Bring on The Next One 

Craig's sudden ouster opens the door for replacement

Well, that didn't take long.

Barely four days after word of U.S. Sen. Larry Craig's arrest in a Minnesota airport bathroom hit the news, he was all but frog-marched up to a thicket of microphones at the Boise Depot to announce his resignation from the Senate. One more term, and Craig's tenure in the U.S. Senate would have been among the longest in Idaho history.

It's no wonder then, that just before he began talking, Craig turned his back to the gathering crowd of people and took a moment's look out across the Boise Foothills, away from the horde of reporters and hangers-on. There's no telling what might have been going through his mind just then, but it's easy enough to speculate.

It was supposed to be a vacation.

Instead, Craig and his family spent much of the last week hunkered down at his house in Boise, as calls for his resignation, rained down from Washington, D.C., and even from within his home state. First, it was national Republican politicians with plenty to lose; the leader of Craig's party, the minority in the House and Senate, was quick to make life difficult for Craig. U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, didn't waste time in saying Craig's actions were inappropriate for a senator. The Republican National Committee drafted a letter urging him to resign, then held it, waiting for him to make the first move. Reportedly, U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, Idaho's junior Republican senator, was enlisted to make sure Craig knew just how bad things had become, in light of Craig's defiant stance on Tuesday.

"What amazed me is that the senator thought if he plead guilty, it would go away," said University of Idaho journalism professor Rebecca Tallent. "That just ain't gonna happen. It's like chumming the water."

And how. Soon enough, new revelations from afar further threatened Craig. Late last week, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette revealed more damaging allegations. Their report focused on Bob Scott, the former attorney for LeRoy Williams, the Congressional page whose allegations about sex and drug scandals 20 years ago in Congress sparked Craig's odd 1982 denial, despite having not been named in any of the coverage at the time. But last week, Scott told the Democrat-Gazette that Craig was one of four Congressmen who'd had sex with Williams. Scott's assertion was flatly denied by Dan Whiting, Craig's spokesman.

As the political storm raged late in the day on Friday, Larry LaRocco sank into a chair at the Boise airport, and shook his head.

"There's only so much I can control," said LaRocco. Despite losing his last two statewide races, the Democrat declared in April that he would aim at Craig's seat, regardless of who would be there to oppose. LaRocco, who has raised about $110,000 so far, has six fundraisers set up for this month and is now facing the prospect of running against another incumbent, once Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter names a replacement. With Craig's fall from Grace, LaRocco briefly became a national media commodity, as pundits from outside Idaho suddenly took him seriously.

"I'm just busy telling Wolf Blitzer how to pronounce my name," he joked. The local media, he noted, haven't paid much attention to him.

As Craig's office called reporters to announce the Saturday resignation press conference, LaRocco headed for his flight, en route to a family vacation in Coeur d'Alene.

The man LaRocco could face in the fall is an old adversary. Since Craig's resignation became a possibility, speculation about the future of Lt. Gov. Jim Risch has become a hot topic. He'd made no bones about his interest in Craig's seat if, and only if, Craig chose not to run. By telegraphing that interest, he put himself into the lead of the pack of those Otter might consider. As recently as last Saturday, however, Risch and his family were emphatic: No decisions have been made, despite some erroneous national reports to the contrary. Otter himself said he'd made no decisions.

If Risch were to take up the post, it could be helpful for Otter, who might finally come out from under the shadow of former Gov. Risch. Although he only had seven months in which to govern last year, Risch certainly made the most of his time. In fact, it's a term that Otter has yet to match for its successes, even though the new governor is now eight months into the job.

"I don't know whether it's a fair comparison or not," said Jim Weatherby, a retired professor of political science at Boise State. Nonetheless, he said, Risch moved fast.

"He was going to accomplish all that he could, by going 100 mph," He did get things done, whether it was the property-tax shift, opening up new state offices or starting up a nursing task force and creating the office of Idaho Drug Czar. All the while, Risch was keenly aware of the media, and ever present in their daily calendars.

"I don't know of a politician in Idaho that was more accessible to the media," Weatherby said. "Otter might learn some lessons."

Risch also pleasantly surprised conservationists, by pushing for a series of roadless area designations.

"He was one of the most serious, thoughtful conservation governors in a long time," said Rick Johnson, director of the Idaho Conservation League, sounding surprised even as he said so. "This was not our guy."

Having Risch out of the state, mired in a partisan Congress, would do three things. One, it might reignite the partisan brawler persona that Risch was known for back in the Idaho Legislature. Two, it would get him out of Otter's hair. Three, it would remove 27 years of careful seniority-building by Craig that delivered unaccounted-for millions to Idaho in the form of appropriations and federal support. None of which is indicative of how Otter will eventually decide.

Early reports from national media supposing that Risch was the top pick were roundly dismissed by Jason Risch, son of the former governor, who said such reports were "absolutely incorrect."

In fact, much of the story was pushed, hard, by national interests, whether it was the national Republican Party fretting about the 2008 elections or the national media, unfazed about widespread usage of anonymous sources and from-the-hip analysis.

Running alongside it all was the Idaho Statesman, now reaping the benefits of its six-month-long investigation into Craig's personal life, an investigation that had been all but shelved for lack of solid material but was published in full after Craig's arrest was reported by the Washington, D.C. paper, Roll Call.

In the end, it was Craig, alone at the podium, who finally said what everyone wanted, or at least expected, him to say:

"The people of Idaho deserve a senator who can devote 100 percent of his time and effort to the critical issues of our state and of our nation."

For Otter, who was one of very few statewide elected officials present, it was a message he'll have to ponder, and soon.

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