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Idaho Gov. Little faces four challengers on November ballot

Gov. Brad Little at a press conference in March 2020 on COVID-19.  (Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman)
Gov. Brad Little at a press conference in March 2020 on COVID-19. (Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman)
By Betsy Russell Idaho Press

BOISE – Republican Gov. Brad Little is promising more of the same as he seeks re-election – tax cuts, education funding boosts, deregulation and plenty of bashing of the Democratic president.

Democratic nominee Stephen Heidt wants to “bring civility and compassion back to the governor’s office,” decriminalize cannabis, oppose extremism, back abortion rights and grant property and grocery tax relief.

Independent Ammon Bundy wants to remake government and the justice system in line with his own theories about the U.S. Constitution, and has little patience for laws, facts or numbers that conflict with his views.

Two other hopefuls, Libertarian Paul Sand and Constitution Party nominee Chantyrose Davison, are on the ballot as well. Little hasn’t engaged with any of them, refusing all debates in both the primary and general election contests, and sticking to his line that his record speaks for itself.

Last month, Little sent out an official press release from the governor’s office headed, “One year later: Biden’s denial of border crisis continues.” It focused on concerns about drugs crossing the nation’s southern border with Mexico. Idaho is more than 1,000 miles from the Mexican border.

“You could forgive a confused voter who might think Brad Little was running against Joe Biden, he mentions him so much,” said Stephanie Witt, Boise State University political scientist. “I think the strategy there is … he’s found a safe and earnest way to get his bona fides” as a Republican and a conservative. “I see the Biden-bashing as easy – it’s an easy target, it reminds everybody that he’s firmly in the Republican camp,” opposing a liberal, Democratic president.

Another longstanding trend that favors Little as he seeks a second term as governor: No Idaho governor who has sought re-election has lost since 1970.

Here’s a look at each of the candidates on the November ballot:

Little, 68, an Emmett, Idaho, native, is a third-generation rancher who holds a bachelor’s degree in agribusiness from the University of Idaho. He served four terms in the state Senate, rising to majority caucus chairman, and was appointed lieutenant governor in 2009, then twice re-elected before winning the governorship in 2018.

His four years in office have seen ups and downs, with strong successes on his top three priorities – education funding, tax cuts and reducing state regulations – but strong pushback from his own party’s lawmakers over his responses to the COVID pandemic. Though Little never imposed a statewide mask mandate or vaccine requirements and backed off from state-level restrictions early in the pandemic to a local-control model, he was vilified by opponents on the right and spent an entire legislative session fighting attacks from lawmakers intent on curbing the governor’s emergency powers.

His relationship with lawmakers improved this year, and he was able to push through much of his “Leading Idaho” agenda, including big investments in education, transportation, broadband, water and sewer infrastructure and more.

Then came perhaps his biggest win as governor. Faced with a popular initiative set for November’s ballot to increase education funding by raising taxes on Idaho corporations and high-income earners, Little called a special session of the Legislature in September and successfully completed an end run around the initiative. He proposed cutting taxes on corporations and top earners and sending out income tax rebate checks immediately to most Idahoans, while also increasing education funding by even more than the initiative proposed, at least initially. It passed both houses, and Reclaim Idaho, which had successfully qualified the initiative for the ballot, withdrew the measure.

“It was masterful – the timing was just right to take the wind out of the sails of the initiative,” Witt said. “I think it was clear from the signature-gathering and the momentum that people wanted that additional spending.”

Little said this week, “Idaho has the strongest economy in the nation, and we achieved the title of least regulated state in the country during my first term as governor. Our conservative approach to government means we are well positioned to handle any challenges before us, and it has led to historic tax relief and investments in schools and other key areas to ensure the continued success of our people and businesses.”

Little won his first term as governor with nearly 60% of the vote over Democrat Paulette Jordan’s 38%. In the GOP primary this year, he easily fended off a challenge from his lieutenant governor, Janice McGeachin, with 53% of the vote; she ran second in an eight-way primary with 33%.

Little touts the state’s record budget surplus, record rainy-day savings funds, and record tax cuts. And looking ahead to a second term, he said, “I will continue to work closely and effectively with the Idaho Legislature to champion record tax relief and investments in schools, roads, water, and other important areas to ensure prosperity and opportunity for the people of Idaho.”

“I stand by my record,” he said in a May interview. “In essence, actions speak louder than words.”

Heidt, 61, is a longtime English as a Second Language teacher in Idaho’s state prisons who is making his first run for office.

“I know that compassion and education changes lives – I saw it first-hand,” he said. “I also saw injustice, and a criminal justice system that does not adequately protect the rights of the accused. These deliberately indifferent attitudes reach far further than prisons. I quit my job to run for governor, so I can change that, and improve the lives of everyone in the state.”

But Heidt wasn’t originally expected to be the Democratic nominee this year. Shelby Rognstad, the mayor of Sandpoint, had been actively campaigning around the state for months. However, when he formally filed to run just before the deadline in March, the Idaho Secretary of State’s office rejected his filing, finding he was registered as a Republican rather than a Democrat.

