older he gets, the more he tends to ramble. But Otter has not lost a step as far as his ability to work a room. Strong handshakes, beaming smiles and friendly laughs make him as likeable as ever.

“That’s what I mean about connecting with people,” Kituku said. “Mitt Romney had some outstanding ideas and values, but he was not likeable.”

Recently, I was talking with Democratic Senatorial Candidate Nels Mitchell, and offered some first impressions of his speaking style. I hear words coming out of his mouth, but don’t feel anything coming from his heart. He may be a hit with Democrats and those who dislike Sen. Jim Risch, but in politics, lack of heart and soul equals lack of connection with undecided voters. Kituku has a similar view.

“Forget that one,” Kituku said flatly of Mitchell’s style.

He’s no kinder toward Risch, who Kituku says comes across as angry. “He does not connect well.”
Mitchell, a career lawyer, would do well learning from Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, another career lawyer who turned to politics. As a candidate, and in his early days in office, Bieter was “horrible” as a speaker. Kituku saw a marked improvement in Bieter’s second state-of-the-city address – speaking without a script, telling stories and blending humor into his presentation.  

The best speaker among the high office holders is Rep. Raul Labrador, which explains why he’s a popular figure with the national press. I have seen him a couple of times in town hall meetings, and he’s superb with his presentations. It’s no wonder why he attracts large crowds.

Some people might not like Labrador’s politics, but he wins points with style. “He’s likeable,” Kituku said.
Kituku also gives high marks to retiring state Superintendent Tom Luna. Kituku has differences on policies, but gives Luna credit for the ability to effectively articulate his views and connect with audiences.

So, there are a few role models out there and newcomers – especially – would do well to follow their examples. Most candidates do not enter races with captivating speaking skills, but they can be sharpened. In today’s world, a speech coach might be at least as important to a candidate as a campaign manager.

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In Idaho

Nels Mitchell says up front in his campaign against Sen. Jim Risch that he is not a career politician. “In fact, I’m not a politician at all.”

Breaking news: Mitchell is a politician. He’s a career lawyer and there’s no way he could survive in that field without being a politician. So there’s Exhibit A in building a case (beyond a reasonable doubt) that he is, indeed, a politician.

Exhibit B is his campaign manager, Betty Richardson. She has an outstanding reputation as a lawyer and she’s a pretty good politician as well. Richardson was unsuccessful in her run for 1st District Congress against Butch Otter in 2002. But in 36 years covering politics (not all in Idaho), I’m hard pressed to think of any candidate I’ve seen who was better prepared.

Exhibit C is in Mitchell’s actions. As he blasts networks such as FOX News for creating anger and outrage, Mitchell releases a video of MSNBC’s Rachael Maddow – the left wing’s answer to Rush Limbaugh – slamming Risch for suggesting that the national debt is the biggest problem in Idaho. Mitchell says he does not want to match Risch with snide comments. Yet, after a televised debate in Boise, Mitchell nailed Risch for “creating a sideshow,” using “theatrics” and spouting “half-truths” and “shrill insults.”

So, Mitchell is not a choir boy and don’t look for him to star in a remake of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” But he is an intelligent, thoughtful and articulate person and an intriguing candidate. Running against Risch, the ultimate “career politician” presents challenges. It also presents advantages, since there’s no shortage of people who dislike Risch, perhaps the most polarizing figure in Idaho politics. Mitchell says his internal polling shows that Risch has not closed the deal in this election.

So he’d better learn to be a politician quickly if he is to peel off undecided voters. Maybe he could watch a few clips of Huey Long to learn how to rile up a crowd. Mitchell, at 60, acknowledges that he has some rough edges as a politician. After all, he did not mold his life and career to run for the U.S. Senate, as Risch has. About a year and a half ago, Richardson, former Gov. Cecil Andrus and others encouraged him to run and initially he did not take the bait – that is, until Congress shut down the government. “That was the tipping point,” he said.

Another motivator was the feeling that Risch should have an opponent. No other Democrat was interested in challenging a well-funded incumbent. Last year, in an interview with the Idaho Statesman’s editorial board, Risch talked in glowing terms about how much he enjoyed life in Washington and social perks, such as attending events at Ford’s Theater and his wife attending a luncheon hosted by Michelle Obama. I was in the room when he said (as reported by the Statesman’s Dan Popkey), “You know, I really enjoy this job. I really like this job.” Being governor is hard work and can wear a person down. “You can’t do that job permanently. This, you can do ad infinitum.”
Mitchell says that Washington is broken with a system run by lobbyists and career politicians. He says he’d serve one term, which is understandable for a 60-year-old man. Six years in that rat race is enough even for those much younger.

