Writings and observations

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Surely, candidates for lieutenant governor of Idaho have never, ever, materialized this early.

Rarely have there been so many of them. And there could be more. Probably will be.

And there are larger, structural, even physics reasons.

The last time the office was seriously competitive was in 2002, not long after state Senator Jack Riggs had been appointed to it (upon the departure of a predecessor named C.L. “Butch Otter, who had gone off to the U.S. House). There were competitive primaries in both parties, but the Republican was notably crowded, including not only the incumbent but two state legislators, Celia Gould and Jim Risch, and former gubernatorial candidate Larry Eastland, plus two other little-knowns. The contest was unpredictable enough that the winner, Risch (getting his effective start here toward the Senate), won with just 34.6 percent of the vote.

Before that, although you could point to several reasonably competitive general elections back in the 70s and 80s, you have to go back generations to find the last really competitive primary for the job, or a really large field of contestants.

But so far this year – with the filing deadline close to a year away – we’ve seen entries (apparently at least) into the race from state Senator Marv Hagedorn of Meridian and state Representative Kelley Packer of McCammon and former legislator Janice McGeachin of Idaho Falls. State Republican Party chair Steve Yates may also be in.

Why all the heavy interest?

The big reason is that “light guv” is an open seat this time, since incumbent Brad Little is running for governor (in another multi-contender battle). Incumbents are notoriously hard to take out – few have in recent decades in Idaho – open positions offer the best path upward.

And there’s another reason for the interest: Ambitions (and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense) get bottled up in places like Idaho, where one party dominates the offices and the office-holders decide to stay around for long periods of time. In Congress, Senator Mike Crapo has been there since 1998, Senator Risch since 2008, Representative Mike Simpson since 1998 and youngster Raul Labrador since 2010. Governor Otter is wrapping up 12 years in the job; by the time of the 2018 election, Little will have been at his post for just under a decade.

If you’re looking to move up, where do you go? Mostly, you wait for the rare opportunity of an opening.

Then too, the track record for upward mobility among lieutenants governor has been improving. Until the last couple of decades, most LGs topped out in that office (the main exception being John Evans, who succeeded to the governorship; Phil Batt went on to election as governor but only years after departing as lieutenant.) More recently the picture has changed. Incumbent Little is now a strong contender for governor. His predecessor, Risch, wound up in both the governor’s office and the Senate. The last LG before him, Otter, wound up in the U.S. House and the governorship.

Looking ahead to the contest, columnist Chuck Malloy was inclined to suggest, “With Yates in, it’s game over. He wins.” Personally, I wouldn’t throw any betting money down just yet. Multi-candidate races can get awfully unpredictable, especially over the course of long campaigns. And the high pressure surrounding those few open seats can add to the number of open questions.

Never underestimate the power of bottled energy when just enough heat is applied.

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Idaho Idaho column Stapilus

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Members of the United States House of Representatives like to point to a distinction particular to their chamber: They are the only federal entity, and one of the few anywhere in government, whose members have gotten there exclusively by election. Not a single one, in all these more than 200 years, in any other way.

The vast majority of these representatives has been elected in regular even-year elections, but some got there in special elections when a member resigned or died. Several of these elections are planned around the country (one in Montana, for example) this year on occasion of the representative quitting to take a job in the Trump Administration, a common reason for a vacancy.

Idaho has never had a special election for a U.S. representative. (I refuse the word “congressman.” As a high school teacher of mine, a one-time Capitol Hill staffer, pointed out, there is no such job title.) No House member from Idaho ever has resigned during a term. Just one – ironically, a Democrat named Thomas Coffin, in 1934 – died in office; his seat remained unfilled until the next general election a few months later.

There is a procedure for a special House election in Idaho, however, and a bill aimed at adjusting it has drawn a rare veto from Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter. It also happened to be a bill opposed on the legislative floor only by Democrats, and this is not a coincidence.

