Craig’s Become An Urban Cowboy Senator Is A Little Bit Country And A Whole Lot Corporate
Larry Craig likes to advertise himself as the only cowboy rancher in the U.S. Senate from Weiser, Idaho.
This image is perfect for a Western politician. It evokes rural, rugged, good-guy warmth. It is a Lincolnesque reminder to voters that Craig comes from stock that hacked a homestead out of the sagebrush.
Yet, ranching is only a small part of the man who has been running for some sort of office almost since he showed fat steers at the Washington County Fair in his youth. He is more career politician than cowboy.
Once Craig discovered Future Farmers of America as a high school freshman, he successfully went after everything from debate championships to state FFA president and national FFA vice president.
“Larry has contacts all over the country from those days alone,” said Dave Bivens, a longtime Idaho legislator and distant cousin of Craig’s.
So much so that when the family ranch hit hard times in the 1980s, filed for bankruptcy protection and then was liquidated, Craig was only a 15 percent partner. He hadn’t been home on the range for nearly a decade.
Disappointments never sidetrack Craig. He lost the race for high school student body president and lost early debate contests. Still, he graduated valedictorian and won a United Nations youth speaking contest.
During high school, Craig went to the national American Farm Bureau Federation debate competition in Georgia. He was so eloquent and knowledgeable that he almost was disqualified.
The judges wrongly assumed he was cheating. Craig made it to second place, losing the championship to a radio announcer 20 years his senior.
He kept charging, becoming student body president at the University of Idaho and the first university student lobbyist to the Legislature. Craig migrated to the Beltway in 1969 with a bachelor’s degree in political science.
Between classes in political and economic development at George Washington University, he labored on the staff of U.S. Rep. Orval Hansen, R-Idaho, and wrote speeches for Interior Secretary Rogers C.B. Morton on Native American issues. At night, he helped the National Association of Student Governments with student exchange programs.
“He can get by with darn little sleep,” muses Bivens.
Craig’s military service of choice in those Vietnam years was the National Guard. It allowed him to work on the family ranch, he said. Because of a backlog of recruits, Craig was in the Guard more than a year before he went to boot camp. Then his feet, accustomed to cowboy boots instead of combat boots, blistered and bled until he was hospitalized. Then he received an honorable medical discharge.
Craig went back to the family ranch in 1971. By 1974, Bivens decided to leave the Idaho Senate and endorsed Craig to replace him.
“Larry ran unopposed in the primary and general election,” Bivens said. “That gives you an indication of his respect.”
Craig easily won three terms from the district that also sent James McClure and Harold Ryan to the state Senate. McClure graduated to the U.S. Senate and Ryan became a federal judge in Boise.
During the campaign for his second term, Craig’s Democratic opponent had a fatal heart attack and fell into his arms during a Payette County Fair parade. “He was the nicest man,” Craig said. “It was very sad … a tragedy.”
Simultaneously, Craig became snarled in a Boise doughnut shop partnership. It went bankrupt in 1978 and defaulted on a Small Business Administration loan. Craig blames one of his partners for siphoning off money and leaving him responsible.
That partner could not be reached for comment.
Craig paid $142,000 of the outstanding debt. The SBA wrote off about $34,000, according to court records.
That, combined with the financial difficulties at the family ranch and more than two decades in politics, has drawn criticism. “He never left office since his umbilical was cut,” said Perry Swisher, a six-term Idaho Legislator who switched from Republican to Democrat in his last term.
“He’s never done anything else that panned out. He’s a paradox in that regard,” Swisher said.
While Swisher says he’s biased against Craig, he doesn’t fault his career choice. “I grew up on a ranch and I have no desire to go back,” Swisher said.
During Craig’s political journey, he moved from moderate state legislator, with a voting record that marched all over the political map, to one of the nation’s most conservative congressmen, said Randy Stapilus, an author and a former longtime Idaho political reporter.
Craig may have changed because his politics cost him state Senate leadership posts, Stapilus said.
Republican Wayne Kidwell, former Idaho Attorney General, says personality was responsible for Craig’s leadership losses. “Politically, Larry has a tendency to be a little bit pompous,” Kidwell said. “At that time he was just learning to deal with it.”
Craig went after the U.S. House of Representatives in 1980, carrying his new conservative colors. It was a change in ideology that surprised people who had followed his career, Stapilus said.
Although Kidwell was heavily favored to win the 1980 primary, Craig went to Washington.
For the next decade, Craig continued to win U.S. House races with little problem. The battles undoubtedly were eased by the death of one Democratic challenger in a plane crash and then another in an automobile accident.
Outside of the race against Larry LaRocco in 1982, he had weak opponents, political observers say. But Craig also is famous for being a great campaigner and a great fund-raiser.
“He’s known for his consistency, he’s very aggressive, he’s very outspoken and Idahoans like that,” Weatherby said.
That helped propel him to the U.S. Senate in 1990 to replace a retiring McClure. He is relying heavily on that page from his playbook in his current battle against Boise timber company executive Walt Minnick.
Craig also is known for his undying push for a balanced budget amendment “to the point that people were wondering what Larry Craig was going to do if it passed,” Stapilus said.
Who is Larry Craig, aside from someone who is masterful at winning campaigns? Because he has lived so long in the public eye, many people say it’s difficult to know the man behind the campaign.