Mitchell says, Democrats share part of the blame for the dysfunction. He’s not impressed with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, or House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. He calls the implementation of President Obama’s health care plan as “an embarrassment,” and views the president’s foreign policy as short-sighted.

He disagrees with Risch about the national debt being the greatest problem facing Idaho. “The biggest problem facing Idaho is the lack of living-wage jobs and our weak economy,” says Mitchell, promoting raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour.

The big challenge is convincing Idaho businesses that raising the minimum wage is a good idea, then getting it passed through Congress. It will take some masterful political skills to make all that happen, so maybe Mitchell should not dwell so much about not being a politician.

He’d be better off talking about why he’s the right man for the job.

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In Idaho

Two things are certain to come from this year’s race for superintendent of public instruction. One, a woman will occupy one of Idaho’s constitutional offices since Donna Jones was elected controller in 2006. Secondly, Tom Luna will ride out of office after eight years – which is good news to a lot of “professional” educators.

The bad news is that Idaho will be losing one of its most aggressive advocates for public schools since Jerry Evans held the office. Luna and Evans disagreed sharply on viewpoints and approaches, but both took strong stands on education issues without worrying much about political fallouts.

Luna came into office promising to shake things up in education and he delivered with a series of “Students Come First” proposals – commonly known as “Luna Laws.” Many of the criticisms were justified. He didn’t bring up these proposals until after he won re-election and the process wasn’t as inclusive as it could have been. Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter gave his full backing to these proposals and the Legislature voted them into law, which speaks well for Luna’s ability to navigate the political system. Voters had different ideas, sending the Luna Laws to a resounding defeat in 2012.

One thing that was positive in my mind was, at least Luna was trying to do something about an education system that has not fundamentally changed in 50 years.
Luna, a former member of the Nampa School Board, was not a professional educator. But he had something that few candidates running for the position ever had – the ability to communicate and articulate his vision about where he wanted to go and how to get there. Regardless of the audience – and even with editorial boards — he came across as confident, strong and under control.

I don’t see any of those communication qualities in the two candidates running, Democrat Jana Jones and Republican Sherri Ybarra, both of whom have a stronger education resume than Luna. Neither candidate talks about grand ideas beyond supporting the governor’s education task force and Common Core.

Jones has more experience with office, having working with three superintendents and as chief deputy under Marilyn Howard, who was a capable educator but a horrible communicator. Jones thinks a Democrat can be effective in the superintendent’s office.

“Students don’t come to school with Ds and Rs on their foreheads,” Jones said in a debate in Twin Falls, covered by Idaho Education News. “We use politics to be elected, but once there, you need to put politics aside.”

Unfortunately, legislators do care about Ds and Rs and the reality is Republicans don’t pay attention to Democrats on big-ticket issues. If Jones talks about promoting an Internet sales tax, it will give Republicans even more reason to shoot it down.

Ybarra has a better chance of working with Republican lawmakers. But she also has stated repeatedly that she is not a politician, which is a terrible quality for a state superintendent. It takes a lot of political moxie to present budget proposals to the governor’s office and make a convincing case to the Legislature. Part of the job means sitting on the State Board of Education is not for the faint of heart, or non-politicians. She’s also not much for media interviews, as Jennifer Swindell of Idaho Education News discovered early on in a profile of Ybarra in May.

“Sherri Ybarra is a career educator and accomplished student. And that’s about all she likes to reveal publicly,” Swindell said in her report. “Ybarra doesn’t share a lot of details about how she would run the State Department of Education. Her answers generally circle back to one mantra: ‘I’ll do what’s best for kids.’”

So for the moment, Ybarra – the surprising winner of last May’s GOP primary – lacks the vision and communication skills to lead the department. Jones, who lost a close race to Luna in 2006, has a solid working knowledge of the department. But whether she can get her ideas beyond the Democratic caucus is another thing.

Idahoans probably can’t go wrong either way. But gone are the days of bold initiatives coming from the state superintendent’s office and a passion for reform.

