Dan Popkey: Idaho Gov. Otter's unwelcome but immortal anecdote

A 21-year-old story about a barroom triumph is revived in the bible of American politics.

September 25, 2013 

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter's winning a tight jeans contest has become part of his legacy.

In the new edition of the "Almanac of American Politics," word of Otter's 1992 victory at Boise's Rockin' Rodeo lounge appears on page 523 of the 1,904-page book published by National Journal and the University of Chicago Press.

Otter was 50 at the time, besting competitors half his age. Contestants were judged on "looks, appearance in jeans, total body shape and sex appeal." A waitress said the then-lieutenant governor's win was no fluke: "He looked great."

The almanac has used the Otter bit in at least two prior editions, 2004 and 2006. The mention in the 2014 edition got extra attention Monday from Al Kamen of the Washington Post, who calls the almanac a "bible for the political class."

Time and circumstance have bloated the legend of Otter's July 29, 1992, jeans gig, which was reported by the Statesman's Tim Woodward. Otter won the men's division of a weekly contest that ran through August. Semifinals were set for September. The record is unclear on whether Otter showed up to compete.

It seems unlikely. On Aug. 1, three days after his sex appeal won the night at Rockin' Rodeo, Otter was arrested for DUI in Meridian. Many folks wrongly conflate the events, believing the DUI happened the same night. Not so. But taken together, they marked a low point in Otter's public and private life.

Seven months later, in March 1993, a jury convicted Otter of DUI. His testimony added sizzle to the legend: his knee was sore from running eight miles; he asked to take a sobriety test in stocking feet because he couldn't keep his balance in cowboy boots; he swerved his yellow Jeep while reaching for his cowboy hat; he blew his Breathalyzer test because he soaked his chewing tobacco in Jack Daniels.

The same day of his conviction, Otter tearfully apologized to the state Senate over which he presided, a moment I will never forget because of the sincerity of his contrition. Otter also said he had retired from the J.R. Simplot Co. Not long after, he and the mother of his four children — J.R.'s daughter, Gaye — divorced.

Woodward, who knew Otter from high school, wrote after the conviction that Otter had "lost any realistic hope of attaining his long-time goal of becoming governor."

Instead, Otter bounced back, winning a three-way Republican primary for lieutenant governor with 40 percent of the vote and the general election over Democrat John Peavey with 53 percent in 1994. He was re-elected in 1998. In 2000, he won the first of three terms in the U.S. House.

Finally, in 2006, he reached his aim and was elected governor, beating Democrat Jerry Brady with 53 percent of the vote.

Otter hasn't had a tough race since. He appears well positioned to win a third term next year at age 72. He's clearly overcome those dark times.

I don't know what Otter makes of the revival of the tight jeans story in the political almanac, which retails for $90 in paperback, $115 in cloth.

But I'd guess it's about as welcome as the occasional reminders I get about my insisting that the Statesman publish a Polaroid of me sitting on the laps of two barmaids at Humpin' Hannah's while I was going through my divorce in 2000. (I was writing a column on deadline about nightlife on a Friday the 13th that coincided with a full moon. My daughter, then 8, was horrified.)

I asked Otter's spokesman, Jon Hanian, whether Otter might comment about the revival of the jeans story. Hanian said he'd get back to me if the boss chose to weigh in.

He didn't.

Since Woodward's first story in 1992, the Statesman has mentioned the news 46 times. With mixed feelings, here's No. 47.

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

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