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AP: Former Dems chief Foster to work with Otter against school referendum

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Republican Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter has enlisted a former Democratic political operative to help develop his strategy for fighting to preserve new education laws that weaken teacher negotiating power and emphasize online learning. The governor has vowed publicly to do everything in his power to guarantee the measures aren't rejected by voters in November. The battle over the reforms deeply divided Republicans and Democrats during the 2011 session. Now, Otter's staff has brought on John Foster to serve as an informal adviser leading up to the referendum. The decision, which Foster confirmed Tuesday, may surprise some. Foster is a past executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party and was campaign manager for former Democratic U.S. Rep. Walt Minnick. Foster says the education reforms aren't about partisan politics, but about improving schools. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Jessie Bonner; you can read Idaho Statesman columnist Dan Popkey's column about the the move here.


Otter enlists help in fight to keep education laws
By JESSIE L. BONNER, Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Republican Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter has enlisted a former Democratic political operative to help plot his strategy for rallying behind new education laws that face a test at the ballot box in November.

The governor has vowed publicly to do everything in his power to ensure voters support the laws, which weaken teacher negotiating power and emphasize online learning. The battle over the education changes deeply divided Republicans and Democrats and was by far the most contentious issue of the 2011 session.

Much of the debate last year and before voters this fall is a polarizing new overhaul that limits teachers' collective bargaining for salaries and benefits; eliminates tenure; dumps seniority as a factor in layoffs; and requires union negotiations to be held in public. Idaho will also arm every high school teacher and student with a laptop while making online courses a requirement.

To help rally support for the new laws, Otter confirmed Tuesday that he has enlisted the help of John Foster, who is serving as an unpaid adviser to the governor's office leading up to the referendum. Foster is a past executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party and was campaign manager for former Democratic U.S. Rep. Walt Minnick.

Foster insisted the education reforms and his decision join Otter's team have less to do with partisan politics than improving the state's public education system.

“I was pleased to be asked by the governor to be involved. It's a bipartisan issue and one that's important to me personally,” Foster said.

Foster, who was a journalist before he went into politics, works for a Seattle-based public affairs firm that has an office in Boise. His work for the governor's office will be on his own time and his firm, Strategies 360, is not involved, he said.

In the Idaho Legislature, Foster has lobbied for developers of wind energy, oil and gas. He also testified on behalf of union workers fighting legislation aimed at weakening their leverage during the 2011 session. Otter signed the union-busting measures into law, though they were thrown out by a federal judge this month.

While their political allegiances may have put them at odds in the past, Otter and his staff stressed the reforms should transcend political lines. The governor told lawmakers at the start of the 2012 session he'd be joining public schools chief Tom Luna to rally against a referendum seeking to overturn the laws.

“This is awful important to me,” Otter told The Associated Press. “The reforms were well-thought out, vigorously debated and hard-won. And we're right on the precipice of true reform of our educational system. The old educational system was not doing the job. We weren't able to deploy our money and our resources the way we needed to. And we want the best people to help us explain that to the electorate. I believe John is one of those people.”

The decision by Foster, who played a lead role in two aggressive campaigns for Minnick in 2008 and 2010, to hitch up with the GOP on such a polarizing set of public school reforms has caught some in Idaho's Democratic constituencies off-guard.

“I think John's on the wrong side of the issue, and certainly as it relates to many of the folks he's been with in the past … so they're some who are not going to be happy at all,” said Larry Grant, chairman of the Idaho Democratic Party.

But Robin Nettinga, executive director of the Idaho Education Association, said focusing on personalities distracts from the important questions facing voters in November.

“Certainly John made a name for himself as a political operative, but right now we've got to put our children first,” she said. “We have allies all over the political spectrum on this.”

The new law's critics, including many educators, say the plan will undermine teachers, increase class sizes and shift state taxpayer money to for-profit, out-of-state companies that will be tapped to provide online curriculum and laptops to students. But to others, Idaho is changing a system that was badly broken and should be commended for restructuring how the state's scarce education dollars are spent.

___

Associated Press writer John Miller contributed to this story.


Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.


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Betsy Z. Russell covers Idaho news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Boise.

Named best state-based political blog in Idaho for 2013 by The Fix

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