Otter vs. Fulcher - a great divide

Governor says it's time to stay the course; challenger says Idaho needs new leadership

dpopkey@idahostatesman.comMay 14, 2014 


    The chief executive of state government, the governor appoints judges, directors of state agencies, and members of boards and commissions, and fills vacancies in state and local office. His executive orders have the force of law on administrative matters.

    The Legislature uses the governor's budget recommendation as a template. He signs and vetoes bills passed by lawmakers; vetoes can be overridden with two-thirds votes of both the House and Senate.

    He is commander-in-chief of the Idaho National Guard, except when they are called into federal service. He also presides over the Idaho Land Board and Board of Examiners.

Twenty years and a revolution in the Republican Party separate Gov. Butch Otter and state Sen. Russ Fulcher.

Tonight at 8 on Idaho Public TV, they will appear in their only debate in advance of next week's primary. Playing the conventional hand of a favored incumbent, Otter declined all other head-to-head invitations.

Since October, Fulcher has argued the case for change, saying the two-term governor has lost touch. Though he's one of the most successful politicians in Idaho history, Otter has been damaged by a sluggish economy and restlessness in the right wing of his party.

Otter, 72, won his first election for the Idaho House in 1974 and has held high office without interruption since 1987, including 14 years as lieutenant governor and six years in Congress.

Fulcher, 52, was appointed to the Senate in 2005 and elected GOP caucus chairman four years later, a post he's leaving in his attempt to become just the third candidate in 110 years to oust an incumbent governor in his party primary.

Fulcher heads a slate of tea party-backed candidates aiming to finish the job of overturning the GOP establishment that began in 2008, when the Idaho Republican Party Central Committee rejected Otter's choice for party chairman.

"We're supposed to be temporary," Fulcher said. "We're not supposed to be here for 40 years like my opponent."

Fulcher said the campaign trail has opened his eyes to something he didn't expect. "The people of Idaho have lost confidence," he said. "They're not sure of themselves. They're not excited about the future."

Campaigning since October, Fulcher said he senses anxiety "in the eyes of folks when I'm shaking hands. ... I can see almost this downtrodden attitude. I think we need some leadership in this state that is telling people, 'You can do it,' and then create a system to try to empower them."

Otter, who began his career as a libertarian voice, shakes his head at the insurgent campaign against him.

"Who would ever have thought anybody would run at me from the right?" he said. "The dividing line is pretty well drawn."

Now that the economy is rebounding, Otter says he wants to finish the job. "The reason I'm running again is because we've got a lot of good things started. ... There's a lot to be accomplished in the next four years, and I think I'm the man to do it," he said.

Otter bristles at the suggestion that he's a career politician, noting that his four years in the Legislature and 14 years as lieutenant governor were part-time. "I didn't have a full-time job in government until I was elected to Congress in 2000," he said.

Also in the GOP race are perennial candidates Walt Bayes and Harley Brown. In November, the winner of the Republican primary will face Democrat A.J. Balukoff, a businessman and president of the Boise School Board, as well as nominees of the Libertarian and Constitution parties and two independents.


Russell Mark Fulcher

Fulcher grew up on a dairy farm in Meridian, the son of Gale and Barbara Fulcher, both now 85. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees in business at Boise State. He left the farm at 25 to marry his wife, Kara, with whom he's raised three children.

He worked for Micron Technology for 15 years, mostly in sales. When he left in 1998, he was director of sales and marketing. He then worked eight years at Preco Electronics, also in sales and marketing. Those jobs took him to 26 countries. Since 2006 he has worked for Mark Bottles Real Estate, specializing in commercial and industrial properties.

Fulcher was appointed to the Senate after the resignation of Jack Noble and elected to four terms on his own. He won tough primaries in 2006 (by 130 votes) and 2008 (by 149 votes). He was elected chairman of the GOP Senate caucus, the No. 4 leadership post, in 2009. When the No. 1 job opened up in 2010, he ran and lost to Sen. Brent Hill, who remains president pro tem and is backing Otter.

C.L. "Butch" Otter

Otter grew up on farms in Canyon County, the son of the late Ben Otter, an electrician who lost a campaign for the Legislature as a Democrat. His mother, Regina, raised nine children. Regina Otter's 100th birthday will be Feb. 9. Otter attended then-Boise Junior College and graduated from the College of Idaho with a degree in political science.

He served five years in the Idaho Army National Guard and still proudly wears his Army lapel pin. He married the daughter of billionaire industrialist J.R. Simplot, Gaye Simplot, with whom he had four children. Otter spent 30 years at the J.R. Simplot Co., serving on the board, as director of the food products division, and as president of both Simplot Livestock and Simplot International. Otter retired in 1993, the same year he and Gaye divorced.

After two terms in the Idaho House in the 1970s, Otter ran for governor in 1978. Finishing third in a six-way GOP primary, it was his only election loss. He was elected lieutenant governor by 2,700 votes in 1986 and won re-election easily in 1990.

But a 1993 DUI conviction and the end of his marriage put Otter to the toughest test of his political career; he survived by winning a three-way primary in '94 with 40 percent of the vote and the general election with 53 percent. He made economic development his focus and has visited 82 countries on behalf of Simplot or the state.

In 2000, Otter was elected to the first of three terms in the U.S. House, winning the GOP primary with 48 percent. Among the seven candidates was Brown, who finished last and is one of the two perennials on the GOP ballot. The other is Bayes, who got 3 percent of the vote as Otter breezed to victory in the 2006 and 2010 gubernatorial primaries. Otter won the general elections with 55 percent and 59 percent, respectively.


