• 100 Influential Idahoans 2015
You can find it all here in the Pacific Northwest - much of the nation's most beautiful places, some appallingly trashed-out areas; politics running from just about as far left to just about as far right as anywhere in the country; economies of all sorts from the highly prosperous to the dying. It's all here.
 

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Last week, I ran through some of the reasons businessman Tommy Ahlquist, one of three major candidates for the Republican nomination for Idaho governor, might come in third when the votes are cast. They’re pretty good reasons.

But so fluid is this race that those points tell only part of the story. Ahlquist, Lieutenant Governor Brad Little and Representative Raul Labrador each plausibly could come in first, second, or third. Let’s look now at why Ahlquist might win – reasons that shed light on some important factors in the race.

If you have three strong candidates (we’ll assume that none of them drastically flame out), little more than a third of the total vote may be needed to win. Move on to the probability (not certain but likely) that the 2018 primary may be a relatively low-turnout event.

Right now, Little and Labrador have clear and substantial bases of support – to over-simplify, many well-established organization and rank-and-file Republicans for Little, and many of the activist and erstwhile Tea Party backers for Labrador.

But large segments, some overlapping, remain unaccounted for.

The Latter Day Saint or Mormon vote, accounting for maybe half of the Republican primary vote, often sticks mostly together in races like this, and its inclinations are not clear yet. It probably will not back Little, although it might: Support for the establishment might have appeal. Labrador, as a brother in the faith, would have some appeal too. But he has several issues: He’s based over in the first district, his mode is more that of a firebrand (not a match for Mormon sensibilities) and he’s been a critic of the Idaho National Laboratory, a problem for voters in the Upper Snake.

Ahlquist, also LDS by faith, is another matter. He is a businessman, which suits well, and his language seems a match for the Mormon community. His relatively recent arrival in Idaho wouldn’t hurt him in the eastern Idaho LDS community either, because he has background in the Salt Lake City area – the second capital for many people in that area. (I may have overstated that and understated his Idaho background last week; no doubt the subject will continue to be discussed.) Quite a few Mormons in the east have been known to take cues from Idaho Falls businessman Frank Vandersloot, Idaho’s wealthiest resident. Vandersloot hasn’t stated a clear preference in the primary yet, and maybe he won’t. But it wouldn’t be hard at all to see him give the nod to Ahlquist. Backing from Utahn Mitt Romney doesn’t hurt either.

The second important up-for-grabs constituency is the strongly pro-Donald Trump contingent. Surely Labrador will appeal to a significant part of it. But much of the Trump appeal has to do with the perception of outsider status, and Labrador – while a rebel of sorts within the U.S. House – will nonetheless have been a member of the despised Congress for eight years when these voters vote. Ahlquist can run more obviously and simply as an outsider. And parts of his advertising and rhetoric sound clearly designed to appeal to these voters. Smart strategy.

Third, in parts of the central Boise area, Ahlquist may have pull simply because he actually has been a successful developer there, and on that basis if nothing else has impressed plenty of people.

There’s also the factor of too much familiarity. Enthusiasm matters enormously in low-turnout primaries, and newcomers have an easier time generating it than veteran candidates (see: many of our recent presidential elections). Ahlquist has an advantage if he can get himself well enough known, which he is in the process of doing.

All this easily could add up to enough votes to win a seriously contested primary.

You could run comparable scenarios for the other two candidates as well (if you’re a supporter of one of them, you may have done that while reading this). Point is: This is a seriously competitive race that right now could go any which way.

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I’ve taken to describing the already long-running Idaho Republican primary for governor as “fluid,” meaning that it’s yet to be won, that campaigning will matter, and a number of important constituencies are not nailed down.

With three major candidates in the race – Lieutenant Governor Brad Little, Representative Raul Labrador and businessman Tommy Ahlquist – there are nine plausible outcomes, as each of the three realistically could come in first, second or third. The dynamics are intriguing to watch, though maybe agonizing to be a part of.

