BOISE – Idaho has a most unusual campaign going this year for lieutenant governor, with the sitting governor facing a former congressman whom the governor has been doing his best to ignore.
Former Democratic Congressman Larry LaRocco has been frenetically campaigning around the state, visiting all 44 counties and shaking more than 16,000 Idahoans’ hands, while Republican Gov. Jim Risch also has been all around the state – but he’s avoided campaign questions or face-offs, insisting he’s too busy running the state to spend time campaigning for lieutenant governor.
The situation has prompted LaRocco to refer to the state’s airplane as Risch’s “campaign vehicle,” since Risch has been flying off to communities to award grant checks, attend local events and make other appearances as governor.
The lieutenant governor job that both men are seeking is a part-time position that pays just $26,750 a year. Also in the race is Constitution Party candidate William Charles “Bill” Wellisch, a carpenter and first-time candidate who opposes public education and says he was inspired by God to run.
Risch, who declined to grant an interview for this article but answered questions in writing that were submitted through his campaign, said he’s running for lieutenant governor because, “Now more than ever, I want to serve Idaho and to continue my efforts to make it an even better place to live and work.”
He said his record in office as governor – he will go down in history as the state’s shortest-serving governor, with a seven-month term – shows he can serve the state. Indeed, he’s been a whirlwind of activity as governor, personally working out a complex plan for management of roadless forests, replacing several high-profile department heads, opening offices in Coeur d’Alene and Idaho Falls, and calling lawmakers back to town for a one-day special session to pass his far-reaching tax reform legislation, which lowers property taxes while raising the sales tax.
Risch’s hard-charging approach has prompted many supporters to say they wish he were running for governor – but he’s not. The widely expected GOP primary matchup between Risch and current Congressman Butch Otter for governor never happened, as Otter jumped into the gubernatorial race two years early and began piling up campaign cash, and Risch decided in March to seek a second term as lieutenant governor instead.
LaRocco, who held the 1st District congressional seat that represents North Idaho for two terms in the early 1990s, said he thinks the current Republican dominance has made Idaho a “one-party state” that favors powerful special interests and lacks the give-and-take needed to make good public policy.
“Currently, Idaho sees things through one ideological prism,” LaRocco said. “Basically, I am running to shake things up in the Idaho political landscape and provide the needed change Idahoans want in their government.”
LaRocco opposed Risch’s tax reform plan, instead issuing his own four-point plan that called for increasing the homeowner’s exemption to $100,000, reducing sales taxes on food, using a state budget surplus to help fund school construction, and drawing on development impact fees to pay for schools. He’s been pushing for stronger statewide efforts against methamphetamine, called for raising the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $6.15, and backed voluntary state-funded preschool.
“I won’t approach this job as the ultimate insider counting votes, pushing ideology and punishing enemies,” LaRocco said. “There are too many issues left unattended by the Risch-Kempthorne administration. … It’s time to work for Idaho families and Idaho kids.”
Both LaRocco and Risch said there are sharp differences between the two of them. Risch said he’s more of an advocate for “strong family values.” LaRocco said he has a more inclusive leadership style that would allow him to work with a governor of either party.
“I wish to engage Idahoans in our public policy, not dictate outcomes or results,” LaRocco said.
Wellisch, the Constitution Party candidate, is running for office for the first time. He said he was inspired to run by a religious experience and also by his deep faith in the U.S. Constitution.
“That God-given document, the Constitution, the truth is found in there,” Wellisch said, “and it’s amazing the freedoms we can have as a people if we learn the Constitution and follow it. We have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but we don’t have those things today because we’ve allowed others to get control of and manipulate our government.”
Wellisch said he considered running for Bear Lake County commissioner but found out his district didn’t have a seat up for election, so he dropped the idea. “Then, as I was waking up the next morning, in my mind a voice said, ‘I want you to run for lieutenant governor. This is not your battle, this is my battle.’ It went on, it was just an incredible experience,” he said. “I don’t know if I’m qualified … but I do feel with the Lord’s help I can accomplish what He feels needs to be done.”
The election is Nov. 7.