Redistricting fracas divides Idaho GOP

WEDNESDAY, JAN. 25, 2012, 6:10 P.M.

BOISE - The Idaho Supreme Court stepped in Wednesday and halted a power play over redistricting by two top GOP leaders that was threatening to delay the state’s primary election.

The court ruled that House Speaker Lawerence Denney and Idaho Republican Party Chairman Norm Semanko didn’t make their case to get the court to order Secretary of State Ben Ysursa to declare two vacancies on the state’s citizen redistricting commission and allow them to appoint two new commissioners.

Ysursa, also a Republican, refused to boot the two commissioners on the legal advice of Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, also a Republican, whose office advised that redistricting commissioners can’t be removed for making those who appointed them unhappy. Denney and Semanko hired another lawyer who offered a different opinion.

“The constitution of the state of Idaho says that I cannot protect a party, I cannot protect any particular legislator,” said GOP redistricting commissioner Randy Hansen, a former GOP state representative and prominent owner of a Twin Falls car dealership whom Semanko had appointed to the commission.

Denney and Semanko wanted to fire the two commissioners they’d earlier appointed, who also included longtime GOP state Rep. Dolores Crow, R-Nampa, former chairwoman of the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, at least in part because Denney said they hadn’t sufficiently protected the party when they drew the latest redistricting plan. That plan was tossed out by the Idaho Supreme Court for dividing too many counties; the commissioners plan to reconvene on Thursday morning to fix it to the court’s specifications.

The redistricting plan landed numerous incumbent lawmakers in the same districts, forcing face-offs; Denney was among them, ending up in a district with five House incumbents but just two seats.

“The only reason they’re mad at me is because I didn’t protect their fanny,” Crow told the Idaho Statesman newspaper this week. “I didn’t know where their fanny was - I do not know what precinct, what district (incumbents were in). I did not know and I still don’t want to know where people are until we get done with this thing. What he (Denney) did was pretty short-sighted.”

Denney told the Associated Press late Wednesday that he planned no further challenges. “If that’s their decision, we’ll just move ahead,” he said.

But the fracas is reverberating through the state’s supermajority Republican Party, pitting defenders of Crow and Hansen against allies of Denney and Semanko and generally causing a political uproar.

Former Idaho Gov. Phil Batt, a former Idaho GOP chairman and the widely acknowledged architect of the party’s dominance in Idaho since the mid-1990s, waded in with an op-ed piece Wednesday. “Now our party leaders want to sully the reapportionment process for more political gain,” Batt wrote. “I guess they want 100 percent Republicans of their own variety (Dolores and I probably don’t qualify). But I predict that Republican dominance in Idaho will decline rather than grow if we say neutrality has no place in reapportionment, and that the commission must do it our way or else.”

Batt wrote of Crow, known in the Legislature for her steadfast resistance to removing existing tax breaks from state law, “She has been a steel-tough Republican and is just trying to do what she was appointed to do - to produce a plan based on facts and not on politics.”

Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, earlier introduced legislation to delay Idaho’s May 15 primary election to August; that idea was gaining support as uncertainty over redistricting left Idaho’s election system in doubt just five weeks before candidate filing is scheduled to open for the primary election.

But Gov. Butch Otter threw cold water on that idea Wednesday, telling the Idaho Press Club he opposes moving the primary to August. Otter said Idaho’s primary election already draws too low a turnout, and scheduling it when many folks are on summer vacations would just make matters worse.

“There’s going to have to be overwhelming reasons and merits to an August primary, which I don’t see right now,” Otter declared.

Legislators, who now don’t know for sure which districts they’ll be filing in or who they’ll be running against, were left reeling.

Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, said, “I’m glad the Supreme Court resolved it in an expeditious manner. My concern is any action that would delay the commission from getting the work done, and the impact it was having on the whole election process and pressure to move the election back.”

House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said, “I was not consulted, and if I had been, I would have probably expressed some reluctance to go down this road.”

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said, “I’ve worked with Dolores Crow in her years here, and she bleeds Republican, so I’m astounded at the actions that were taken there.”

Denney and Semanko wanted to replace Crow and Hansen with former state Rep. Bob Forrey of Nampa and GOP activist Angela Cross of Post Falls.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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