The rule has been that special elections for House members were exempt from the general limitations on the number of elections during a year: A governor could call one by proclamation. The new bill would change that to limit the special election to one of the four standard election days during the year, and split it into two elections, a primary and a general. As it is now, the election is a “jungle” election, with the overall top vote-getter prevailing and winning the seat.

Neither approach is particularly sacred; various states handle it in each way. But there are implications, political and otherwise, to these decisions.

Otter (a former U.S. House member himself) said in his veto statement that “while I appreciate the desire to establish an orderly process for conducting a special election for filling a vacancy in one of Idaho’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, this legislation unnecessarily sacrifices timeliness for structure. … The governor now has discretion to set such elections, which should be conducted as soon as reasonably possible to ensure that Idaho’s congressional representation is not diminished for any longer than necessary. H197 could leave the state without a way of filling a U.S. House vacancy for six months or longer. That is simply unacceptable.” That’s a reasonable objection.

The current law also has another potential effect that some legislators may have considered, and not liked. Holding a primary election first, to settle on party nominees before sending them to the general election, is a way of resolving things within the party, of making the results somewhat more predictable. With Idaho’s current, single, winner-take-all election a “jungle” contest, things get unpredictable quickly. Imagine an election featuring five Republican candidates and one Democrat: even in Idaho, the Democrat would win. Or you might wind up with a Republican candidate who might not survive later for long. (Remember what happened the last time Idaho had a really big Republican primary for the U.S. House, in 2006, won by one-term Representative Bill Sali.)

Structure makes for political results, too.

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Idaho Idaho column Stapilus

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I stopped in for a check-up this week at my doctor’s office and, as I stood in the waiting area, I surveyed the patients and wondered which of them – which of us – will be able to afford a visit a year from now. When I talked with the doctor later, he seemed to wonder too.

In the last few years the portion of uninsured Americans slid to record lows, another way of saying that health care has become available to more of us – many more than a decade ago. The system is not perfect or cheap, but insured care is more affordable. The new bill being wrangled over in the U.S. House, planned for a vote this last week, would put insurance – health care – out of reach for tens of millions of Americans, and weaken or make more expensive coverage for tens of millions more.

This has gotten lots of attention around the country, but less, it seems, in debates and discussions in Congress. How are Idaho’s two House members – participants in the battle underway (as this was written Thursday evening) – framing the talk about it?

In different ways.

Raul Labrador released this (lightly edited here) as his position statement on March 8:

“Six years ago, I promised the people of Idaho that I would do everything I could to fully repeal and replace Obamacare with a healthcare system that focused on people, not programs. One built around successful health outcomes, not the bottom line of insurance companies. … I have spent the last two days studying the American Health Care Act, and unfortunately, it is not that bill. Upon its release, President Trump signaled his willingness to negotiate. I’m eager to take him up on this offer. All good legislative solutions must go through rigorous debate, and I’m willing to work with the leadership in the House, and the President, to find a solution to this critical problem. What I won’t do is break the pledge I made to the people of Idaho who sent me here to fix this. I am hopeful we can have an open and honest debate on this issue. We owe it to the people of Idaho and the nation to get it right.”

What does “get it right” mean? Right for who? What insurance would people have when they get sick? No specifics are on offer.

As of Thursday evening, Labrador said he remained opposed to the new bill, as well as the ACA. What he would rather have is unclear. Others in the “Freedom Caucus” (of which he’s a member) seem to want a simple ACA repeal, or something close to it: a return to 2009 which would, like the current bill, throw tens of millions off insurance, end coverage guarantees and return to higher increases in premiums. Would Labrador go along with that?

Mike Simpson, by profession a dentist before joining Congress, is not clearer. He like Labrador has repeatedly voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but as to the specifics of what should follow … He’s not released a general statement on the new proposal by House Speaker Paul Ryan as Labrador has, though a spokesman said, “it is impossible to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ because changes are currently being made and we haven’t seen the final bill.” True; the terms of the bill seem continually up for grabs, and a House vote may happen before many of them even are analyzed. But as with Labrador, we haven’t heard much about specifics.

