Dan Popkey: Playing it cagey, Idaho Lt. Gov. Brad Little draws a crowd

September 19, 2013 

GOP Gov. Butch Otter had a good laugh at the expense of reporters who crested Freezeout Hill before sunrise Wednesday to hear Lt. Gov. Brad Little offer the low-grade news that he’ll seek re-election.

Four TV crews and three newspaper reporters were part of a crowd of about 150 that included two curious former Democratic Party officials. Despite Otter’s repeated statements that he’s running for a third term next year, the gaggle grew because there was fresh speculation that he would retire to make way for Little.

The 7:30 a.m. breakfast at Emmett’s City Park rekindled the rumor for four reasons: Otter was labeled as “special guest;” Little’s media advisory was silent about what office he would seek; his new campaign logo simply says “Little for Idaho,” omitting any mention of office; and he was kicking off a 19-city, two-week statewide tour, an unprecedented effort for a part-time $31,100 job.

When Otter arrived, he congratulated Jason Lehosit, a Little consultant who has worked for Otter.

“You guys have done a helluva job getting all this media out here this early in the morning,” Otter said.

“You know why they’re here?” replied Lehosit. “They expected you to hand over the baton.”

Retelling the tale afterward, Otter said, “You can’t kill a rumor like that, no matter what you do.”

Otter laughed at KBOI-TV’s Scott Logan, who grumbled during Little’s announcement that the event was “much ado about nothing” and later asked Otter if it was “political theater.”

Otter and Little wore nearly identical outfits — cowboy boots, blue blazers and khaki slacks. Only their shirts were of a different hue. But consummation of their alleged conspiracy will have to wait. Otter correctly pointed out that neither he nor Little have even hinted about changing the guard.

“If he let some air out of your tires, I don’t know how to respond to that,” Otter told Logan. “You guys have found more black helicopters per capita in our media than in any state in the union!”

Little good-naturedly resisted tipping his hand before taking the stage. “It’s a surprise. I don’t want you guys leaving early,” he said.

On Tuesday, I wrote that Little would be “taunted for overkill” for engaging in such an ambitious launch if he only runs for re-election. Still, I congratulate him on advancing his five-year effort to raise his profile. Little, 59, is well-positioned to replace Otter, 71, whether that’s by succeeding to office or by winning in his own right in 2018.

Otter says he intends to complete his term should he win in 2014.

“I’m healthy as a horse,” Otter said. “I have no reason to believe that I will not complete the four years.”

Well, one reason: Otter is “pretty close” to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, he said, who could “very easily” be the GOP presidential nominee in 2016, halfway through Otter’s gubernatorial term. Otter reminded reporters he was on short lists for appointment by a prospective President Romney for U.S. trade representative and secretary of the Interior.

Christie is heavily favored for re-election as governor in November.

“I would expect after the election that there would be an opportunity to sit down with Chris” to talk about 2016 presidential race, Otter said.

The only thing Little has contributed to the rumor is that he’s consistently said he’s prepared to step up when Otter moves on.

He did a solid job Wednesday, speaking with genuine emotion about his gratitude to the hometown crowd. “It’s very humbling for me to see my classmates, my friends, my family this morning,” he said. “And it’s also good to be kicking off this campaign here where Teresa and I raised our family.”

The crowd ate up a spontaneous moment when Little asked the oldest of his three grandchildren — 3-year-old Henry — to wave and the kid winningly obliged. “He minds like that all the time,” quipped Little.

Little also met his goal of keeping his speech under 10 minutes. He’d been up late practicing and it paid off. Coming in at nine minutes, Little avoided the meandering that often gums up his formal talks.

He spoke eloquently about investing in education to build a modern economy.

“I vividly remember Dad admonishing me, likely when I was not meeting his and Mother’s scholastic expectations: ‘Son, one thing they can never take away from you is a good education.’

“Education — beginning with parents mentoring and reading to their children, followed by a strong, valued public education system — is essential for our future. A quality education is a constitutional obligation our state must fulfill.”

The announcement drew other top Republicans, including Controller Brandon Woolf, Sens. Steve Thayn of Emmett and Fred Martin of Boise, Rep. Terry Gestrin of Donnelly and at least four former lawmakers.

No opponent in either party has announced against Little, prompting a wisecrack from Martin about Little’s preparations: “Brad has to campaign that much harder because he has such a strong opponent.”

Seriously, Martin said, Little’s aggressive start makes a challenge, most likely from the GOP’s tea party wing, problematic. “He’s showing support early,” Martin said.

Little also acknowledged engaging in a dry run for the top job in 2018.

“When we get through this we’ll have a lot better idea whether or not we want to go to the big dance,” he said.

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

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