October 27, 1996 in Nation/World

Dan Williams Challenges Authority Youthful Contender Thinks Chenoweth Has Been An Embarrassment To Idaho

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Back in 1978, the dozen or so kids in the Boise High School political science club shared a fascination: Congressman George Hansen.

Hansen had a record of financial improprieties. He made embarrassing remarks, couldn’t get legislation passed, didn’t seem to have any respect from his colleagues. The teenagers, including the club president - a skinny kid named Dan Williams - thought their state could be better represented.

Now, 18 years later, Williams sees himself on a similar crusade. He’s challenging U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth in Idaho’s 1st Congressional District. He decided to run because he felt Chenoweth was giving Idaho a black eye with her comments on militias and salmon.

Williams is a fresh-faced 34-year-old who has immersed himself in Idaho Democratic politics since the ninth grade. He’s a Yale-educated lawyer who stunned his friends with his 99th-percentile score on the law school entrance exams.

Even his critics say he’s bright, pleasant and articulate. But they wonder whether a young man with few high-profile achievements is qualified for Congress.

“I don’t think youth would make a great deal of difference if he could prove that he had some major accomplishments,” said former state Rep. Kathleen Gurnsey, whom Williams challenged unsuccessfully in 1990. “What has he done?”

‘Just a good young man’

Williams grew up in a middle-class Boise neighborhood. His dad was a Bureau of Reclamation chemist; his mom, a former secretary, was a homemaker. Her two children from a previous marriage were 20 years older than Dan, so he was raised as an only child.

The family faithfully attended the First United Methodist Church, and young Dan sang in choirs and even played the organ at some of the large church’s Sunday services.

“It was very rare that they would let a young person play the organ,” said Charlotte Allen, church office manager. “The church members respected him and his parents for their attendance and his talent.”

Williams discarded early ambitions to be a pilot or a doctor when he discovered politics in junior high. He volunteered in congressional campaigns, and loved programs like Boys’ State and youth legislature.

Williams excelled at piano, playing classical recitals and handling keyboards in a garage rock band. He took advanced classes and did well in every subject.

It was no surprise when Williams was admitted to Yale. He graduated cum laude, despite the culture shock of finding that Easterners were more competitive and less friendly than Idahoans.

“I absolutely loved the academic part of it,” he said.

He returned to Boise for a year of political work, including campaigning for Richard Stallings. “We finally beat George Hansen and rescued Idaho from that particular embarrassment,” Williams said.

Hansen had been convicted on felony ethics charges at that point, but still lost only narrowly to Democrat Stallings.

“It made me very hopeful,” Williams said. In an overwhelmingly Republican congressional district, “The people of southeast Idaho decided they’d had enough of George Hansen and were willing to vote for a moderate like Richard Stallings.”

Williams earned his law degree at the University of Michigan, then joined a Boise law firm, Holland & Hart, in 1988.

A run for office

Williams continued his activism, helping Marguerite McLaughlin run a state Democratic convention that same year.

“Dan is a very likable, very articulate, very smart young man, very dedicated to politics,” said McLaughlin, a longtime state senator from Orofino.

Within two years, Williams was running for the state House, taking on Gurnsey, chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee. A Republican, she had served for 16 years in one of the few largely Democratic districts.

“I guess I see him as kind of an opportunist,” Gurnsey said. “He had studied the fact that it was a Democratic district,” and also highlighted her long service as a reason for a change.

Williams said he felt Gurnsey caved in to anti-education forces, but he liked her record in later years.

Gurnsey believes Williams moved into her district specifically to run against her, but Williams said he’d lived in his rented apartment since returning from law school. He stayed there until he bought a house in the same general area - but across the line into the 1st Congressional District - in 1995.

In the 22 years that Gurnsey served in the Legislature, Williams came the closest of any opponent to unseating her. He lost by just 1 percent.

More political work

Eventually, his political work - including serving as the state Democratic Party’s lawyer - began to conflict with his work for the law firm. “I was becoming increasingly boxed in by big-law-firm life.”

Plus, he wanted to represent legislative Democrats in reapportionment litigation, and the firm was against it. Williams opened his own law practice in 1993, and quickly established himself with an office in the First Interstate tower, the newest and fanciest office building in downtown Boise.

A friend from Democratic circles recommended Williams to Chemical Bank, and he landed a big bankruptcy case that got his practice rolling.

In December 1993, Gov. Cecil Andrus’ attorney left to start his own firm. Andrus’ chief of staff, Marc Johnson, called Williams and asked if he’d like to take the job through Andrus’ final year in office.

“It was terrific, one of the best things I’ve done as a lawyer,” Williams said.

He represented Andrus in a lawsuit brought against the state by school districts, charging that the state wasn’t providing enough money to meet the constitutional requirement of a “thorough” education. Eventually, the Legislature forked over more money and the lawsuit was set aside.

“The best thing was getting to see, from a very close distance, how Andrus would deal with issues,” Williams said.

Watching Andrus reinforced Williams’ feeling that a pragmatic approach to politics is best, one that forces everyone to the table to reach a consensus. Williams has sounded that theme since his early objections to George Hansen. He wants to be a moderate voice of reason, not push a hard-line agenda.

“To me that is the most significant difference between me and Helen Chenoweth,” he said.

Planning for a campaign

Williams approached his campaign for Congress methodically, first discussing the idea with Andrus and Bethine Church, widow of the late U.S. Sen. Frank Church, shortly after Chenoweth’s election in 1994.

By April 1995, he had put together an impressive packet laying out reasons why he could beat Chenoweth, a detailed budget and schedule for his campaign and a thick packet of newspaper clips highlighting Chenoweth’s flubs.