Simpson, who has been close to House leadership for some years, also was quoted by National Public Radio: “One of the reasons I don’t want this bill to fail is I don’t want Paul to fail.”

I doubt that the people in physician waiting rooms in Idaho Falls and Nampa next year will much care about Paul Ryan’s political stature. They’re more likely to be concerned about whether, or not, they can afford the health care they need.

That may be the subject of a lot of questions, for both Labrador and Simpson, in months to come.

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Idaho Idaho column Stapilus

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Who would have guessed that the biggest turnout for an Idaho legislative hearing this year would come on the subject of climate change?

It was all the more surprising because there’s no active Idaho legislation specifically on the subject this year — nothing moving through the system.

The closest came last month when legislators voted to pull references to climate change from classroom standards in Idaho schools. At a Senate committee meeting on the subject about two dozen members of the public spoke on the standards rule, all but one in favor of retaining the references to climate change; on a party line vote, the reference was stricken. (The Senate seemed somewhat open to compromise, but the House was firm that the climate change reference must go.)

The Republican leadership and committee chairs aren’t supportive of it as a legislative initiative, so it’s just not a subject of much discussion.

At least, not until last Wednesday’s hearing at the Statehouse.

What happened then wasn’t even a hearing, exactly, not even a formal proceeding of a legislative committee. Instead, after Dell Raybould, the House Environment, Energy and Technology Committee chairman, turned down a request by Democratic Representative Ilana Rubel for a committee informational event, he agreed to allow a special meeting which was not connected to the committee, to be held in the Statehouse’s auditorium. Though no supporter of her position on the issue, he personally showed and stayed through the event. Not much of the rest of the committee seems to have appeared.

So this was an event without any official standing, untied to legislation or even any committee or even any specific proposal, and without the opportunity to speak to any governing group of legislators.

Despite all that it drew, by several reporters’ estimates, around 650 people, enough to fill the auditorium and cause building managers to open overflow rooms. It was the biggest crowd for any event in this year’s legislative session. It was among the biggest crowds any Idaho legislative event ever has drawn.

Rubel, who hosted the meeting, was quoted as saying, “This issue is not just about rising ocean levels and polar bears – it’s about crops and jobs in Idaho. Idaho’s leaders must assess the risk ahead and take steps to address it, not hide their heads in the sand.”

The crowd seemed to be mostly unified in its stand, too. To judge at least from the testimony, the push was strong for at least acknowledging the fact of climate change (you won’t find much of that kind of acknowledgement in the Idaho Legislature) and the need to plan ahead for changes that may be coming.

On one hand, the presence of a large turnout hasn’t proven especially persuasive to the Idaho Legislature up to now. As I wrote a few weeks back, large turnout on one side of an issue often has resulted in . . . exactly the opposite reaction from legislators. The “Add the Words” campaign, which has drawn large crowds, is just one example.

But the ability to draw such significant numbers for a single meeting does suggest some untapped political energy out there. Campaigns in legislative races, and ballot initiatives, could be accomplished with smaller numbers and force than that single meeting generated.

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Idaho Idaho column Stapilus

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The Idaho House has changed a subtle piece of its procedure, with – as usually is the case – mixed effects. The good are a little more obvious; the bad brings to mind legislators, one in particular, from years past.

The change is something many people probably wouldn’t notice. (Hat tip to writer Wayne Hoffman for pointing it out.) It has to do with the way votes are tallied when members of the Idaho House choose “yea” or “nay” on the floor.

When a bill (or something else to be voted upon) comes up, House members hit a button indicating a yes or no vote. The result of that is shown on an electronic board, visible to all, showing how each legislator voted, green for yes and red for no. The totals for each also are shown. This much hasn’t changed.

