BOISE – Idaho Gov. Butch Otter appears to be abandoning an issue important to many tea party activists.
The Republican seeking a second term in the governor’s office declared during a political debate Monday that he now opposes repeal of the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which would return the selection of U.S. senators to state legislatures. But just five months ago, while in Spokane as a keynote speaker for a tea party rally in Riverfront Park, Otter was sharply critical of the 17th Amendment, which some conservative groups consider an intrusion on state’s rights and its repeal is part of the Idaho Republican Party’s state platform.
The governor’s comments came as he and Democratic challenger Keith Allred sparred over everything from education cuts to wilderness to whether Idaho should investigate its state Tax Commission for alleged special deals to influential taxpayers (Otter said that’s already been addressed; Allred disagreed).
Asked directly about the 17th Amendment during a debate before an audience of more than 400, Otter said, “I want Idahoans to elect our U.S. senators.”
He added, “I have said time and time again, and I’ll say again, my focus is on the 10th Amendment (reserving states’ rights). I do not believe you’re going to repeal the 17th Amendment, and have spent no time on repealing the 17th Amendment. That was a decision, and a very populist decision that was made in the early 20th century, and I believe that decision is one that is going to stand no matter who wants the 17th Amendment repealed.”
That’s a different message than the one he gave a cheering tea party crowd in Spokane’s downtown Riverfront Park five months ago.
“All of the amendments to the Constitution in one form or another, some of them I have a serious objection with, like the 17th Amendment, the direct election of United States senators,” Otter said at the time. “You know, that was the first big loss we had in states’ rights.”
Since then, he’s been noncommittal about the issue, saying he understands concerns about electing senators by popular vote rather than having legislatures choose them, but didn’t think the issue was likely to be addressed. Backers of repeal contend it would increase states’ rights by giving state legislatures a more formal say in the federal government.
Allred responded, “Here at the City Club in Boise, Butch Otter tells you that he thinks Idahoans should elect their own senators, but when he goes across the state line in Spokane to speak to the tea party, he says that the 17th Amendment was one of the biggest mistakes we’ve made.”
Otter’s campaign spokesman, Ryan Panitz, said Monday afternoon that Otter “has always disagreed with the 17th Amendment but from a practical stance, repealing it isn’t going to happen.”
Allred, a professional mediator, citizen activist and former Harvard professor, said, “This is what you see with career politicians, the flipping and flopping back and forth depending on their audience. I have been consistent and clear. Idahoans can, should elect their own senator.”
The issue was one of a broad array the two major-party candidates discussed during the hourlong debate, their second of the campaign. Two more face-offs are planned, including one to be broadcast live statewide on Idaho Public Television Oct. 28, the Thursday before the Nov. 2 election.
Also on the ballot in Idaho’s governor’s race are two independents, Boise businesswoman Jana Kemp and a candidate who’s legally changed his name to Pro-Life, and Libertarian candidate Ted Dunlap.