To highlight some of the pieces in play, I thought I’d direct this column, and the next one, to two alternative prospects, about one of the candidates – whose fortunes seem the least predictable of the three – and consider what might result in his top-ranked win or last-place loss.

That candidate would be Ahlquist, the Boise downtown and metro developer, a newcomer to Idaho – after background as a physician in Salt Lake City – and at present a highly active campaigner. The next paragraphs consider why he might come in third; wait a week for why he might come in first.

He could lose partly for reasons so many businessman candidates for higher office – who have little or no experience running for or serving in office – do. Politics can look easy; he’s been a success in complex business (and other) spheres, so running for office should be a piece of cake, right? In fact, the skill sets for candidates and for many other things, including business leaders and physicians, are distinct. In some people they overlap, but often they don’t. Cecil Andrus was a highly effective campaigner and governor, but he didn’t light the world afire as a businessman. The skill sets were different. Sometimes the stronger the skill set is in one area, the less well they transfer to a different arena.

Compared to many gubernatorial candidates, Ahlquist is not a long-timer in Idaho. He has been civicly active in recent years, but his ties are recent. Little and Labrador have connections and networks built over decades (in Little’s case, over many generations). Both have been able to draw on extensive campaign structures, fundraising, community help, volunteers and much more, created over a long time; Ahlquist had to start from scratch.

Ahlquist is less well known around Idaho than his competitors, and generally has polled well behind them. That can be a solvable problem; name identification can be built in the way he has been developing it, through ads, news reports, campaigning and so on. But there are other problems associated with being a newcomer.

Little and Labrador have established identities. Those don’t work completely in their favor, but they do carry the advantage amounting to a known quantity: A level of trust in knowing who this guy is. (Some aspects of that problem, such as Ahlquist’s past support for some Democratic candidates, already have emerged.) Ahlquist has yet to be fully defined. He’s working on it, but much of that kind of definition is (as ever) not fully within his control. And, as Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff probably could tell you, too much advertising will wear on people over time; it can start to grate, even if it’s well done.

Ahlquist has supporters around Idaho, but he’s overwhelmingly identified with Boise – not necessarily the best place in the state to be overwhelmingly identified with.

And who or what is Ahlquist’s base? Little has the establishment Republican base (which, remember, did extremely well in the 2014 Republican primaries), and may be augmented by crossover independents and Democrats. Labrador has a well-established, and substantial, activist base, notably in the first congressional district. Where is Ahlquist coming from? Is he seeking out the Donald Trump-oriented support? Or something else? Remember, in the 2016 presidential, Ahlquist was a backer of Marco Rubio, not Donald Trump. We haven’t heard the last of that.

And there’s more. But there’s also a flip side: Ahlquist could win this primary. Next week I’ll get into why that might happen.

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Circle October 11 on your calendar. It may be a critical date in Idaho’s economic future, because that is when Idaho Power Company’s Hells Canyon Dam relicensure settlement conference is scheduled at the Idaho Public Utilities Commission.

It may not seem notably critical at first. The three Idaho Power dams on the Idaho-Oregon border, in Hells Canyon, have been operating and supplying an immense amount of power for a very long time, almost unnoticed (out of sight, out of mind) for many Idahoans. They were the subject of fierce controversy back in the 50s, but since have been recognized as one of the big drivers of Idaho Power’s tremendous growth in the mid-twentieth century, and through it a lot of the explosive growth of the Boise area. The dams have kept electric power reliable and cheap, no small factor in business development over the years.

When the dams were first built they were constructed under a 50-year license, which expired a dozen years ago. Today they’re running on what amounts to extensions of extensions (no one wants to shut the dams down), and work on formal relicensure continues.

That’s not a comfortable position for Idaho Power or for a lot of regional power users. But this is a matter as much of dilemma as of frustration. Idaho Power remains an independent local power company, based in Boise (albeit that its stock is publicly traded). It long has provided some of the lowest power rates in the country.

While lots of other utilities in recent decades have been gobbled by bigger corporate fish, Idaho Power has not. And evidently, one of the big reasons is that renewal of the licenses has remained unsettled. Much could change in southern Idaho if Idaho Power is bought. Usually in such cases low power rates tend to be jacked up after a purchase – sometimes jacked up a great deal.