What has is this: Until recently, the greens and reds showed up immediately when the legislator punched the button. They could then look at the board, see who was voting how, and whether the vote was passing or failing, and if they chose, could change their vote before the speaker announced he was “locking” the vote in place. Partway through this session, however, those votes began not to show up on the board until after the “locking” had taken place. Any legislator wanting to change a vote might still be able to, but only as a part of the record and only with permission.

Is this an improvement?

On balance, it probably is. As a reporter watching House vote tallies, I used to enjoy figuring out who was voting in response to who – who was voting for something because someone else supported it, or opposing for that same reason. Some votes might be cast one way if it was clear the measure was going to pass, or fail, by a big margin – so that an individual vote might change nothing – but another way if the vote was really needed in a close call. Doing away with some of that real time information might be beneficial; it puts some onus on each legislator to prepare a bit more in advance and not rely on signals from other legislators.

But there’s another side to it, too, brought to mind by the death of one of the best legislators I call recall at the Idaho Statehouse.

He was Mike Mitchell, a Democrat from Lewiston, a beer distributor who may have had a higher profile from his run for lieutenant governor, or work as a governor’s chief of staff, or work with various state agencies. But I recall him as one of those lawmakers whose skill set was almost perfectly matched to work in the legislature.

He was unusually well prepared, especially on the more technical work; he served on the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, and despite being in the minority he had as much impact on the budget as the leading Republicans did. That extended to other areas too. He had extra help from college interns, who in contrast to many interns over the years got to work intensively on the details and politics of getting legislation passed. Not only Democrats but a lot of Republicans too paid Mitchell close attention when he had something to say. He was, as several people remarked after his death a week ago, a “legislator’s legislator.”

Some legislators are blowhards. Some throw their weight around. Some exploit personal connections. But some legislators, of both parties and various philosophical persuasions, are worth watching: Their vote for or against something may actually be a signal that there’s a layer to the issue at hand that isn’t immediately obvious, and maybe ought to be heeded.

Mike Mitchell reminded me of that when I heard of his passing. There is a personal level to what happens at a legislature, and sometimes that’s not all bad.

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Idaho Idaho column Stapilus

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Can it be that this far in advance, the main components of the 2018 governor’s race already are coming into view?

Last week gave us some additional clarity, and at least a preliminary picture, enough to hang some thoughts around, is emerging.

So this seems like time to take stock.

Last week, after all, was when three-term Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter confirmed he would not seek another term and would instead support his long-time lieutenant, Brad Little, for the job. That’s no surprise, of course. The probability has been against another run by Otter ever since his last one, and especially since Little announced for the office: Little would never challenge Otter in a primary. Little’s early announcement mirrored Otter’s own early-in approach, soaking up support and building organization that would be denied to other contenders. It’s sound strategy.

In some states, and at times in Idaho, all that might seem like nearly the end of the story. But Otter’s three terms has kept bottled growing pressures in the Republican party, resulting in several more serious primary prospects.

Two of those already are announced. Developer Tommy Ahlquist, who has been centrally involved in downtown Boise’s recent redevelopment but has never run for office before, said last week he will file for candidate status, and will launch a statewide tour. (That followed a complaint, from a source unknown, that he had been campaigning at Republican events while not registered as a candidate.) Business leaders without political experience have not tended to do well in top-line Idaho elections; you’ll find a string of earlier lower office elections and other political dues-paying on the resumes of nearly all of Idaho’s recent top elected officials (Otter being a good example). But every election is its own animal, precedents are made to be broken, and maybe Ahlquist stands out in a crowded field.

There’s also a former candidate for governor in the field: Russell Fulcher, the former legislator from Meridian who challenged Otter in the 2014 gubernatorial primary. He fell short then, with 44 percent of the vote, but that was in what amounted to a two-way race. If he could retain his support or even most of it, might that be enough to prevail in a three- or four-way contest? We know this much: He has been pulling together support for a second run for a long time now.

