Dan Popkey: Just add the words, former Idaho Gov. Batt says

The Republican says his party's refusal to ban discrimination against gays makes lawmakers look foolish.

November 2, 2013 

phil batt, idaho, governor, transportation, government

Phil Batt

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Advocates of extending civil rights protections to gays are getting a big boost from the author of the Idaho Human Rights Act, former Republican Gov. Phil Batt.

Batt has endorsed the eight-year campaign to add four words - "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" - to the act's prohibition of discrimination based on race, gender, color, religion, national origin and disability.

"A homosexual who can't rent a room or get a job because of his orientation doesn't make any sense to anybody," Batt said Tuesday as he became the first recipient of the Idaho Human Rights Commission's Lifetime Achievement Award. "Why some of the politicians are not more sensitive than that - more sensible, I should say, than that - beats me."

Batt also said the Legislature's refusal to amend the law earlier this year "accomplished absolutely nothing" for legislators "except to be made to look like fools."

A farmer from Canyon County, Batt is among the most popular Idaho politicians of the 20th century. He spent 16 years in the Legislature, including a term as Senate president pro tem, and was lieutenant governor from 1979 to 1983. He was elected governor in 1994, ending 24 years of Democratic control of the office.

Among his civil rights achievements are mandating toilets in farm fields and creating the Human Rights Commission in the 1960s. As governor, he helped establish a Martin Luther King Jr. state holiday and extended workers' compensation insurance to farmworkers. He also spoke out against white supremacy groups.

In 2012, the Senate State Affairs Committee refused to print an "Add the Words" bill brought by then-Democratic Leader Edgar Malapeai. In 2013, the same committee held an informational hearing but did not take up any legislation.

Batt told me Friday that he hopes his remarks will influence the 2014 Legislature: "Yes, I planned it ahead of time. It's just something that needs to be said."

Human Rights Commission Executive Director Pam Parks wouldn't comment on the political impact of Batt's remarks, but said, "We gave him the award and he demonstrated why he deserved it."

In accepting the honor, Batt, 86, recalled that his father was born about 20 years after the Civil War. When Batt was born in 1927, the Emancipation Proclamation was just 64 years old. "It's interesting to think about how recently these things occurred," Batt said. "We have made marvelous steps forward since then."

He recounted his experience as an 18-year-old private in Army basic training in Biloxi, Miss. "I was appalled at what I saw of the treatment of blacks down there. Walk down the sidewalks and blacks would move off into the gutter because that was what they were expected to do," he said.

Though Idaho had few African-Americans, Batt recalled "No Mexicans Allowed" signs. He quit the Elks Club over a whites-only policy, after the club refused to let his Japanese-American friend and business partner Kay Inouye dine with him. After the club lifted the ban, Batt reapplied, but 14 members blackballed him. "That set a record," he said.

In his Tuesday speech, in his nuanced way, Batt recognized President Barack Obama's dedication to civil rights but criticized his reaction to the 2009 arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., an African-American, as Gates tried to enter his own home. Some called the disorderly conduct arrest - which was quickly dropped - racial profiling. Obama said Cambridge, Mass., Police Sgt. James Crowley "acted stupidly."

"I don't think that kind of thing should have been brought out by the president," Batt said. Obama later said he regretted his rush to judgment and hosted a "beer summit" at the White House with Gates and Crowley.

Batt also knocked 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney for his call for people living in the U.S. illegally to return to their home countries and wait in line to re-enter. "Totally impractical," Batt said, noting that the GOP got about 30 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012. "I think we kind of deserve to be put down when we are not more sensitive than that."

Don't expect Batt to become a regular at "Add the Words" rallies. As an elected official, he set a standard for brevity in public remarks. Asked if he planned to expand on what he said Tuesday, he replied, "I don't think it's my job to go any further with it. I made a definitive statement."

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

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