BOISE - A.J. Balukoff launched his Democratic campaign for governor of Idaho Tuesday, saying two decades of one-party GOP rule in Idaho have hurt the state’s education system and economy and created a “pay-to-play culture that leaves regular Idahoans on the outside looking in.”
The 67-year-old businessman and chairman of the Boise School Board said, “I’m running for governor because I believe Idaho can do better.”
About 80 supporters gathered for Balukoff’s announcement outside Boise’s Hillcrest Elementary School in the sharp chill of an early-winter morning; a group of Balukoff’s grandkids – he has 30 – held signs including, “Grandpa for Governor.” Former four-term Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus was among those in the crowd. “He’s extremely well-qualified and would be an excellent candidate,” Andrus said. “He’s a successful businessman in his own right.”
Asked if he thought Balukoff – who’s never run for an office higher than school board – could beat two-term GOP Gov. Butch Otter, Andrus said, “Yes, he can beat Butch Otter,” but he added, “Butch may not be the candidate,” noting that Otter faces a challenge in the GOP primary from conservative state Sen. Russ Fulcher. “We’ve had surprises before,” said Andrus with a chuckle, “I was elected.”
Said Balukoff, “We’ve had 20 years of one-party rule in this state, but I have a sense that the people of Idaho are ready for a change.”
Otter, who hasn’t yet formally launched his re-election campaign but has made it clear he’s seeking a third term – New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will hold a fundraiser for him Friday night at the Coeur d’Alene Resort – released a statement from his campaign saying, “The governor looks forward to discussing with voters the implications of a Democrat working to advance the Obama administration’s big-government priorities here in Idaho.”
Balukoff said, “I am independent-minded and have a track record of solving problems and building success.”
He holds an accounting degree from Brigham Young University, founded a major accounting firm and a chain of health clubs, and co-owns the Grove Hotel, the Idaho Steelheads hockey team, Century Link Arena, downtown Boise office buildings and more. He also serves on the boards of the Boise Public Library, St. Luke’s Regional Medical Center, the Esther Simplot Performing Arts Academy, and Ballet Idaho, and is the former bishop of his LDS church ward.
Balukoff said education is a top issue for him; he’s served on the Boise School Board since 1997. That board took a high-profile position against the “Students Come First” school reform laws, which voters rejected last year. They sought to roll back teachers’ collective bargaining rights while bringing a new focus on technology and online learning.
Longtime Idaho political observer Jim Weatherby, a professor emeritus at Boise State University, said as a Democrat, Balukoff is “a long-shot at this point,” but “has credibility on education issues.”
Though not well-known outside the Boise area, Balukoff “may benefit from a knock-down, drag-out primary in the Republican Party,” Weatherby said.
Currently, Republicans hold every seat in Idaho’s congressional delegation, all its statewide offices, and 80 percent of the seats in the Legislature.
Balukoff said he backs the 20 recommendations of Otter’s education stakeholders task force, but said that approach should have been tried much earlier – instead of Students Come First. Plus, he said, “I don’t think it goes far enough. … It didn’t address early childhood education, and it didn’t address higher education needs in our state.”
Mike Lanza, a Boise parent who helped organize the successful campaign to overturn the school reform measures, said, “I’m certainly glad to see a candidate with a strong emphasis on education.”
Others at the announcement included Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, who introduced Balukoff; and former state schools Superintendent Marilyn Howard, whom Bieter recognized, saying, “We miss you, Marilyn.” Howard was the last Democrat to hold statewide office in Idaho; she retired after her second term ended in 2006.
Balukoff said he’s making plans to travel around the state and meet with Idahoans, but hasn’t yet set a schedule. He said initial reaction to his run has been supportive from both Democrats and Republicans, “people I know in my neighborhood, at church, things like that.”