• 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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When we talk about how to make our communities grow – and the state, and the nation – we often get fuzzy. Ideology tends to take over, and it seldom teaches us much.

We learn a good deal from hard, concrete data, and in Idaho’s case there’s a load of it in a new multi-volume history book project just out from the Association of Idaho Cities, edited and partly written by former legislator Hal Bunderson. (Disclosure: I am the publisher.) The books in the series called Idaho’s 200 Cities – one each for the north, swouthwest and east regions of the state, plus three books of trivia questions and answers – include about 1,600 pages of fine grain detail about the founding and development of each of Idaho’s cities, from Boise to barely-there Warm River.

The sections that most grabbed my attention were those in each city’s chapter called “turning points.” In these, each city outlined what development, for good or ill, most contributed to developing the city in the direction it ultimately went, especially those that founded it and set it on its course. These sections were contributed by the cities themselves.

The most influential simple development by far, to judge from the number of times it was listed as the top or second turning point, was the arrival or departure of the railroad. We look at railroads now and tend not to see them as especially basic elements of most communities. But they once were.

Some Idaho communities are well known even today as railroad towns, such as Nampa, Pocatello and Shoshone. We don’t often associate any more most small and rural communities with an important rail presence. But places like Spencer and Leadore, Donnelly, Arimo, Parma,Troy, New Meadows, Ferdinand, Homedale, Kooskia, Glenns Ferry, Fruitland, Stites, Acequia, Cambridge, Tensed, Oldtown, Moyie Springs, Midvale, Mountain Home, Huetter, Bliss, Rathdrum all said the railroad’s arrival was central to their existence. Blackfoot “owes its origins to the Utah and Northern Railroad.” Clark Fork “had its origins as a railroad town.” Caldwell “had its origins as a railroad town.” And on and on.

Sun Valley too, and not just because of the Harriman family connection in founding the resort there.

Even in places like Moscow, where the University of Idaho was soon to be a major shifting point, railroad was listed as the initial turning point,

What was in a distant second place after the railroad? Acts of Congress, mainly the Desert Land Act, the Homestead Act, the Dawes Severalty Act and (especially in the Magic Valley and the Carey Act, for expanding irrigation. Many of the Magic Valley and southwestern Idaho communities called these pivotal, even above the railroads.

State laws relating to alcohol and gambling were the specific reasons a number of cities, including Chubbuck, Garden City and Island Park, were created. Forts were the main reason Boise and Coeur d’Alene grew where they did. For the 43 cities which are county seats (little Murphy in Owyhee County is unincorporated), those government offices were highly important too.

Developing resource industries were critical components too, of course. Mining was the pivot for a number of mainly mountain communities (Salmon, Bellevue, Hailey, Pierce, Idaho City and the Silver Valley communities among them). And similarly, sawmills were the seed for a number of others, such as McCall, Elk River, East Hope, Winchester and Cascade.

But most of Idaho’s cities, like many cities elsewhere, were planted or designated by outside forces, a national railroad or federal government, as much or more as they were by local people. An uneasy reality, but worth pondering as Idahoans plan for their communities in the generations to come.
 

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If I were managing the campaign of one of the Republican gubernatorial candidates – or of those in the first congressional district – I’d be heavily concerned about what the polls aren’t showing.

Which is to say, the people who haven’t yet decided.

Start with how long these campaigns have been going on already: A long time.

Lieutenant Governor Brad Little announced a year and a half ago, in June 2016. Developer Tommy Ahlquist announced in February of this year – about 10 months ago. Representative Raul Labrador announced in May, about half a year ago, but he was widely thought likely to run well before that, and long considered kind of a candidate-in-waiting alongside the others.

Over most of this year, the candidates have been campaigning as if election day were two weeks away. Between town meetings, candidate forums, advertising and more, this is a lot like the kind of campaigning you’d expect to see just before the season is winding up (instead of still half a year yet to go). And not only that: They have had the field to themselves. These candidates haven’t had to compete with attention for candidates for president or Congress. All the political oxygen has gone to them.

Point being, these candidates have had an ideal opportunity to soak up as much support as possible in these last few months. If politically-interested Idahoans haven’t made up their minds about them by now … well, just what are they waiting for?

That’s the leadup to the new poll from Idaho Politics Weekly (of Zions Bank) which shows Little getting 21 percent support, Labrador 17 percent and Ahlquist 14 percent. Those numbers taken by themselves simply indicate a competitive race. But all three are far behind the top-runner: Don’t Know, which pulls 36 percent support.

If I were campaign manager for any of these candidates, I’d be devoting a lot of thought to answering the question of what exactly these people need to know to let loose of their support.

The situation in the first congressional district, where Labrador is leaving an open seat and room for a pile of candidates, is a little different but similar enough to draw some related conclusions.