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In Idaho

John Bujak, the Libertarian Party candidate for governor, is making the effort to pull off the biggest political upset since Jesse “The Body” Ventura went from the wrestling ring to governor of Minnesota. But if he doesn’t win, he’d be fine if Democrat A.J. Balukoff did.

As Bujak sees it, four years of gridlock from a Democratic administration would be preferable to electing Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter to a third term in office. Bujak says eight years is long enough; 12 years invites more corruption.

“I’ve voted for Otter in the past and there are times that I’ve thought he was doing a good job,” said Bujak, a former Canyon County prosecutor. “But after so many years, being in government for so long and now running for a third term, he’s simply out of touch. And he has turned a blind eye to the corruption going on in his administration.”

Bujak says the controversies surrounding broadband contracts and the botched operation of a private prison system are examples of “cronyism and corruption” that have been part of Otter’s administration.

Although Bujak prefers Balukoff over Otter, that’s hardly an endorsement for the Democratic candidate. Bujak offers himself as a “conservative alternative” to Otter and a choice for disgruntled Republicans who can’t stomach voting for a Democrat. He’s also trying to appeal to independents that are fed up with the two major parties.

Bujak looks to Ventura’s campaign in 1998 as a “how to” guide for a third-party candidate to win a governor’s race. Bujak doesn’t have the flamboyance of the former star of the wildly popular World Wrestling Entertainment. But he has some of “the Body’s” flare in the courtroom and on the political stump. Bujak lashes out at the both parties that “serve special interests and … a party platform that is bigger than the state of Idaho.”

Televised debates were the “game changer” for Ventura’s campaign in 1998 and Bujak thinks the same thing could happen in Idaho this year. “He had about 10 percent (support) before the debates and ended up winning,” Bujak said.

Although he’s running on the Libertarian ticket, he doesn’t go “too far” down that party line. You won’t hear him talking about extreme positions of libertarians, such as closing public schools and opening the door for gambling, prostitution and legalization of marijuana. His views on issues are a mirror image of Sen. Russ Fulcher, who received almost 44 percent of the vote in his unsuccessful run for governor. Bujak says “no” to Common Core, wolves, Obamacare in any form, federal control of public lands and Medicaid expansion. Bujak calls those more traditional Republican stands, with a libertarian twist.

“If you like Fulcher on the issues, then you’d like me. I would not be running if he had won,” Bujak said. The difference is in personality. “I don’t know if Russ is as much of a fighter as I am.”

Of course, most of Fulcher’s fights have been within the relatively tame confines of the Legislature. Bujak has had to fight corruption charges from his time as prosecuting attorney, and he worked aggressively to convince a jury to clear him of those charges. On his website, he offers a lengthy description of “what happened” in Canyon County.

“I learned a lot about our government through my experiences,” he said. “Government is in the business of serving itself and the special interest groups that support politics as usual. The regular citizen does not matter to the government and as long as it remains politics as usual, the regular citizen will not have a voice.”

Along the way, he said he learned “that government is manipulated by a group of ‘Good Old Boys, consisting of career politicians, lobbyists and insiders who gained special benefits and favors from keeping the right people in power.”

Ventura used similar lines in his run for governor 16 years ago, and he caught fire during the campaign’s stretch run. Political experts, who viewed Ventura as a fringe candidate without a chance, stopped laughing as his following grew larger.

I’m not sure what kind of impact Bujak will have on this election, but at the moment he appears to be Balukoff’s best friend – and Otter’s worst nightmare.

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In Idaho

I like Lawerence Denney.

I worked four sessions as communication adviser with the House GOP caucus when Denney was speaker of the House and found him to be fair and supportive. “Boss Denney,” – a description often used by the Lewiston Tribune and Post Register – didn’t fit this soft-spoken man.

In morning leadership meetings, he was anything but a “boss” or “bully.” Scott Bedke and Mike Moyle, the top leaders of the House today, were the strongest personalities in the room and often drove the discussions. Denney, with his friendly laid-back style, was the kind of guy who would lend you a ladder or a wrench if he were your next-door neighbor.

That’s the side of Denney that I have known for seven years. But because of his actions as House speaker, I can’t dismiss the harsh comments from the Tribune, Post Register and other sources. He’ll probably win the secretary of state’s office, because Democrats don’t stand much of a chance in this state. But many of the criticisms are justified and the editorial writers have a right to question his fitness for office.

