• 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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Was it only two years ago that seemingly quixotic ballot issue effort was underway to expand Medicaid health insurance in Idaho?

It seemed like an improbable thing. Nearly all of the elected officials in Idaho who had anything to say about the Affordable Care Act, of which Medicaid expansion was a critical piece, were heaping abuse on it at every opportunity. The intensity of the opposition among the state’s political leadership at least was overwhelming, which should have been an indicator that expansion just wasn’t likely to happen, even at the voter level, right?

But it didn’t work out that way. Medicaid expansion not only passed among the Idaho voters, it passed in a landslide. And while the legislature fought back, a modified version of it is now going on the books and coming into place.

Legalized medical marijuana, the subject of an intensive petition drive, must seem about as improbable now as Medicaid did then. But the state’s Medicaid experience now tells us this: Don’t write off the prospects that it will go on the Idaho books.

While the Affordable Care Act never polled massively well in Idaho (probably it does better now than it did six or eight years ago), Medicaid expansion in recent years at least consistently polled well. While complete marijuana legalization still does not poll well in Idaho, medical marijuana does,; well enough to suggest that the narrowly-crafted measure to legalize and regulate it would have a decent chance of passage if it reaches the ballot in November next year.

Will it reach the ballot? The effort already has cleared several bars, and the petition signature process is underway; it will continue until next spring. The Medicaid expansion campaign was unusually well organized and did a terrific job; it will not be easy to replicate. But it also created a template, a specific set of steps and plan of attack that other ballot issue campaigns could use in the future. Such as medical marijuana, this year.

Backers need to collect more than 55,000 signatures, distributed around the state in specific ways. That makes the effort more difficult, but – and this was a lesson coming out of Medicaid expansion – it also means that if organizers develop a powerful and thorough enough campaign to get that done, they also have developed a strong enough campaign to sell the case affirmatively to the voters.

The case also has another advantage: Earlier adoption by neighboring states. By the time Idaho voters got to decide on Medicaid expansion, they could look around and see a number of nearby states that already had taken action on that front, and found no great negatives accruing. In the case of medical marijuana, most of the states bordering Idaho already have taken the legalize-and-regulate route (which resembles what Idaho does with alcohol), and the skies have not fallen in on them. In southwest Idaho, residents are seeing regular visits between the Boise metro area and the city onf Ontario, less than an hour away, as Idahoans buy what they want and can’t buy (legally) at home. The same thing happens in other border areas. None of this is going unnoticed by Idaho voters.

If the measure does make the ballot and does pass, many legislators would not doubt want to take an ax to it at the next legislative session. But they might have cause to hesitate. The effort by legislators this year to undermine the will of a landslide portion of Idaho voters, followed by an effort to virtually kill off the initiative process in Idaho, has led to some backlash. If on top of that a majority of Idaho voters choose to legalize medical marijuana, and legislators move to repeal it, what might be the political impact of that?

Imagine opposition to a marijuana liberalization law as the basis for a serious political threat to Idaho legislators. As unlikely as it sounds, the pieces for that could be coming together.

That’s down the road, of course. The legalization advocates have a long way to go before all that could happen.

But as the Medicaid expansion activists would tell you, never write off an effort backed by enough people.

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When libertarian sentiments take a populist form, it looks like this: a mix of anger, fear, anti-intellectualism, and fierce government hostility. Welcome to the Tea Party movement.
► David Niose, Fighting Back the Right

Populism can include a bunch of things, some good, some not.
This could be a subject purely for political scientists to hash over … except that populism has been moving into ever-broader discussion. Soon, someone is likely to appropriate the term and run under it, so we should have a sense of it means. Or, historically has meant.
And as with so many others, it gets complicated. It has meant a number of different things to different people.

George Will (in an interview) offered, “Populism is the belief in the direct translation of public impulses, public passions. Passion was the great problem for the American Founders.” And it certainly was, though not all public desires, though, necessarily fall under the populist umbrella, and the founders’ concerns largely were met in their efforts to mediate and slow decision-making to inject more intellect and less emotion into the process. It was a process concern, not one of subject matter. The populism of the last century mostly definable by what it addresses.

The Oxford Dictionary offers these definitions: “Support for the concerns of ordinary people. The quality of appealing to or being aimed at ordinary people.”

Just what you should want in a democracy/republic, right?

