• 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 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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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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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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It may come as a shock to Idaho (and many other state) legislators, but their purview is limited to the borders carved out at statehood. They have a great deal of authority inside, and very little out.

You can pick up the nature of some of these limits, and the narrow ways they can be expanded, in two new House bills, 59 and 65.

HB 65, from Representative Paul Shepherd, R-Riggins, got the bigger headline splash, because its reach would be so broad if it passes (wouldn’t bet against it) and survives a legal challenge (extremely unlikely).

Here’s the key language: “The Idaho Legislature hereby declares that the state of Idaho, on behalf of its citizens, is the final arbiter of whether an act of Congress, a federal regulation or a court decision is unconstitutional and may declare that the federal laws, regulations or court decisions are not authorized by the Constitution of the United States and violate its meaning and intent, and further, are null, void and of no effect regarding any Idaho citizen residing within the borders of the state of Idaho.”

The shorthand for this is “nullification” – a unilateral declaration by the state that if we here (well, actually, if the legislature here) don’t like it, it doesn’t apply to us. That’s just a half-step away from secession from the union, a question pretty much resolved a century and a half ago.

A brand new legislator, Representative Randy Armstrong, R-Inkom, inquired in the meeting where the bill was presented: “Do we have that right as legislators or as citizens, to be able to declare something unconstitutional? Isn’t that the area judges are supposed to rule on? How do we earn the position to declare something constitutional or unconstitutional?” Well, there you are. We do have courts whose job it is to rule on constitutionality; that’s a court function, not legislative. The courts also get to parse when federal rulings apply to the states (mostly, but not always). A legislature can declare it has super-powers, but they won’t last long in a real challenge.

Is the legislature completely confined to state boundaries in its impact? Not necessarily.

House Bill 59, proposed by Representatives Ilana Rubel and John McCrostie, both D-Boise, would have Idaho join an interstate compact in which – if all 50 joined – each state would commit that their electoral college representatives would vote for whoever won the national popular vote. Such a proposal coming in this season after last year’s presidential carries a partisan tinge, but the idea has been around for many years, has been adopted by some states and others are considering it this year. (You can see more about it at http://www.nationalpopularvote.com/). Both red and blue states have entered into it.

The odds for passage in Idaho are not good, and we can’t completely be sure what a court will make of the idea. But there’s a good case for why it may be upheld. The federal constitution (in Article II) says “Each state shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof shall direct, a number of Electors,” and generally leaves the process in the hands of the legislatures. It would effect a change in an area where states seem to have full discretion to act.

For both bills, as a movie start once suggested, it’s a matter of knowing your limits.

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Right now, before the Idaho Legislature gets too deep into working through what will be considered, passed or rejected this session, time seems right for a review of the policy preferences of the people of Idaho.

When we do, we’ll have a benchmark for the end of the session: How closely did the Legislature’s decisions, and the subjects it addressed, match the views of Idahoans?

Strictly, of course, the people of Idaho collectively don’t get to deliver a State of the State address, or something similar. But you can derive a rough equivalent, in priorities and preferences, from the Idaho Public Policy Survey.

This is the annual poll of 1,000 Idaho adults conducted toward the end of each year. (The whole thing can be found at sps.boisestate.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Official-2017-State-Survey-Report.pdf.) Polls aren’t perfect, of course, but Boise State University has deep experience in running these, and the results tend to match from year to year. It seems at least roughly realistic.

The top agenda item for Idahoans, according to the poll, was the same as in Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter’s State of the State: Public schools.

“For the second consecutive year, Idahoans identify education as the most important issue facing the state, with 26.5% saying that it is the most pressing issue (compared to 28.2% in 2016),” the report said. No great surprise there, though there was also this about a related area often ignored by the legislature: “Another source of educational opportunities – the state’s public libraries – received high marks, however. 82.8% agree that the libraries in their communities create educational opportunities for people of all ages, while 81.7% consider the library in their community a good resource for access to information and other technological resources. These figures are consistent across all groups, with respondents in northern Idaho the most favorably disposed toward public libraries.”

