Blue Bites Back 

Idaho's Democratic Party is stuck between clinging to a storied past and coping with a Republican-dominated present. But candidates say that as Idaho grows, so does the hope for a democratic future.

click to enlarge ERIN RUIZ

"Who's that?"

As the crowd from a film festival empties out of Boise's Egyptian Theatre, a few heads swivel to watch an older gentleman haltingly working the crowd. He has brochures in his hand and a voice soft enough that he is difficult to hear.

"Anybody know who that is?"

He shakes some more hands, hands out brochures. The crowd thins, and the curious ones approach him and figure it out: he is Jerry Brady, a Democrat running for governor for a second time.


Popular knee-jerk political wisdom has announced for decades that it is hard to be a Democrat in Idaho. This state is one of the reddest in the nation, sending Republicans galore to the Statehouse, to Congress and the White House in the last decade. The last Democrat to get Idaho's vote for the White House was Lyndon Johnson.

Certainly Idaho's demographics have leaned libertarian for a long time, and Republicans have picked up on those tendencies. But the Democratic Party isn't free of blame for their marginal status. Even as Idaho's voters looked reflexively to the high-rolling right, the state's Democrats have been slow to respond with a movement to match the machine across the aisle.

"It was like they went into a dry season and haven't come out of it," says Steve Shaw, a professor of political science at Northwest Nazarene University.

But part of the Democratic dry season can be blamed, in a way, upon the party's own heroes. The followers of Cecil Andrus or Frank Church are sectarian groups that are prone to forgetting about the next generation of leaders. Although these leaders used their well-oiled machines to get themselves elected, and Democrats celebrated their victories, they nonetheless neglected to build useful coattails. In short, there was no farm club.

"Democrats for years operated under the star system," says Jim Weatherby, a political scientist at Boise State University. "Church and Andrus developed strong personal organizations but didn't spend the time and resources to develop a party organization."

But as Idaho lurches into the 2006 election season, Democrats and others throughout the state are sniffing winds of change. What they smell, they say, is opportunity. Such times have come and gone before--the party has at least mounted challenges to most of the major office-holders in the state as their terms come up--but the difference this time around may be the depth and breadth of their response.

Circumstances may also be on their side. This is not a year in which the president is up for re-election. In 2004, Bush's sweeping success in the West and his popularity in Idaho helped lower-ticket Republicans happy to sign onto his banner. Democrats gave up hunting the top-ticket races in the state and focused on the Legislature, but they managed only to gain in urban areas what they lost in rural parts of the state, according to media analyses of that year's results.

This year, Bush is not winning in any popularity contests; even his approval rating in Idaho has slipped to near 50 percent according to SurveyUSA, a national polling group that supplies surveys to media outlets. That half-mark of approval is down from nearly 60 percent earlier this year. For a red state like Idaho, this represents a dramatic shift.

Add to that the growing perception of corruption among Washington elites, and the Republicans in power cannot avoid the taint. Already U.S. Sen. Larry Craig has volunteered to donate to charity money that came to his campaign via the convicted former Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham. U.S. Rep. Butch Otter, seen widely as a shoo-in for governor against Brady, stumbled badly this year when he supported a measure to sell public lands in Idaho. Though he reversed his position on the bill, his campaign still smarts from the blow. U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo was forced to stumble through an explanation to the Idaho Statesman about campaign money he received from Virgin Islands businesses.

And while such missteps fire up liberal audiences and fuel giddy blather on left-wing blogs, they alone are not enough to help Democrats walk into any Idaho seats.

Party activists then point to the changing face of Idaho. Last fall, the state was ranked as the nation's third-fastest-growing. Many of those new people are moving to Idaho's cities and changing the way the state looks, sounds and votes, they say.

"A lot of middle-income families are moving in to Idaho," says Larry LaRocco, a former two-term Congressman who recently filed to run for lieutenant governor because, he said, he saw opportunities that weren't there before for a Democrat in the Gem State.

"Idaho," LaRocco says, "is evolving."

Democrats have zeroed in on that middle class like a laser beam.

"The electorate tends to be moderating," says Richard Stallings, the former congressman who became the state party chairman last year. "The polls we're seeing are very, very promising."