Rognstad said he thought he’d changed his registration months earlier, but the glitch left Heidt as the only name on the Democratic primary ballot for governor. Heidt declined to withdraw, and Rognstad waged a write-in campaign and garnered 6,712 write-in votes – enough to qualify for the November ballot if he’d been the only candidate. But 25,088 Democratic primary voters filled in the box by Heidt’s name, and Heidt won and became the nominee.

Heidt, who had made three runs for Congress as a Republican three decades ago in Utah and Washington, holds a political science degree from Brigham Young University, and a second bachelor’s degree in history and a teaching certification from Eastern Washington University. He is certified as a correctional officer, and served four years in the Army National Guard and four years in the Army Reserves.

Having served a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints mission in Brazil in his youth, Heidt is fluent in Portugese and has also learned Spanish as an English as a Second Language teacher.

“I have spent my life in service – service to my faith, service to my family, service to my community, service to my country,” he said. “I am a working man and educator, who will shift our focus in a state with one of the highest incarceration rates on the planet, from questionable incarceration to beneficial education.”

He lists his top three issues as education, criminal justice, and “right to choose/right to privacy,” saying decisions on abortion “can only be properly made by a woman and her doctor.”

He also favors decriminalizing cannabis; re-indexing the homeowner’s exemption from property tax to provide property tax relief to homeowners; and wants to “keep public lands in public hands,” saying he’ll “fight back against any and all efforts to privatize or sell off public lands, and oppose those who want to do so.”

His campaign has been relatively low-key, however, and he’s reported little fundraising. He initially agreed to debate his opponents live on Idaho Public Television, but decided against it after Little declined and he faced the prospect of a one-to-one debate against independent Ammon Bundy.

“Extremism has been allowed to flourish under Gov. Little’s administration,” Heidt said in a statement. “I do not wish to give extremism a louder voice. This decision was made in the best interest of Idahoans.”

Bundy, 47, is an anti-government activist and militia leader who was banned from the state Capitol for a year after being arrested there for trespassing twice in two days in August of 2020.

Building on opposition to coronavirus restrictions, he formed a group called the “People’s Rights Network,” which he says has 60,000 members across the country, to defend against “government criminals” on issues ranging from vaccine mandates to child-protection investigations. His group has held protests at the homes of public officials and a Meridian, Idaho, police officer, and he was arrested for trespassing and sued for defamation after he organized protests over a child-protection case that shut down St. Luke’s Hospital.

Bundy cites his own theories about law and the Constitution to justify his actions. He announced a run for governor as a Republican in the primary, then withdrew and opted to run in the general election instead as an independent.

“I wanted to be unaffiliated from any party because I believe there are people in all the parties that will align with me,” he told the Idaho Press.

It’s his first run for office since he served as student body president in high school.

“I am running for governor because I see a need and an opportunity to bring back the more conservative values to Idaho that are greatly needed,” he said.

Bundy, who describes himself as an “entrepreneur,” lives in Emmett, where he moved with his family in 2015. He previously ran a commercial truck fleet maintenance business in Arizona which he’s since sold, along with other businesses; he said he’s now in the commercial leasing business. He attended Southern Utah University, but didn’t complete a degree. He served an LDS mission in Minnesota before going to college.

After arriving in Idaho, Bundy led a 41-day armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon in January of 2016. That was two years after he stood with militias in a standoff against federal law enforcement at his father Cliven Bundy’s ranch in Bunkerville, Nevada over long-unpaid grazing fees.

Though he was charged with felonies and spent nearly two years behind bars awaiting the resolution of both cases, the AP reported, Bundy was acquitted in both standoffs, which he takes as proof that he was in the right all along.

“The whole reason we went into the refuge was to challenge the ownership of it, because we knew the history of that and what they had done,” he said.

“How did the Blacks, the Black people in the ’60s, change the law?” he said. “Hundreds of ’em were arrested, prosecuted. … They stopped complying.”

“That certainly is a path and a mechanism that I have used, others have used, I will continue to use,” Bundy said.

He blames his unanimous convictions by juries on trespassing and obstruction charges at the Idaho state Capitol on a “biased Ada County jury, just like the biased juries in the Rosa Parks trials and Martin Luther King trials, just like those.”

The comparison rubs some legal experts the wrong way. “It’s offensive to claim that whatever nonsense he believes he’s suffering is the same as fighting to be treated with equal dignity as a human being,” said Jerry Long, law professor at the University of Idaho College of Law.

Long said Bundy seems to think he gets to decide what the rules are, “and that they apply differently to him than they do to everybody else.”

Bundy said he stands by his actions at the hospital and elsewhere. “I believe I was absolutely right in doing what I did,” he said.

Long said Bundy “demonstrates an absolute disregard for the rule of law and an unwillingness to recognize that anyone or anything has authority over him – which frankly, I don’t think he would view as a negative.”

Bundy lists his top three issues in his campaign for governor as abortion, which he opposes; “federal land control, which also includes affordable housing;” and property tax, which he wants to eliminate.

On federal lands, he says his plan is, “Take back the land. Take back the land. I believe that the state has the authority to do that.”