Holli Woodings, Denney’s Democratic opponent, describes the basis of her campaign. “What this comes down to for me is who can best continue this legacy of fairness we have had in the secretary of state’s office for decades,” she said, referring to retiring Secretary of State Ben Ysursa and Pete Cenarrusa before that.

During his six years as speaker, Denney “fairness” was a one-way street. He was the leader of the Republican Party, especially the more conservative side of his party, and part of his purpose was to help GOP conservatives keep the upper hand. He earned the nickname “Boss Denney” after advising one organization to fire its legislative lobbyist and hire a friend and former state representative, Julie Ellsworth, to the position. He fired committee chairmen who didn’t follow the conservative path and fired one of the most conservative legislators ever to serve, former Rep. Delores Crow, from the redistricting commission, for apparently not being conservative enough and lack of communication. He spearheaded passage of closed primaries, which gave conservative Republicans an even greater advantage and served to make a bad election system worse.

In Denney’s world, “moderate” Republicans were no better than Democrats. It’s no mystery why former Rep. Leon Smith of Twin Falls, one of the committee chairmen who was fired by Denney, has endorsed Woodings.

So, if Denney wins the secretary of state’s race, he will have to transform himself from a partisan politician to an ambassador of fairness. That won’t be easy.

Recently, the Idaho Republican Party raised questions about whether Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate A.J. Balukoff violated campaign finance laws with his payroll and bookkeeping procedures. Tim Hurst, the chief deputy for the secretary of state’s office, said there was no violation and the GOP dropped its complaint. I’m not sure if Denney would have reached the same conclusion, or if he ever would side with a Democrat or moderate Republican on anything.

His record as speaker and his campaign rhetoric suggests he would not. On his website, Denney says he offers “Proven Conservative Leadership.” That’s a nice slogan for a race for the Legislature, or House speaker, but it’s a rotten message for a secretary of state who is supposed to offer fairness for all.

A couple of weeks ago, Woodings issued a news release saying she would retain the secretary of state’s staff if she were elected and Denney followed suit with a similar statement. With Denney, it might not be so easy to keep the staff if political strategists hold the top positions.

If Denney wins, my hope is he would be more like the person I have known and “Boss Denney” will be a nickname from the past. My hope is that he relies on his professional staff instead of the political advisers who were so instrumental during his time as speaker. His heart and head need to be in the right place if he is going to be successful as secretary of state.

So with Denney, there are a lot of questions. Woodings thinks she has some answers.

If voters elect her, she says, “you won’t have to worry about it.”

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In Idaho

Sen. Fred Martin of Boise belongs to an exclusive club.

He is the only Republican senator living in the Boise city limits, which is surprising considering Idaho’s status as one of the reddest of the red states.

So while Idaho is decidedly Republican, Boise is ruled by Democrats. Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, a former Democratic legislator, has been in office since 2003. More recently, Brian Cronin – another former Democratic legislator – easily won election to the Boise School Board. The only areas where Democrats may have a stronger foothold are Districts 26 (which includes the Sun Valley area) and 29 (Bannock County).

It didn’t used to be that way. “Twenty years ago, there were three elected legislative Democrats in Ada County; six years ago there were six and now there are 12,” Martin said.

Granted, there are more legislative districts in Ada County than in years past. But there’s no question that Democrats have made some impressive gains over the years, and especially in Boise. Nine seats in three Boise districts (16, 17 and 18) all were held by Republicans years ago. Now, all seats are held by Democrats. District 17, once considered a “swing” district, has no Republicans challenging the Democratic incumbents.

The legislative makeup in Boise has significant implications statewide – and they can be viewed positively or negatively, depending on your political outlook. Democrats, working with moderate Republicans, help turn back calls for the repeal of Obamacare and secure the vote for an Idaho-operated state health exchange. The coalition keeps alive concepts such as Common Core education standards and opens the possibility for Medicare expansion, which has been endorsed by the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry. Democrats help keep the pressure on more funding for education and draw greater attention to a sagging economy and low wages.

If those nine legislative seats in Boise were held by conservative Republicans, Rep. Scott Bedke of Oakley probably would not be the speaker of the House and Gov. Butch Otter would be without his best (if not his only) ally in House leadership.

