Idaho governor remembers Cenarrusa

For 40 years, Butch Otter relied on the counsel of Pete Cenarrusa, the late secretary of state.

dpopkey@idahostatesman.comOctober 4, 2013 

When Butch Otter was elected to the Legislature in 1972, Pete Cenarrusa had been in the Statehouse 22 years as a legislator, speaker of the House and secretary of state.

Otter admired Cenarrusa's reputation as a conservative and a parliamentarian, which was "not something he ever bragged on."

Otter became a back-door visitor to Cenarrusa's second-floor office at the Capitol, welcomed in after signalling with his signature dot-dot-dash knock.

"It was not unusual for me to go in the back door and say, 'We're doing this or we're doing that. Pete, what do you think?' " Otter said. "Pete would counsel me. He would always say, 'How important is this to you?' "

That advice has proven so reliable Otter said he puts the question to his godchildren and to himself.

"A lot of things I haven't done after being asked that question," Otter said. "In all of the political guidance that Pete the godfather provided, I don't think he ever steered me wrong."

Gov. Otter reflected on that long relationship Thursday, shortly after laying a wreath as Cenarrusa lay in state at the Capitol. Cenarrusa, who died Sunday at 95, was the longest-serving state official in Idaho history when he retired in 2003.

Cenarrusa was like a favorite aunt or uncle, Otter said.

"There's always that one that kind of stood out. Not the loudest. Not the funniest. It was the one that treated life with a real sense of purpose and sincerity," he said.

Otter said Cenarrusa backed him on tough states' rights issues, including his famous 1987 veto of a bill raising the drinking age from 19 to 21 - despite the prospective loss of federal highway money - and his 2001 vote against the post-9/11 "Patriot Act."

In 2009, two days before Cenarrusa's 92nd birthday, Otter held his monthly "Capitol for a Day" at Carey High School, in Cenarrusa's home town.

"Boy, I'll tell you what, it was Pete Cenarrusa Day," Otter recalled. "It was really beautiful and Pete was so appreciative. The kids would gather around him and he'd tell stories, right there in the gym."

Walking Cenarrusa out to the car that day in Carey, Otter asked about a story he'd heard about Cenarrusa's piloting skills. The scuttlebutt holds that Cenarrusa, late for a meeting, landed his plane on the street rather than at Carey's airstrip, and taxied along Main Street to the meeting at the Loading Chute, a restaurant.

"He said, 'I can neither confirm nor deny,' " Otter said, laughing.

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

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