There’s not one single reason the relicensure has stalled, but one seems to be a disagreement between the states of Idaho and Oregon, both of which have to sign off for major dam activity, over fish runs in the area.

An Associated Press story on the situation summarized, “Oregon officials are refusing to agree to the re-licensing until salmon and steelhead can access four Oregon tributaries that feed into the Hells Canyon Complex, as required by Oregon law for the re-licensing. But Idaho lawmakers have prohibited moving federally protected salmon and steelhead upstream of the dams, which could force restoration work on Idaho’s environmentally degraded middle section of the Snake River.”

This seems to be the primary relicensure hangup right now.

If Oregon’s requests are agreed to, significant changes could be required, and ratepayers might be stuck with paying another $220 million for the work. On top of other possible increases. On top of, if the company were taken over, higher rates otherwise down the road.

When I’ve been asked what economic risks Idaho faces in upcoming years, I’ve generally mentioned the Hells Canyon dams situation as one of two or three to watch out for.

On October 11, the Idaho Public Utilities Commission will hold a conference on what do next. What it does could be among the most important decisions the PUC has made in a generation.

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William Borah, Frank Church and Jim Risch?

As matters stand, Senator Risch of Idaho, who was in his early days in the Idaho legislature when Church became chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, may become the next head of that sometimes powerful panel.

That wasn’t a closely-considered proposition, at least not widely, until this last week. That was when the current chair, Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, declared himself out of the Senate when his current term ends after next year. (Washington Post headline: “The Most Interesting Part of Corker’s Retirement Isn’t What You Think It Is.”)

Chair successions are not automatic, but usually the next most senior committee member moves up, and – if Republicans still control the Senate after next year’s elections – that would be Risch.

Next up after Risch is a senator much better known nationally, Marco Rubio of Florida, and he surely would like that gavel, especially if he’s looking at a 2020 presidential run. But in the Senate, the process rules. Risch was quoted as saying about the chairmanship, “We have a long, clear history of how these things are resolved in the Senate. We will follow that route when we get there.” Sounds a little cryptic, but I translate this way: I’m next in line.

Whether or not Risch had advance warning for Corker’s departure, groundwork for it is in place.

In Risch’s first term he was a nearly invisible senator – in news and other media and even in press releases. In his second term that has changed. He has become a frequent talking head on news programs, and when there, seems to discuss foreign affairs more often than other subjects. While many senators avoid (as Corker did) talking about re-election prospects more than two years out, Risch has made his re-election plans for 2020 quite clear. Whether or not Risch had a sense of the chair opening, he does seem to have prepared for the possibility.

What he might do with it is another matter.

Idahoans Borah, who chaired it from 1924 to 1933, and Church, from 1978 to 1981, were among the most prominent political figures of their day, and not only because both ran for president. Both had strong commentaries on foreign affairs, both were willing to buck presidents – of both parties – and both were skeptical of involvement overseas, in Borah’s case to the point of isolationism. Their perspectives were clear and sometimes ran against the grain, but stood aside from political considerations. (Both probably paid a political price for their views on foreign policy.)

How would Risch compare? During the Obama Administration, Risch was active on the foreign relations committee but did not mark out very distinctive territory. He delivered one of the best analyses anywhere of the prospects for American involvement in Syria, but it was not a clear-cut stance (take that as praise), and his views on foreign relations overall seem hard to summarize easily.

During the Trump Administration, Risch has been a Trump loyalist; he has come to the president’s defense on several occasions. (The statistics web site “538” puts Risch at voting 91.8 percent in line with Trump.) There’s little reason to think he’d be leading a charge to review or investigate Trump relations with other countries.

But a change of chair is months away. In the meantime, watch Risch’s comments, which can sometimes run toward the cryptic, to see where he comes out – a Trump loyalist or someone more like a Borah or Church.

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In this time of hyper-hot politics, are the lower-rung non-partisan levels of the Idaho ballot in the upcoming Idaho city elections much exception?

