BOISE – Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has launched a new TV ad striking back at Democratic challenger A.J. Balukoff and defending Otter’s handling of a private-prison scandal.
It’s the first time that Otter’s campaign has directly mentioned Balukoff in one of its ads, though two outside groups have been running ads attacking Balukoff and trying to tie him to President Barack Obama.
“This may be as good of evidence as we have that this may be a closer race than at least one or two polls have indicated recently,” said Jim Weatherby, Boise State University professor emeritus and a longtime observer of Idaho politics. He noted that Otter’s name recognition in the state, as a two-term governor, is close to 100 percent, while Balukoff came into the race virtually unknown outside the Boise area. That would normally prompt a well-known incumbent to avoid giving a little-known challenger any free publicity.
Balukoff, a Boise businessman, is the longtime chairman of the Boise school board. Otter served three terms in Congress and 14 years as lieutenant governor before becoming governor.
Otter’s ad is a direct response to a commercial Balukoff launched last weekend criticizing Otter’s handling of the state’s troubled contract with private prison company Corrections Corporation of America. The company, which until July 1 was being paid $29 million a year to operate the state’s largest prison, was at the center of multiple lawsuits, reports of violence so intense that the prison was dubbed “Gladiator School,” and evidence that CCA had fraudulently overbilled the state for thousands of hours of guard duty that were never worked.
In early February, the state dropped all claims against CCA in the staffing dispute in exchange for a $1 million payment.
Otter, an advocate of privatization, announced Jan. 3 that the state would end the contract and take over operation of the prison July 1. On Feb. 4, the settlement was announced. At the time, the state had been saying for a year that the Idaho State Police was conducting a criminal investigation into the understaffing issue, but it turned out no investigation had ever been launched. Otter said then that the ISP had determined none was needed; two weeks later, after meeting with Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, Otter reversed his stance and called for a criminal investigation by the ISP. In March, the FBI stepped in.
“This ad is a quick attempt to respond rapidly to the Balukoff ad, trying to change the subject and switching it back to ‘Liberal A.J.,’ ” said Weatherby, referring to the theme of the outside groups’ anti-Balukoff ads. “I think the question a lot of viewers might have is: What was dishonest in the Balukoff ad? What are they specifically objecting to? And it’s not clear in this ad.”
Balukoff’s ad called the settlement with CCA a “sweetheart deal.” Otter has said in two recent debates against Balukoff that he recused himself from all talks over the settlement because he had a conflict of interest – because CCA has donated $20,000 to Otter’s campaigns since 2003.
Recent news reports have revealed that Otter’s top staffers played key roles in negotiating the settlement, and that Otter himself met with top CCA officials in May 2013 about the staffing questions. The Idaho Statesman reported that meeting was arranged by Otter’s former chief of staff, Jason Kreizenbeck, who is now a lobbyist for CCA.
Otter’s campaign said the new ad is running statewide, including the Spokane broadcast TV market and cable TV in North Idaho, and is designed to “accurately describe the governor’s proactive response to concerns over CCA’s management of the Idaho State Correctional Center.”
“While the governor was not personally involved in the settlement agreement between the state of Idaho and CCA concerning understaffing, he is adamant that CCA will be held accountable for any criminal wrongdoing associated with the company’s management of ISCC,” the campaign said in a statement.
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