On Cenarrusa’s passing: ‘Whatever Pete said, you could depend on it.’

Revered for his integrity, Pete Cenarrusa was loyal, public-minded and quick with a joke

September 29, 2013 

Related: Celebration of Cenarrusa's life begins Wednesday. Click here for more details.

It’s no accident that former Idaho Secretary of State Pete Cenarrusa was the longest-serving state official in Idaho history.

“Never forget who you work for,” Cenarrusa told his employees. “The people.”

Ben Ysursa first heard that admonition almost 40 years ago when hired fresh out of law school as the country was healing from one of the worst shocks in American history — President Nixon’s 1974 resignation.

Cenarrusa mourned Nixon’s tragic end and the damage he did to the Republican brand. But when Idaho voters went over legislators’ heads and enacted the 1974 Sunshine Initiative to require disclosure of campaign finances, Cenarussa enforced the new law with an even-handedness that made him a beloved figure.

“His advice to me was, ‘You have to go by the law and play it fair,’” recalled Ysursa on Sunday, a few hours after Cenarrusa died at 95. Ysursa worked for Cenarrusa for 28 years before succeeding him in 2003.

Bruce Newcomb, who set the record for service as a four-term speaker of the Idaho House, considered Cenarrusa, who ran the House for three terms in the 1960s, a model.

“He was just respected by all walks of life, I don’t care what their politics are,” said Newcomb, a Republican from Burley.

Cenarrusa’s name also is legend in the Basque country, thanks to his advocacy of political and cultural autonomy for his ancestral homeland.

Boise Mayor Dave Bieter is a fellow Basque who helped Cenarrusa spark an international incident in 2002 when the Spanish government loudly objected to a nonbinding resolution in the Legislature on Basque independence. Wine was spilled at a tense lunch with Spanish Ambassador Javier Ruperez, with Cenarrusa reminding the diplomat of General Franco’s cruelty. Even U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice got involved.

In addition to his record longevity, Bieter said, Cenarussa set a standard for loyalty “to his constituents, his Basque heritage, his family, and everyone whose life he touched, including mine.”

Cenarrusa backed Bieter for mayor, despite Bieter’s being Democrat.

But that was an exception. Cenarrusa refused to run as an independent for governor in 1966 as a centrist alternative to ultraconservative GOP nominee Don Samuelson, who had defeated three-term Gov. Bob Smylie in the primary. “I just can’t do it,” Cenarrusa told Smylie’s chief of staff.


A sheep rancher who grazed on public lands in Central Idaho, Cenarrusa fought tenaciously for natural resource industries as a member of the Idaho Land Board.

“He was a strong adversary,” said former Democratic Gov. Cecil Andrus, who served six years with Cenarrusa in the Legislature and 14 years on the Land Board. “But he was an honest man who contributed a great deal to the political well-being of Idaho.”

Rancher and businessman Bud Purdy of Picabo is a contemporary who remembers Cenarrusa as a member of a national championship boxing team at the University of Idaho. Also 95, Purdy was the manager for the Washington State team just eight miles over the line from Moscow. “Pete was really good,” he said.

Purdy and Cenarrusa grazed livestock on adjacent allotments, including Laidlaw Park near Craters of the Moon National Monument and Fish Creek in the Little Wood River drainage.

“Whatever Pete said, you could depend on it,” Purdy said.

You also could count on Cenarrusa holding others accountable. When a group of lawmakers reneged on a 1950s promise to support irrigation work on the Little Wood River near his ranch in Carey, Cenarrusa penciled down the names.

He kept his “Little Wood River List” in the top drawer of his desk, only removing it when he retired a half-century later. As the lawmakers who broke their pledge lost elections or otherwise left the Legislature, Cenarrusa scratched through the names.

It was one of dozens of stories Cenarrusa happily recounted with an impish pugnacity.

“His memory was just scary,” said Lt. Gov. Brad Little, a member of another Idaho livestock family, whose grandfather and father knew Cenarrusa.

Long after Nixon was dead, Cenarrusa railed about his 1972 order banning “Compound 1080,” a poison used by ranchers to kill coyotes. “He was still mad at Richard Nixon,” Little said.


I have a delightful autographed image of Cenarrusa with a band of sheep near Craters of the Moon during the 2000 debate over President Clinton’s expansion of the monument, a development not altogether welcomed by ranchers. At his feet is a great Pyrenees sheepdog, cleaning its privates.

Cenarrusa is smiling. On my copy of the photograph, he wrote: “With living proof that the sheep business must take its licks.”

“He had a wonderful sense of humor,” said former Gov. Phil Batt, a Republican. At one Land Board meeting, Cenarrusa produced a bar of soap to prove a bear broke into one of his sheep wagons.

“It had a big bite mark in it,” Batt said. “He was very proud of his ranching heritage and his Basque heritage.”

He also was forgiving. As a freshman lawmaker, Batt supported Larry Mills of Boise over Cenarrusa in the 1965 speaker’s election. “He was very good to me, even though he knew I opposed him for speaker.”

About 10 days ago, Ysursa and his brother took their dad to lunch with Cenarrusa at Quinn’s, a favorite spot near Cenarrusa’s modest home on the Boise Bench. Quinn’s pays special attention to Marines like Cenarrusa, a pilot during World War II.

“We had a good time, but you could tell he was getting weak,” Ysursa said. “He was a battler.”

Little also saw Cenarrusa recently, walking with two canes. “He had that big smile of his,” Little said.

Cenarrusa, who fought prostate and lung cancer, was very briefly in hospice before dying at home with his wife of 66 years, Freda. “It was a blessing,” Little said. “Pete would not have been a good invalid.”

Andrus, 82, said Cenarrusa lived to the fullest.

“Any time you can get near the century mark and look back and say, ‘Job well done,’ you’ve had a good life,” Andrus said. “Pete could look back and say just that.”

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

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