Gurnsey decries this “cookbook approach” to how to succeed in politics. “I just think here’s a person who doesn’t have any children, who doesn’t really seem to have a full-time job and you know, he doesn’t have enough experience in the world of hard knocks.”

Indeed, the worst trouble Williams seems to have encountered is a spate of expired-meter parking tickets in 1995. He and wife Emily, 24, have been married just one year.

Asked about his qualifications, Williams touts his legal and political experience and his involvement in church and community.

Andrus calls him “a work horse, not a show horse.”

Charlie Tillinghast, a Boise health care executive who’s known Williams since kindergarten, leaned Republican when he joined his friend in the high school political science club. But he and Williams agreed then that Hansen wasn’t giving Idaho the representation it deserved.

“We were of the mind that this was probably someone who wasn’t the student government version of the ideal statesman,” Tillinghast said.

That ideal, Tillinghast said, is someone closer to Williams.

“He’s a smart guy. He is somebody who would definitely have the ability to forge a consensus. … He’s not coming at the issues from a hard ideological bent.”

Bethine Church, who is 73, is so high on Williams that she traveled from Bonners Ferry to Weiser on a campaign bus tour for him last week. She has been something of a political mentor to Williams, and remembers having long discussions over the years with her sons and Williams on politics and issues.

Williams “can see that there are two sides to a question,” she said. “The people who say ‘I’m always right’ scare me to death.” , DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Photos (1 color)

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WHERE THEY STAND… The issues Here are the positions on selected issues of the major-party candidates for Congress in Idaho’s 1st District.

ABORTION Helen Chenoweth: Pro-life. Wants to ban abortion in all cases except in the instance of “criminal” rape or “criminal” incest or when the life of the mother is threatened.

Dan Williams: Pro-choice. Supports current laws established under Roe vs. Wade decision. Would support a ban on late-term abortions if it included exceptions for threats to the health or life of the mother.

BALANCING THE BUDGET: Chenoweth: Believes budget can be balanced by reducing the size of the federal bureaucracy and ending duplication of government services.

Williams: Has endorsed the “Common Sense Balanced Budget Act” proposed by Rep. Bill Orton, D-Utah. The measure would balance the budget in seven years. The measure calls for $167 billion in cuts in corporate welfare over seven years, along with a change in calculating inflation that would slow increases in many programs.

SALMON Chenoweth: Believes we need to quit throwing money into a bureaucracy that’s not solving the problem. Wants to look for sincere solutions that will bring the salmon back while also respecting Idaho’s traditional way of life.

Williams: Wants to allow more young fish to remain in the river, and “stop using failed practices like barging.” Wants downstream interests, including Oregon, Washington, the aluminum and power industries and other water users, to share in costs rather than targeting Idaho water.

GUN CONTROL: Chenoweth: Opposes all federal gun control, and has supported repealing both the Brady Bill and the assault weapons ban. “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”

Williams: Opposes all federal gun control, and would support repealing both the Brady Bill and the assault weapons ban. “The problem with gun control is that once you start down that path, you introduce a political dynamic that will lead to stricter and stricter and stricter control.”

NATIONAL FOREST LOGGING: Chenoweth: Supports salvage logging. Has supported turning some federal lands over to the states for management.

Williams: Wants local residents to have more say in decisions, with all interests involved, including local conservationists and local timber interests. “Everyone has to have a seat at the table.” Believes local, consensus decision-making would result in more timber harvest than recent years, though probably not the level of 10 years ago.

This sidebar appeared with the story: WHERE THEY STAND… The issues Here are the positions on selected issues of the major-party candidates for Congress in Idaho’s 1st District.

ABORTION Helen Chenoweth: Pro-life. Wants to ban abortion in all cases except in the instance of “criminal” rape or “criminal” incest or when the life of the mother is threatened.

Dan Williams: Pro-choice. Supports current laws established under Roe vs. Wade decision. Would support a ban on late-term abortions if it included exceptions for threats to the health or life of the mother.

BALANCING THE BUDGET: Chenoweth: Believes budget can be balanced by reducing the size of the federal bureaucracy and ending duplication of government services.

Williams: Has endorsed the “Common Sense Balanced Budget Act” proposed by Rep. Bill Orton, D-Utah. The measure would balance the budget in seven years. The measure calls for $167 billion in cuts in corporate welfare over seven years, along with a change in calculating inflation that would slow increases in many programs.

SALMON Chenoweth: Believes we need to quit throwing money into a bureaucracy that’s not solving the problem. Wants to look for sincere solutions that will bring the salmon back while also respecting Idaho’s traditional way of life.

Williams: Wants to allow more young fish to remain in the river, and “stop using failed practices like barging.” Wants downstream interests, including Oregon, Washington, the aluminum and power industries and other water users, to share in costs rather than targeting Idaho water.

GUN CONTROL: Chenoweth: Opposes all federal gun control, and has supported repealing both the Brady Bill and the assault weapons ban. “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”

Williams: Opposes all federal gun control, and would support repealing both the Brady Bill and the assault weapons ban. “The problem with gun control is that once you start down that path, you introduce a political dynamic that will lead to stricter and stricter and stricter control.”

NATIONAL FOREST LOGGING: Chenoweth: Supports salvage logging. Has supported turning some federal lands over to the states for management.

Williams: Wants local residents to have more say in decisions, with all interests involved, including local conservationists and local timber interests. “Everyone has to have a seat at the table.” Believes local, consensus decision-making would result in more timber harvest than recent years, though probably not the level of 10 years ago.


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