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Democrat A.J. Balukoff launches Idaho governor campaign

A.J. Balukoff launches his campaign for governor of Idaho on Tuesday, running as a Democrat; some of his grandchildren are behind him holding signs. (BETSY Z. RUSSELL)
A.J. Balukoff launches his campaign for governor of Idaho on Tuesday, running as a Democrat; some of his grandchildren are behind him holding signs. (BETSY Z. RUSSELL)

BOISE – A.J. Balukoff launched his Democratic campaign for governor of Idaho on Tuesday, saying two decades of one-party GOP rule 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 he believes “Idaho can do better.”

About 80 supporters gathered for Balukoff’s announcement outside Boise’s Hillcrest Elementary School in the sharp chill of a late-fall morning. Some of Balukoff’s 30 grandchildren 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.” The Democrat added, however, that “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,” Andrus said with a chuckle. “I was elected.”

Balukoff said that after 20 years of one-party rule, he believes Idahoans are ready for a change.

Otter 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, in fact.

Otter 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, CenturyLink Arena and downtown Boise office buildings. 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.

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.

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