There, former Lieutenant Governor David Leroy announced in May (about as soon as Labrador shifted to the governor’s race), and former legislator Russell Fulcher entered the next month, but after having spent the months since August 2016 running for governor. Legislator Luke Malek joined the contest in August, and others have been in for a while too. Idahoans certainly have had plenty of opportunity by now, in December, to figure out who these guys are.

In a mid-October poll (also from Idaho Politics Weekly), though, few had. The number broke at 17 percent for Leroy, nine percent for Fulcher and seven percent for Malek – but that meant more than two-thirds were undecided. (Could that have influenced the recent entry of Canyon County legislator Christy Perry?)

What does this mass of undecideds translate to? Might it be as simple as: “Ain’t time yet to vote, so don’t bother me”? Unexcitement about the candidates? Actual lack of needed information?

That last doesn’t seem likely. But figuring out the answer to who wins the primary may co0me out of figuring out the right cause of all those undecideds.

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On his Facebook stream, first district congressional candidate Russ Fulcher, of Meridian, has posted an item noting he has always lived in that district. And: “Fun Fact: Russ Fulcher’s family has lived in what is now Idaho’s first Congressional District since 1886, four years before Idaho became a state.”

He is making more than a biographical point. His chief opponent, former attorney general and lieutenant governor David Leroy, currently lives outside the district. Leroy is not far from it; he lives in Boise, just not the portion now carved into the first. He has lived in the first before, and has said he plans to maintain a residence inside the first.

But from Fulcher’s implicit point – I’m a resident of the district, and he isn’t – two ideas emerge.

The first is, you don’t have to live in the CD to represent it. You do have to live in the same state. The U.S. Constitution, which sets only a few requirements for serving in the House (at least 25 years old and a United States citizen for seven years) does require a person to “be an Inhabitant of that State in which he shall be chosen.” State yes, but being in the same district, no.

The issue came up this spring in the high-profile House race for an open seat in Georgia, where Democrat Jon Ossoff famously lived several miles outside his suburban Atlanta district. No one charged he couldn’t legally serve, but the point about his living elsewhere was hammered around persistently through the campaign.

Several months ago, the Washington Post researched congressional residences and found 20 incumbent members of Congress who live outside their districts. In some cases a member originally elected from a district where he was a resident, saw the district boundaries shifting away, and opted not to run in the district which now included his house. In some cases it becomes no big issue, and in others candidates have lost races at least partly because of it. Specifics matter.

The newest member of the House from Washington state, Pramila Jayapal, lived about two miles outside the district she was running to represent when she was elected; it wasn’t a big issue there. Then there was Oregon’s Delia Lopez, a resident of the small rural community of Oakland, about 150 miles south of Portland. She was running to represent Oregon’s third district, which mostly is central urban Portland, about two hours by freeway from her house. She lost overwhelmingly, though the fact that she was a Republican in a district even more Democratic than Idaho is Republican, also had a lot to do with it.

Lopez’ case was like, in Idaho terms, someone living in Arco running for the first district, which runs along the west side of the state from Canada to Nevada. There’s not much connection.

Leroy’s case is a little different. Boise, in whole or in part, has been within the Idaho first congressional district for half a century. Boiseans are legally divided between the districts but as a more practical matter they have a foot in each of them. Leroy’s first district credentials are in reasonable order: He grew up in Lewiston, attended the University of Idaho at Moscow and has lived in the 1st at various points through his decades of residence in Boise. And he ran for the 1st district seat once before, in 1994 (when he lost the Republican nomination to Helen Chenoweth).

Of course, in a thinly divided and closely contested contest, as this one is shaping up to be, every issue matters. Including the matter of ten or fifteen minutes travel time.

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A few years ago when I put together a list of the 100 most influential Idahoans, Boise State University President Robert Kustra ranked at number eight. Some people thought that was a little high; but others might have edged him higher yet.

University of Idaho President Chuck Staben and Idaho State University President Arthur Vailas made the list too, and some other higher ed leaders (like Tony Fernandez at Lewis-Clark State College) were contenders.

Why are they such critical figures in the state, and so influential? That has partly to do with them as individuals (especially in Kustra’s case) but more the impact of these institutions, not just involving the thousands of people they employ and who are students there, but the sweeping outreach they have across the state. The University of Idaho, for example, has programs and activities all over Idaho, not just in Moscow (or Boise). The others are far-flung too, and so are the state’s community colleges. The leader of one of these organizations can create major ripple effects, of one sort or another, all over the state.

That’s worth some reflection now, with the news that BSU’s Kustra has announced his retirement next summer, after 15 years in charge.

He has been a big factor in Idaho. Part of the reason is Boise State as such, since it is an urban university in a rapidly-growing area, with a fast-expanding student base.

