A.J. Balukoff's Tuesday began like most of his Tuesdays have for 30 years at the Boise Sunrise Rotary Club. Taking his spot at the piano, he played "Viva La Rotary."
Later, as the club marked its 30th anniversary, the former president gave a talk on club lore. As he closed, Balukoff told the group he had a second speech to give later Tuesday morning: his announcement that he will run for governor in 2014.
"He got a standing ovation," said club president Bill Lewis, a Republican. "Not so much because of the governor thing, but because those people respect him."
Balukoff, 67, is counting on his reputation as a businessman, philanthropist, family man and education advocate to persuade voters in a heavily Republican state to pick a Democrat over the winner of the GOP primary pitting Gov. Butch Otter against state Sen. Russ Fulcher.
"I'm reaching out to people saying, 'Don't pay attention to party, pay attention to the candidates and what we can do,' " Balukoff said in an interview after his announcement. "I'm counting on bipartisan support."
The last Democratic governor, Cecil Andrus, left office 19 years ago. He was at Hillcrest Elementary School for the campaign announcement to cheer on Balukoff.
"This is a fresh face, a man who is a successful businessman in his own right, and a man who says we can do better," Andrus said. "We've got to do better."
SCHOOLS, JOBS, LEADERSHIP
With 16 years as a trustee of the Boise School District, and as its current board president, Balukoff makes education his top issue.
"Strong public schools are the most important investment that we can make in our children, in our communities and in our economy," he said.
He lamented that Idaho is second to last in the nation in per-pupil K-12 spending, ahead of only Utah. The state ranks 47th for high school graduates going to college and 50th in average SAT scores, Balukoff said.
"We can do better, but it will take balance in the Legislature and new leadership at the top, leadership that is independent-minded enough to do the right thing regardless of party," he said.
Balukoff blamed GOP leadership for the economy.
"Hard-working Idaho families are having difficulty and are struggling making ends meet," he said. "Cost of living continues to rise, health care costs go up, gas prices go up, but salaries and wages don't keep pace. The economic policies of the last 20 years have resulted in Idaho being No. 1 in the percentage of minimum wage jobs."
Statewide Republican leadership is "out of touch," Balukoff said. "We've had a one-party state rule that has led to pay-to-play politics where the politicians in power reward their powerful backers with tax breaks and contracts while regular Idahoans are left on the outside looking in."
Gov. Otter's re-election campaign released a statement regarding Balukoff's run: "While others campaign ... Governor Otter is busy governing and continuing to position Idaho at the forefront of growth, job creation and freedom. He's staying focused on the proper role of government. ... The governor looks forward to discussing with voters the implications of a Democrat working to advance the Obama administration's big-government priorities here in Idaho."
BUSINESS AND FAMILY
Balukoff chose Hillcrest for his announcement, surrounded by his wife, Susie, and about 20 children and grandchildren. Seven of the eight Balukoff children attended Hillcrest, and three of their 33 grandchildren are current students.
Born in Arizona to a father with an eighth-grade education, Balukoff graduated from high school in San Diego and from BYU with a degree in accounting in 1970. For 12 years he held accounting jobs in Los Angeles. In 1982, he and his wife decided to move to Boise seeking a better place to raise a family.
"It was a good decision," he said in his speech.
Balukoff is now part-owner of the Grove Hotel, CenturyLink Arena and the Idaho Steelheads. Asked to estimate his net worth, he told the Statesman, "It's somewhere in the neighborhood of $40 million to $50 million."
Balukoff said he will help fund his campaign. But "I'm not going to buy the office. I think that's a bad policy," he said.
'A DIFFICULT PROSPECT'
As a Democrat in a heavily Republican state, Balukoff said he knows the odds, but he thinks his personal values will appeal to both moderate and conservative voters.
"Values of honesty, hard work, fairness, treating people with respect, service, and personal and financial responsibility," he said. "Those are Idaho values and those are the values we need in the Statehouse."
Rory Jones, who preceded him as school board president, said Balukoff's personal story and temperament are a considerable strength.
"He'll be polite and he'll be nice and everybody in the room will like him," Jones said. "But he won't go away and he won't give up. He's like a dog with a bone."
Balukoff was among 11 contributors who helped raise the first $7 million to build Boise State's indoor football complex, and he gave $150,000 to fund the new College of Business and Economics building. He's vice chairman of the BSU Foundation and has served on many Treasure Valley boards. From 1997 to 2003, he was an LDS bishop.
Jones says those connections will pay off: "All those people appreciate him and appreciate the way he does business. Those people will know that's the way he'll do business as governor."
Dan Popkey: 377-6438