Fulcher: When he began his campaign, he said he was running because Otter was the only Republican governor with a GOP-controlled Legislature to establish a state-operated insurance exchange. Fulcher says he would repeal it and replace it with a "patient-centered" free-market alternative.

"The health exchange is an economy killer," Fulcher said. "People are scared to death of this. Small business is already hindering their steps as a result, and we've got to create an alternative path."

Otter: The governor has said Fulcher ignores the reality: the Affordable Care Act is law and Idaho would have a federally operated exchange if Your Health Idaho ended. Otter sees a contradiction in Fulcher's push to force the federal government to turn over its lands.

"The very people that would have invited the federal government to run our insurance exchange are the very people that are trying to get them out of Idaho with the 35 million acres they own. I think a person's security with their health needs is a whole lot more important than an AUM (animal unit month, used to assess grazing fees)," he said.


Fulcher: About 62 percent of Idaho is owned by the U.S. government, and Fulcher says Idaho should join Utah in demanding it be surrendered to the state, an idea neither Congress nor the courts have been sympathetic to.

But Fulcher said an aggressive legal strategy in this area is the key to Idaho's economic future.

"Start driving those steps, take those constitutional steps," Fulcher said. "And there's a really good argument to be made.

"Is this going to happen overnight? My point is we're an aircraft carrier pointed this direction, now listlessly floating. We need to kick the engines on and point it this way. Is it going to take some time? Yes it is. But that is the answer."

Otter: A veteran of a similar movement in the 1970s, the Sagebrush Rebellion, Otter said Fulcher wrongheadedly raises hopes. Citing opposition that includes Republicans in Congress, Otter said U.S. ownership of Western lands is ingrained: "They're not going to give those up without a fight."

Otter questioned the economics, citing management and firefighting costs. "If they'd give me all the federal lands and still pay the forest fires and say that under the (National Environmental Policy Act) and under the Endangered Species Act I'm released from all the (environmental impact statements) and from all the government rules and regulations," it might pencil out. "But I've gotta also be realistic," he said.


Fulcher: He said that as president of the Land Board, he would sell buildings that compete with the private sector's office and retail space.

Doing so, he said, wouldn't conflict with the board's constitutional duty to provide the maximum long-term return for beneficiaries, including K-12 and higher education.

"Fortunately, that's not a challenge because my understanding is that commercial portion of the business that the Land Board is engaged with is also one of the lowest returning," Fulcher said. "So I think we can do that."

Otter: "Return on capital is greater under the commercial properties than on most" other investments, Otter said.

According to the Department of Lands, Otter is correct, at least for fiscal 2013, which ended in June. Commercial property valued at $23.6 million had a 5.1 percent return on investment.

The return for $1.1 billion in forest lands was 4.2 percent; for $1 billion in range lands, 1.6 percent; and for $23 million in agricultural lands, 3 percent. Unusually high returns - 67 percent - were recorded for $162 million in residential real estate as the state made one-time sales of cottage sites at Payette and Priest Lakes.


Fulcher: Another key motive for Fulcher's campaign is to kill the Idaho Core Standards that establish what students should know and be able to do before graduation. Common Core standards were adopted by 45 states; they emphasize critical thinking and real-world applications in math and language.

Though he voted for the standards in 2011, Fulcher has reversed course, saying it will mean federal control and "teaching to the test."

"It's the whole national standard thing which just rubs some people the wrong way, and I think rightfully so in some cases," Fulcher said. "I know Caldwell is a completely different set of circumstances than Meridian. To try to put that same standard in, I just don't think it'll work."

Otter: A backer of the standards, Otter said they came from the National Governors Association.

"We've got some work to do, and the reason we do is because the genesis of Common Core is totally misunderstood," he said. "There are a lot of people who think it was a federal plot to take over curriculum in every state - and in some cases, even a United Nations plot."

The program does not establish curriculum, Otter said, and is aimed at helping Idaho students achieve mastery to compete for jobs. "It's not just going to be people from Castleford competing against people from Boise High. It's going to be people from different states competing," he said.


Fulcher: Fulcher helped enact Idaho's 2006 ban on same-sex marriage, saying at the time, "It's a culture war that we're in."

He opposes extending civil rights protections to gay people.

"More and more people are realizing this is a religious freedom issue," he said. "If that new class is created, those who disagree with it wind up in some cases having to serve it. There is the clash of cultures. The real debate is whether or not to change the norm that's been followed for thousands of years," he said.

Otter: Otter said "traditional marriage in Idaho is one of our base, core, deep, tap root principles."

He declined to say whether he would sign a bill to expand the Idaho Human Rights Act, but said proponents should have received a legislative hearing this year.

Otter said he has "very close relatives" who are gay and are loved and respected in his family. "I have always supported human rights for everyone, individual rights for everyone. I made my bones in early politics - everybody called me a libertarian. And there's no true libertarian that wants to put a shackle on anybody."


Fulcher: Fulcher said he took on the uphill campaign because he's deeply troubled by what he sees as government growth.

"I believe we live in a divinely inspired republic that was created with the individual at the pinnacle. Within my lifetime, that pendulum has swung to where the government is that pinnacle," he said.

"With all the government programs we've created over the years, we've replaced the family in some ways, and that's not right. So my effort would be to include and empower people as much as I can."

Otter: Though he wouldn't commit to not running for a fourth term in 2018, when he would be 76, Otter said that after 12 years as governor, his top aim would be school reform, including implementing a five-year, $365 million plan that sprung from his 2013 task force.

"What I would want to have accomplished is a reformed, effective education system - K-through-career - that builds a workforce for the future and enables people, each and every one, to reach their own potential," he said. "I don't think there's anything more important than that."

Dan Popkey: 377-6438,Twitter: @IDS_politics

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