And the word, now becoming the message, has gotten out. In the Idaho Statehouse, Democrats in the state Legislature all seem to have memorized the same refrain: Idaho's growing middle class is ill-served by Republican majorities. Democratic lawmakers reference issues of environmental health, of wages, of economic opportunity, and say Republicans aren't getting the job done.

According to Weatherby, the focus on pocketbook and daily-life issues is wise.

"The Democrats have been hurt in Idaho and nationally by focusing too much on the cultural and social issues," Weatherby says.

In his third-floor office at the Capitol, Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett says the issues important to a growing Idaho are going their way.

Leaning forward in his chair, he begins to softly pound his desk with his fist as he lists the offenses of the Republicans, whether it be no relief from property taxes, inadequate school funding or the stripping of environmental regulation.

"The middle" (thump) "class" (thump) "is getting" (thump) "hosed up here." Thump.

To fight this perceived attack, Democrats in the statehouse now meet more often, talk more often and, they say, do a better job of engaging in policy debates with the majority Republicans.

"Our caucus has worked like dogs this year," Werk says. "At every turn, we're out there first."

Whether this gives them the satisfaction of finishing the debate is another question. House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet openly acknowledges that the majority-party Republicans are the ones finishing the passage of bills, she is proud nonetheless of being able to push the debate.

"It's not like I'm sitting here not able to do anything," she says with a laugh. She is also aware of critics who would like to see the Democratic lawmakers toss a few more bombs into the legislative arena. "The conflict is, the folks back home expect us to get something done," she says.

When they have piped up, as they did in a rare Democratic response to Gov. Dirk Kempthorne's State of the State speech, they found themselves shut out of Kempthorne's office. As of mid-March, Kempthorne had yet to meet with them. This may be because Stennett called Kempthorne's much-vaunted initiative to give every Idahoan $50 to help with high energy costs a "gimmick."

"The progressives thought 'gimmick' was a great word," Jaquet says.

Still, the minority party's unity hasn't gone unnoticed in the Statehouse.

"They're pretty cohesive," says House Speaker Bruce Newcomb. He likes Jaquet in part because she is a "reasonable Democrat" and he admires her efforts to recruit candidates.

But back in the corner booth at a Denny's in Ontario, Larry Grant is thinking of dessert.

It's just before 10 in the morning, and Grant, a tall, white-haired man who looks like your nicest uncle, announces to the waitress, "I need a piece of pie."

A former Micron attorney who grew up and lives in Fruitland, Grant has been a worker bee in Idaho Democratic politics for several political cycles. He was LaRocco's treasurer for past campaigns, and was finance chair for Stallings as well as a functionary for various other initiatives.

"It was just time to step up and get involved," Grant says of this year's election. "It's a commitment, but it's fun."

Grant started his entry into the race for the First District's Congressional seat the usual way. He started an exploratory committee in June, after LaRocco decided against running for it. Thus began the usual pre-candidacy circuit of picnics, dances and other get-togethers around the district. He heard, he said, three basic questions from people he met: "Are you crazy?" "Who are you?" and, from those in the northern part of the district: "Are you from Boise?"

Ask Grant about that cynicism, and he responds with a set of numbers: To the best estimate, he says, the Idaho's First Congressional District has about 230,000 voters. It would take, he speculates, about 115,000 of those votes to win. In 2004, John Kerry got about 96,000 votes from the district. Go down to the legislative-level races, he said, and 118,000 people cast votes for Democrats.

"Add some independents and disaffected Republicans," Grant says as he digs through his apple pie, "and it not only shows that a Democrat can win Congress but also in the State Legislature."

But victory will take more than Republican disaffection. Even if Republicans nominate a controversial politician like Canyon County's Robert Vasquez, an avowed xenophobe, or State Rep. Bill Sali, a pro-life lawmaker with ties to Boise activist Brandi Swindell, it will take more to bring voters to Grant's side. What it will take is something Democrats haven't had, but are now building: organization that reaches beyond people with hair whiter than Grant's.

Certainly the party has always spread throughout Idaho. But, Shaw said, county chairs were often operating less like teammates than independent fiefdoms. He recalls party organizers in Canyon County bickering publicly with peers in Ada County throughout the 1980s.

"It's always been an organization that's playing catch-up to the Republican organization," Shaw says. "Whether it's economics, technology or organization." While Republicans were building voter identification drives and prepping voters, Shaw says, Democrats were still settling intra-party turf battles.