Except that there’s a subtlety in the definitions from Oxford: Think carefully and you’ll sense that what populism really is about is less a platform or a movement than a style.

Writer George Packer approached that current sense of the word with, “Populism is a stance and a rhetoric more than an ideology or a set of positions. It speaks of a battle of good against evil, demanding simple answers to difficult problems. ([Donald] Trump: ‘Trade? We’re gonna fix it. Health care? We’re gonna fix it.’) It’s suspicious of the normal bargaining and compromise that constitute democratic governance. (On the stump, [Bernie] Sanders seldom touts his bipartisan successes as chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.) Populism can have a conspiratorial and apocalyptic bent …”

It is not polished; it is raw, emotional more than thoughtful.
It can start with specifics and even specific ideas and proposals. But the internal machinery usually processes them into blood-churning vagueness.

A few specifics, then:

There was a Populist Party in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century, and for some years it pulled a significant number of votes even in presidential contests; it proclaimed that “the fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few.” In his Political Dictionary, William Safire referred to it as “a liberalism deeply rooted in U.S. history.” Many of the political progressives of that era and just beyond shaded over into populism, and by other names (such as the Nonpartisan League) it remained felt through the twenties. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal Democrats absorbed many, though not all, of them.

Much of this was based around economic issues, but not all. Packer wrote in his populism article about Georgia politician Thomas Watson, who railed that “the scum of creation has been dumped on us. Some of our principal cities are more foreign than American.” That anti-outsider thread has persisted too.

The populist style while persistent is not always equally popular; it rises and falls. In the middle of the 20th century gained relatively little traction. In 2016, and the elections leading up to it, it proved popular.

Political analyst John Judis has argued that “populist campaigns and parties often function as warning signs of a political crisis. In both Europe and the U.S., populist movements have been most successful at times when people see the prevailing political norms – which are preserved and defended by the existing establishment – as being at odds with their own hopes, fears, and concerns. The populists express these neglected concerns and frame them in a politics that pits the people against an intransigent elite. By doing so, they become catalysts for political change. Populist campaigns and parties, by nature, point to problems through demands that are unlikely to be realized in the present political circumstances.”

And there are the two problems, which have nothing to do with the goals – real or purported – populist movements espouse.

They make demands, in the most emotional and emphatic terms, that cannot be fulfilled. (This seems to be a core component of modern populism that distinguishes it from the population of a century back.)
And they attack the very people and institutions which most plausibly might make their demands happen, and often would be inclined to … if they weren’t under attack from populists.

Populism doesn’t have to be self-destructive, and it can have good intentions, but those who fall under its spell seem to have a weakness for folding rapidly and dangerously into darkness, despair and fury. It has a hard time fitting into a system of practical self-government of, you guessed it, the people.

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Personal responsibility or something like it has been a mainstay in recent American politics, back to a speech by Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts,1 delivered at the Constitutional Convention on July 18, 1787 (although his reference was to the behavior of “public bodies” rather than individual action or obligation).

More recently it has been associated with the limitation of governmental social programs, as in the Personal Responsibility and Welfare Reform Act of 1996.

It has been used most often by conservatives but with some frequency across the political spectrum. Essayist Alan Wolfe wrote in 1998, “To liberals and leftists, the message would be equally blunt. In particular, your insistent, almost pathological, fear of understanding the importance of personal responsibility astonishes us.”

The concept is often enough taken up on the left too, however. In his inaugural address, for example, Barack Obama spoke of “a new era of responsibility,” especially directing his point to younger people.
The concept as such is broadly popular. In 2014, for example, a Pew Research study showed that “being responsible” was considered the single most popular value in the rearing of children, over many options, across the whole of the ideological spectrum.

But what does “personal responsibility” actually mean?

Wikiquote’s definition is that “Personal responsibility or Individual Responsibility is the idea that human beings choose, instigate, or otherwise cause their own actions. A corollary idea is that because we cause our actions, we can be held morally accountable or legally liable.”

Ron Haskins expands on that, bringing the definition into the realm many conservatives ordinarily would use, with this: “Personal responsibility is the willingness to both accept the importance of standards that society establishes for individual behavior and to make strenuous personal efforts to live by those standards. But personal responsibility also means that when individuals fail to meet expected standards, they do not look around for some factor outside themselves to blame. The demise of personal responsibility occurs when individuals blame their family, their peers, their economic circumstances, or their society for their own failure to meet standards.”