His cousin, David Bivens, describes him as “a very in-depth person with a lot of capability,” and “enthusiasm about accomplishing things and getting things done.”
Craig, who adopted his wife’s three children, describes himself as a champion of easier, more affordable adoption. He wants a national registry so adopted children can find their parents.
“I care a great deal about people. I care more about people than about trees, rocks and fish, and I’m not sure that’s all bad,” he said, answering questions over the telephone while eating corn bread and a bowl of vegetable beef soup - a brief break while finishing the business of the 104th Congress.
Stapilus, however, says little is known about Craig beyond his public persona. “One thing that Craig lacks that some other politicians in Idaho have is a connection to the people - a charismatic connection.”
“You aren’t going to run into people who are going to die for him,” added Swisher. “I don’t think this against him. I rather appreciate any politician who doesn’t depend upon charisma.”
In Washington, Craig is a rising star in the inner power circle, thanks to the Republicans’ rise and his friendship with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. Craig was the youngest senator elected to the Republican Steering Committee, the conservatives’ ideological think tank.
Last summer he became the number four man in Senate leadership, chairing the Senate Republican Policy Committee. “There’s some growing significance there,” Stapilus said.
“In some ways, he’s probably moved to a stronger, more influential position in the Senate but William Borah or Frank Church,” Stapilus said.
Then there’s the business side of Craig. “He’s better known to me as a defender of utilities, lumber companies and major corporations,” Swisher said.
Kidwell echoes that. “Larry virtually gets along better with them than anyone else does,” Kidwell said.
Craig’s incredible money-raising record is a testament to that compatibility. Over the years he’s received hundreds of thousands of dollars from mining, oil and gas, timber, and electrical utilities.
“I have no difficulty representing the parts of Idaho that put Idaho to work,” says Craig. “I don’t care how pristine the environment is if you are on unemployment and on the welfare rolls your environment doesn’t look too pristine.”
Craig’s ties to industry sometimes put him at odds with his political ideology. An avowed fiscal conservative, Craig nonetheless is a whole-hearted champion of increasing national forest timber sales - which lose as much as $400 million a year, according to the General Accounting Office. Craig says below-cost timber sales are a necessary tool for managing federal land.
His proposal for reforming the 1872 mining law offered only the scantiest royalty for the U.S. Treasury. Anything more aggressive would run the mining industry out of the country, Craig argues, and cost jobs.
And these are contradictions innate to many a successful Western senator, Weatherby said.
There are other contradictions. Craig says he is committed to campaign finance reform. Simultaneously he broke ranks with most Republicans and helped block recent Senate efforts to overhaul the rules, claiming there were constitutional problems with the bill.
Ideologically, Craig is outspoken against abortion, a member of the National Rifle Association’s Board of Directors and a take-no-prisoners foe of gun control.
Kidwell says Craig uses his NRA position to deal out political favors. Craig refused to help provide “even a lukewarm NRA endorsement” when Kidwell was running for Idaho Supreme Court justice a few years ago.
It was something Kidwell felt was important to Idaho voters. Old grudges linger long. “He remembered the good old days,” when they were opponents in the U.S. House race, Kidwell said.
Absolutely wrong, Craig said. The NRA’s legislative board, which Craig has no power over, decides endorsements, he said.
After 16 years in Washington, D.C., what has Craig done for Idaho? “I would have trouble building a really long list,” Stapilus said.
Kidwell believes Craig hasn’t yet made his footprint. “I think Larry’s only reputation, so far, is getting himself re-elected.”
It is too early to judge, counters BSU political scientist Weatherby. “Up until 1995, Larry Craig has been an outsider, a conservative Republican in a Congress dominated by Democrats,” Weatherby said.
“His clout has come to him only recently.”
Detractors and political observers identify only one Craig vulnerability - the environment. He consistently rates a zero score in the green arena, they say, and with Idaho’s changing demographics, that could hamper his chances in 2002, Swisher and Weatherby say. But it will make little difference in 1996, they agree.
Craig appears somewhat sensitive to this. If re-elected, his controversial forest health bill, derided by critics as diluting environmental laws and increasing national forest logging, will be renamed and reintroduced as the Public Lands Environmental Protection Act.
Otherwise, the blueprint Craig outlines has few surprises. If returned to Washington, his themes will remain - a balanced budget, a friendly climate for mining and logging, and gunning for big government in a way that resonates with Idaho voters.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Larry Craig Resume: Age 51 … bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Idaho, graduate work George Washington University … Idaho National Guard, 1971-72, honorable medical discharge. Finances: Raised since Jan. 1, 1995, as of June 30 report $1.29 million … cash on hand - $651,712 … PAC money raised $693,466 … key contributors are timber companies, oil and gas, mining, electrical utilities, agriculture and food products. Why running: “The federal government is still too big - it still spends too much of our tax dollars.”
This sidebar appeared with the story: Larry Craig Resume: Age 51 … bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Idaho, graduate work George Washington University … Idaho National Guard, 1971-72, honorable medical discharge. Finances: Raised since Jan. 1, 1995, as of June 30 report $1.29 million … cash on hand - $651,712 … PAC money raised $693,466 … key contributors are timber companies, oil and gas, mining, electrical utilities, agriculture and food products. Why running: “The federal government is still too big - it still spends too much of our tax dollars.”