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Something new in Idaho politics

December 30, 2018
Randy Stapilus

Two data points are not much to draw conclusions from about the future of a state for a whole year. But we may — may — have something to judge against in the preparing-for-office moves of Idaho’s two top incoming elected officials.

Gov.-elect Brad Little has been announcing appointments to his impending administration, and they’re a varied (in Idaho terms) group. Some are people repositioned from the current C.L. “Butch” Otter Administration. Quite a few are brought in from outside. There are familiar names in the group (which for these purposes includes the transition committee), but many not so well known around the state.

In some respects this should be no surprise. Little is as broadly connected across the Idaho business, governmental and political community as almost anyone could be. He’s run a very long campaign which has brought in a lot of people around the state, and probably has exposed him and his closest staffers to people around the state who ordinarily might not appear on the radar.

But it didn’t have to be that way. While there is plenty of precedent for incoming governors of the same party (and of both parties) changing out staff when a new chief executive comes in, this is an unusual case.

Little and Otter were close, for a very long time. Otter appointed Little as lieutenant governor, and the two have served together in the top two jobs for about a decade. Little was a key personnel officer for the administration, too, vetting many of Otter’s appointees.

Little ran in large part on the (honest enough) idea that he would be continuing much of what Otter has been doing. (His declaration that he will continue the Capital for a Day program was a smart early move.) You could easily imagine Little deciding to stick with most of the same people Otter had put in place, often with Little’s involvement.

That he didn’t offers some indication that, while he won’t be taking off in a wildly different direction from that of the last dozen years, he is open to making some significant changes. If so, we may see some indicators in the days ahead as he delivers his first state-of the-state speech. It may be the most useful one to watch in some time.

The other incoming elected official signaling some change is the new first district representative, Russ Fulcher. He will replace Raul Labrador, a fellow Republican of like mind philosophically (don’t be surprised if Fulcher also joins the Freedom Caucus) but who also indicated he has interest in practical governing.

In a 2015 New Yorker interview Labrador made clear that he was fine with government shutdowns, and his comments were cynical enough and reflected so little interest in doing anything useful that I could say in a column three years ago: “Labrador’s view seems to be that the whole project of governing, or at least of self-government, is terrible. And damaging to his political party.”

Ain’t nobody going to call Fulcher any kind of liberal. (Or shouldn’t, though in Idaho, almost everyone becomes a suspect eventually.) But I found notable some of his recent comments on getting started in Congress, in which he had little to say about bringing torches and pitchforks to the battle in D.C.

Instead, in interviews with newspapers, he spoke of putting strong emphasis on constituent service and working on the issues people brought up to him on the campaign trail, including areas like health care and natural resources.

And there was this: “My biggest fear is not the swamp or the corruption and it’s not the process — it’s doing something wrong because I didn’t know or didn’t have the right information in front of me.”

That actually is — I can say unironically — a confidence builder, or should be. Same with this quote: “I’m trying to be as effective as I can be.”

A significant change from the Labrador days seems indicated here. Little and Fulcher will merit close attention in this new year to come.

Former Idaho newspaper reporter and editor Randy Stapilus is the author of “The Idaho Political Field Guide,” the editor of the Idaho Weekly Briefing, and a blogger at www.ridenbaugh.com. A book of his Idaho columns from the past decade, “Crossing the Snake,” is available at www.ridenbaughpress.com.

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