This definition matches with a great deal of public policy, especially with arguments that people who receive public help may not be doing enough to help themselves, and become too reliant on assistance from others.

In the endless variety of human beings, some – there’s no way to get a clear number – fall short of exactly that test, failing to take personal responsibility for what they can control.

We all have different levels of ability to control what happens around us, of course. For economic, health, educational or other reasons, different people are able to handle different levels of demand and stress. To require personal action to take care of every problem may be entirely justifiable in one case, but unrealistic – and heartless – in another.

Drawing the line between the two is never easy. But that’s part of the implicit responsibility in treating people with decency and respect.
There is another aspect to calls for “personal responsibility” and declining to seek help from others: It can be turned into an argument against organizing to accomplish a task that might be beyond the capability of a single person acting alone.

Imagine a city whose leaders are proposing an expensive, tax-heavy project opposed by many residents. Calling on those residents to act on their “personal responsibility” – and offer individualized opposition – instead of organizing, would be a simple prescription for the city leaders to prevail easily over a deeply and hopelessly divided opposition. An organized, coordinated opposition (which appears to cut against the grain of “personal responsibility”) might instead prevail. Obviously the same concept applies in many places, including union organizing (bearing in mind that many political critics of unions have eased “personal responsibility” into their rhetoric).

When does this translate to: Don’t you dare organize against your (wealthy) betters?

The journey may not be lengthy.
But what does “being responsible” mean?

Depends, on who’s responsible for what.

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The last time opioids were this big a deal in Idaho was almost a century and a half ago, when they made their way into Boise and beyond through trade routes on the west coast. Opium became a big enough commodity that – in part because Chinese immigrants were implicated – the territorial legislature clamped down, and raids and prosections ensued. The opium market was not eliminated but was largely quashed.

All these years later, opioids have found Idaho again.

The stereotype of an opioid problem area might bring to mind Appalachia or the troubled industrial areas of the northeast, or maybe parts of the rural south. Surely not places like Idaho.

But it’s been no mistake that the state of Idaho (through the attorney general’s office) and a growing bunch of local jurisdictions (Twin Falls just joined the list) have joined into a national lawsuit over opioids – especially their marketing.

Idaho, it turns out, is one of those places in the country harder-hit than most by this new epidemic.

And unlike most contagious diseases and unlike most problems with drug abuse – methamphetamines, say – the opioid drug abuse problem has many of its roots in “legitimate” society, with licensed physicians who got their patients hooked, and with corporate manufacturers of patented products. Filing a lawsuit against a meth dealer would be ludicrous (such an actor would simply be locked up), but that’s not so in the case of opioids, where the road to addiction so often has started with legal prescriptions.

On May 3, the Idaho Falls Post Register reported, “If you live in eastern Idaho, you don’t need anyone telling you about the ravages of the opioid epidemic. Bonneville and Bannock counties have the highest percentage of drug-overdose deaths in the state. Bonneville, along with Elmore, Owyhee and nine other Idaho counties got so fed up with the opioid epidemic they joined a federal lawsuit last year against the makers of OxyContin, Lortab and other opioids.”

And yet the worst of the opioid problem in Idaho seems to be further north. The Centers for Disease Control has broken out prescription rates for opioids by county, and the hottest area in the region – in either Idaho or Washington state – turns out to be the Lewiston-Clarkston area, with adjacent Lewis County (on a per capita basis) coming in slightly higher still. For many recent years, little Lewis County had the highest prescription rates of any county in the western United States.

The Lewiston Tribune’s detailed August 18 story on the problem locally quotes veteran Moscow physician Dan Schmidt, who works around the region – and doesn’t seem especially surprised at the high rates. He notes that Lewiston and Clarkston, with their large stores, may rate high because people from smaller nearby counties shop (and get their drugs) there. He also suggested that the medical community has failed to regulate itself – the profession “dropped the ball.” He recalled, the story said, “drug company sales representatives showing up at his clinic with free food, three times a week.” When Schmidt declined to buy, their visits stopped. But, as he seems to indicate, not all physicians in the area may have reacted the same way.

And he thought the large number of people on disability or who live on very small incomes have a strong incentive to sell legal opioids they get through the local pharmacy.

Legal opioids, of course, often have led to heroin and other illegal opioid addictions; the problems are closely related.

The reports we’re seeing seem to show that the problems are systemic as well as personal. Any attempt to solve the problem will have to consider the systems of medical and pain treatment as well as control over the substances.

