BOISE – Perhaps the oddest thing about Keith Allred, the newly announced Democratic candidate for governor of Idaho, is that he’s not a Democrat. He’s not a Republican either.
Instead, the 45-year-old former Harvard professor and expert mediator is a passionate advocate for returning the nation to its founders’ vision of government by the people, of involving ordinary citizens in policymaking to skirt special interests, including political parties.
“I’m turned off by the extremes of both parties,” he said. “As a voter, I have been a committed and proud ticket-splitter all my life.”
So why would the Idaho Democratic Party want him as its standard-bearer? The party’s leadership has enthusiastically embraced Allred. Although he must win the party primary in May, he faces only token opposition.
Party Chairman Keith Roark called Allred a “proven problem-solver, someone who can bring people together.” And his party has pledged to Allred that it’ll embrace his citizen-involvement philosophy, rather than expect him to stay true to the party’s platform.
It’s a position only a small minority party like Idaho’s Democratic Party would take; Democrats now hold just one of four seats in the state’s congressional delegation, none of its statewide offices and only a quarter of the seats in the state Legislature.
“I can’t see how a base of a party is going to get excited about somebody that says, ‘I’m really not one of you,’ ” conservative GOP activist Rod Beck said. “… If the roles were reversed and there was some candidate saying, ‘I want to run for the Republican nomination but I’m not really Republican,’ I don’t think there’d be a lot of enthusiasm from the Republican base.”
But Idaho’s Democrats are in a much different position from the Republicans’. According to the last Boise State University Public Policy Survey, just a quarter of Idahoans say they’re Democrats; they’re outnumbered by the 28 percent who say they’re independents, while 40 percent identify as Republican.
“I can understand what the Democrats are trying to do, in trying to reach out to get a majority,” said BSU political scientist emeritus Jim Weatherby. Idaho’s most successful Democratic politicians, such as four-term Gov. Cecil Andrus, weren’t ideologues, Weatherby noted. “He knew how to work with Republican legislators – he had to, to have the kind of successful legislative programs he had.”
Allred said that when he lived in Massachusetts he more frequently leaned Republican; back in Idaho, he’s more frequently leaned Democrat. “It does seem like in a state where one party or the other party gets a large majority, that majority is dominated by its extremes,” he said.
He quotes the Federalist Papers and talks about the nation’s founders’ desire to avoid the problem of “faction” in fashioning the Constitution, “what we’d today call partisan and special-interest politics.” That’s why they were so concerned with designing checks and balances into the system, he said, so that only measures with broad support across party and special-interest lines could pass.
“It’s the principle that government by the people means drawing on good ideas from across the political spectrum, and it means putting the interests of all Idahoans above the interests of the powerful and well-connected,” he said.
His campaign leadership reflects his bipartisan message. The campaign’s honorary co-chairmen are Andrus and longtime Republican state Sen. Laird Noh, of Kimberly, a respected former member of the Senate Resources Committee.
Allred’s biggest beef with incumbent GOP Gov. Butch Otter is the way the governor pushed a major transportation funding bill last year that Allred helped kill.
“It was problematic because they were paying attention to the powerful and the well-connected, not to all Idahoans,” Allred said.
The governor’s bill sought to raise car and pickup registration fees by 138 percent, while only raising fees for heavy trucks by 5 percent, despite state studies showing that car and pickup owners already were overpaying their share for wear and tear on the roads and that trucks were underpaying.
Allred said the administration offered two arguments against raising truck fees, both of which, on further investigation, turned out to be “absolutely factually false.” Allred said Otter aides referred him to the Idaho Trucking Association when he questioned the claims. Then, when the governor came out with a new version of the bill, Allred discovered a $10 million error in it. The bill eventually died.
“This was the governor’s signature priority policy issue for his entire administration,” Allred said, “and it turns out he was listening to the powerful and the well-connected, and not thinking about what was in the interest of all Idahoans.”
Allred’s advocacy group, the Common Interest, has for each of the past five years asked its members to pick the issues it focused on, to help research all sides and then to weigh in. On those issues where a position attracted a strong majority, Allred lobbied for it in the Legislature.
He said he’d follow the same path as governor, but instead of querying the 1,500-plus members of the group, he’d turn to the state’s 800,000-plus registered voters. When it was time to establish a position, after distributing issue briefs, he’d ask a randomly selected sample of 30,000 to 50,000 registered voters to weigh in, and he wouldn’t proceed unless there was strong majority support.
“If your idea won’t garner that kind of support, you’re not going to get it done anyway,” he said.
If elected governor, Allred says he’d add two issues to the agenda: jobs and education. On jobs, he’d ask residents to weigh in on every existing tax exemption in Idaho, with the goal of eliminating all those that lack broad support, in favor of lowering tax rates. That, he said, would create jobs by helping small businesses, which create “the lion’s share” of Idaho’s jobs, rather than big-money interests that can afford to lobby the Legislature for tax breaks.
“I’m certainly not the first to have thought of this,” he said. “There have been interim committees and task forces that have suggested this for years in Idaho. There’s nobody who seriously thinks that’s not a good policy idea. That has never been the problem. The problem has been the politics of it.”
Allred said his citizen-involvement program would solve the political problem by reaching out to all the voters who’d helped research and take positions on an issue, telling them that their governor is proposing a bill based on their input, and asking them to contact their legislators and help get it passed. “Now you have a government in partnership with the people of Idaho, people who are actually informed and engaged on the issue,” he said. “That’s a powerful political formula for advancing ideas that are in the common interest.”