The second biggest concern, well ahead of anything else: “The results … indicate that the issue area with greatest increase in public concern is health care policy. 70.5% of Idahoans scored health care at least an 8 when asked how important it was, on a scale of 1-10, for the state legislature to address, an 11.2% increase from last year. The number of respondents giving health care a 10 (i,e., the highest level of importance possible) increased by 12.7% from 2016, further underscoring the fact that the public views health care as an area deserving of the state legislature’s attention.”

In recent years, the legislature’s biggest health concern seems to have been an obsession with not doing anything proposed by the federal government. We’ll see if its interest expands at all this session.

Transportation has been a topic of contention in several recent sessions. The public’s take? “Transportation also saw some change as there was a slight increase (+3.7%) in those who felt addressing transportation issues was moderately important (i.e., 4-7) and a significant decrease (-7.9%) in those stating addressing transportation was not very important.”

On another subject of much discussion, the poll asked Idahoans what they thought of resettling refugees in Idaho. The result: “Idahoans are divided in their support of resettling refugees in Idaho; a slim majority (51.1%) favor this program, while a sizeable minority (43.8%) of citizens oppose it. However, although more citizens of Idaho favor this program, those who oppose refugee resettlement appear to feel very strongly about the matter.”

The Legislature won’t necessarily take much action on refugees, but if it does, who will it listen to?

And beyond that, how closely will the Legislature match the views of Idahoans? Watch and see.

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The allegations by Idaho state Representative Heather Scott that female legislators get ahead at the Statehouse by exchange of sexual favors has continued to go viral. Last week, the speed may have slowed with her apology to the House.

Scott in any event was wrong: Her contention has never been the path to advancement for female legislators in Idaho, or I suspect many other legislatures. I’ve never heard evidence of a specific Idaho case or even a rumor of one. Affairs between legislators? That’s nothing new (though the headlines about it are a new wrinkle). Back in the 70s the reporter corps would occasionally snicker at lawmaker couples who thought they were undiscovered but weren’t. But those activities usually have held legislators back more than advanced them.

There’s also been talk that the pulling of committee assignments from Scott had to do with her ideology.

Nonsense. Ideology hasn’t been a blocking point for legislators past, or present.

Asked about moving on up, Representative Stephen Hartgen said, “I’ve been here almost 10 years. People get ahead here on the basis of merit, in my humble opinion. I’ve never seen anything that would cause me to question that premise.”

Well … Sometimes legislators do become influential on specific subjects (say, the budget, or health care, or water law) when they have a strong expertise in it. But influence at the legislature usually comes down to other things. In this cynical era, when the darkest possible explanation often is the most easily believed, a quick look at what does yield Idaho legislative influence seems in order.

Seniority, probably foremost. Most committee chairs (which generally are important posts) usually go to the senior member of the majority party who doesn’t already have another chairmanship or leadership post, or (sometimes) isn’t on the budget committee. Seniority weighs heavily on the committees.

Personality does matter, and so do personal relationships. The legislature is a little “in-a-bubble” society. Legislators learn who they can trust and who they can’t, who will come through in a tough spot and who might cave, and who is essentially decent and fair-minded and who could use a little more of those qualities. There are plenty of personal friendships in the legislature, and that can affect a lot of votes. Legislators who develop strong friendships easily can be important in the legislature, whatever their other qualities. A vote for someone to lead the caucus often comes down to those kind of personality factors: Who am I comfortable with, and who can I trust?

Sometimes the flip side can apply as well: Committee spots and other goodies sometimes have been said to be horse-traded in return for leadership votes. So a skillful deal-maker can advance as well.

What kind of group are you in? Is it large enough to have decisive influence? Democratic legislators are, in their two caucuses, part of small groups, and so often have little influence. If the majority Republicans are split, however, the Democrats’ unified caucuses can matter. The same goes for the various factions within the Republican caucuses, some of them based on personalities or backgrounds (veteran watchers still recall “Sirloin row” in the Senate) and some based around issues or ideology.

Many a veteran legislator has remarked on how the legislature is a study in people. If someone rises toward the top, or is slapped down, look there first for the explanation.

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Not often, but sometimes, the old line “if you build it, they will come,” actually does pan out.