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Idaho is amid an anniversary that may get no public acclaim but should: Really, it marks the unification of Idaho, one century ago, and a generation after statehood.

The project involved was completed 99 years ago. But it was well underway before that, and one of the key developments that allowed it to happen at all came in 1919.

It was the building of the Whitebird Hill grade, built that is, to motor vehicle roadway conditions, which in turn allowed for a road system that for the first time provided a practical link between northern and southern Idaho.

Up to then, the advocates arguing for breaking off northern Idaho and attaching it to Washington or Montana had an excellent point: There was no good way for people to travel, even by the rugged and uncomfortable standards of the time, between the northern and southern parts of Idaho. The area between the Camas Prairie (the northern one, in Idaho County) and the Meadows area seemed all but impassible. A rough trail had been cut through, and horseback riders could make their way over the hill; in the best weather narrow carts could roll, with great care taken, slowly and sometimes accumulating damage. But the old Magruder corridor, which despite use since the early 1860s never has been made into a real road, was probably easier to navigate than the area south of Grangeville.

Major rivers – the Snake, the Salmon, the Clearwater – run through the region, but none of them allow for any substantial transport between north and south. The one case that looks good on a map, the northern-running Snake River, has been a popular recreational path for many years, but wasn’t much good for long-distance transport then (or now).

Building a road over White Bird Pass would be a formidable challenge, but it was the key to creating a north-south roadway. The earliest work on it started in the mid-teens a century ago, but proceeded slowly at first. Local efforts needed a stronger push from the state.

In 1919, as part of a state government reorganization, a Bureau of Highways was created, and both governor (D.W. Davis at the time) and the legislature made clear that the roads needed to be improved. That was the final piece in what had been pushed for by people in the region for some time.

A November 1918 article in the Lewiston Tribune talked about the prospective project from the mouth of White Bird Creek to Grangeville, and the problem it addressed: “The only means of travel between these two points at the present time is over a narrow, precipitous mountain road of heavy grades – some pitches as steep as 25 percent – and sharp, dangerous turns. Though it is a very important mail route, supplying all the Salmon River country to a distance of 90 miles to New Meadows, it is practically no more than a poor trail and almost impassible to auto traffic except under the most favorable conditions.”

Those of us who remember the “old” White Bird grade – the switchback-laden white-knuckle road that held you to 25 miles an hour (if you didn’t have a death wish) – may think that not much had changed. But a lot did. The pre-1920 trail was really not accessible at all to motor vehicles, which was not so big a deal a decade earlier but, as the car-driven 1920s were about to arrive, became a very big deal.

The grade we use now, in place at this point for more than 40 years, is a sleek, high-speed modern highway, far ahead of what came before. But that earlier version, which you can still see snaking its way up the mountain from the town of White Bird, was the predicate.

Look a century past and you’ll see that, yes, we can make progress.

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This has been quite a summer for diversity in Idaho, even leaving aside the squabble over legislator criticism of ethnic and other types of organizations and programs at Boise State University, and various other associated public protests or outbursts.

Micron Technology at Boise, which long has had a diversity program, raised its visibility and support for that effort a notch by naming the program’s leader as a corporate vice president.

Top officers at the Idaho National Laboratory at Idaho Falls issued a statement strongly supporting diversity at the big center. Laboratory Director Mark Peters said in explanation, “Our employees come from roughly 130 countries. I can tell you that without question, a diverse working group, working together, is the best tool we have to ensure a prosperous and secure future. At INL, we don’t just value inclusive diversity, we need it.”

The University of Idaho named a new athletic director, the first to hold the position since the contentious departure of a predecessor who was enmeshed in sexual harassment issues. The new director is Terry Gawlik, the first woman ever to hold the job at the UI.

News reports about all those events emerged last week, days after the report about another woman, Cristal Brown, who was appointed to lead athletics at Idaho State University, the first ever to do so there. Two of Idaho’s three state universities now have athletics programs directed by women. That unquestionably will come as a shock to some of the state’s socially conservative athletic boosters. (Both appointments also involved the state Board of Education, which was enmeshed in the BSU diversity debate.)

These things did not all happen as a response to the Idaho legislators (and their supporters) who took aim at the diversity programs at Boise State University. But they don’t feel entirely coincidental either; they have happened in an environment where the whole idea of diversity, the question of what our culture is and should be about, is under dispute and debate.