Now, thanks to recent political initiatives like the Foothills Levy and the campaign of Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, as well as mentoring by legislative leaders, the farm team is growing. Enter Jaquet's office and you see them: young men and women, bustling in and out.

"We're on our fourth generation," Jaquet says proudly. "This is a Washington State model: identify young people as interns and train them to run campaigns. The Republicans are always saying, 'Wendy, you're doing this right, bringing these people along.' I was just copying what I thought they did."

Some of the generation have moved out of Capitol offices and into others. Down at the Idaho Democratic Party offices one afternoon, the hallway is so quiet you can hear water dripping. Someone in the back is working on a typewriter. On the walls hang yellowing posters of Frank Church and a bumper sticker that reads, "I'm a gun-totin' Democrat!" It is eerily quiet except for one busy voice that hasn't stopped talking in five minutes: that of Executive Director Maria Weeg.

Now in her third year in the post, Weeg announces, with a smile, "I'm a veteran."

Weeg left graduate school in 2002 to work as a county liaison for the party, then joined Beiter's campaign as its field organizer. She has also helped with the Convention Center bond campaign before moving to the party's headquarters.

"When I first came on, there were two of us," she says.

That changed when the Democratic Party came under the control of Howard Dean, the former presidential candidate who now chairs the Democratic National Committee. Last summer, he announced the national party would fund three positions for Idaho's Democrats, a move he made for several states. The money funded two field organizers now working around the state, as well as a communications-director position currently occupied by former newsman Chuck Oxley. Weeg and other Democrats grabbed at the help and ran with it.

"All of a sudden there's more energy, enthusiasm, and more help," says Stennett. "We didn't have that for a long time."

Weeg said her focus is on "hands-on politics" that frets less about the message and more about the method. That means exploiting public-image opportunities as they arise, but also making sure you show Democrats across the state they have support, she said.

But although Democrats hope to be a force across Idaho, they nonetheless see the growing urban centers of Idaho as their best hope.

"People who live in urban areas care about the environment and education," says Stennett. "Those are our issues. Any place that has a college is a target."

Democrats seem to say that as Idaho's cities start looking more and more like pages from Outside Magazine and less like outposts for farming and logging communities, the opportunities for Democrats will keep growing.

"Democrats do a much better job of advocating for urban communities," says Werk. "This is a very rural-looking and rural-thinking legislature. The fact is, you're there to raise the other side."

No Democrats say outright they will cede the rural areas to Republicans, but few seem as enthusiastic about hunting voters in Soda Springs as they do in Boise and surrounding communities. The slow growth of spokes to the Democratic hubs of cities like Boise and Pocatello is as far as they seem to want to go.

"Obviously, Boise itself is a very important area," says first-term representative Nicole LeFavour, whose representation of her East Boise District 19 has gone unchallenged by Republicans this year. "All of the districts around 19 are ripe to take over."

Perhaps the best test of the changing-Idaho concept will be this November's vote on an anti-gay-marriage initiative sent to voters by the Republican-dominated Legislature, something few Democrats are eager to ponder. Although Idaho already bans gay marriage per se, the new initiative would change the state constitution to forbid any form of civil union not involving one man and one woman.

Almost across the board, Democrats say they're not going near that issue for campaign purposes. They deride it as a dangerous prank of the Republican Party and say bringing it up in campaigns this fall will do them no service.

"I tell our candidates, 'This is no longer your issue,'" says Stallings. "I wouldn't even deal with it. If that becomes the issue, you won't win."

The other challenge for the party is the big one: the governor's office.

The Democrat trying again to get the governor's job gets described, by many within his party, as lacking of charisma, energy or momentum. But none of this seems evident to the 50-some elementary schoolchildren from Coeur d'Alene that surround Jerry Brady at a Boise community center.

"Oh boy, something to eat!" declares Brady as he strides past a bowl of pretzels and into the thick of the kids. When a teacher announces "Quiet please," and raises her hand for attention, Brady shoots his skyward too, drawing titters from the kids.

"Idaho," he tells the children, "is a very, very special place. One reason that I want to run for governor is to keep this special place a special place." The grandfather of six spends the next hour entertaining questions, asking many of his own, and generally drawing yuks and applause from the kids and, occasionally, their parents and chaperones. When a teacher asks Brady to explain what it is a governor does, he says, "Aw, they talk talk talk talk talk." The room erupts.