Not to press points too far, there are a few indicators of reflections from the national roar. Even if you wouldn’t want to make the case too hard.

For example. Coeur d’Alene has a long tradition, going back generations, of heated city elections. Only recently that tradition ascended new peaks, as a ferociously-contested set of recall elections, sandwiched in between hot regular elections, racked the city.

But not this year. For the first time in many, many elections (decades back at least), every post on the ballot in Coeur d’Alene, including that of the mayor (Steve Widmyer, who’s seeking a second term), is unopposed, with only the incumbents running for each. (There is still the possibility of a write-in or two surfacing.)

That’s a striking turnaround from recent elections, with activist conservatives pushing hard in election after election. The lack of filings this time may have to do with the more moderate candidates winning consistently in the last few city elections, a contrast to elections taking in other boundary lines in the Panhandle. Or it could be campaign fatigue. But it could be a soft echo of national politics. One suggestive point is that Coeur d’Alene is not alone in lacking city election contests. Most other cities in Kootenai County reported the same, and fewer than usual candidates turned up in many other cities around the region.

In southern Idaho candidate filings, a different dynamic emerged.

In Boise (where the mayor is in mid-term and not on the ballot this year), the three council contests drew at least four candidates each. From that list jumped out three prominent Democrats: one council incumbent, TJ Thomson, and for the other seats Frank Walker, a former Ada County commissioner, and Holli Woodings, a former legislator and candidate for secretary of state. Those three may be the most locally prominent of the 13 council candidates, and well-positioned for their races. Together with Mayor David Bieter, who occupies a non-partisan office but personally is a Democrat, the city may become a Democratic redoubt in the next election.

By contrast, Meridian drew seven candidates for its three council seats, Nampa nine for its three, and Caldwell 10 for the four council seats up there. All three of those cities have mayors up for election, which often results in a larger collection of candidates to the field.

Not everywhere are we seeing these kinds of effects.

In many cities, the candidate filing patterns are running true to form. Idaho Falls and Pocatello, where mayors are up, have normal rosters of candidates, and all three council seats in Twin Falls have races pitting incumbents against challengers. Both Pocatello and Idaho Falls mayoral races may be competitive – legislator Jeff Thompson is seeking the job in Idaho Falls – so they may say something about those cities’ directions.

City elections do help set directions for a city, sometimes taking it where it might not otherwise go. Sometimes you can hear the distant rumblings of larger-picture politics in that. Sometimes, it generates a change or a confirmation of its course internally, on its own.

In another six weeks or so, Idaho cities’ voters will get to weigh in on all that.

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Back when I was covering police and courts for Nampa-Caldwell newspapers, we liked to call it – in honor of a former county sheriff – the Dale Haile Jail. Technically, it was the Dale Haile Detention Center, which it still is.

What it also was then, and still is, is too small.

At least, for the demands being placed on it.

On Thursday, according to the online jail roster, it held 431 inmates, just short of the 477 beds it has. (Weekends tend to be busier.) The situation actually is more complicated because, as one staffer told a reporter, “I can’t put a female in with a male. I can’t put a sex offender in with a murderer. You’ve got to be able to separate all these people out.” And there are people who might have been put in jail if there was as place to put them.

And there’s a lot of traffic in and out. The site noted that, “In 2011, Courts and Transport Deputies drove 65,000 miles in transport vehicles, screened over 400,000 individuals entering the two Canyon County courthouses and escorted nearly 11,000 inmates to court appearances from the detention center.”

Overall, one review after another for many years has maintained that more jail space and overall capability is needed. The Canyon County commissioners recently ordered another review from the DLR Group, a large national building design firm, and it found that Canyon needs a jail able to handle at least 1,000 inmates – double the capacity it currently has.

And that’s just to get the county through the next decade.

The pressure is considerable, because building this thing would cost a lot of money (the county hasn’t released an exact number, but it will be big). The county’s voters have, three times in a row, turned down bond proposals for jail construction.

This is worth pondering even if you don’t live in Canyon County because the jail problems it faces are not so radically different from those faced by many other counties.

