Otter tries to swim above diverse gubernatorial pool
BOISE - Butch Otter is among Idaho’s most-elected politicians, having served 14 years as lieutenant governor and three terms in Congress before being elected governor four years ago.
But the folksy, rodeo-loving cowboy politician has run into trouble as the state’s chief executive, failing to convince a Legislature dominated heavily by his own party to sign onto the centerpiece of his first-term agenda – upgrading Idaho’s roads – and then presiding over historic cuts in school funding after he ran for governor promising to “stand up” for a better education system.
Now, Otter, 68, is facing five challengers in the GOP primary as he seeks a second term, and former nonpartisan citizen activist and mediator Keith Allred is the Democratic front-runner, facing just a token challenge from Lee Chaney Sr. of Preston. Allred actually out-raised Otter in the most recent fundraising period, pulling in $241,278 in campaign contributions from Jan. 1 to May 9 while Otter raised just $193,339.
Those gunning for the governor in the Republican primary include an outspoken Ada County commissioner; a prosthetic wig shop owner and hair-loss specialist from Post Falls; a grizzled anti-abortion activist from Wilder; an amateur comedian; and a veterinarian and former U.S. Senate candidate who’s been touring the state towing a giant inflatable dinosaur behind his brightly decorated campaign RV and hurling tough rhetoric at the incumbent.
Otter’s declined to engage with his challengers, refusing to take part in the only statewide debate and not even announcing his candidacy for re-election until six weeks before the primary election.
Otter, in a statement issued by his campaign last week, said, “I’ve been tested and toughened by adversity, and I’m eager to take on the challenges ahead.” He said he wants to “maintain a family- and business-friendly tax and regulatory environment,” keep state government efficient and operating within its means, and fight unfunded federal mandates and “unwanted restrictions on the people of Idaho.”
Those themes also are struck by many of his primary challengers. But Rex Rammell, the veterinarian and former elk rancher who’s adopted “T-Rex” as his campaign alter-ego, said, “Butch knows the right thing in most cases, (but) he does not have the courage to do it.”
Sharon Ullman, the Ada County commissioner, maintains that Otter, who originally campaigned to go to Congress to tell the federal government to “butt out” of Idaho, has morphed into a tax-and-spend politician, pointing to his hard-fought but unsuccessful gas-tax hike proposal. “Which governor do we get in 2011 if he’s re-elected?” she asked. “I don’t want to risk getting the 2009 tax-and-spend governor back.”
Even the issue Otter has focused on most so far in his campaign this spring – his move to sue the federal government to try to block federal health care reform – wins him few accolades from his challengers, though most say they support it. Rammell says it won’t work and he’d go a step further by just refusing to follow federal law, even if it’s upheld in court. Ullman faults Otter for proposing to shift more of indigent medical costs from the state to counties, and says the lawsuit needs to be backed up with moves to encourage Idahoans to stay healthy.
Tamara Wells of Post Falls, who has operated Tamara’s, a prosthetic wig shop in Hayden, for the past 41 years, said, “I’m tired of the administration not doing anything for anyone here in Idaho, let alone protecting us from the federal government. … We’re just ‘yes’d’ out the door – they hear us, but they don’t do anything.”
She’s never run for office before but decided to challenge Otter because, she said, “The whole administration is not done well under him, and for the state of Idaho, I think we are suffering terribly.”
White-bearded Walter Bayes of Wilder, who’s poured more than $20,000 of his own money into full-color fliers declaring, “As governor, it will be my sworn duty to stop abortions,” rails about light prison sentences, wolves, porn, the need to “return to God and his morals,” and not forcing Idahoans to buy health insurance, saying on that point, “Butch finally got one right!”
Amateur comedian Ron “Pete” Peterson of Boise says he’s a former Otter supporter who now just thinks anyone but Otter should be elected governor.
The winner of the Republican primary will face not only the Democratic primary winner in November, but also two independents, Jana Kemp of Boise and “Pro-Life,” the candidate formerly known as Marvin Richardson before his legal name change; plus Libertarian Ted Dunlap. The primary election is on Tuesday.