It did at the College of Western Idaho. CWI became a reality over the objections of a significant number of skeptics.

Boise was, before then, either the largest or at least one of the largest metro areas in the United States without a community college. But then, people asked, why did it need one? It already had Boise State University, which had been growing at weed levels for a quarter-century. On the private side, the College of Idaho and Northwest Nazarene College (now University) were nearby.

What was missed was the large number of people who wanted a community college, who would attend if one were available. BSU and the private colleges have needed roles, but they are relatively expensive and, for people looking for occupational training rather than a full liberal arts education, a little forbidding. There’s a big chunk of the Idaho population that hasn’t and won’t make the direct transition from high school to college.

These people had no strong political voice; they weren’t much heard from in the halls of the Statehouse. But over time the business people who lacked a force of trained workers were heard. For decades the idea of a community college floated, bobbed along, but never reached shore.

About a decade ago sufficient gravitational mass in favor of it – financial, organizational, political – pushed it ahead. (The campaign in favor featured pictures of prospective students and used the advertising tag line, “Give us a chance.”) The vote to create a new taxing district to support the college needed a two-thirds vote, and it barely passed, even with help from influential people in the area including Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter.

Back then, the thinking was that CWI would be a small institution, serving maybe a few thousand students. If it didn’t flop. Initial enrollment in 2009 was 1,100. Last year, seven years later, it hit 24,265. Don’t be surprised if that figure eventually doubles.

Okay, that’s the past. Cast your eyes now to Idaho Falls.

That eastern Idaho city does already have a college, Eastern Idaho Technical College. It’s a useful institution too, with low costs, but limited in its size and scope. Its enrollment is fewer now than CWI’s was when it opened. It needs the breadth a community college, like CWI or North Idaho College or the College of Southern Idaho, all of which have much larger enrollments (and in the latter two cases, in smaller cities), could bring.

The push to transition EITC to a community college (the College of Eastern Idaho, to round out the compass points) has been underway for a while. But now it may have gotten that added bit of momentum.

A governor’s statement that something ought to happen is by no means always enough, as any governor could tell you. But in this case it could be important. In his state of the state address last week, Otter linked the CWI experience to the push for an eastern community college in what could be a strong kickstart.

The legislature already threw in $5 million in seed money (which it did in advance of CWI, too).

Then Otter added, “Now the people of Bonneville County must decide at the polls in May whether to invest in their own future by advancing plans to provide better opportunities for students and families, for those looking to improve their career readiness, and for businesses looking to locate or expand. After seeing the difference that the College of Western Idaho has made here in the Treasure Valley, after seeing how quickly CWI has grown to meet pent-up demand for new educational opportunities, and after seeing the overwhelmingly positive response from employers, the College of Eastern Idaho campaign has my full and enthusiastic support.”

That may help push some wary voters over the line.

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A new ballot petition being circulated around Idaho would put directly a question many people uneasily dance around:

Is abortion murder?

It comes from a group called Abolish Abortion Idaho (website http://www.abolishabortionid.com), based at Hayden. It calls for not repealing the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, but defying it. There’s the possibility coming changes at the court could lead to a repeal anyway, but the effort here is no gray-area endeavor. It’s a frontal challenge based around the group’s core principles and, it has to be said, those of a lot of Idaho’s elected officials.

The web site argues: “Idaho Code already says that abortion is murder but that it may not be prosecuted. [This appears to be accurate.] This petition will establish equal justice for the preborn by prosecuting all who would murder them. The initiative is about equal protection under the law for preborn babies, and it eliminates the ability of a special class of people to commit a serious crime without the fear of prosecution.”

To that end the proposal would set state policy that abortion, any abortion at any stage of development, be prosecuted the same as any heinous serial killer murder you can recall. The proponents add, “There will be no exceptions for rape and incest, since the baby should never pay for the crimes of the fathers. The traditional exceptions for abortion when the life or health of the mother are threatened have been eliminated as well.”

AAI is rigorously consistent here. If you do believe abortion is murder, as so many Idaho political figures have said so clearly for so many years, then why should each provable case not be prosecuted as such? No crime, after all, is ordinarily more rigorously prosecuted than murder.

