IDAHO HISTORY: Political careers are built one step at a time


One of my first Idaho history columns in the 1970s was about three Boise mayors who were later elected governors of Idaho. Since then we have added a fourth.

The first of these was Moses Alexander, a native of Bavaria who emigrated to the United States in 1867 when he was only 14. After a short time in New York City, he accepted an invitation from a cousin to join him in the clothing business in Chillicothe, Mo. He became interested in local politics and was elected to the City Council and to two terms as mayor.

In 1891, Alexander decided to seek business opportunities in the far west. He got off the train in Boise, intending just to look around the town, and he liked what he saw. Idaho had just become a state, business was booming, and the population was growing. Alexander, with his tall and imposing figure and gift for leadership, made an immediate impression on his new home town.

He was elected mayor of Boise twice, in 1897 and 1901, and in 1915 was elected governor of Idaho.

In 1895, Alexander led the effort to build Boise’s Ahavath Beth Israel synagogue and in 1897 built the imposing mansion at the corner of Third and State streets that still stands.

James H. Hawley was elected mayor of Boise in 1903 and governor of Idaho in 1911. He had served two terms in the Territorial Legislature, in 1870 and 1874. His career as a trial lawyer is legendary, and the prosecution of “Diamond Field Jack” Davis and William “Big Bill” Haywood brought him national prominence.

In 1913, Republican John M. Haines was elected governor. He had come to Boise from Kansas in 1890 when he became a partner with Walter E. Pierce and L.H. Cox in the real estate business. They, like Moses Alexander, had been attracted by the boom created by Idaho’s admission to the union.

The fourth Boise mayor to be elected governor was Dirk Kempthorne. I met him at the 1985 National Governors Association Conference where friends introduced him as a candidate for mayor who favored building a controversial regional shopping mall west of town and redeveloping Downtown one building at a time. If this would save the few historic buildings that were left, I was all for it. After his election as mayor, feeling no doubt that the preservation point of view should be represented on the city’s redevelopment agency, Kempthorne appointed me.

Few Idaho political careers better illustrate upward mobility than that of Dirk Kempthorne: student body president, University of Idaho, 1975; mayor of Boise, 1985-93; governor of Idaho, 1999-2006; U.S. secretary of the interior, 2006-09.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email

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