But some of it is personal. He has deep political skills and experience (he is a former lieutenant governor of Illinois) and a strong sense of public relations and community visibility, together with ambition for his institution: It has grown explosively, and the Kustra years will be remembered too as glory years for Bronco football. The growth of BSU in recent years surely is attributable to some degree to Kustra. The specifics surrounding a university president can matter.

So it matters that this is a time of transition in that regard. Kustra is not the only one on the move.

ISU’s Vailas said in August that he will retire next year (within a few days, it turns out, of Kustra’s departure). The UI’s Staben, the newcomer of the three with his arrival in 2014, caused a stir a few weeks ago when word came that he was a finalist for president of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. (It didn’t pan out.) The stir was all the louder because Stabem had said when he arrived at Moscow that he hoped to spend 10 to 15 years there, and appeared to view it as his last career stop. (UI had five presidents in the 10 years before Staben’s hiring.)

And at LCSC, Fernandez is retiring next year too, on the same day as Vailas.

Idaho’s higher education may be going through some changes in the next few years. (Remember, it’ll soon be dealing with a new governor as well.)

I’ve argued for some years that the extensive recruitment process and the levels of compensation for university presidents both are overdone. (More institutions could probably gain more of the stability they look for, and all the competence they need, by promoting from within.)

But that doesn’t mean a change in university presidents doesn’t matter. Someone like Kustra, to name just one, can show easily how significant the choice can be.

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The Tuesday elections nationally were a wonderland for analysts trying to draw Large Conclusions and Sweeping Messages. (And some of them even may have been warranted, alongside the proper notes that every election is its own specific kind of animal.)

In Idaho, there wasn’t a lot to see apart from local concerns. In this off-year election, dominated by municipal contests, all politics really was local, and not a lot of larger conclusions really are available.

It helps in saying that to point out nothing partisan was on the ballot in Idaho: “Republican” and “Democratic” labels were nowhere to be seen on the ballot. City elections in Idaho are nonpartisan – though, as news watchers know, that isn’t the case in every state, and thought in a few places (Boise most notably) there was a partisan underlay to the campaigns.

For the most part, voters made their decisions based mainly on people as individuals, conditions in local communities and the merits of various ballot issues, mainly financial. And they reached widely varying conclusions, mostly undramatic.

For the most part, for example, Idaho incumbents did okay. Pocatello’s mayor was easily re-elected, and so were Caldwell’s and Moscow’s; none of those were surprises, though the Moscow contest was lively. Similarly expected: The snoozefest at Coeur d’Alene, with lots of unopposed incumbents (a true rarity in the Lake City) including the mayor, all of whom stayed undisturbed on election day. The one council incumbent on the ballot in Boise won easily, and the other two seats went to well-established community leaders (one of them a former legislator). Only one of those Boise seats featured a reasonably close contest.

But just enough exceptions cropped up to disturb the narrative.

Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper easily out-distanced state legislator Jeff Thompson, who for a while had the look of a close contender, but she wound up short of an outright win, and now faces a runoff against another candidate. Voters in Burley chose a new mayor by the lopsided vote of 616 to 155.

Then there were the ballot issues.

The two premier ballot questions on Tuesday were based geographically close to each other, a massive $110 million school bond issue (for high school renovation) at Idaho Falls, and a proposal in Bingham County that it join the new eastern Idaho community college district. Both failed decisively. (The Idaho Falls district likely will see a trailer ballot measure coming up in a few months.) The Bingham rejection was a little unexpected; a good deal of community support to join the community college district, just created next door by a big voter margin, seemed substantial. But not substantial enough.

The concerns about those seemed to revolve, respectively, around the school renovation plans more than the money, and about the prospects for a tax increase. IdahoEdNews suggested, “District officials said the plan grew out of months of meetings with patrons, and would give the taxpayers the best value for their money. Critics said they didn’t want to see the district gut Idaho Falls high — which sits in the heart of an older section of the city — and said the district misled voters by saying the bond issue would not trigger a tax increase.”

But the whole dynamic in each case will have to be sorted out in weeks to come.

On the other side of southern Idaho, however, a number of school issues did pass — and statewide, according to IdahoEdNews, $92.7 million in school finance issues won sufficient voter approval. Those included big levies in Caldwell and Nampa.

So in all, not a lot of takeaways here for the next round of elections … a whole year away.

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I happen to live in a small town, population about 2,000; one which is not gentrifying – in the way a Ketchum or a Driggs has – but is prospering.

That puts it in a minority position.

A century ago, about three out of five Americans lived in rural places; now about one of five does. Agriculture that provided work for about half of Americans back then now employs around one in fifty. Back then, basic service businesses from drug stores and hardware shops to movie theaters were out of reach if they were 10 miles away; now they’re a short or moderate drive at two or three times that distance. And economies of scale allow for lower prices and faster and more specialized service in larger rather than smaller population centers.

