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A year-out guide to handicapping the 2006 governor's race

The governor's race needs shaking up, before we sink into our usual untroubled coma in which we lie around in our wifebeaters, combing our mullets, eating grout and pretending everything is just fine. Because at this point, conventional wisdom about the 2006 Idaho governor's race is duller than a one-cat household: Lieutenant Governor Jim Risch will face Congressman Butch Otter in a nasty free-for-all Republican primary, with Otter a shoe-in; Democrat Jerry Brady has as much chance as, well, a Democrat in Idaho.

However, it's tough to shake things up when Risch and Otter wouldn't grant interviews, in person, by phone or e-mail. Risch was polite and straightforward in his refusal in this particular instance, but for Otter, clamming up is apparently a way of life. Check out his entry on the voter education site Project Vote Smart (www.votesmart.org), which reads in red capital letters: "REPRESENTATIVE CLEMENT LEROY 'BUTCH' OTTER REPEATEDLY REFUSED TO PROVIDE ANY RESPONSES TO CITIZENS ON ISSUES THROUGH THE 2004 NATIONAL POLITICAL AWARENESS TEST. REPRESENTATIVE CLEMENT LEROY 'BUTCH' OTTER REFUSED TO PROVIDE THIS INFORMATION WHEN ASKED TO DO SO BY: Major News Organizations and key national leaders of both parties including, John McCain, Republican Senator, Geraldine Ferraro, Former Democratic Congresswoman, Michael Dukakis, Former Democratic Governor, Bill Frenzel, Former Republican Congressman, Richard Kimball, Project Vote Smart President."

The last major election, in 2004, was a watershed time for alternative media and Internet political action. This time around, there are more reporters at papers like Boise Weekly, more Internet sites devoted to holding politicians' feet to the fire, and more citizen watchdog groups putting out volumes of information via television, radio and the Web. It's an explosion of information, with a new set of rules, understood more by people 50 and under than their elders--and it's not to be underestimated. Old-Guard politicians ignore news sources at their own risk.

Jerry Brady, himself a newsman, has a good grasp on this important trend, and is transparent about his views. Otter's views on issues can hardly be found--except for his pet topics of big business (for), guns (for), the Patriot Act (against) and taxes (against). Risch, however, has an extensive voting record in the State Senate, where it's clear where he stands on most issues--strictly with the Republican party line. (Full disclosure: The author, while no longer in the political machine, was a media consultant and speechwriter for the Senate Democrats in the 1990s and was Betty Richardson's press secretary when Richardson ran against Otter in 2002.)

It's well known that Risch has longed for decades to be governor. "If the governorship was a woman, he'd be a stalker," one Idaho Republican recently told me. Risch was a state senator from 1975 to 2002, part of that time serving as Senate pro tem. Risch is now 62 years old. If he loses to Otter, it would probably be too late the next time around, since Otter could serve several terms. It's now or never for Risch, who was regarded by many as an exceptionally adept pro tem, with the ability to keep the Senate cooking along effectively. Don't underestimate his determination.

However, Risch has enemies in his own party, and in this era of splintering loyalties among Republicans, that could pose more of a problem than in other cycles. Though Idaho remains the state with the highest regard for President Bush, there are Republicans--even here--distressed over the continuing mess in Iraq, ethical lapses in the White House and the scandal surrounding former House Republican Leader Tom DeLay. Then there is the famous far-right-wing Republicans vs. conservative Republicans rift. That could make the going a little harder for both Otter and Risch to seal the deal with past supporters--though it's a stretch to think it would be enough to, say, throw the election to Brady.

It's hard to say why Otter wants to be governor, other than the obvious: Serving in elected office is what he knows, and he wants to leave that grisly swamp in D.C. and come back to Idaho. Hey, it worked for Dirk. But the potential for a shake-up in this race lies mainly with Otter, since he is the only candidate with direct ties to the DeLay mess. Otter accepted contributions from DeLays ARMPAC (Americans for a Republican Majority) which is one of the PACs named in DeLay's recent indictment for conspiracy and money laundering. DeLay and others are accused of illegally using campaign funds, including corporate money, to help finance the GOP takeover of the Texas House in 2002. Out of the $3 million or so raised by ARMPAC during the 2002 election cycle (more than $1 million from corporations), $15,000 went to Otter.

Otter, in a stunning piss-off to constituents, also gave $500 to DeLay's legal defense fund, and voted to weaken ethics rules of the House (House Resolution 5, 1/4/05) in a move that served to protect DeLay. Four months later, when House Republicans realized their blunder and voted to repeal the move (House Resolution 241, 4/27/05) Otter was one of only 20 who voted again for lax ethics standards. And Otter voted with DeLay 88 percent of the time during the first four months of 2005. ("Cronyism": Favoritism shown to old friends without regard for their qualifications.)

And what of Brady, former publisher of the Idaho Falls Post-Register? He has a vision of how he'd lead Idaho, and--whaddya know--he was actually eager to talk about it.

Brady's breadth of knowledge is impressive, and he's known as a brain-picker extraordinaire. His core philosophy is that a child-centered society, through better health care, better jobs with built-in opportunities for one parent to stay home for at least the first year of each child's life, better family centered day care, better preschools and an emphasis on early reading will save not only kids and families, but hundreds of millions of dollars. How? By not filling up prisons with kids who fell through the cracks.

"Our prison budget has surpassed our education budget," he says. "The backwardness of that kind of government is what I want to fix."

Brady is a walking database of information about other states that have incorporated such a system, and he says he has specific ideas about how to pay for it--one of which is to eliminate the developers' exemption from property tax. Brady believes over $1 billion dollars can be found this way. "It's always better to broaden the tax base than it is to raise taxes"

Brady's weakness in the race is that intangible missing thing: charisma. Members of both parties to whom I talked were frustrated with the need for personal magnetism, but it can't be dismissed as an electability factor. No Democrat was willing to go on the record about it, but plenty told me they wish Brady would go to Rock-Star School. "Jerry's got such fire in his belly about Idaho, but you can't see the flames," said one.

Risch is also lacking in positive presence, a handicap against the charming Otter. Risch has an unfortunate "bites babies" tone to his voice, an abruptness of speech, and a long record of using putdowns and sarcasm with fellow legislators. He's an average-looking guy with a weak smile, while Butch has that Marlboro Man thing going on. However, Otter's entanglement with Tom DeLay's House Of Scandals could be what makes this one-elephant sprint into a real race.

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