Ada County, for example, has space for about 1,200 inmates. Since its population is a little more than double Canyon’s (which has capacity for 477), that sounds about right … except that Canyon is really needing capacity for more than 1,000. Which means Ada County probably should be looking at capacity for 2,500 or so.

Yes, this is expensive.

And there are only so many alternatives.

One might be cheap housing, down to and including tents – a popular idea in some quarters. But aside from temporary and limited use, it won’t work in solving the larger-scale issues of security and safety.

You could simply decide to quit jailing people when the beds are full. That may mean jailing low-risk minor offenders and letting the violent and dangerous go free.

Or, you could suck it up and raise taxes to pay for new jail buildings and staff. It would solve the problem of what to do with the inmates, though it wouldn’t make taxpayers happy (as in Canyon at least it hasn’t).

Or, we might try reconsidering what we choose to jail people for, and maybe try to find other ways of dealing with some of the offenders.

Just a thought.

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The meshing of religion and politics is as clear today as it ever has been: To a remarkable degree, poll after poll has found, you can tell how someone votes if you know where (or if) they go to worship.

And this picture is changing fast, maybe faster nationally than it ever has. Idaho is changing, too, and in some ways not at all obvious.

The latest source material for this is a massive report, released last week (at www.prri.org/research/american-religious-landscape-christian-religiously-unaffiliated/), by the Public Religion Research Institute, a “nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to conducting independent research at the intersection of religion, culture, and public policy.” It draws on a survey of more than 100,000 Americans, a huge sample, with detailed results at the state level.

One of its major takeaways is this: “White Christians, once the dominant religious group in the U.S., now account for fewer than half of all adults living in the country. Today, fewer than half of all states are majority white Christian. As recently as 2007, 39 states had majority white Christian populations.”

Idaho, as you may expect, is still one of those majority white Christian states. But the margin is shrinking. When it did a similar survey in 2007, PRRI found that Idaho was 67 percent white Christian (Latino and black Christians were categorized separately). Today, that figure stands at 56 percent.

The trend line is comparable all over. Utah dropped from 68 percent to 61 percent. Less-churched Oregon went from 57 percent to 43 percent. Washington state fell from 55 percent to 42 percent.

Further, an age gap is widening (part of the reason for the change). Many Christian groups are seeing much smaller percentages of affiliation within younger age groups. The report noted, “Only slightly more than one in ten white evangelical Protestants (11%), white Catholics (11%), and white mainline Protestants (14%) are under the age of 30. Approximately six in ten white evangelical Protestants (62%), white Catholics (62%), and white mainline Protestants (59%) are at least 50 years old.” Among evangelicals, this marks a downturn after a generation of steady, sometimes explosive, growth.

The report did also note “the Mormon exception”: “Although Mormons are a predominantly white Christian religious tradition, there is little evidence to suggest that they are experiencing similar declines. Currently, 1.9% of the public identifies as Mormon, a number identical to findings from a 2011 study of Mormons in the U.S. Mormons are also much younger than other white Christian religious traditions.”

That’s significant in Idaho, where Mormons are the largest religious group (at 20 percent of the population) in the state, ahead of evangelical Protestants, who make up 15 percent.

What may surprise a lot of people, though, is that the largest religious-based segment of the population in Idaho, larger than either of those two, is the unaffiliated, at 27 percent. Idaho’s rate is actually higher than the national percentage, which is 24 percent – three times what it was a quarter-century ago. Idaho is one of the 20 states where unaffiliateds are the biggest part of the population. That contrasts with 12 states where evangelicals are the largest group, or 11 where Catholics are, or the one (Utah) where Mormons hold the largest share. Idaho’s share of unaffiliates ranks just ahead of Wyoming and Nebraska – which would be understandable company – but also immediately behind California and Nevada.

These statistics mark some big changes. The effects aren’t likely to manifest immediately, or in the next two or three years. But religion eventually does have a big impact on politics, the economy and much else. Watch for it.

