Otter gets in face of GOP leader

Two Idaho cowboys wrestle for control of the state party in an election year.

dpopkey@idahostatesman.comMay 1, 2014 

Their noses the length of a toothpick apart, Gov. Butch Otter recently warned Idaho GOP Party Chairman Barry Peterson against intimidating candidates for precinct committee positions.

Otter told Peterson that he heard from a "very reliable source" that Peterson contacted two candidates and their employers to complain about their running for two of the 924 precinct committee posts in the May 20 primary. That, Otter told Peterson, put the party at legal risk because of a citizen's right to political activity.

Peterson denied applying any pressure, telling the Statesman, "I have not talked to either of those people."

Peterson and Otter both declined to name the pair, and Otter declined to name his source, though he said he heard the story in Twin Falls.

"We got information - I'm not going to tell you who it was from - that Barry had called a couple of people that had signed up to be precinct committee people," Otter said Wednesday. "And (Peterson) called their bosses, and got their bosses - we're told - to threaten them with their job.

"I said, 'Barry, you're subjecting us to a human rights deal here, and if that's going on, you need to stop it.' And he said, 'I don't know what you're talking about.' And that was fair. Maybe my information was bad, but it was from a very credible source."

Precinct committee people make up the core of the Idaho Republican Central Committee, which writes the party platform and rules, elects a chairman and organizes campaigns and party-building. Allies of Otter and Peterson are campaigning hard to win those seats and control the party's direction over the next two years. Otter and his traditional GOP allies view Peterson as favoring the tea party and libertarian candidates.

EYEBALL TO EYEBALL

Otter confronted Peterson in front of about 100 people at the Shoshone County Lincoln Day banquet on April 11 in Wallace, fueling speculation about what they were jawing about.

GOP Region 1 Chairman John Cross was there. "It looked like it was kind of a heated argument," said Cross, of Post Falls, who is backing Sen. Russ Fulcher's primary challenge to Otter.

"Well, if it wasn't an argument, the governor was making his statements in a very forceful way," Cross said. "They were face-to-face and the governor was waving his hand around a lot gesturing with his finger - I don't mean giving him the bird - but using his (index) finger to make his point."

Peterson recalled the incident: "You could put a toothpick between our noses. I was not going to take my eyes off his eyeballs and he wasn't going to take his eyes off my eyeballs. I don't give any ground and he doesn't, either. We're just two old men that have no reason to back up."

Peterson, of Mountain Home, is 66. Like Otter, he is a cowboy. Otter will turn 72 Saturday and is celebrating with a public birthday party Friday at 6:30 p.m. at his ranch in Star.

"He did threaten me," Peterson said. "He asked me who our attorney was for the party. He already knew it but I reminded him that it was Jason Risch" - the son of U.S. Sen. Jim Risch.

Peterson said Otter advised him that Attorney General Lawrence Wasden might pursue an action under the Idaho Human Rights Act. Peterson said he didn't talk to Risch or any other lawyer, but informed his executive committee.

"I told them of all the associations that I've had with precinct committeemen and challengers and that I could not come up with anything that seemed to be of the nature of what the governor told me had happened," Peterson said.

Wasden was in North Idaho that night, but wound up staying in his hotel room because of illness. Wasden's spokesman, Todd Dvorak, said Wasden was unaware of the confrontation.

Without commenting on the specifics, Dvorak said that in general, the Idaho Human Rights Commission could become involved if it received a complaint about political intimidation in the workplace.

If such a thing happened, Dvorak said, "There could be potential risk to the party."

LOVE AND HATE

Were that the case, Peterson said Wasden would act swiftly.

Despite a tradition among chairmen of support for incumbents - or at least neutrality - Peterson is partial to Wasden's primary challenger.

"If Wasden had something that he could get me with, you can be sure he'd be there in a heartbeat," Peterson said. "Because I can't hide my affection for Chris Troupis. I think the man is an unusual talent."

When Peterson was elected chairman in 2012 over Gayann DeMordaunt, Otter was neutral. But their relationship turned volatile, in part because of Peterson's friendliness with anti-establishment candidates.

The tete-a-tete in Wallace lasted 10 or 15 minutes, Peterson said. "He scolded me for some other things. I said, 'Governor, I've never been a chairman of a state before and if you see me not doing things I should have, why don't you help me?' "

Peterson said he doesn't want to pit the party against the governor.

"It's a funny thing between the governor and I," he said, laughing. "He can love me and hate what I'm doing at the same time."

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

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