Last but surely not least: Raul Labrador, the four-term member of the U.S. House who has won with strong votes each time out, and has a firm base of support. He has not confirmed a run for governor, and could still decide otherwise, but the indicators keep pointing in that direction. (A recent one: His pushing of a congressional term limits measure, which might start to look embarrassing for a member of Congress much beyond four or five terms.) He does not seem deterred by the presence of any of the other contenders, or prospects. The probabilities at present favor his entry.

How does Little stack up here? He is broadly well-regarded (though not by everyone in the Republican Party), and will likely pick up much of the support Otter has had. But how does he fare in a strongly-contested four-way race?

Two-candidate races tend to be a lot easier to call than those in which a bunch of candidates are jostling; the number of random factors that could throw a race in one direction or another will multiply. You could make a credible case for any of these four contenders to win a Republican primary.

And for all we know, there may be more. After all, we’re more than a year away, still, from the candidate filing deadline.

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Idaho Idaho column Stapilus

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Last May, I wrote about a report from the Wilderness Society contending that since statehood, 41 percent of the “endowment” lands Idaho originally received from the federal government had been sold.

A couple of weeks later, the Department of Lands wrote to take issue with the Society’s numbers, especially with the 41 percent figure – the correct figure would have been about a third. Since the reply was widely disseminated in news stories at the time, and since the numbers differ largely on the relatively technical basis of what you choose to include or not, I didn’t return to it in a later column because whether the amount was 41 percent or 33 percent, it still was a lot. The Society’s basic point, that a lot of land had been sold off, appeared to remain, though no fine point was put on its implications.

Last week, another shoe dropped, this one less about the numbers than about the meaning of the transactions. This came in the form of new research from the Society and the Idaho Conservation League that, in their words, “reveal what appear to be widespread violations of the Idaho constitutional limit on how much land the State Land Board can sell to private parties. The new findings further deflate claims by public land takeover advocates that Idaho citizens won’t be locked out of their forests and recreation lands if they are given to the state. The sales in question span nearly a century, from statehood in 1890 until sales in the 1980s.”

That makes them pertinent indeed. As the groups also pointed out, “The Idaho Legislature is also considering a measure (Senate Bill 1065) from Senator Steve Vick (R-Dalton Gardens) that requires all state agencies to prioritize privatization of state lands.”

And the response this time from the Department of Lands was a little different. Director Tom Schultz released a statement saying, “At this time I am not prepared to concur with or dispute the conclusions reached by the Wilderness Society. Even though no discrepancies have been identified over the past 30 years, I intend to hire an independent auditor to review IDL’s records and advise the Land Board on its findings. I understand that the analysis by the Wilderness Society may raise concerns about land sales, and want to assure Idahoans that there are measures in place today to ensure that individuals and businesses do not purchase lands exceeding constitutional limitations.”

(The department did point out that there appear to have been no instances of such sales in at least the last 30 years or so.)

Because it had to fulfill detailed information requests from the environmental groups some time ago, the department has been aware for a while this question has been pursued. If it had an easy response to the allegation, it would have offered it. By assigning the case to an independent auditor, the declaration of problematic sales (assuming the groups’ research is on track) would come from a non-state employee, which would be a little easier for everyone on the state side to swallow.

What this suggests is that the allegation, of regular extra-constitutional land sales to private parties across much of Idaho’s history, has a good chance of holding up.

What if anything will be done about it is another question, further down the road.

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Idaho Idaho column Stapilus

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Lest Donald Trump’s use of the phrase “enemy of the American people” – to describe the news media – be dismissed as just another rhetorical flights by an incoherent president, put it into some context.

The phrase has a long and deeply chilling history.

First, what he said on Friday, was wrapped in a criticism (vague and unspecific, which is not unusual) of the news media. Presidential complaints about news organizations is nothing new; that goes back all the way to Washington, with examples available from all or nearly all presidents since. Richard Nixon famously considered the press his “enemy.”

The phrase “enemy of the people” is something different, and far more toxic. And if there’s one “enemy of the people” out there, other similar designations won’t be far behind.