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Across the country, so many Democrats are getting into runs for Congress that some party leaders are worried about getting swamped with competitive primary contests.

In one suburban Chicago district, nine Democrats have filed to run against a Republican U.S. House incumbent. As of the end of June, the number of Democratic House challengers nationally who had raised at least $5,000 by then – indicating at least some level of seriousness in campaigning – was 209. That’s an abnormally large number. In this century, the previous comparable record for a challenging party was held by the Republicans in 2009, just ahead of their 2010 sweep – and in that year, Republicans had 78 comparable candidates.

We’re more than a year away from the November 2018 election, and many conditions can change between here and there. But at the moment, Democrats nationally are looking very much the way they did in 2006, the way Republicans did in 2010 and 2014.

Just west of the Idaho state line, the massive Oregon second House district, where veteran Republican Representative Greg Walden has usually won with numbers like those of his Idaho counterparts, has drawn four Democratic challengers so far, at least a couple of whom look to be serious contenders. In Washington’s fifth district (centered on Spokane), where the seat is held by Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a string of Democratic candidates has emerged, topped this week by veteran former state Senator Majority Leader Lisa Brown.

In Idaho … not so much.

There’s one structural element to this. Idaho won’t have a Senate election next year – Jim Risch is up in 2020 (and says he’s running again) and Mike Crapo in 2022. That diminishes, a little, interest in Idaho congressional races. But both U.S. House seats will have an election, and one of them will be open, meaning no incumbent will be on the ballot.

Republicans are in the field. Incumbent Mike Simpson in the second district (with maybe another primary challenge, though there’s not yet an FEC trace of one). In the first, where the seat is open owing to incumbent Raul Labrador’s run for governor, at least three prospects are at work.

So far, as best I could determine, there’s no significant activity toward a Democratic candidacy in the second district. A candidate from that party eventually may file and be on the ballot next year, but for now you have to suspect he or she will be a placeholder, there mainly to preserve options in the unlikely event Simpson lost a Republican primary.

The Federal Election Commission does have a filing in the first district for Democrat Michael William Smith of Post Falls, but no financial activity is reported. Smith has a Facebook web page, but not much is reported there by way of campaign activity.

Democrats may wind up with more than a placeholder in the first. A leader in the Indivisible group (which is untested but looks to be highly energetic and active in some places) in Ada County is said to be interested. And a few other names have been batted around, including a couple from Idaho’s panhandle, which hasn’t produced a member of Congress in a very long time.

Former state Senator Dan Schmidt of Moscow has been mentioned (by fellow columnist Chris Carlson, among others) as a prospect for governor; the first district spot might be a more logical fit.

But candidates are not bursting through the woodwork (one Democrat suggested to me that there is no woodwork). And as early in the cycle is this still is – unusually early for most candidates to jump in, by normal schedules in the past – that right now makes Idaho an outlier in the national political picture.

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For those a long time around Idaho, losing Cecil Andrus is like losing a member of the family.

When I first arrived in Idaho in 1973, his was one of the few Gem State names I’d ever heard. He was then well into his first term as governor, following his second run for the office. At his death this week he had been a well-known Idahoan and a representative leader of the state for longer than just about anyone I can think of; statistically at least, he was governor longer than anyone else, and never was he a mere caretaker.

But it was a while before this point about him came clear to me: He didn’t get there by dint of deep Idaho roots; he didn’t, in a phrase I’ve heard elsewhere, live on a road named for his grandparents. At the time he first ran for governor, in 1996, he’d been in the state little more than a decade, moving to Orofino from Oregon in the spring of 1955 as a logger. He was elected to the state Senate only half a decade after his Idaho arrival. (Barely a decade after that, he was United State Secretary of the Interior.)

That alone speaks to something unusual about his capabilities in politics. Too often the word “politician” is used as a derogatory; it ought to be a term of praise, and as a natural politician Andrus stands as a good demonstration of why.

