Idaho governor candidates square off
Betsy Z. Russell
October 31, 2006
It was Democrat Jerry Brady – not GOP Congressman Butch Otter – who garnered the sole outburst of applause during the final debate in the race for governor of Idaho on Monday night.
In a partly filled auditorium at the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls, the two, along with third-party candidates Ted Dunlap and Marvin "Pro-Life" Richardson, shared their views on everything from environmental regulation to taxes to their political heroes.
But a question about air quality regulations, an hour into the 90-minute debate on KTVB-TV, prompted the enthusiastic outburst from the audience. Otter responded first, saying he'd trust the Idaho Legislature even if it defied the Environmental Protection Agency's regulations.
"I believe that the state Legislature probably has a lot more wisdom on what happens in Idaho and should happen in Idaho than any bureaucrat in the EPA sitting on Independence Avenue in Washington, D.C.," Otter said. "My trust is with the Legislature, and I would work with them to maintain a standard whether or not it fit the federal government mold. I believe we can do what we want to in the state of Idaho."
Brady responded by citing a proposal by an out-of-state energy company to build a coal-fired power plant in the Magic Valley. "A California utility came here, said, 'We want to bring Wyoming coal into this valley, we want to burn it, we want to pollute your air, pollute your water, leave all of our ash behind, and ship the electricity out to the West Coast.' I opposed it," Brady said. "My opponent supported them, took their side, and took $6,000 from them."
The Legislature supported Magic Valley residents who pushed for a moratorium to block the coal plant, Brady said, but then, when a federal program threatened to allow more mercury emissions in Idaho – the very issue that raised concerns about the coal plant – the Legislature didn't respond.
"I said no, Gov. (Jim) Risch later said no, but the Legislature said yes," Brady said. "Now, I do not believe we can be sure that the Legislature will make the right decision without a governor who is committed to keeping mercury out of our state."
The room erupted in applause.
It was a key moment in a campaign that's become increasingly tight as the election approaches. An independent poll sponsored by the Idaho Statesman newspaper and KIVI Channel 6 TV in Nampa, released on Sunday, showed the governor's race in Idaho a dead heat, with Otter leading Brady by a single percentage point, 44-43, with 12 percent undecided.
Jasper LiCalzi, a political scientist at Albertson College of Idaho, said the mercury issue went to the heart of the message Brady's been pushing in his campaign, that he'd be more diligent than Otter in protecting Idaho's quality of life. That's embodied in Brady's campaign slogan, "Idaho is not for sale," which refers back to Otter's sponsorship of legislation in Congress to sell off Idaho public lands, which Otter dropped and apologized for after criticism from Brady and others.
"That's the strongest piece he's had all along," LiCalzi said, "and he keeps on using it." The issue is somewhat reminiscent, he said, of the issue Cecil Andrus first rode into the governorship, when he opposed a mining operation in the White Clouds mountains.
Otter took on the land sale issue head-on in the debate, saying, "I did make a mistake and I admitted that mistake. I think when you're in politics your burden is even heavier – when you make a mistake you stand up and say so."
He followed that up with digs at Brady, accusing Brady of wanting to "tear out the dams" and let wolf populations go unregulated, "let 'em run, let 'em howl." Brady denied both, and also rejected as false an Otter jab suggesting he favored amnesty for illegal aliens.
LiCalzi said, "What was surprising to me was he (Otter) was much more negative than Brady was."
Otter came out with a major new proposal on property taxes that he hasn't mentioned in recent interviews, saying he now favors freezing assessed value and allowing it to rise only at the rate of inflation until a home is sold. "I believe we can do that," he said. "I've talked to a lot of legislators about it."
But Libertarian candidate Dunlap said he lived in California when that state's Proposition 13 froze values until sale. As a result, he said, he paid $2,800 a year in taxes while his next-door neighbor, who had a bigger, fancier home, paid only $500. "That's the sort of inequity that develops when you do this sort of meddling with the property tax," he said.
Idaho's state constitution requires that like property be taxed alike, so any such change would require amending the constitution.
Constitution Party candidate Richardson offered an opening prayer instead of answering the first question posed to him, and later said if people keep turning to government for health care and other services that he believes churches should provide, "We're going to wind up in hell."
Brady and Dunlap were debating for the second night in a row – on Sunday night, they faced off in the traditional League of Women Voters-Idaho Press Club debate broadcast live on Idaho Public Television. Otter declined to participate in that debate on what he called "government television," but he clearly watched it – when Brady said his political hero was Abraham Lincoln, Otter pointed out that the night before he'd also mentioned Jimmy Carter. He didn't mention that Brady also had mentioned Thomas Jefferson, whom Otter named Monday night as his own political hero.
Otter said, "The strength of this state is in the families, I would do nothing, nothing to interrupt that great strength, in fact I would do everything I could to encourage that great strength, because I truly believe that Idaho can become what America was meant to be."
Brady said, "I talked in this campaign not just about me, but about we, how we can do things together, how we can bridge Democrat and Republican and do what's best for Idaho down the middle. I intend to bring balance back to our state."
The election is on Tuesday.