Idaho has not had a competitive Democratic gubernatorial race since 1998, when four candidates vied for their party’s nomination.
Every Democratic primary since has featured a longtime party operative and an unsuccessful underdog challenger. Jerry Brady ran in 2002 and 2006; Keith Allred in 2010; and AJ Balukoff in 2014. And in each case, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee got promptly trounced by the GOP gubernatorial nominee in the general election.
But Idaho’s 2018 Democratic primary is shaping up to not only be competitive, but to have a different tone and tenor from past elections.
Three candidates are vying for the nomination: Boise businessman and school district trustee AJ Balukoff; Emmett organic farmer and attorney Peter Dill; and North Idaho former tribal council and state Legislature member Paulette Jordan.
All three candidates share similar platforms: protect air, soil and water and preserve public lands; make health care accessible; educate our children well; repair and improve infrastructure; broaden economic opportunities; and address rural shortfalls. None of the three are clamoring for major tax increases to accomplish this. All agree the state can do a better job of spending the money it already has.
But, when you look beyond platforms and talking points, the candidates are remarkably different.
Jordan, 38, is almost half the age of Balukoff, who is 72.
Jordan first ran for an elected position at age 29 (she won); Balukoff did not take an elected seat until he was 51.
Balukoff was 68 when he unsuccessfully challenged Gov. Butch Otter in the 2014 election; that same election, Jordan won a seat in the Idaho Legislature at age 34.
For Dill, 63, this is his first run for elected office.
While all three names will appear on the Democratic primary ballot, only two of the candidates are party-sanctioned: Balukoff and Jordan.
“The Democratic Party a month ago sent me a letter saying they would not provide support for my campaign and they took my information off the Democratic Party website,” Dill said. “They said I was not a recognized Democrat in some set of circles.”
Balukoff is self-funding his campaign, as he did in 2014, when he put $3.6 million into his own campaign. So far this campaign, he has donated $2.35 million to himself, in addition to receiving about $65,000 from individual donors.
Dill, too, is funding his own campaign, although at a much more frugal level. He has donated $15,000 to himself and received two individual contributions totaling $200.
Jordan has embarked on a statewide grass-roots campaign. Her most recent campaign finance report cites nearly 2,800 contributions of less than $50 along with about 1,000 contributions ranging from $50 to $5,000, for a total of $367,855.
AJ Balukoff wants Idaho to scroll up
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Since moving to Boise in 1982, AJ Balukoff has maintained a steady presence within the city’s civic, education and business communities.
He has held his elected seat on the Boise School District board for more than 20 years; he has served more than a decade on St. Luke’s board. He has owned and operated several businesses, including Balukoff, Lindstrom and Co., an accounting firm, and AJ's Health Clubs, a string of fitness centers. He co-owns The Grove Hotel and the Idaho Steelheads hockey team.
Balukoff likens the governor's job to being the chief executive officer of a company. The governor is the CEO of the state, he said.
“I think the experience I have had in business as a CEO, as a business owner and in creating jobs helps prepare me for the job of being governor," he said. “And then I’ve had really good experience in two industries that are some of the main focus of our state government and that’s education and healthcare.”
Of the three Democratic candidates, Balukoff is the only one who has previously run for statewide office.
In 2014, he won the Democratic gubernatorial primary with 65 percent of the vote and then lost the general election to incumbent Republican Gov. Butch Otter.
Balukoff said then, and he reiterates it now, that his years as a school board member prompted him to run.
Education is "my principal reason for running, to try to get our Legislature to live up to the Constitutional mandate to provide that uniform and thorough system of public education," he said.
"We do not have that now. As I travel around the state, I see school districts that only go to school four days a week. I see districts where they have cut out art, music, PE, sometimes civic education — all those things I believe are a necessary part of a thorough education," he said.
Balukoff is not worried about a Democratic governor trying to lead a Republican-held state.
As a school district board member, Balukoff says he has worked closely with the Legislature's Senate and House education committees.
"I have established relationships with lawmakers … relationships of trust and respect. I think we can build on that. I firmly believe all of the legislators are down there to do what they think is right," he said.
Plus, Idaho's decades of one-party rule is starting to take a toll, he explained.
“You start to get a bit of an echo chamber and you really are not having good discussions," he said. "I would bring people to the middle. Look for common ground and see what we could accomplish.”
Balukoff also wants to end what he calls Idaho being a "scroll-down state."
"When you want to see where Idaho stands in relation to the other states, you usually scroll down to the bottom of the list to find it. I do not think anybody is happy about that," he said. "I get the sense that Idaho in general is ready for a change."
Peter Dill wants to walk across the aisle
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His Democratic friends think he is a Republican; his Republican friends think he is a Democrat. And that is OK with Peter Dill.
