Treasure Valley businessman Tommy Ahlquist, a former ER doctor whose second career in real estate development has transformed Downtown Boise, made his run for governor official Tuesday by filing papers as the third announced Republican in the race.
Ahlquist joins Brad Little, the state’s veteran lieutenant governor, and former State Sen. Russ Fulcher, who ran in 2014, in the race to succeed Gov. Butch Otter, who is not running again. With U.S. Rep. Raúl Labrador a potential fourth Republican candidate, the full field casts the Republican primary likely as a contest for a simple plurality of the vote. No Democrats have yet announced for the May 2018 primary.
In an interview at his office in Boise’s US Bank building Tuesday, Ahlquist cast himself in the mold of Mitt Romney, one of his role models, as a successful businessman and competent political outsider. He has served as chief operating officer of Gardner Co. since 2005, following his work as a physician.
Ahlquist is the third Republican to announce for 2018. GOP Congressman Raul Labrador isn’t talking about his plans, and 2014 Democratic candidate A.J. Balukoff said he is “working” on his.
A self-described “serial entrepreneur” who pursued business ideas in his spare time even during his med school days, Ahlquist, 49, worked in emergency medicine for 18 years, stepping away from it completely only in 2015 to focus on his real estate company. His run for governor is his first bid for public office.
“I’ve been very interested in politics my whole life,” Ahlquist said. “Service and community service has been a part of my life since I was young. That’s why I went into medicine. Going into politics was never like a huge leap because it’s just another way to serve.”
Ahlquist, long thought to be a potential candidate for governor, said he started to look seriously at the race about a year ago. Since that time, his company has completed one major redevelopment in Boise and started another, and he has helped launch of Idaho 2020, a business-minded policy group that seeks to drive a progressive business and economic agenda for Idaho.
“We’re Idaho and we’re gonna stay Idaho,” he said. “But I see the chance for us to really take advantage of some tremendous opportunities. I feel I have got a skill set that would fit right in with what we can do as a state.”
Ahlquist has a formal announcement scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday at the Zions Bank building in Boise. He will travel all day to make additional announcements in Idaho Falls at 1 p.m. at Bill’s Bike & Run, 930 Pier View Drive; in Kimberly, outside Twin Falls, at 4 p.m. at Layne Pumps, 3797 N. 3400 E.; and in Coeur d’Alene at 6 p.m. at the Innovation Center, 419 E. Lakeside Ave. All times are local. On Thursday, he plans to start a planned two-month, 97-city tour to meet with residents throughout the state.
AHLQUIST’S TOP ISSUES
Ahlquist gave his own take on what are widely seen as the most critical issues facing the state: building the economy and attracting business and jobs; fixing and improving health care; and bolstering the education system, which he cast in terms of “getting our kids ready for work.”
He outlined what he described as “conservative solutions” for his “three-legged stool” of priorities and cited his credentials for making them happen. On economic development, he said his business has invested $331 million in Idaho and successfully brought new businesses and companies to the state, including one announced last week. He talked about the need to “get out of the way of small business” and said state taxes were “pretty high when you compare us to the region, but our achievement’s low.”
As a physician who has cared for more than 40,000 patients, he said, “you develop a real sense of service and wanting to help.” Changes in health care under the new administration in Washington are an opportunity to “prove that state solutions are better than federal solutions, especially when caring for our own people.” He said the Affordable Care Act enacted some needed health care reforms but was “never affordable” for most people, did not cover everyone who needed health coverage and was “subsidized with money that we didn’t have.”
On education, he spoke of his frustration when a conversation that should remain focused on student achievement repeatedly drifts off-topic.
“It always kind of fizzles into other things,” he said. “If we figure out how to keep (young people) here, get them ready for work, get them educated, that is critical. It’s the base of our economy. It's the thing that’s most important to families.”
Ahlquist was recently released from his role as Meridian North stake president in the LDS church ahead of his run for governor. He said talking about his faith in the context of his candidacy was a “little awkward for me” and that it wouldn’t figure in his race.
“I don’t plan on bringing it up. I plan on running as a businessman and physician, a husband and father,” he said.
“I’m not a politician,” he said several times during the interview, when asked to describe or differentiate himself politically. He said he expected to do well in a crowded field and that his campaign “fully expects” Labrador to join the race.
I think anytime you have a crowded field like this there’s going to be a lot of discussion of really good ideas.
THE OTHER CANDIDATES
Labrador could not be reached for comment on Ahlquist’s candidacy. He is known to be keenly interested in running for governor, but also was just elected to his fourth term in Congress. The Little campaign said it had no comment.
Steve Ackerman, a spokesman for Fulcher, said Ahlquist’s entry into the race “doesn’t change our approach.”
“Russ is as much as businessman and problem-solver as he is a former state senator,” Ackerman said. “For him, Tommy coming in might make the conversation a little better when it comes to developing business in Idaho and developing the economy.”
Among Democrats, A.J. Balukoff, the 2014 candidate for governor, is weighing a second run. He said Tuesday he was “pretty sure (Ahlquist) was going to run based on conversations we’ve had.”
“As far as my own plans, I’m still working on those,” he said.
Jasper LiCalzi, professor of political economy at the College of Idaho, said Ahlquist’s biggest challenge in the crowded Republican field would likely be name recognition.
“Everybody knows Labrador. Little’s been around forever. Fulcher has already run before,” he said. Ahlquist “can run as the competent outside who’s coming in to clean up Dodge if he can make the case to people.”
J. Thomas “Tommy” Ahlquist III
Occupation: Chief operating officer, Gardner Co., real estate development company. For 18 years, emergency medicine, including head of emergency department, St. Luke’s Meridian Medical Center.
Hometown: Hunter, Utah. Moved to Meridian in 1999.
Education: Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho), then University of Utah; M.D.,University of Utah School of Medicine. Medical residency at University of Arizona.
Family: Wife Shanna, four children.
Verbatim: His top issues
“In Idaho, as great as things have gone during the recovery, there’s a lot of work to do. Eliminating regulations at the federal level will happen with this new presidency, but at the state level there’s more we van do to get out of the way of small business.”
“We need higher-paying jobs. Our taxes are pretty high when you compare us to the region, but our achievement’s low. We’ve got to develop economically and I think I’ve got the background and the knowledge and the drive to do that.”
“I’ve cared for more than 40,000 patients in the state of Idaho as an emergency room doctor. You spend that much time with people during the times of greatest need…and you develop a real sense of service and wanting to help.”
With health care reform expected, Ahlquist spoke of promoting competition and fairness to keep costs down “for those who can afford” coverage; retaining Obamacare’s insurance reforms; and in medical care, insuring “personal accountability and patient accountability.”
“Regardless of how much we talk about it, it just doesn’t seem to change much. ... We really have to talk (about) how do we get our kids ready for work and how do we get jobs in here to match those up.”
“I just really want the conversation to stay with student achievement. We start with student achievement. We start at, ‘Let’s get our kids reading.’ It always kind of fizzles into other things.”