The state Department of Labor population report from May found that 30 of Idaho’s 200 cities lost population in the last decade and 20 more were unchanged. These communities are relatively small and rural.

Anyone who’s been around a small town in Idaho probably can recall when businesses like those I just described, and a bunch of others, were right there on Main Street. Now, in many small towns, not a lot is left beyond a small grocery, a service station and a few other service businesses.

No one really wants it that way. But is there an alternative?

A great article just out from High Country News (at http://www.hcn.org/articles/state-of-change-why-save-the-small-town) tackles that question, focusing on the rural town of Questa, New Mexico, where nearly all the mining jobs that once sustained the town are gone, and nothing seems to be moving in to replace them. The question becoming: What’s next for Questa, a future as a ghost town … or something else?

The article quoted Bruce Weber, director of the Rural Studies Program at Oregon State University, as saying, “Some of the smaller towns will disappear, because they aren’t needed anymore. Cities will continue to grow faster than rural places because there are economic advantages to being in places that are densely populated.”

But the situation is not hopeless.

The HCN article also points out, for example, “Simply put, the argument goes like this: This country will always need food and energy. As long as rural places supply the land where food grows and energy is produced, communities will need to exist to support the people working there. In other words, even if some agricultural or energy communities shrink, they can’t all go away.”

There’s that, but other options may be available too. Those enhanced communications and transportation capabilities that pulled economic life blood out of many small towns could replenish them. Affordable housing is another small-town advantage; cities like Boise increasingly are reporting a serious lack of housing for lower income levels. My little town has internet links as good a those of most metro areas, which means I need not be in the middle of a metro to stay in touch. (The work I do every day now could not have been done in this town a generation ago.)

Those improved transportation links can also cut in both directions: People in rural areas don’t have to be far away, in a meaningful sense, from top-level goods and services.

Solutions sometimes can be found on the flip side of a problem. So it may be for small communities.

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Through most of the last generation you could find much of the edgy fringe of Idaho politics in Kootenai County, and pieces of a recent article about politics there helps locate one of the reasons things have gotten so worked up.

The article by Anne Helen Petersen on the site Buzzfeed is called “Here’s what happens when Republicans have no one to fight” (it is at https://www.buzzfeed.com/annehelenpetersen/wackadoodles-north-idaho). It describes in detail the evolution over the last half-century or so of local Republican politics, especially the relatively recent splintering between sundry pachyderms, Reagan Republicans, redoubters and others.

The most central current figure in the article is Brent Regan, chair of the Kootenai Republican Party Central Committee, where at meetings “people come to him, as if before a ruler, or a king.”

He apparently is not shy about expressing himself, writer Peterson said, and “when I asked him to help refine my understanding of liberty-minded conservative beliefs, Regan protested my use of ‘beliefs,’ which infers that they are, in fact, decisions — instead of ‘immutable truths.’”

The article quoted an email from Regan: “There is a right and a wrong, good and evil, and beneficial and detrimental. Society cannot thrive under Cartesian Relativism because it devolves into a muddle of conflicting ‘truths.’ The truths are that American Exceptionalism is the product of Judeo-Christian morality (The Ten Commandments) and of Logos (try to speak Truth), Greco-Roman philosophy (democracy and the idea that nature can be understood) and Anglo-Saxon Law (Magna Carta, the laws apply to all, even the King). The result is articulated in the most powerful political statement in history, the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. The Constitution is a covenant between the states to create a federal government. The Bill of Rights does not grant rights, it forbids the government from infringing on those rights which “are endowed by their Creator.”

No.

I reject his premise: These are not immutable truths. These are interpretations, analyses – ideas, opinions, which may have merit or not, but most certainly are not facts. Facts and opinions are different things. It’s a fact that Regan was quoted in the article as the last paragraph indicates. This column is opinion and analysis, and so is the quote from the Regan email.

Some of what Regan says here is just silly. American exceptionalism is the outgrowth of the Ten Commandments? Really? Other parts seem more sensible. I would agree that the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence is among the most powerful political statements ever, but how is that contention fact and not opinion?

This is not mere philosophical hair-splitting. The inability to discern between fact and opinion is subtle but also one of the most serious real political problems we have these days, and it’s getting worse.

A big part of what we as Americans suffer from is an inability to compromise – which is another way of saying, the ability of the widely varied 323 million or so of us to get along and to work together. A society made up of people convinced of their own absolute, unquestioning rightness, the lack of any need to learn anything new – much less about their fellow citizens – can keep our country from functioning. It can blow a society apart.

You want to turn America into an updated version of the 90s-era Balkans? Evidently, you can find a prescription for that kind of future up in Kootenai County.

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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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