The phrase was used in ancient Rome, though there it tended to be applied to one person, and to one person in power (in the best documented case, by the Roman Senate of Nero).

The French Revolution made significant use of the phrase, this time to apply to categories of people, as in this 1793 quote from Maximilien Robespierre: “The revolutionary government owes to the good citizen all the protection of the nation; it owes nothing to the Enemies of the People but death”.

Vladimir Lenin adopted the usage during and after the Russian Revolution. From Wikipedia: “The Soviet Union made extensive use of the term (Russian language: враг народа, “vrag naroda”), as it fit well with the idea that the people were in control. The term was used by Vladimir Lenin after coming to power, as early as in the decree of 28 November 1917: ‘all leaders of the Constitutional Democratic Party, a party filled with enemies of the people, are hereby to be considered outlaws, and are to be arrested immediately and brought before the revolutionary court.’ … An enemy of the people could be imprisoned, expelled or executed, and lose their property to confiscation. Close relatives of enemies of the people were labeled as ‘traitor of Motherland family members’ and prosecuted.”

What Lenin did, his successor Josef Stalin did more. During his long reign in the Soviet Union, “enemy of the people” designations got a massive workout, covering dozens of categories of people – anyone, really, Stalin didn’t like, whether or not they were a threat to him. And as University of Pennsylvania professor Mitchell Orenstein notes, “What it basically meant was a death sentence. … The formula ‘enemy of the people’ was specifically introduced for the purpose of physically annihilating such individuals.”

Mao Zedong picked the lesson for China too. There, as Chinese writer Li Yuan pointed out, “every dissenting voice was ‘the enemy of the people’ under Mao.” People so designated got under Mao about the same as their counterparts in the Soviet Union under Stalin.

Trump surely is no great student of history, but some of the people around him have looked into some these precedential areas enough to understand the meaning of the phrase. (Top presidential advisor Steve Bannon was quoted as saying in 2013, “I’m a Leninist.” Some context for the phrase “enemy of the people” would undoubtedly be familiar to him.)

Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein tweeted after the Trump statement: “The most dangerous ‘enemy of the people’ is presidential lying – always. Attacks on press by Donald Trump more treacherous than Nixon’s.” Unlike Nixon’s, which were dismissed widely as personal animus, this new attack by a president easily could lead to murders to journalists, even aside from direct state action. (In mirror image to the scene in Russia under its latest autocrat, another Vladimir.)

One addition to that is merited: What a president, or other national leader, does can be even more dangerous than what they say.

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After describing in a recent column annoying cell phone service gaps in the Idaho Statehouse, the Lewiston Tribune’s William Spence remarked how that serves as a metaphor for this:

“I can’t count the number of hearings I’ve attended where the testimony is skewed entirely one way or the other and the committee votes the opposite way.”

In my days covering the legislature years ago, that happened seldom. If the testimony was strongly weighted in one direction, that ordinarily was how the committee would vote. Apparently not so much these days.

I crowdsourced the question of whether Spence was right. The crowd told me that he was.

The legislative examples cited most were guns on campus, Medicaid expansion and “add the words.” Large crowds showed in support of the the latter two and against the first; few people countered; the committees involved wasted little time siding with the few. (They did at least, it should be said, hear out the public first.)

Holli Woodings, a former state representative, offered: “Guns on campus. I listened to an entire day of testimony against it, and still was in the committee minority voting nay. There were two, maybe three folks who testified in favor, and dozens against, including law enforcement, educators, students, administration, and others who actually had a stake.” The proposal won approval.

Activist Donna Yule: “Happens all the time in the Idaho statehouse. It’s extremely frustrating to all the people who take the time to testify. I’ve come to the conclusion that most of the GOP Chairs of the committees already have their minds made up, and they care more about their base voters than the people of Idaho. But I still think the testimony matters. Even though they ignore the people testifying, it still makes them uncomfortable, and maybe eventually the people will get angry enough to rise up against them and vote in some new people who WILL listen.”