They ask him what jobs he's had. He lists the Army, radio station work and a stint as a lawyer. "Then I ran a newspaper, and now I just run," he says.

They ask him where the governor works. "Boise," Brady says. "But he should get out, and keep offices in other parts of the state." For the first time in an hour, the adults break into spontaneous applause.

He asks the kids if they have a school song. As a response, they break into barely-synchronized versions of it. He assures them it is the best song he has ever heard. Then he and his staff hand them all campaign balloons and stickers and send them on their way.

Back in the campaign offices, Brady's campaign manager Jay Gertsema presides over a four-person staff and explains that when he heard of Brady's second campaign, he was a skeptic, too, at first.

"There is this sense of a change coming,"says Gertsema, who came to Idaho from California for the job.

Convincing the national party's money handlers of that is apparently still a challenge. Although Brady's fundraising is ahead of his previous campaign's at this time, it is still dwarfed by Otter's bank account, which is stuffed with contributions from national business groups. In February, Brady reported $380,000 worth of fundraising. Otter, in turn, reported $760,000 in the bank. Brady's account so far seems devoid of assistance from national money groups like the DNC or the Democratic Governor's Association.

"I've got the 'crazy Idahoans, they're hopeless,' stigma," Brady acknowledges. "I've got to get over that."

He anticipates questions about this go-round: he declares, without being asked, that he is higher-energy and has his message down better this year. He's not shy about his 42 percent showing last time, and notes that Gov. Dirk Kempthorne went into debt to beat him.

And like other Democrats, Brady is a believer in a new Idaho, something his opponent refuses to see, he says.

"Otter is living in the Idaho of 20 or 30 years ago," Brady says. "People come up to me and say we're a rural state. Baloney. We're an urban state. We haven't awakened to being an urban state."

Like others in his party, Brady is energized by the younger Democrat energy in Idaho. But also like many longtime party stalwarts, he is ever mindful of the party's gods.

So when a chartered bus pulls up to Bethine Church's house on St. Patrick's Day, Brady hops on along with about 50 others, to ride to Idaho City. The event is commemorating the 30th anniversary of Frank Church's declaration of his candidacy for president, something the senator did from the steps of the courthouse in the old mining town.

As I board the bus I'm greeted first by Bethine, sitting chipper and smiling in the front row. Next up is her son Chase, who is offering everyone who comes aboard a drink out of a cardboard box full of bottles. As I walk to a seat, it seems that every other occupant, few of whom are younger than 45, is carrying a bottle.

As speakers and old video reels testify to Church's marvels, Brady and Grant happily work the crowd and plow through corned beef and cabbage. Before long, Brady's bottle of scotch has ended up in the delighted hands of Trudy Jackson, the cook. After dessert--a coma-inducing bread pudding--has been served, Jackson saunters up and throws a big arm around Brady, with her other one clutching his bottle.

"Oh, Jerry, you're my new best friend!" she declares loudly, and repeats it for the crowd, which applauds Brady, who is grinning as he is dwarfed by Jackson.

"We'll have to have her back for the inauguration," Brady says to Grant.

Onscreen, there is Church, talking about his lonely opposition to the Vietnam War, saying, "I come from mountain country, and I recognize that sometimes a man must stand alone."

On this night, Brady isn't exactly alone, but he isn't held up as the party's champion, either. The event's organizer stumbles on his name when she is identifying candidates in the audience. And when Grant introduces himself to a pair of locals seated near him at dinner, they seem surprised to find there is actually a Congressional campaign on at all. Even more surprising is the entry into the old hall of LaRocco, whose new candidacy these party stalwarts were unaware of.

So do the Democrats divide themselves--between those who bask in the afterglow of Church and Andrus, and those who dream of the next ones. For now, Oxley and others at the party seem to hope that the stalwarts will continue to dream, and write their checks. As of March 17, Oxley knows that feeling more personally; as the filing deadline for candidacies loomed, he joined the list of Democrat hopefuls running for a Legislative seat. His officemate Jill Ellsworth, the party's office manager, on that day became the state's absolute last filer for election; she is now running for state treasurer. Of 105 legislative seats up for election, Democrats are challenging all but 36 of them. They are focusing--true to their new-found focus--on more urban seats.

"You have to be practical in your expectations," says Weeg. "But when people don't expect a lot out of you, you have a little bit more room to play."

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