Most Idahoans prefer their public servants to have a few of these attributes: integrity, honesty, fairness, loyalty, dependability. If their public servants have a long-suffering nature, are understanding, forgiving and display a sense of humor, that's a bonus. In the event they also happened to serve their country, honor their heritage, and were good shepherds for half a century, well, that puts them in the rarest of company.
Pete Cenarrusa was all of the above in his personal and political lives, and this legacy resonates even more loudly following his death Sunday, at 95, in his Boise home. His wife of 66 years, Freda, was at his side.
Cenarrusa served nine terms in the Idaho House of Representatives and then 36 years as Idaho secretary of making him the longest-serving state official in Idaho history.
His personality was reflected in how his office operated. Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, who worked with the office for 28 years, remembers what Cenarrusa told employees: "Never forget who you work for. The people."
He operated the office as it was meant to be with professionalism, grace and dignity. Though he was a strong Republican, partisanship did not exist in his office. He knew election laws like the back of his hand, and, without fail, he provided what officeholders, candidates and the public needed to know.
Cenarrusa had his passions, which at times surfaced in state Land Board debates.
"Pete had his biases, but they were never hidden," Lt. Gov. Brad Little told the Statesman's Dan Popkey. "It was the agriculture and sheep industry. It was refreshing that when it came to a Land Board issue about the livestock industry, he didn't try to hide anything. He was an advocate."
During his years as speaker (1963-67), he was known to be forceful but fair. He served in that position during the heated debate and eventual enactment of a state sales tax in 1965.
Cenarrusa was a leading advocate for a state sales tax, and he faced some opposition along the way. But there was no opposition to him as a person. He went through all those years in public office with almost no negative comments about him - a rare accomplishment.
Gov. Butch Otter fairly sums up the life and times of this beloved man.
"No one could have been a better or more passionate advocate for the Basque people, for fair and transparent elections, or for responsible stewardship of our public lands than Pete Cenarrusa," said Otter in a statement Monday. "He was an Idaho original, and I was among many in state government - on both sides of the aisle - who benefited greatly from his advice, counsel and friendship. "
This same man was counted as a close friend and mentor to Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, who did not share Cenarrusa's political affiliation, but held him up as an example in the Basque community.
On the subject of loyalty to his roots and family, Bieter said the lifetime sheep rancher set a standard "to his constituents, his Basque heritage, his family, and everyone whose life he touched, including mine."
At a time when our leaders think nothing of flirting with political gridlock and government shutdowns, we need more examples of the style of statesmanship that marked Pete Cenarrusa's career.
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