All that’s standing in the way of Boise being wall-to-wall with Democrats is District 15, but that could change in November. Democrat Steve Berch, making his third run for the Legislature, has the best shot at winning one of the two House seats. He is mounting an aggressive door-to-door campaign against Rep. Lynn Luker.

“It’s very humbling and gratifying knocking on doors and talking with people,” Berch said. “Nowhere – and I mean nowhere – on the list of priorities is making sure that a baker doesn’t have to bake a cake for a gay couple.”

Berch is taking a dig at Luker’s controversial religious freedom bills, which either can vault him to re-election or cost him his legislative career. Luker is betting that a turn to the right will help him with the influx of Republicans that came to District 15 after redistricting.

A lot of eyes are on District 15, because it is on the water’s edge. Idaho gets more conservative heading to the west and south. Two Democrats (Berch and Betty Richardson, who ran against Martin) came close two years ago.

Republicans, even in their heyday in Boise, were far more moderate than their counterparts in rural areas. Boise sent to the Legislature people such as Sheila Sorensen, Kitty Gurnsey, Ruby Stone and Chuck Pomeroy. In District 15, Max Black and John Andreason – two moderate Republicans – held onto their seats for two decades.

Martin is consistent with the profile of Boise Republicans who served for so many years. Luker, who boasts about being near the top of the Idaho Freedom Foundation index, does not fit the mold. Mark Patterson, a firebrand conservative who defeated Berch two years ago and resigned before finishing one term, took advantage of the district’s new Republican voters. He was replaced by Pat McDonald, who is politically closer to Martin.

Republicans are a long way from becoming a minority party even if Democrats manage to capture all seats in District 15. But holding all 12 seats in Boise would provide the Dems with significant numbers while turning up the volume on the party’s message.
“Idaho is last in the nation in average wages,” says Berch. “We’re first in the nation in percentage of minimum wage. We’re now ranked below Alabama and Mississippi in education investment. … Electing the same people does not work.”

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In Idaho

That was a campaign slogan for Democrat Vernon K. Smith in the 1962 governor’s race and the rallying cry that I heard a few times that year in my hometown of Osburn. My dad, especially, thought Gov. Robert Smylie had been in office long enough and it was time for a change. Smith’s pro-gambling platform was an attraction to the Silver Valley, where backroom betting was a way of life in the mining community.

Things were a little gloomy in our house when we found out that Smylie had won election to a third term. My dad explained that politics is controlled by those in the southern part of the state and it didn’t matter what people in Shoshone County wanted.
During my professional career, I lived in Idaho Falls for six years and I have been living in Boise for the past 15 – long enough to know that Idahoans in the south are good people who do not carry pitchforks and have horns growing out of their heads. But in politics, they generally get what they want. And at the moment, there seems to be a conspiracy to prevent Silver Valley people from getting the kind of legislators they want in the Statehouse.

In recent years, the Silver Valley has been represented by Democrats with a conservative bent, such as Marti Calabretta, Larry Watson and Mary Lou Shepherd. Today, the Silver Valley delegation consists of two conservative lawmakers from far away – Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll of Cottonwood and Rep. Paul Shepherd of Riggins. The third legislator, Rep. Shannon McMillan, lives in Silverton, but wins by big margins without carrying Shoshone County. Her close ties with Nuxoll and Shepherd give her a lot of votes in the south, making it nearly impossible to beat her in District 7.

A longtime friend of mine who helped draw up the legislative district map understands why people in Shoshone County don’t like the geographic makeup of District 7, but says there was no other way for the independent commission to come up with a plan that meets judicial approval. To people in Shoshone County, District 7 looks, feels and smells like gerrymandering to help the most conservative members of the GOP caucus.

“It’s next to impossible for a Democrat to win,” said Casey Drews, who is opposing Nuxoll but has been more focused on preparing for her bar exam. “They have created the largest district in the state, which already has the largest county in the state – Idaho County, which covers 9,000 square miles. That’s bigger than multiple states in the nation. It’s impossible to campaign there effectively.”

Shepherd and Nuxoll are fine with the arrangement, because they live there. For McMillan, there’s hardly a need to go there.