To be clear: I’m not, in this column, arguing the merits of that determination of abortion as murder. But in Idaho and around the country many politicians who have made the “abortion is murder” argument, have spent decades tinkering with the laws (to make abortion more difficult, inconvenient and expensive), while knowing that Roe v. Wade means their beliefs will never be put to the test.

The nature of the test is alluded to by AAI, but in a way you might generously call over-optimistic: “The goal of the initiative is not to punish mothers, but it is to abolish abortion. Once abortion is illegal with a severe associated penalty, we expect that very few women will ever be prosecuted under this new law.”

There are two ways to take this. If the group means to suggest little prosecution because prosecutors would rarely bring the cases, that suggests the change in law would have no teeth, and be pointless.

But if they’re suggesting the law’s intended punishment – ranging from a very long prison sentence to the death penalty – would be an effective deterrent, they’re fooling themselves. Murders of the type prosecuted now haven’t stopped, and won’t, because deep penalties are attached to them. Neither do many other heavily-punished crimes.

And if the goal “is not to punish mothers,” why not, if they’ve committed murder? You could go after doctors and nurses too (as some anti-abortion activists have in other ways). But if the law drove abortion activity away from doctors’ offices and toward other means, including self-performed abortions, how can you be rigorously in favor of legally stopping abortion without going after mothers?

This ballot issue would put the core of the question right out there. If it gets on the ballot we’ll get a chance to see what Idahoans really think about abortion – and about the consequences of following through on what has been to now mostly rhetoric.

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Here is one of the ways this year’s presidential campaign is so unusual:

The elected officials from one of the two major parties are split on their nominee, but more than that, it is the in-party supporters to that nominee who will have a much harder time explaining themselves, down the road.

Presidential nominee Donald Trump has divided Republicans nationwide, and no less in the gem state. Of Idaho’s five major officials, there’s (as this is written) an even split, Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter (who has a position in the Trump campaign) and Representative Raul Labrador sticking with Trump, and Senator Mike Crapo and Representative Mike Simpson in opposition. Senator Jim Risch, reportedly was out of state and apparently not weighed in.

The kind of rejection of one’s party nominee Crapo and Simpson have made is rare coming from elected officials in either party, especially those in the upper rungs. I can’t recall any similar, after the party nominations were made official, in Idaho in the last half-century. Crapo and Simpson are not the kind, either, to lightly abandon their party; over the years they have been as loyal to the Republican brand as any party loyalist could ask. Something really powerful must have blown them loose. (Neither, I should note, has gone as far as endorsing Democrat Hillary Clinton.)

Crapo cited Trump’s “pattern of behavior …. His repeated actions and comments toward women have been disrespectful, profane and demeaning. I have spent more than two decades working on domestic violence prevention. Trump’s most recent excuse of ‘locker room talk’ is completely unacceptable and is inconsistent with protecting women from abusive, disparaging treatment.”

Simpson said he found “his recent comments about women deplorable. In my opinion, he has demonstrated that he is unfit to be President and I cannot support him.”

The large and fast-growing record of Trump statements and incidents concerning women offers plenty of backing for those statements. But you have to wonder. For these two to split from Trump, surely there was more than just a collection of statements and incidents, many of them years old.

If you listen to the ideas offered by Idaho’s congressional delegation, and its governor, over the years, you get little overlap with Trumpism. (Maybe Idaho’s Republican voters saw that in the primary contest, when the state went for Ted Cruz over Trump.)

Trumpism has attracted and closely allied itself with white supremacists and hard core nationalists of the kind Idaho, and many of its top officials, have been trying to shake off for years. Trump’s Florida speech Thursday would have gone over well at the old Aryan Nations compound.

Trumpism has no consistent policy. Those Republicans worried about who Hillary Clinton might appoint to the Supreme Court should reflect that no one (likely including Trump) has any idea who the orange whirlwind actually would appoint. Trump on any substantial topic is a spinning wheel; I can point you to 18 distinct changes of position on his hallmark issue – immigration – alone. Conservative? Liberal? Those concepts don’t seem to be understood by, and are unimportant to, Trump. Forget about any certainty.