Do your representatives listen? Actually listen, or just sit there with minds made up?

Idaho’s United States senators have been barraged with comments and protesters in recent weeks, but there’s been little response from them.

After Senator Mike Crapo’s office rebuffed media requests to find out how Idahoans calling in on Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos stood, a staffer let slip to the Payette County commissioners: “DeVos is the one we’re hearing the most about … and I think 95 percent are against her.” Crapo, and fellow Idaho Senator Jim Risch, voted for DeVos’ confirmation, and said little or nothing about what they were hearing from back home.

Okay. It’s possible not every protesting call or visit came from a constituent (though I’d bet the great bulk of them did). It isn’t the job of a representative to vote in the popular direction every time. Yes, it’s those in opposition who usually are most motivated to step up, more than those in support. Sometimes the majority is wrong; it happens.

But when this kind of dissonance happens as often as it seems to (and yes, Idaho is not alone in this), something is wrong.

In saying this, I’m looking most directly at the voters. Are you not being listened to? Are your concerns not being met? Are your representatives not doing what you want them to do?

If you think so, then: Are you getting organized and out to the polls? That’s the message that will be heard without a doubt.

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Idaho Idaho column Stapilus

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A century ago, Idaho was a legislative leader in passing a law that would be adopted not long after by almost half the states: The criminal syndicalism act. It’s a slice of history worth reviewing.

The background is this: In the teens the activist and relatively radical edge of the labor movement was the Industrial Workers of the World (members were called “wobblies”). Its success and scope was actually limited, but it was well known regionally and nationally: Anti-union forces talked them up a great deal in fearful tones. In Idaho they mostly were active in the northern lumber camps, and organizers appeared in southern Idaho farms. Their main tool was the strike (in some places, mostly outside Idaho, things sometimes went further), though they were accused of much more. Their demands were for such workers’ protections as an eight-hour day and more worker safety, but their rhetoric was strident enough that they conflicted with other union groups as much as they did businesses.

There was a genuine radical connection, and some IWW leaders really were close to then-emergent Communist Party organizations. As World War I approached, the organization was also accused of being in league with the kaiser. (You know, whoever was handy.) Most of the people in the field were simply active union members, but across much of the state, panic of the unknown and fear of the group was exploding. One academic study of the period noted that “the economic and social problem became an … IWW problem and led to an attack on unpopular doctrines and groups.”

With memories of Silver Valley mine worker violence then not quite a generation in the past, Idaho’s leaders were quick to line up against the wobblies. And in March 1917 the legislature passed a law intended to get at them. This was the syndicalism act, which sought to ban “the doctrine which advocates crime, sabotage, violence, or other unlawful methods of terrorism as a means of accomplishing industrial or political reform.”

You’ll notice how un-specific the language is. That was considered a feature, not a bug, because the broad-brush accusations could easily be thrown around, and were. The point here is that purpose of the law had little to do with concerns about overthrowing the government (which already was covered by laws against treason, sedition and the like); that was the fig leaf. The real point was in suppressing the IWW. (The organization, much smaller and less active than it once was, still exists and is based in Chicago.)

The cover came off a few years later when Idaho legislators passed anti-union legislation criminalizing such acts as “work done in an improper manner, slack work, waste of property, and loitering at work.” And the anti-syndicalism law was eventually weakened by court decisions and later legislation. But in 1917 the measure passed because a relatively small group that actually affected Idaho at the edges was blown up into a terrible threat to decent society. It was made to seem so terrible that freedom of speech took a battering. (That battering would get much worse on a national level at the nation went to war.) For its part, the IWW declined in the twenties for its own organizational reasons, and never recovered.

Doesn’t take much for us to react badly; people are more easily manipulated than they would ever like to believe.

That’s no less true today than it was a century ago. It’s as simple as this: When someone points a finger and blames “them” for our problems, ask first what agendas are really involved. In the politics of today no less than back then, it’s a critical piece of intelligent self-government.

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