Otter loses some political ties as pamphlet is republished

A document on small government that is published in the name of a mentor drops the governor’s foreword.

May 3, 2014 

When 30-year old Butch Otter began his political career in 1972, his first contribution was $20 from Ralph Smeed, a Caldwell businessman whose free-market ideas became central to Otter’s thinking.

Nine elections later — all but one of them winning — Smeed asked then-U.S. Rep. Otter to write the foreword for a new pamphlet aimed at spreading the gospel of limited government.

With Otter’s photo on the cover, Smeed in 2003 published the 40-page pamphlet, which was anchored by Ezra Taft Benson’s essay, “The Proper Role of Government.” Benson is a former U.S. agriculture secretary and president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“We thought it would add some punch and pizzazz if we had Butch’s words,” recalled Maurice Clements, a friend of both Smeed’s and Otter’s. Otter called the Benson piece “a practical, truth-intensive and a timeless handbook for political action against statism.”

About 15,000 free copies have been distributed since, many of them unloaded by Smeed from the trunk of his car at the slightest hint of interest. But in a new printing expected out in a few weeks, Otter’s words will be absent.

Smeed died in 2010 at 88, after establishing the nonprofit Ralph Smeed Private Memorial Foundation to “perpetuate and encourage the spirit of free enterprise, private property, market capitalism and individual initiative.”

The board — which includes another Smeed protege first elected in 1972, former U.S. Rep. and Sen. Steve Symms — voted unanimously to excise Otter’s foreword.

As the governor faces his first serious GOP opponent since 2000, the board’s decision offers a poignant measure of the split in the Idaho Republican Party. The divide drives Sen. Russ Fulcher’s challenge to Otter, other state­wide races and dozens of GOP legislative contests waged for what many call “the heart” of the party.

CONTEMPTIBLE MODERATE?

Symms says the board’s decision was simply practical, aimed at complying with IRS rules prohibiting electioneering by nonprofit educational foundations. “I did not vote to remove Butch from the reprint for philosophical reasons,” said Symms, who retired after 18 years in Congress in 1991 and is now a lobbyist in Washington, D.C.

“I believe Butch to be the most libertarian a governor can be,” Symms said. “In fact, I think his philosophy guides him very well; if he makes a compromise, he knows why and still holds dear his love of liberty.”

But Clements and three other directors said Otter’s backing of a state-run health exchange and other policies would make keeping the governor in the reprint an indefensible contradiction.

“Butch’s words were good words,” said Clements, a Caldwell businessman who contributed $1,000 to Fulcher in December. “Butch is a great speechifier and he says the right things. He just doesn’t do what he says.”

In October, Clements wrote Otter a piercing reply to a campaign fundraising letter, saying he could no longer support Otter as a candidate. Clements listed 14 reasons, among them Otter’s support of the exchange, backing re-election of 2nd District U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, and advocacy of fuel-tax increases and special tax breaks for business development.

“I have been concerned with the steady drift of your positions and policies which indicated you have more or less abandoned your earlier principles and have become part of that coalition of moderate Republicans that we had so much contempt for back in the heady days of the seventies,” wrote Clements, who served the same two terms as Otter in the Idaho House, 1972-76.

A month later, the board voted to drop Otter’s foreword. News of the decision surfaced in recent weeks as the foundation solicited bids for the reprint of about 4,000 pamphlets.

Otter was unaware of the move and Clements’ role until asked about it this week by the Statesman.

“He’s entitled to his opinion,” Otter said. “But the 501(c)(3) would be the only reason they would need. They have to protect their legal classification. I understand that.”

Told that several other directors agreed with Clements that Otter no longer belonged in the pamphlet, the governor said: “That’s their opinion. They’re entitled to it.”

SMEED WAS 'UPSET'

Clements’ son, Matthew, also one of the 12 Smeed Foundation directors, said he agreed with his father’s letter.

“I no longer think Governor Otter represents the conservative view that he supported in the ’70s and early ’80s,” he said.

When Otter began running for governor in 2005 while still in the U.S. House, Smeed told the Statesman that he was disappointed by Otter’s vote for President George W. Bush’s Medicare drug program, which he called “socialized medicine.” But he was encouraged by Otter’s votes against the Patriot Act and Hurricane Katrina relief. Smeed said he pined for the Otter of the 1970s, who opposed mandated immunizations for schoolchildren, fought the Idaho Land-use Planning Act and urged repeal of the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gives voters, not legislatures, the power to elect senators.

Asked to reply to Smeed’s concerns about his moorings, Otter said, “I will question government’s proper role in all areas of public and private life.”

Before dying of pancreatic cancer, Smeed contributed $100 to former Ada County Commissioner Sharon Ullman’s windmill-tilting primary challenge to Otter in 2010. The governor won that six-way primary with 55 percent of the vote.

Smeed was frustrated with Otter’s compromises as governor, said Chris Derry, another board member and a marketing professor at Western Kentucky University.

“I remember Ralph being pretty upset with Butch,” Derry said. “Once the guy’s in office, he begins to backtrack, he begins to bend with the political waves.” The fourth foundation director critical of Otter is Monte Munn, who worked with Otter at the J.R. Simplot Co. Munn said IRS compliance was not connected to his vote to strike Otter’s foreword.

“The governor’s positions have moved,” Munn said, allowing that it was an emotionally difficult decision. “But it’s not like throwing a friend overboard, because our friendship, I hope, will last forever.”

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