Risch, LaRocco lead field of candidates
BOISE – Larry Craig has represented Idaho in Washington, D.C., for 28 years. Now his shadow falls over the race to replace him, as five candidates face off for a rare open seat in the U.S. Senate and a chance to launch a new chapter in the state’s leadership.
“We’re going to enter into a post-Larry Craig era, which I think is going to be refreshing, because he’s been a dominant player on the scene for so long, especially because of his position on the Appropriations Committee,” said Democrat Larry LaRocco, one of those vying for the post.
Craig is known for his defense of traditional resource industries, his staunch, though never successful, push for a balanced-budget amendment and his success at inserting riders and earmarks into congressional bills to push his agenda or help his small state. But his lengthy tenure in the nation’s capital is coming to a quiet end. Stripped of key ranking committee posts after an airport restroom sex-solicitation scandal, Craig said he’d resign a year ago. He changed his mind even as Idaho politicians were jostling for appointment to his seat and served out his term.
Republican candidate Jim Risch won’t talk about Craig.
“I’m going in on Jan. 3, if I go in, as a new senator, and I have not found anyone either back there or here who in any way relates my public service to his public service,” Risch said. “I really don’t care to compare myself to him, or for that matter to anyone else. … I bring my own views, I bring my own problem-solving abilities, I bring my own relationship-building abilities, and no two people are alike.”
Boise State University political scientist emeritus Jim Weatherby said it’s not surprising that Risch would want to distance himself from Craig. “He doesn’t want the focus to be on Larry Craig but on Jim Risch, and not be tainted by that association,” Weatherby said.
But it was Craig who brought all but one of the five hopefuls into this year’s race. Risch himself had been planning to run only if Craig didn’t, and was among the leading candidates for appointment to the seat when Craig was expected to resign. LaRocco got in the race a year and a half ago, intending to challenge Craig.
It was the vying among Idaho Republicans in the wake of Craig’s scandal that brought two more of the candidates to the race – independent Rex Rammell and Libertarian Kent Marmon. Both Rammell and Marmon announced as GOP candidates, but Risch lined up the GOP party establishment to endorse him before the primary in a show of unity after the Craig scandal – prompting the other two candidates to jump ship and take on Risch in the general election.
“Craig helped set this up, inadvertently, by his resignation announcement,” Weatherby said. “It was an extraordinary circumstance here, where there was a lot of speculation that Jim Risch was going to become the new senator in a matter of days.”
The fifth candidate in the race is “Pro-Life,” an organic strawberry farmer who legally changed his name from Marvin Richardson. An independent who frequently protests against abortion by holding up signs along southern Idaho streets, he’s run for office before, but this is the first time he’s successfully gotten his new name onto the ballot.
LaRocco, a former stockbroker, says the two terms he served in the House from 1990 to 1994, representing Idaho’s 1st Congressional District, will give him an edge, along with his membership in the majority party, the Democrats. LaRocco also cites his financial background and says he’s ready to help solve the nation’s financial crisis.
“We had to deal with this back in the ’90s and clean up the high deficits,” he said. “The best thing we can do is stop the bleeding. We can do that through cuts in spending and looking for ways to put some fairness into the tax structure.”
LaRocco also has called for extensive health care reforms, including making health insurance portable when people change jobs, eliminating exclusions for pre-existing conditions, and setting up a national health insurance market where every American would be able to purchase insurance from either public or private providers, with low-income families paying on a sliding scale based on income.
Risch, a longtime state senator who’s one of Idaho’s longest-serving politicians, is the state’s current lieutenant governor, but he served a whirlwind seven-month term as governor when then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne was named Secretary of the Interior. In those seven months, Risch called a special session of the Legislature to enact major tax reforms, reorganized the giant Department of Health and Welfare, wrote a new management plan for the state’s roadless forests and more.
If elected to the Senate, he said, “I promise to work as hard as I did when I was governor.”
He’s been talking tough on the financial crisis, citing his past service as a county prosecutor. “The American economy has matured immensely since 1929, but the oversight has not,” Risch said. “There needs to be a revisiting and a revamping of the oversight system for all institutions that take and hold the public’s money.”
Risch has little to suggest on health care reform. “We have a system that is free choice by people and it’s a free-market system,” he said. “The federal government does not have a stellar record of doing better for people than they can do for themselves.”
He’s made tax-cutting a centerpiece of his campaign, and supports making the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts permanent. He’s also pledged to co-sponsor a bill to eliminate earmarks.
“I would not underestimate Jim Risch,” Weatherby said. “I would be interested in watching how he could work across the aisle as a pragmatic senator, despite some of his conservative claims.”
Rammell has staked out his ground as a conservative, favoring a flat tax, opposing any government involvement in or incentives for energy production, and advocating allowing Americans to opt out of Medicare and Social Security, which he calls “a busted system.”
“The founding fathers wanted a limited federal government,” Rammell said. “I want to provide for my own retirement.”
He favors moving to individual-based health coverage, rather than employer-provided care, through GOP presidential candidate John McCain’s tax credit plan.
Rammell is a veterinarian and former elk rancher with a big beef with Risch for his order, when he was governor, to shoot Rammell’s escaped elk. He says that inspired him to become involved in politics.
Marmon, who’s had trouble getting word out about his candidacy since he’s still working 40 hours a week as the training manager for a locomotive manufacturer in Caldwell, said, “I’m more conservative than Larry Craig.”
He adamantly opposed the federal financial bailout legislation, saying, “I personally do not believe the government has any business being in business. … We just have to let the market rebound on its own without a bunch of government intervention.”
His view is similar on energy, health care and other issues. “This is a critical crossroads election – we’re either going to turn back off the detour we’ve been on for 75 years and get back on the road to liberty and freedom, or … it’s going down a slippery slope to full-scale socialism,” said Marmon, a former Caldwell city councilman and unsuccessful candidate for mayor.
For Pro-Life, the issues are clear-cut.
He opposes both parties; opposes abortion; opposes the war in Iraq; and opposes nuclear power, because “splitting atoms is an evil thing to do – you can’t ever put it back together, and God doesn’t intend it to be that way.”
Ultimately, whoever takes Craig’s place will have a huge challenge to represent the state as a new senator, Weatherby said. “It’s a big loss of experience and tenure.”
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