BOISE – Thanks to Howard Dean, Idaho’s Democratic Party is more than doubling its paid staff and gearing up to try to rebuild a party that’s sunk about as low as it can go.
“People say … that this is a Republican area – no it’s not!” Dean told a cheering crowd of 500 Democrats gathered in Boise’s Julia Davis Park on Friday. “We want to win here. We know it’s going to be hard to carry Idaho in the presidential election in 2008, but we can win the governorship in 2006.”
Fourteen years ago, Idaho had two Democratic congressmen, a Democratic governor, a Democratic state controller and attorney general, and a 50-50 tie between Democrats and Republicans in the state Senate.
Today, only one Democrat – state Superintendent of Schools Marilyn Howard – holds statewide elected office, and 81 percent of the Legislature is Republican.
“I think the Republicans just out-organized us,” Dean said Friday in an interview after his speech. “We’ve got some structural problems in the Democratic Party. If you don’t compete in 32 states, you have a problem. That’s going to change – it is changing right now.”
At Dean’s behest, the national party is funneling $50 million into hiring three to four full-time staffers for every state Democratic Party for the next four years. In Idaho, that’s already translated into a new communications director – former Associated Press reporter Chuck Oxley, who’s already on the job.
Idaho Democratic Party Chairman Richard Stallings said the addition of Oxley, two community organizers and a fund-raiser to the state party’s staff were among the factors that persuaded him to stay on as chairman.
A former four-term 2nd District congressman, Stallings said, “I’ve only been on since February and I’ve got to be honest with you, I haven’t carried it very well. We’ve missed a dozen really good press issues that the Republicans have handed us, and because we were short-staffed we didn’t do a very good job responding.”
He cited the ethics scandal that led to the resignation of state Sen. Jack Noble, R-Kuna, and the revelation that Gov. Dirk Kempthorne had bounced checks to his hairdresser – a sore point for Stallings because Kempthorne thrashed Stallings over the House check-bouncing scandal in 1992 when he beat Stallings in his run for the U.S. Senate.
“The Republicans at both the national and the state level are just giving us some wonderful issues – I’m going to send ‘em a thank-you note,” Stallings said.
Stallings said Dean, a former presidential candidate and former governor of Vermont, is giving a big boost to Idaho Democrats. “First of all, he energized a whole new group of people when he ran, the ‘Deaniacs’ as we fondly call them. And he was able to raise money on a national level that was totally unprecedented.”
Now, Stallings said, “He’s going to take on the Republicans nationally, which needs to be done, and he’s going to help us raise dollars. As a result, I think you’re going to see, at least in Idaho, a much more active Democratic Party with a strong commitment to being competitive statewide and to winning.”
The casually dressed crowd in the city park in Boise on Friday clustered around Dean after his speech, shaking hands, posing for pictures and seeking autographs. In near 100-degree heat, some held red, white and blue fans proclaiming, “I’m a Democratic fan!”
Those at the park paid $25 for a box lunch and Dean’s talk, which was followed by a private, $100-per-person reception that drew a capacity crowd of 70 at the nearby Idaho Black History Museum. The events were part of a five-state swing that’s also taking Dean to Wisconsin, Colorado, Montana and Utah.
Dean hammered on the message that the Democratic Party will be inclusive, not divisive, and that its members respect those with different views. He also said the party’s top issue for the next four years is balancing the budget – “You can’t trust the Republicans with the taxpayer’s dollar” – followed by individual freedom and responsibility. He cited the Terri Schiavo case, and said, “Those kinds of decisions belong to individual families – that’s not the government’s business.”
He added, “The Democrats are a different party – we’re the party of fiscal responsibility, and we’re going to get government off your back.”
Peppered throughout his speech were sharp criticisms of President Bush and his key adviser Karl Rove, which drew big cheers from the crowd.
Idaho Republican Party Chairman Kirk Sullivan didn’t return calls seeking comment, but issued a statement headed “Anger Alert.”
“Howard Dean’s ultra-liberal policies are on the wrong side of the issues our state’s working families care about most,” Sullivan said in the statement. “Dean’s unbridled anger and rage isn’t going to win Democrats any votes in a state that President Bush won with 68 percent of the vote last November.”
Dean said he thinks Democrat Jerry Brady, who ran unsuccessfully against Kempthorne for governor in 2002 and is running again, has a good chance of winning in 2006 – even with big names like three-term Congressman Butch Otter and current Lt. Gov. Jim Risch facing off on the Republican side.
“He got 42 percent in the last election – he’s only 8 percent short in a pretty Republican state. And this is not going to be a Republican year,” Dean said. People are worried, he said, about corruption in government, jobs going overseas, health care costs and “government interference in people’s lives. They don’t like that.”
Dean also said he thinks Democrats have a good shot at the 1st District congressional seat and gaining seats in the Legislature.
Former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus, who introduced Dean at the park and was surrounded by well-wishers everywhere he went, acknowledged that his party is “at an all-time low – we only have one office.”
“But,” he said, “look at the cross-section you see here – these are not party hacks. This is mainstream America coming out to hear the other side.”