Long says the state doesn’t have that authority. A 2016 report by the Western Conference of Attorneys General examined the major arguments for state takeover of federal public lands and concluded that none were supported by the Constitution or Supreme Court precedent. Long noted that the Property Clause, in Article IV, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution, “grants Congress authority without limitation over the public lands.”

Bundy said he’d like to see the 61% of Idaho’s land mass that is federal public land administered for multiple use by counties, including providing more housing. “The state’s never taken the battle on,” he said. “You can’t win a battle if you’re not willing to fight it.”

However, the state and the Idaho Legislature have had numerous task forces and study committees look into the issue and have hired outside attorneys to review it, including a current exploration by the Legislature’s Federalism Committee. Said Witt, “They never really stop talking about it.”

Rather than focusing on a legal takeover, most Idaho efforts to look into federal land control have ended up focusing on collaboration, stewardship and ways that the state can have more influence over the management of federal lands, something that’s increased with Congress’ expansion of the “Good Neighbor Authority” program in 2018, which has allowed Idaho to conduct timber harvests on federal forest lands.

On property tax, Bundy said he wants to eliminate it and replace it with a sales tax on the sale of homes. “That’s to pay for the legitimate purposes of local government,” he said. “It would need to be around 4 or 5%.”

He noted that a 5% tax on the sale of a $400,000 home would yield $20,000. “Is that enough? It’s not, till you calculate in that the average home sells three to five times in a 30-year period,” he said.

Total Idaho property taxes levied in Idaho in 2021, according to the Idaho State Tax Commission, were $2.1 billion. To raise that much through a 5% real estate transaction tax, sales in Idaho each year would have to total more than $42 billion. But all home sales in the state in 2021, a hot year for real estate sales in Idaho, came to roughly $15 billion, according to the Gardner Report from Windermere Real Estate, barely over a third of that amount.

“It would have to be 15%, not 5%,” said Mike Ferguson, the retired state chief economist who served under five governors. “That’s just simple arithmetic. And we’re not taking into consideration any kind of dynamic impact, meaning changes in behavior as a consequence of a change in the tax structure. That’s always an important issue.”

Idaho has considered much smaller real estate transaction taxes over the years, at a fraction of a percent, but has never enacted any. The state currently doesn’t require real estate sale prices to be disclosed. “The Realtors would come unglued,” Ferguson said.

He noted that fees for brokers and agents typically already run from 3% to 6% on a home sale. “You’d be talking about basically quadrupling that,” Ferguson said. “That would put, I think, a real damper on real estate transaction activity.”

Bundy can quickly reel off the eight points in his “Keep Idaho Idaho” plan. Perhaps ironically, No. 5, he says, is “bring back the rule of law.”

Asked how he can support that when he frequently violates the law, including by refusing to appear in court, Bundy says his vision for the rule of law is different: He wants to transform Idaho’s justice system to one that’s based solely on restitution plus punitive damages for non-violent offenses, rather than incarceration or fines. He says that would benefit victims rather than the government.

Bundy also said he’ll continue to ignore the legal processes in the St. Luke’s civil case against him, and let a default judgment be filed against him, in order to avoid distraction from his campaign for governor. “The challenge is collecting,” he said. Asked if he’d pay a court-ordered default judgment, Bundy said, “Hell, no. Not without them fighting for it.”

“I’m going to fight them in every way I can, and that would include them trying to collect on me, absolutely,” he said.

Long said Bundy’s comments aren’t consistent with supporting the rule of law. “We establish governments for the very purpose of maintaining the rule of law,” Long said. “And so that’s just absurd.”

Bundy said, “I think that political circumstances here in Idaho make it so that this is a good opportunity for someone like me to get into office. … People are looking for answers more than they were just a few years ago.”

Sand, 74, is a retired computer software engineer from White Bird who won a two-way Libertarian Party primary for governor with 427 votes over rival John Dionne Jr.’s 282 votes. Sand says he’s an architecture school dropout and “all my marketable skills are self-taught.”

He served 10 years on the White Bird City Council. He lists his top three issues as reversing the “continuing erosion of personal freedom and women’s rights in Idaho;” elevating the “interests of workers and families higher than the interests of business and government;” and protecting gun rights “by ending the causes of gun violence by providing social and economic opportunity for everyone and by ending the failed war on drugs.”

“Idaho politics has become a national joke,” Sand said. “My goal is to turn that around and in the memory of Frank Church and Cecil Andrus, make Idaho a model for the future of our entire country.”

Davison, 41, didn’t respond to a reporter’s inquiry about her run. An in-home health care worker from Marsing, Idaho, her campaign website says she opposes legalizing drugs; believes Gov. Little “abused the State of Emergency so that the State of Idaho could get more money from the federal government;” and supports deporting all undocumented immigrants.

“I would not say that I would be the BEST candidate for the office of Governor,” she says on her website, “but I do know that I would work the hardest to become the best. I do not have experience like others do and I do not have the education that others do but I do have a love for my state, and I am a hard worker.”

Witt said given the field, the incumbent governor is highly likely to win re-election. “In any other situation, if the Democrats were a little stronger, I would think that the Bundy vote could make it much closer,” she said. “But I think it’s Little by a lot.”

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