Shepherd is one of the most sincere and genuine people in the Legislature. But he seems to view issues such as Obamacare, Common Core and Medicaid expansion as communist plots. Nuxoll is known as much for off-the-wall statements than legislative accomplishments. She gained a lot of attention comparing Obamacare to the Holocaust. McMillan, in profile interviews with the Shoshone News-Press, refuses to say how long she has lived in the Silver Valley. But none of that matters where most of the votes are.

Three Democrats are giving it a try, with varying degrees of effort. Drews, who lost to McMillan two years ago, and Ken Meyers of Sagle are opposing Shepherd. Sagle is a small sliver near Sandpoint, and apparently the redistricting commission didn’t know what to do with it. So they put it in in District 7. Drews and Meyers are presenting themselves as alternatives for Democratic voters, but they are not actively campaigning.

Jessica Chilcott of Sagle is running against McMillan and making more of an effort. She has gone to fairs in Cottonwood and Grangeville and visited many of the smaller communities.

Chilcott has a good chance to carry Shoshone County, but little chance of winning the office – which is like living in 1962 all over again. Shoshone County is, has been and always will be Idaho’s political punching bag.

Maybe Montana could offer a better deal . . .

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In Idaho

People in Meridian don’t attend city council meetings and only 10 percent of school district voters bothered to cast ballots in the last bond election. But when Congressman Raul Labrador comes in for a town hall meeting, a standing-room-only crowd waits for him at city hall – which poses a big problem for State Rep. Shirley Ringo of Moscow, Labrador’s Democratic opponent for the 1st District congressional seat.

She is running against a political rock star.
He’s a Puerto Rican version of John F. Kennedy. He has a quick wit and his humor often is self-depreciating, which is a big hit with the audience. He asks the crowd not to boo questions they might not like, “but if you don’t like my answer, then you can boo me – as long as it’s with love and kindness.”

He talks about President Obama being an ideologue and gives praise to former President Clinton for being a “pragmatic politician” who was smart enough to take credit for Republican accomplishments – such as creating a government surplus. He has charts illustrating how the nation is heading down the tubes if it doesn’t get spending under control and warns that Social Security for him (at 46) and people younger will not look the same as it does today. Changes need to be made.

Not all his criticism is directed at Obama and liberal Democrats. Republicans, he says, will go nowhere unless they do a better job identifying what they are for – rather than what they are against.

Labrador doesn’t always let facts get in the way of good political rhetoric. One questioner asked why he has not cosponsored legislation that would help revive the U.S. Postal Service. He said the postal employees helped create the mess by signing off on a retirement plan that would help employees not even born yet. Actually, it was Congress that created the plan in 2006, bringing the Postal Service to the brink of bankruptcy.

But his explanation sounded good and his analysis of the federal deficit, and other issues, made sense. He promises to continue to “fight for less government, less spending, more accountability and … to fight for the people of Idaho.”

In Labrador’s world – and I got a first-hand look a couple of weeks ago — fighting for Idahoans means casting a lot of “no” votes, even for governmental entities working to save lives. In March, I was in Washington, D.C., as part of a “lobbying day” sponsored by the American Diabetes Association. The ADA was asking for about $2 billion for continued research to find a cure for diabetes and programs to promote prevention. Sen. Jim Risch, who is at least as conservative as Labrador, embraces the cause, but it’s not on Labrador’s radar.

Five months after my visit to Washington, Labrador sent me a letter by email saying, “There needs to be a balance between the needs of our people and the nation’s economic responsibilities. During hard economic times like these, sacrifices must be taken on the part of all to ensure that the United States is, and will continue to be, in a position of economic prosperity. Measures need to be taken on the part of the individual, and personal responsibility must be exercised to improve the economic and physical health of our nation.”

Of course, not all diabetes is self-imposed. And the ultimate “sacrifices” include blindness, amputations, kidney failure and death. By 2050, it is projected that one-third of the American population will have diabetes – which is anything but a path to economic prosperity. But Labrador is consistent with his views on federal spending. The answer is “no” for diabetes research, or almost any other form of discretionary federal spending.

“That’s a shortsighted view and not what you’d expect from your congressional representative,” Ringo told me later. “The cost of not dealing with this in a proactive way will be extremely high. This is systematic of the one-dimensional approach he’s taking, without considering the long-term effects.

She has a tough way to go, given the conservative nature of the 1st District. She has a lot of thoughts about how she would represent the district differently from Labrador. All she has to do is figure out how to pack ’em in like Elvis.

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