Don't Call Me 

Butch Otter's dance around the Idaho press

Maybe it's a Washington thing. After six years as a member of Idaho's Congressional delegation, Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter seems as distant from the Idaho press corps as he was when he lived across the Potomac.

After a campaign that was quiet but effective, Otter took office last month with plenty of media attention. At that moment, he was similar to other governors who garner wall-to-wall press coverage of their ceremonial startup. But it's been quiet ever since. Since his formal inauguration as Idaho's 32nd governor on January 5, he has not held a single press conference to accept questions from reporters.

"He's not trying to be intentionally aloof. His style is not to routinely have a press conference," said Jon Hanian, Otter's spokesman. "The media can come see him whenever they want to."

To do that, reporters need to either attend one of the many proclamations Otter has given (recently, he stood with an Abraham Lincoln impersonator to declare "Abraham Lincoln Legacy Day") or go to one of his speeches to business or civic groups.

Either that or reporters have to watch his office's communiques with agencies. When Otter performed his most newsworthy act as governor, the halting of work on the Statehouse renovation, there were no announcements. Otter just directed his department of administration, led by Keith Johnson, to stop the work. When Otter took another notable step as governor--his first veto--his staff did little to notify the Capitol press corps that camps out in the basement, just two flights down from Otter's office. That group includes reporters from the Idaho Falls Post Register, the Twin Falls Times-News, the Lewiston Tribune, Boise Weekly, the online news site New West and radio and television outlets. After handing out notice of the veto to the Idaho Statesman and the Associated Press, Otter's communications director Mark Warbis left it up to other reporters to check Otter's Web site to find notice of the veto. He also traded hotly worded e-mails with Betsy Russell, Boise Capitol Bureau reporter for the Spokane, Wash. Spokesman-Review and the president of the Idaho Press Club. Shortly after that, Warbis issued a statement that Otter's vetoes and bill signings would merely be posted on the Web, without notification.

"I have covered six Idaho governors, and I have never seen anything like this before," Russell said. "Certainly it's news when a governor vetoes a bill, especially when it's his first bill."

Like other reporters, Russell has gotten an interview with Otter. Hanian said such meetings are available to reporters, but that Otter wants media to relay what they want to talk about, so he can prepare for the encounter.

The Otter approach contrasts starkly with the full-court-press style of Lt. Gov. Jim Risch. During his seven-month term as governor last year, Risch held so many press conferences, it was hard to keep track of them. Television cameras were a regular fixture in his office, as was his announcement at the end of his prepared statement: "And now, for your usual probing questions."

"That was a process he felt very comfortable with," said Brad Hoaglun, who was Risch's press secretary. "He made my job much easier."

The arm's-length relationship with the press demonstrated by Otter has not, however, extended to Democrats, another minority group in the Capitol building.

Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett of Ketchum said he's been satisfied with the level of access his caucus has to Otter.

"He's been open to us," Stennett said. "The door's not locked."

Hanian said part of Otter's strategy is to communicate with lawmakers directly, not through the media.

"Keep in mind we've got brand-new leadership in the House, and brand-new lawmakers," Hanian said. "They're kind of in a 'Let's figure each other out' mode."

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