The crowd at this past week’s Labor Day picnic was big and enthusiastic. That should give the Idaho Democratic Party more than groundless optimism that they will make a comeback this year.
The gathering at Boise’s Municipal Park was for union members, not just Democrats. But while Boise Mayor Brent Coles was the only Republican in sight, almost every major Democrat in the Boise area turned out.
They were treated to some oldfashioned, give-‘em-hell speeches - the kind you get when the candidates are really into it, not just going through the motions.
Organizers had barbecued ribs and other food for 750 and ran out early. State AFL-CIO President Randy Ambuehl estimated about 1,000 union members attended.
And there were a lot of smiles among the Democrats on hand.
They know organized labor is important to their election chances, both for the money union members contribute and also for the army of volunteers unions can turn out if they want to.
In 1994, when the Idaho Democratic Party nearly was wiped out, union members weren’t particularly active.
They will be this time. They have two major targets to focus on, and judging from the comments and activity at the Labor Day picnic, there will be few passive union members in this campaign.
Organized labor really wants to defeat Republican Rep. Helen Chenoweth and Ada County Commissioner Gary Glenn.
Union leaders figure Chenoweth is about as anti-union as they come.
And Glenn headed the mid-1980s battle that eventually made Idaho the nation’s 21st Right-to-Work state, seriously weakening union membership. He’s opposed by former Deputy Attorney General Frank Walker in a race that has generated some statewide interest.
As a signal of how badly union members want to beat Chenoweth, her opponent, Boise lawyer Dan Williams, got the biggest roar of the day when he declared, “Give me your hand and your help and you’ll never have to read or hear about her again.”
Democratic Senate candidate Walt Minnick wound up his eight-day, 54-city motorhome tour of the state at the labor picnic. He also spoke and worked the crowd. But union workers are less excited about Minnick’s battle against the GOP’s Larry Craig, because Minnick, a business executive, supported right to work a decade ago.
The event buoyed the optimism of State Party Chairman Bill Mauk, who sees President Clinton doing much better than he did in staunchly Republican Idaho four years ago.
“I think people are feeling enthusiastic. It helps enormously to have an incumbent who appears well on the course to re-election,” he said.
Ambuehl says unions in Idaho are holding their own, although he doesn’t have recent figures on statewide membership. Nationally, he said, unions are growing stronger as people rediscover their value.
He acknowledges that unions are working harder this year than in 1994, both in Idaho and at the national level. Chenoweth appears to have been damaged by the relentless ad campaign financed by national labor, attacking her for votes or actions on pensions and Medicare.
“This is one of the biggest Labor Day picnics I’ve been to,” Ambuehl told the crowd. “This election represents the clearest choice Idahoans have had for a long time.”
Al Johnson was the kind of guy who makes citizen Legislatures work.
The Pocatello Democrat died last week of heart failure at the age of 69. He was ailing at the end of the last legislative session and barely made it through. He had previously decided not to seek re-election.
Johnson farmed just outside Pocatello but was able to consider and understand the needs of many other segments of the Idaho population.
Like other well-respected lawmakers, he was friendly and courteous to everyone and seldom got into partisan politics. He was the senior Democrat on the Revenue and Taxation Committee and had an influence on the way state tax laws turned out, even though his party was a tiny minority.