Except this: A strong predisposition to authoritarianism, or more bluntly, an American dictatorship. Republicans no less than Democrats have raised this concern. Congress? The Supreme Court? Unimportant, along with participation by the American people. (He seems no more interested in the states, or in the 10th amendment.) Trump’s answer to all problems and issues, devoid of explanation, is what he said at the Republican National Convention and repeated since: “I alone can fix it.” He alone – no one else. You think the federal government has been too powerful? Wait ’til you get a load of this guy.

This is a Republican who doesn’t talk about freedom or liberty or opportunity, but about “safety” and “winning” and “getting tough.” His is the speech of a dictator, not an American politician.

Trump runs directly counter to nearly everything leading Idaho Republicans have said, over generations, that they support. The next time Otter or Labrador tell you how much they love freedom, state’s rights and the reputation of Idaho, ask them why they supported Trump. You may find Crapo and Simpson won’t have nearly as much trouble with the question.

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When Republican Senator Mike Crapo was last up for election, and was overwhelmingly favored for a re-election he easily won in a landslide, he showed a little vulnerability at one point.

That was amidst his debate with Democrat Tom Sullivan, who lobbed one tough debate point after another at Crapo. In Idaho terms it was not out of bounds but was pungent. What went on inside Crapo’s mind only he knows, but he looked to be steaming, furious, and he didn’t come across well. If the race with Sullivan had been close, it might have been seriously up for grabs after that debate.

Crapo’s first Senate debate, in 1998, was a different matter. There, his sparring with Democratic Boise attorney Bill Mauk was no less intense than the 2010 model. But it also was so high-minded, so intelligently geared to ideas and issues that people spoke of it afterwards in terms of being Idaho’s version of a Lincoln-Douglas debate. It may be the best joint debate performance I’ve ever seen in Idaho. One of the things it accomplished was this: Whether you were a Republican or a Democrat, you got your side of the case made solidly by those two candidates.

Today, if you’re an Idaho Republican, you may not feel as if you need your side of the case explained: Unless the state this year takes an abrupt left turn from what it’s done for the last quarter-century, it will vote down the line Republican, mostly if not entirely in landslides. Still, absent some kind of formalized debate – and Idaho’s debate structure is better formalized than some states have – there’s no explanation for it. An unchallenged position can become a mindless one.

But if you’re an Idaho Democrat, when you heard that the state’s three Democratic candidates for Congress – Jerry Sturgill for the Senate and James Piotrowski and Jennifer Martinez for the House – all missed the filing deadline for the debates, you probably were appalled. The phrase “political malpractice” circulated around Democratic circles, and for good reason.

For Democrats, the debates are not only the best place during campaign season they have to make their own case, and the best place to criticize the Republicans, they’re also the one singular spot where they’re on a playing field with Republicans that’s level. Differences in money, in organization, in incumbency, in interest groups – none of it matters.

In a debate, there’s just two candidates saying their piece. It’s the most dramatic point in a campaign: Two antagonists going head to head. The presidential debate on Monday will get a big audience for that reason. The Idaho debates could draw a decent audience too, in Idaho terms. They still have the potential to change a few minds.

How it happened that all three Democratic congressional candidates missed the deadline for filing is unclear. The Idaho Debates organization, which includes people from Idaho Public Television, the League of Women Voters and the Idaho Press Club, for years have been the organizers of the state’s only statewide debate series; the filings they require are intended among other things to show that the candidates involved are running serious campaigns.

The Democratic candidates and the state party were, at this writing, trying to put together another debate series through some other media outlets. Whether they can get the media support and the Republicans to go along is another question.

Incumbents generally would just as soon pass on debates if they can; it’s probably the most stressful single point along the way for a strongly-favored incumbent, as the current Idaho three are.

But they could pick up some points for participating. And it would keep them in practice for when the next closer call comes around. In the larger picture, everyone gets something useful out of campaign debates, even if it’s sometimes just an uncomfortable look in the mirror. Or sometimes, a stretch into stronger thinking and communicating.

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