“I am something of a hybrid,” he said.
Dill chose to run as a Democrat because the Republican field is “pretty crowded” and to give voters a broader exposure to different ideas.
“I think many people are interested in what a conservative Democrat looks like,” he said.
“I am attempting to bring together personal responsibility and fiscal responsibility and a keen regard for life — the unborn, the aged and all in between. I am interested in bringing together a keen concern for poor and disadvantaged people among us and a love and care for the land.”
Dill wants to venture beyond Idaho’s one-party rule and get out of the two-party, us-vs.-them rut.
“For many of us, the parties have left us. They have become more extreme. A lot of us are in this middle majority who do not think the Republicans are bad guys or the Democrats are bad guys.
He also thinks one of Idaho’s greatest resources is not being utilized to its fullest potential.
“The people of Idaho are diverse in thinking and diverse in priorities,” he said. “Wisdom is resident with all people. It is not in think tanks, it is not in bureaucracies, it is not in monied interests.“
If elected, Dill said he will not reach across the aisle. “I want to walk across it.”
“Why should we ignore one set of ideas because we are a member of a party that does not want to associate with the other party? That’s foolhardiness. If there are good ideas on both sides, let’s bring them together. That is what I am attempting to do.”
An agricultural attorney in Washington state and Idaho, Dill and his family moved from Seattle to Idaho in 1996 to work on the family farm.
“As an attorney and a farmer, I understand Idaho from the boots up,” he said.
“I am keenly interested in sound environmental policy,” he said. “We need to be taking steps to reduce our dependence on herbicides and pesticides, toxic chemicals which are ultimately detrimental to clean air and clean water and ultimately our way of life.”
Dill identifies three ways government can serve its people: “It can create/enhance a program. It can provide information to help individuals, families and communities. It can get out of the way.”
And when it comes to that first item – government programs, Dill’s fiscal conservatism comes into play.
“Where I propose spending money, it will always be offset by efficiency and always maintaining Idaho’s balanced budget,” he said.
And when it comes to improving Idaho’s roads, bridges, highways and rural schools, Dill says, “I am not interested into tapping into more federal funds, which further bankrupts our grandchildren and makes us beholden to the national government.”
Paulette Jordan: 'It is ingrained in my DNA'
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If elected, Paulette Jordan would be Idaho’s first female governor, its first Native American governor and, at age 38, one its youngest governors. She also would be the nation’s first female Native American governor.
Prior to being elected to two terms in the Idaho Legislature, Jordan was elected to the Coeur d'Alene Tribal Council, which governs and oversees the tribe's affairs, including education, health care, economic development, law enforcement and public works. She has also served with several national tribal organizations.
In tribal leadership, “the people are above and the leader is at the bottom,” Jordan explained.
“I come from a people who are wholly compassionate and very selfless. They have this mindset for leadership that put the people before themselves.”
She says that is exactly how she will govern.
So, if the male- and Republican-dominated Legislature is not cooperating with her, would she use her veto stamp and executive order power to achieve her agenda?
“That would be my last resort because I want to ultimately build respect among my fellow legislators,” she said.
“They work hard to be the voice of the people and they are there to represent their communities. I want to be respectful of those voices, so I would never want to go around them,” she said. “But if there is a point of contention where we could not reach an agreement and the will of the people by and large beyond them is saying one thing, I would represent the people.”
Jordan said she chose to run as a Democrat “simply to be a voice in a space where I would have the freedom to do so.”
“I am not coming from a place of partisanship,” she said. “The society I was raised by, these are good humble folks. They work hard. They are fiercely independent. We are not beholden to any party. We vote independently. We vote based on the values of the person.”
Improving Idaho’s quality of life and protecting its environment are top-line items for Jordan, who describes herself and her people as “wholly embedded in the land.”
“It is ingrained in my DNA,” she says of her love for and stewardship of the land.
“You inherit what your family has done for thousands of years,” she said. “My roots are very deep here. I come from thousands of years of lineage that has stood firm in defending and protecting our environment and our lands and having a very compassionate role in leadership.”
Like both of her opponents, Jordan does not think tax increases are warranted to address Idaho’s backlog of infrastructure, education and health care needs.
One of the first things Jordan wants to do is re-evaluate all corporate tax exemptions, corporate incentives and favored treatments for special interest groups, a request she repeatedly heard from voters.
“They are waking up,” she says of voters. “We have kids that are very mindful of that.”
When asked if reducing or ending corporate giveaways would yield enough savings to pay for the backlog, Jordan says it can be done because the state can do more with the money it already has by better managing its $3.7 billion budget.
“I know it seems frustrating and out of touch, but it is just common sense when you look at how much we waste already and how much we spend.”