BOISE – Despite nearly 30 years in government, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter in many ways has come to be defined by a single vote he cast on Oct. 24, 2001.
The nation was still reeling from the Sept. 11 attacks and Congress was racing to pass the USA Patriot Act, which gave the FBI and other law enforcement agencies unprecedented power to search telephone and other public records without a court order.
Then a congressman, Otter was among three Republicans who cast a “no” vote as the law went onto passage.
The decision instantly burnished his libertarian credentials on a national stage, flashed the contrarian streak that his supporters love him for and elevated his profile ahead of an eventual run to become governor in 2006.
“Maybe that was the incident that a lot of people used to define me,” Otter told the Associated Press. “But I’ve always held a strong belief in the separation of powers.”
Otter, in Congress for all of 10 months before the Patriot Act vote, almost didn’t get to speak on the U.S. House floor against the bill opposed only by Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and Bob Ney of Ohio.
He’d gone to then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a Republican from Texas, only to be rebuffed.
“He said, ‘Oh, Butch, you can’t do that. If you speak against this, your people in Idaho won’t send you back here again,’ ” Otter recalled. “I said to him, ‘Mr. Armey, if this vote will cause me to lose the election, then I don’t belong here.’ ”
So the freshman congressmen went to an unlikely ally: a Democratic leader, John Conyers of Michigan.
Jeff Malmen, the Idaho Power Co. lobbyist who was Otter’s congressional chief of staff in 2001, remembered a hint of incredulity in Conyers’ voice when Otter asked for two minutes to speak.
“Conyers’ reaction was, ‘Really? You want to do what?’ ” Malmen said.
Within Otter’s inner circle, there was some concern about how Idaho voters would react, especially with America still trying to deal with the hijackings that killed nearly 3,000 and the anonymous anthrax attacks that followed.
A deep fear had gripped the country about when, not if, another attack would come. In Idaho, then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne closed off streets around the state Capitol and surrounded the building with concrete barriers, a few of which remain.
“At the time, there was this rush to do anything that would make people feel secure,” Malmen said.
“There weren’t a whole lot of people spending time thinking about the bill and what its real effects might be,” he said. “It was a hard vote; there was a lot of pressure.”
In the 2002 election, Otter faced Democrat Betty Richardson, a former U.S. attorney from Idaho who pointedly highlighted her rival’s Patriot Act stance. That November, however, Otter won by 18 points.
In some ways, that one vote helped dispel a lingering image of Otter as merely an affable cowboy who’d nearly had his political fortunes derailed by a drunken driving arrest a decade earlier.
This was no longer “Mr. Tight Jeans” – a title Otter won one night in 1992 at Boise’s Rockin’ Rodeo Inn. He was a serious lawmaker willing to stand up even to a president from his own party, when he thought the federal government had gone too far.
When he returned to Washington, D.C., in 2003, Otter kept up the pressure.
He was among bipartisan lawmakers who passed an amendment that would have gutted funding for so-called “sneak and peek” searches, enhanced surveillance warrants that allowed law enforcement to do clandestine searches on private property.
The amendment attached to the Patriot Act extension was ultimately stricken during negotiations with the U.S. Senate, but the atmosphere between Bush’s Justice Department and Otter grew very chilly, Otter recalled.
When then-Attorney General John Ashcroft visited Boise in August 2003 during a country tour to drum up support for the Patriot Act, Otter was nowhere in sight. “He didn’t invite me,” Otter said.
A decade on, Otter’s Patriot Act vote still lingers in the state’s congressional politics.
Freshman U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador, who represents the same swath of conservative western Idaho that Otter did, joined a group of 144 lawmakers from both parties in February to block extending Patriot Act provisions.
Among the provisions were roving wiretaps and secret surveillance of non-U.S. citizens who weren’t known terrorists.
“There was a lot of pressure from our leadership in Congress to vote the party line,” Labrador said. “But I believe my vote against the Patriot Act renewal reflects what I consider to be Idaho’s deep respect for civil liberties, as well as Butch’s legacy.”
After that vote, Otter telephoned Labrador to give him a thumbs-up.
“He just wanted to give him an ‘attaboy’ for following his convictions and voting his conscience,” said Jon Hanian, Otter’s spokesman. “As the governor knows, it can be a very lonely place to be.”