Those reasons weren’t immediately obvious back then, and have little to do with his charismatic presence, though Andrus was one of those people whose presence in a room is immediately felt. His urbane surface with well-chosen words and that smart you-know-and-I-know wink developed over time, and his entry into politics famously was said to come in a fit of anger. (A local Republican apparently taunted him that it was a good thing he didn’t run for the legislature, because he would have been clobbered; Andrus took the bait and defeated the Republican incumbent.)

But his instincts about how to run for office and about how to act and govern once there seemed to come from somewhere deeper; seem almost to have been there all along. They seemed rooted where they should, in an understanding of human nature stronger than most people have.

He also had a deep understanding of Idaho, and in turn he helped change the way Idahoans thought about themselves.

When Martin Peterson and I some years back published a list of the most influential Idahoans in state history, we ranked Andrus at 16, and the main argument about that was the contention he should have ranked higher. We did rank him higher than any other governor, and his long-time associate and columnist Chris Carlson built a book about him around the title, “Idaho’s Greatest Governor.” His effects on education, environmental protection and economic development in the state have been enormous.

Peterson and I suggested, “One of Andrus’ greatest impacts may be psychological: He added in 1970 a new dimension to the way Idahoans think about their state, when he campaigned in part on ‘quality of life’ as an important ideological consideration.” It had not much been part of the way Idahoans thought about their state before then, but it has been ever since.

Andrus left the governorship in 1995, and has not sought or held office since. But he has been visible through the years, taking a role on issues, mentoring people and helping candidates, building community activities such as the foundation started under his name.

That’s his role in the family. He carried it superbly.

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It was a striking headline in the business news site Bloomberg on August 18 that should have garnered more attention than it did in the Gem State:

“Trump-Friendly Idaho Doesn’t Put America First.”

That does need some explanation. It doesn’t refer to patriotism as such, but rather Idaho’s business practices: Idaho’s economy is doing well, ranking high among strong state economies, because “its largest employers sell the bulk of their products overseas, count the world’s biggest multinational companies among their customers and suppliers, and make most of their money from the technology driving globalization.”

That was Bloomberg’s core conclusion, supported by a raft of data. I found this nugget an interesting contrast: “… the economy of Idaho’s southeastern neighbor, Wyoming, is driven more by domestic industries like metals and mining, which provided 20 percent of its gross domestic product. It was the worst U.S. economy during the 12 months ended March 31, with the largest job and tax-revenue losses and second-worst stock market and mortgage delinquencies.”

Idaho’s international focus should come as no surprise. Governor for the last decade, C.L. “Butch” Otter, has made his international business trips, many to Asia and Europe, highlights of his years in office, understandably since international business relationships have been a big part of what he did professionally back to his days at the J.R. Simplot Company.

Over the last 15 years or so, international exports from Idaho have more than doubled – a remarkable expansion many Idahoans may not even have noticed – according to the Idaho Department of Commerce. Many of Idaho’s larger businesses are involved in export.

None of this is really stunning news; even decades ago, international business was important to Idaho business. Nor is it an outlier nationally; a new poll from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs said that “for the first time since the think tank first asked the question in 2004, more than half of Americans — 57 percent — also agreed that trade is good for creating U.S. jobs.” But about half of Republicans nationally say that trade deals mostly benefit other countries, not ours. The issue becomes of bigger import these days because of attitudes toward trade in the Trump Administration, which voters in Idaho helped put into office.

Consider these headlines over the last month from a range of publications internationally: “Trump is ‘hostile to trade’, says American advising UK”; “Trump may be about to wallop global trade as we know it”; “Trump’s Stalled Trade Agenda Leaves Industries in the Lurch”; “Trump’s Trade Agenda Divides the Nation’s Cities”; “China: Trump trade probe violates international rules”; “NDP trade critic calls Trump’s comments about terminating NAFTA ‘disconcerting’.” Among many more.

The details of trade agreements are where you find the good-or-bad; specific provisions can be beneficial or not. The talk coming out of the White House, though, has emphasized how “we are going to make some very big changes” (as the president said of the NAFTA this spring).

That’s making a lot of businesses nervous. And regardless who got the votes for the presidency last year, it ought to make Idaho economic developers nervous as well.

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