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Eye On Boise

Of court candidates, endorsements, stepping on toes and fliers…

The Idaho Farm Bureau Federation’s endorsement of Curt McKenzie for an Idaho Supreme Court opening has raised some eyebrows, as the Farm Bureau is a nonprofit, which typically means an organization can’t support or oppose any candidate for public office. But Farm Bureau spokesman John Thompson explained that the organization is a 501c5 non-profit, not a 501c3; it’s in a category for labor or agricultural organizations. That means it can engage in some political activity, as long as that’s not its primary activity. It also means if it donated money to a candidate for office, it’d have to pay a stiff 34 percent tax on the donation amount. “We decided not to, because the tax is so high,” said Thompson, public relations director for the Farm Bureau.

Thompson said the Farm Bureau typically doesn’t endorse candidates. But its board voted to endorse McKenzie, because “we have some concerns about who we think is the front-runner, Clive Strong.” Thompson said the bureau has differed with Strong on various agriculture-related legal issues over the years. A top one: When two ranchers from Owyhee County pressed a lawsuit against the BLM over stock water rights and won, they ended up with $1.5 million in legal fees they couldn’t pay. “We tried to help them, I think we raised about $70,000,” Thompson said. “We tried to appeal to the state of Idaho to use the Constitutional Defense Fund money to help with that, and they said no. Clive Strong argued against us on that one, and we lost.”

Idaho’s Constitutional Defense Fund has only been used for state litigation, not to pay attorney fees for private parties’ litigation. Expenditures from the fund are approved by a four-member council that includes the governor, the Attorney General, the House speaker and the president pro-tem of the Senate.

Strong said, “I don’t have anything to do with the Constitutional Defense Fund – I’m not on it, I don’t advise it, I don’t have anything to do with it. I guess I can get blamed for a lot of things.” Strong said the case Thompson referenced was litigated through the Snake River Basin Adjudication, but the state wasn’t a party to it.

Thompson said the Farm Bureau also parted ways with Strong over the 2004 Nez Perce Tribe water rights settlement, which was lauded by the state, the tribe, and the U.S. Department of the Interior for settling the tribe’s instream flow claims to water in the Snake River. The settlement followed a court-ordered mediation and several years of negotiations.

There are four candidates facing off for the Idaho Supreme Court vacancy that will open when current Chief Justice Jim Jones steps down at the end of his current term. In addition to Strong and McKenzie, Rupert attorney Robyn Brody and Idaho Court of Appeals Judge Sergio Gutierrez are running for the position.

Thompson said, “We think McKenzie’s the best guy for the job.” Asked how the bureau concluded that Strong is the front-runner, he said, “I guess you’d call it insider discussions, checking the tea leaves. We don’t really know that for a fact.”

McKenzie said, “I am happy for support, regardless of what path it takes to get to me.”

Strong said, “As a deputy attorney general, my job is to advocate for the best interest of the state of Idaho, and when involved in some of these controversial matters, you can’t help but step on a few toes.”

Both Strong and McKenzie said they have no idea who the front-runner is in the four-way race. “No one’s done any polling or anything else,” Strong said.

Meanwhile, Brody sent out a campaign flier Tuesday that noted her scores in a recent Idaho State Bar survey about candidates’ qualifications and was critical of both McKenzie and Strong, whom she labeled a “Career Politician” and a “Government Lawyer,” but didn’t mention the fourth candidate, Gutierrez, who has served on the state’s second-highest court since 2002 and has been a judge since 1993. In the state bar survey, Gutierrez and Brody actually tied for the highest scores, at identical averages of 3.58 out of 4.

“For me, the real issue was distinguishing myself among the two other lawyers that are running, rather than a sitting judge,” Brody said. The election is May 17.

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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