Secretary of State Ben Ysursa said Friday he won't seek a fourth term as Idaho's chief elections officer and one of five members of the board managing about 2.5 million acres of state land.
"It was a very agonizing decision," Ysursa said late Friday afternoon, shortly before heading off to his side job as the color man on Bishop Kelly football broadcasts. "It still is."
Ysursa, 64, got his undergraduate degree from Gonzaga University and his law degree from St. Louis University. He began working in the secretary of state's office in 1974 for the legendary Pete Cenarrusa, a fellow Basque who held the office from 1967 to 2003. That was the year Idaho voters - stung by the lessons of Watergate - went over the heads of lawmakers to pass the Sunshine Law, requiring candidates to disclose campaign finances and lobbyists to register and report spending.
"I tried to emulate what Pete and Edson Deal did - to be known as a fair arbiter of the balls and strikes of the campaign finance law, the lobbying law, and, of course, elections," Ysursa said.
Deal, a Republican who died in office in 1967, began a tradition of nonpartisanship. Taking over after eight years of Democratic control, Deal didn't fire the staff, a move criticized by some Republicans.
"Ben Ysursa is one of finest public servants Idaho's ever had," said former Republican Gov. Phil Batt. "He treated everybody, regardless of their political affiliation or happenstance, totally fair. It's very important in that job."
Batt and Cenarrusa co-chaired Ysursa's 2002 campaign. Ysursa won with 78 percent of the vote, was unopposed in 2006 and carried 74 percent in 2010, making him the overall most-popular candidate of his era.
Ysursa struggled with his decision for months, delaying it after publicly acknowledging his angst. The job was likely his to keep - almost an inheritance - and many friends urged him to run.
But Ysursa said he lacked the necessary zeal and feared he couldn't meet his own standard of doing the best job he could.
"You've got to get out of the attitude - or I do - that it's 'my office' or the 'Basque office,' " Ysursa said. "It's the people's office. We're just there renting it for a while and then it's turned over."
Cenarrusa's death in September at age 95 made the decision a tad less anguished, Ysursa confessed, saying his old boss wanted him to run.
"I didn't want to have that talk to tell him I wasn't," Ysursa said.
Three political scientists who followed Ysursa's work offered tribute Friday.
"This is a huge loss for the citizens of Idaho," said Boise State's Gary Moncrief, calling Ysursa "a man of great integrity."
Northwest Nazarene University's Steve Shaw said Idahoans have come to expect the secretary of state's office "would be free of ideological taint or political vindictiveness. ... Idahoans need to demand that the next occupant of that office approach his or her duties in the light of decades of excellent leadership provided by the likes of Cenarrusa and Ysursa."
BSU emeritus professor Jim Weatherby said replacing Ysursa won't be easy.
"I think it should be noted that there could be a more partisan person elected. Deal, Cenarrusa, Ysursa - they were all nonpartisan and even-handed," he said.
Rep. Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, already is running. He clashed with Ysursa over closing the Republican party to independents and redrawing legislative districts in 2011.
Denney, who spent six years as House speaker before he was defeated by his colleagues last year, has said he will focus on voter fraud and getting the Idaho Land Board out of commercial real estate. He did not reply to a request for comment Friday.
Ada County Chief Deputy Clerk Phil McGrane, a Republican whose duties focus on administering elections, is considering running and said he would aim to sustain the office's traditions.
"Ben is an extraordinary public servant," McGrane said. "At many points in time he has helped serve as a moral compass for our state. In light of his decision not to seek re-election, I'd like most of all to thank him for his lifetime of public service. As secretary he helped instill a culture of fairness and transparency in those of us who work in elections."
Former GOP Sen. Mitch Toryanski of Boise, who used to serve the secretary of state as a deputy attorney general, is also eyeing the contest.
"For the last couple weeks, I've had a lot of people who have urged me to run if Ben doesn't," Toryanski said. "Now that he's made his decision, my wife, Kim, and I will discuss what is best for our family. Beyond that, I'll have more to say next week."
Ysursa said he may make an endorsement, but not until the field is set.
Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb, D-Boise, said she's been pressed to consider the race. She said she had hoped Ysursa would run.
"This will make me think about it," she said. "I want a strong Democratic candidate."
Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics