BOISE – A disillusioned former Republican with an unusual story could throw a big wrench into the Idaho governor’s race this year.
If Libertarian candidate John Bujak succeeds in his bid to appeal to disaffected Republicans who voted against Gov. Butch Otter in the GOP primary, he still might not win – but he could pull enough votes from Otter to swing the race to Democrat A.J. Balukoff.
Bujak, the former GOP Canyon County prosecutor, has mostly made headlines in recent years for his legal troubles: He represented himself in five criminal trials in the past three years, and was acquitted in every one.
“After what the party did to me in Canyon County, I didn’t trust a lot of the leadership - certainly after seeing the way that Republicans run politics behind the scenes here in Idaho,” Bujak said. “They surround themselves with their buddies, they give deals to their buddies, they give contracts to their buddies, and when something happens that is unethical they all just look the other way.”
Bujak has a law degree from Gonzaga, he’s a Navy veteran, and he’s been a deputy attorney general for the state Human Rights Commission and a lawyer in private practice. But he says when he went into politics, serving as the elected prosecutor in Canyon County, “I hit a brick wall in the form of what I would call the ‘good old boys.’”
He clashed with the county’s power structure over reopening a notorious attempted murder case in which the Idaho Innocence Project had unearthed evidence that a young woman may have been wrongfully convicted, a victim of mistaken identity. That young woman, Sarah Pearce, is free now, but her conviction stood. Bujak found more and more to disagree with other county officials on – and ultimately was forced to resign.
He was charged with misuse of public funds after setting up a contract whereby the prosecutor’s office handled prosecution for the city of Nampa, and Bujak himself profited from the deal. “It’s clear that the law allows a prosecutor to take on these contracts,” he said. “It was good for everybody until it became unpopular politically, and then they threw me under the bus.”
In addition to resigning as he fought the charges, Bujak also filed for bankruptcy and got divorced. In the midst of all that, he was charged with theft of a former client’s funds; he says that was just a “disgruntled client,” and was easily cleared up. He was charged with falsifying evidence in the misuse of public funds case; on that charge, too, he was cleared. Then his ex-wife accused him of hiding assets – a Rolex watch – in the bankruptcy case; again, Bujak was cleared.
Now he’s running for governor, and seeking to capitalize on Idaho conservatives’ unease with current GOP Gov. Butch Otter – who took just 51.4 percent of the vote in the primary, against a challenge from tea party-backed GOP state Sen. Russ Fulcher, along with several lesser-known hopefuls.
“He came really close in a race that shouldn’t have been close at all,” Bujak said of Fulcher, who garnered 43.6 percent. “It told me that the people of Idaho were maybe ready for somebody who would step in and expose the good ol’ boy network and be a real champion for the grass roots. And if you could get these people who normally feel so disenfranchised and hopeless because they think their vote doesn’t count to come out to the polls and actually vote, you could change history.”
No third-party candidate has ever been elected governor of Idaho. Republicans now hold every statewide elected office in the state. But Democratic challenger, A.J. Balukoff, the longtime Boise School Board chairman, is running hard at Otter over dissatisfaction with school funding and the state’s economy.
Two years ago, Balukoff was a backer of a referendum in which Idaho voters overwhelmingly rejected three school reform laws championed by Otter and state schools Superintendent Tom Luna, sending tremors through the state’s GOP establishment.
In this year’s primary, nearly 68,000 people voted for Fulcher, in a low-turnout primary with only 26 percent of registered voters casting ballots. In 2010, Otter’s margin of victory over Democrat Keith Allred – in a year when he trounced him with nearly 60 percent of the vote and voter turnout was 58 percent – was 118,803. In 2006, Otter defeated Democratic rival Jerry Brady by just 38,592 votes.
“If Bujak can make himself seem respectable, that you shouldn’t be embarrassed to vote for him, that’s a big deal,” said Jasper LiCalzi, professor of political economy at the College of Idaho, which is in Canyon County, where Bujak’s saga played out. “I don’t know if he really wants to be governor, but if he could make a black eye for the Republican establishment, I think he’d be ecstatic. He’s a wild card in this.”
Bujak says he’s serious about running for governor, and started considering it soon after becoming county prosecutor. “My exposure to the political process and politics in general, beginning in Canyon County, is that the system can’t operate the way it’s supposed to, meaning in response to what the people want, because there are these special interests that get in between,” he said. “You can define them as lobbyists or insiders, but bottom line is it’s people with enough money to be influential.”
He also watched as the Idaho GOP, long dominant in the state’s elections, split into bickering factions, resulting in this year’s failed state party convention, at which no one could agree even to vote on party leaders, resolutions or a party platform. And he watched as Idaho’s new closed GOP primary system, which requires party registration, revealed that more than half of Idaho voters weren’t willing to affiliate with either party.
“When you talk about the grass-roots disenfranchised folks, we’re talking about a huge segment of Idaho’s population that are not registered either as a Republican or a Democrat,” Bujak said. “They’re going to come out in the general election and be able to vote for whomever they think is the best candidate for the job.”
He’s staked out positions that appeal to tea party supporters and Russ Fulcher backers in the campaign so far, including opposition to Common Core standards and Medicaid expansion. “The tea partiers helped a lot,” Bujak said. “Once people understood a little bit more about what happened to me, they started viewing me less like a slick attorney that maybe got away with something, and more like a champion for the people.” He said the tea party network has been “our greatest source of introduction to leaders within the community,” but he’s also drawn on other groups that are “interested in a conservative choice and don’t see that.”
But he’s also taken libertarian positions that haven’t played as well with the tea party crowd: He opposes the state’s fight to defend its ban on same-sex marriage, and was “appalled” at the governor and Legislature’s stonewalling of “Add the Words” supporters this year, when hundreds were arrested calling for hearings on adding protections for gays to Idaho’s anti-discrimination laws. “Whether you’re going to agree with them or disagree with them, you don’t arrest them because they’re going to express their views,” Bujak said. “That’s just, it’s unconscionable.”
So far, the soft-spoken 45-year-old with a football player’s build, son of a Coeur d’Alene physician, said, “I can tell you the part of me that believes in conservative, fiscally responsible government, people love that. People love that the government oughta stay out of their business. And people absolutely hate my stance on gay rights.”
Here’s his take on how the race will go:
“Butch is going to hide under his desk until the 11th hour and not engage any more than he has to, and trust that because he has the ‘R’ by his name the zombies are going to come out and elect him. Balukoff’s going to fight like crazy to try to look conservative enough even though he’s on the ‘D’ side, and to try to present some kind of viable alternative. And then there’s me who is running around talking to the grass roots folks who used to be Fulcher supporters, and hearing them say, ‘Y’know, we don’t want to vote for Butch, we won’t vote for a Democrat, but we need some kind of other alternative.’ … I think we’re going to surprise a lot of folks.”
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