Off The Fence 

John Foster leaves journalism to head the Idaho Democratic Party

John Foster surprised a lot of people, including himself, when he sought out and took the job of executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party this month. In part, that's because for the last year Foster, 33, has been at the helm of the Idaho Business Review, a publication few people might reflexively associate with Idaho's minority party. Foster came back to his hometown of Boise after several years at a newspaper in New Mexico, the Rio Grande Sun, known for taking on that state's Democratic governor, Bill Richardson, who is now running for president. Foster will replace outgoing director Maria Weeg, who decamped to Arizona to run that state's Democratic Party. While at the Business Review, Foster was known as a feisty blogger who wasn't afraid to poke at Mayor Dave Bieter, Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter and others who he thought weren't grasping the way Idaho is growing and changing. Now, the shoe's on his foot. Foster spoke with BW about why he thinks the Internet can rev up the party, how a newsman becomes a politician, and what parts of the state might have opportunities for Democrats.

Boise Weekly: You really pushed the use of the Internet, and your blog, at the Business Review. How does that translate to the Democratic Party?

John Foster: Our main goal at the Business Review, with the Internet, was to stop pushing information out, and start pulling people in. And it worked very well. That model can work very well for the Democratic Party. The goal is to build a sense of community. In a place with a lot of far-flung commnities, there's a great potential to use the Web to bring people together.

Unlike the Idaho Republican Party, the Democrats here aren't known for their deep pockets. Will fund raising be a big part of your job?

I'm going to make it one of my main jobs.

What kind of reaction have you had from the party faithful?

My previous role in the blogosphere was very helpful. All those folks have been very kind to me in their postings. That's helped folks get to know me more quickly.

Municipal elections, like the mayor's race and city council races, are supposed to be nonpartisan. But the Republicans are gunning for Mayor Dave Bieter this year. Will you be paying close attention to that race?

Very much. Clearly Mayor Bieter is one of our best representatives of the party, and has been for a long time. We'll be watching closely and pulling for his success. But we'll do it properly. I'm trying to be very careful about not violating any rules.

Beyond that, the 2008 races for the Legislature will be upon us before long. What are your thoughts on those races at this point?

We're already talking about trying to find the best candidates we can for races that, on the surface, might not seem competitive. There're some strong candidates in eastern Idaho districts that have long been Republican strongholds.

There are issues out there that resonate with Idaho's middle class. Elk ranching is a great example. It's certainly not Idaho to pen up wild animals so out-of-staters can come in and shoot them.

Just this past session, the basic unwillingness to provide more local control has resonated around the state. A good, strong candidate can make a huge difference in any district.

You certainly surprised people who didn't know you were a Democrat, by making this jump from a journalist to a party job.

It gives me a great deal of satisfaction that people weren't able to discern my politics. Your main role as a journalist is to make people think, to engage them and inform them, not to preach to them. So I'm happy people were surprised.

One of the things I've learned at the Business Review that helps, is, there are a lot of small and medium businesses owned by hard-working people that don't seem to get the same perks that big corporations get every legislative session. I think people are tired of that. I think smaller businesses are hoping for some better representation. Look at the Boise Chamber of Commerce. The issues that were so important to them were basically quashed by the Republican Legislature. I think that's a great opportunity to make some friends people don't expect us to make.

What's your post-mortem on the 2006 elections? Your party did well locally, but the state's constitutional officers and the congressional offices were swept by Republicans.

It's different for every race. It's not enough to find strong candidates. You have to figure out how to help them win. Being a journalist gives me perspective on how average folks think. I'm really hoping to provide that perspective to all our candidates.

Every cycle is different. I'm looking forward to 2008. It's going to be a great year to be an Idaho Democrat. Without getting into specifics, it's really easy as a journalist to take pot shots at candidates and campaigns. I guess now, I'm going to have to put up or shut up, right?

You had the support of former Gov. Cecil Andrus for this job. How did that come about?

I went to former Gov. Andrus before I applied. Before I submitted my application, I kind of sought his blessing. That's in large part because I respect him so much. And, partly because, like many Western politicians, I intend to steal his playbook blind.

Every one loves to call it the [Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer] model. It's the Andrus model.

How would you define that?

Pragmatism. Solutions, rather than rhetoric. An ability to get along with the other side, but tough as hell, and not be willing to back down on what you believe if it goes to your core. Most importantly, it goes toward having an understanding of the state that goes into your DNA.

He was very helpful. Just having him behind me might have helped some people get over the initial hurdle of having me, as a journalist, take the job.

You definitely qualify as a nontraditional hire.

That's an indication of what the party's looking for. They want to keep the progress growing. Look at what [Barack Obama] has done in two months.

Who's your 2008 presidential pick?

I haven't decided yet, honestly. My tete-a-tetes with Richardson are well documented. But he's the most natural politician I've ever encountered.

My favorite person in the 2008 elections is Elizabeth Edwards. I sat with her for 40 minutes in the 2004 primary and was just blown away by what a genuine, deep, intelligent person she is. I'm a big fan.

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