Dan Popkey: Could the Basque reign in Idaho's secretary of state's office be over?

After 40 years, Ben Ysursa isn't saying whether he'll seek re-election.

September 24, 2013 

Ben Ysursa

Secretary of State Ben Ysursa has been overall the most popular candidate in the last three Idaho elections, winning 78 percent of the vote in 2002, 100 percent in 2006 and 74 percent in 2010.

But talk is circulating that Ysursa, 64, is ready to hang it up.

"I've heard rumors that he's not running, I've heard rumors that he is running," said Rep. Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, who last week filed the paperwork to raise money to seek the office next year.

Ordinarily, Ysursa is among the most accessible politicians I've ever covered. But Friday he ducked John Miller of The Associated Press, and on Monday he had little to say to me.

"I intend to make my future plans known within the next few weeks," Ysursa said in an email. "Until then I really have no comment."

Ysursa began working for Secretary of State Pete Cenarrusa in 1974 and was Ysursa's chief deputy from 1976-2002. Cenarrusa was appointed to fill a vacancy in 1967 and won eight four-year terms. To the delight of the folks in the old country, the job has remained in Basque hands for 46 years.

The office has long been a model of efficiency and fairness, administering elections, the Sunshine Law, filings by business entities, trademarks, a will registry and more. The job includes a seat on the Idaho Land Board, which only occasionally makes news.

On top of that, Ysursa is everybody's favorite uncle: loveable, funny and self-deprecating, while oozing integrity.

A key Denney ally, Region 4 GOP Chairman Rod Beck, a and former Senate Majority Leader, said he was "a little surprised" to learn the former House speaker was eyeing the race.

"It's going to be a tough slog for anybody to run against an incumbent secretary of state," Beck said. "I don't know how you can get anybody excited about a secretary of state's job. If you could prove some voter fraud, that would maybe get some people excited, but I don't think you can do that."

Another Denney confidant, David Ripley of Idaho Chooses Life, likened the appointment of a political treasurer as equivalent to a federal candidate forming an exploratory committee.

"Is Ben running?" said Ripley. "That's one question."

Ripley said he's ambivalent about his friend's interest.

"That office has more administrative functions than it does policy," Ripley said. "Lawerence is one of the finest public servants of our time, in my opinion. The notion of losing him in the Legislature is painful to contemplate."

But Denney, 65, told me he's completing the last of his nine terms in the part-time Legislature, no matter what he decides on statewide office. If he doesn't run for secretary of state, which pays $99,450, "I'm retiring," Denney said.

Denney's clashes with Ysursa over legislative redistricting in 2011 might be motivating Denney, Beck said. Ysursa opposed Denney's effort to fire Denney's own appointee to the redistricting commission, former GOP Rep. Dolores Crow of Nampa.

"I'm saying there may be some personal animus," Beck said. Beck, however, said that conflict isn't a winning issue. "Lawerence might have a difficult time trying to make the case that Ben wouldn't let him dismiss somebody Lawerence appointed."

Crow, whose continued service was upheld by the Idaho Supreme Court, said Denney's interest in the job was unexpected. "I'm shocked that he's going to try that because I think Ben's been stellar," she said.

Denney said there are no hard feelings over redistricting and calls Ysursa a friend.

Denney was unwilling to discuss issues, other than to say he opposes the Land Board's investing in commercial real estate. "That's something we will have to develop. I want the opportunity to make my public announcement when the time is right. All we've done so far is just file a campaign treasurer."

Ysursa has $37,000 banked, but he raised just $1,000 in the first six months of 2013.

Denney said no fundraising events have been scheduled or solicitations circulated. "That will come soon," he said. "We're at the point where if you're going to raise the money necessary to run, you at least have to have a treasurer."

My guess is neither Ysursa nor Denney have made up their minds.

If Ysursa decides to retire and focus on his golf game and color commentary for Bishop Kelly football's radio broadcasts, Denney will have a head start. But an open seat would likely draw other hopefuls, perhaps even a Democrat or two.

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

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