If the anti-diversity forces thought they could redefine Idaho as a monotone kind of place, they’re not making a lot of progress. The BSU diversity programs (and is it a coincidence that the uproar over that happened just after the appointment of a woman as the new president of the institution?) picked up a good deal of support after a group of legislators criticizing it sent out their letter on the subject. The legislators who attacked it seemed to wind up on the defensive, and at least one backed off his initial support of the letter.

At the same time, don’t imagine these new summer stories will go without some kind of pushback.

Much of politics and society is Newtonian, in that for every action there’s an opposing reaction. This spray of diversity-related stories this summer will certainly lead to a reaction of some kind. It may come soon, or it may simmer until the 2020 legislative session. In fact, the likelihood of legislative controversy in this area – in some form or another – is so probable I’d almost advise you to bet on it … if you could find anyone to take the other side.

The growing number of diversity topics and stories, in an election year in which Donald Trump will appear on the top of the Idaho election ballot, seems sure to make the subject one of the hottest topics in Idaho (not to mention elsewhere) during 2020.

It will take some careful discussion, if it’s not to degenerate into pure emotionalism, which does seem the most likely outcome.

But one way or another, it’s coming.

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A week after the last of the full candidate events – debates of a sort, maybe – for the Democratic presidential nomination, before the real sifting begins, the contender topping the polls will head to of all places Idaho. The reason for that is at least understandable reason: fundraising.

Former Vice President Joe Biden will visit homes at Ketchum and Boise, and raise money, primarily from people with long-standing connections to Democrtic politics; and yes, Idaho does have some people like that, lightly visible though they often are in state politics.

No particular news there. But the events of last week and this week do start to open the question of where Idaho’s Democratic support will go in their party’s nomination battle. And that’s worth considering, because while the odds are overwhelming that the state will stay red in next year’s general election, the battle over the Democratic nomination may be up for grabs, in Idaho as well as nationally. And right now there’s little certainty about how that will play out.

And that support can move in some interesting directions. Idaho Democrats looking toward the national picture increasingly have moved toward the more activist, outsider-ish and non-establishment contenders among presidential prospects. In 2016, they preferred Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton; in 2008 they went for Barack Obama over Clinton.

What does that portend for this cycle?

It might mean that if part of Biden’s strategy involves reeling in delegate votes from smaller states like Idaho – and that was an important part of Obama’s nomination strategy in 2008 – he has his work cut out. Biden is the closest thing to an establishment contender in the race, and he’s the sort of candidate who recently has had the hardest time getting traction among majority of caucus-going Idaho Democrats. Biden has a large enough base of support that he likely will be in the race as the calendar flips to 2020, something you can say with less certainty of most of the other contenders. But will he be hanging on in the face of a strong challenge, or consolidating support? If the race is competitive then, Idaho may be one of the kinds of places where he has to hustle.

Of course, we have little clarity of exactly what the field will look like by the new year. We can be reasonably certain it will narrow. The 20-plus field of candidates of July is likely to be cut in half by mid-fall; for many candidates the inability to make the next debate stage in September will be a fatal blow.

Odds are, though, that most of these candidates will be around for a while: Sanders, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, California Senator Kamala Harris, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, South Bend (Indiana) Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Maybe in the next few months another candidate or two catches fire, but these candidates and Biden seem most likely to be those scrambling for market share.

Who might generate some appeal in Idaho? Who might get the Idaho insurgency vote that seems not to have coalesced yet?

Sanders, as noted, did last time, and maybe he could again; he has a base of support in the Gem State. But his kind of insurgency seldom maintains the same sort of emotional drive for very long.

The Idaho Democrats conducted a small-scale straw poll after last week’s debates, and that showed Warren in first place, Buttigieg second, Harris third, Booker fourth, Sanders fifth. (Geography isn’t all, since Washington Governor Jay Inslee was down in the cellar.) But that was a small sample.

My best guess for a 2010 Idaho Democratic insurgency would be Warren or Booker, depending on how they present themselves and pick up support – or fail to – nationally in the next three to four months. There will be significant support for Biden among Idaho Democrats, but at the moment I’d guess he will occupy something closer to the Hillary Clinton spot.

But that’s guesswork. Crunch time for sifting through the Democratic contenders is only just beginning, and we all might wind up with a surprise short list half a year from now.

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