Lori Otter could be described as graceful, charming, elegant or any of the other labels commonly applied to wives of powerful men in the public eye.
But Otter, wife of Idaho Gov. Butch Otter and CEO of a new nonprofit encouraging women to ascend to leadership positions, would rather be described as confident, articulate and tough.
“Miss Lori,” as her husband calls her, graduated from Kimberly High School before earning an associate’s degree at the College of Southern Idaho, a bachelor’s degree in physical education from Boise State University, and a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from Northwest Nazarene University. She worked for 12 years in public education, teaching physical education and health classes, and coaching basketball and volleyball, before entering administration after earning her master’s.
As first lady, Otter helped launch the Idaho Meth Project and its mission to reduce methamphetamine use in the state. This year, the nonprofit adopted a new name, the Idaho Prevention Project, and started a new billboard and media campaign focusing on the dangers of prescription drugs. Otter serves on the project’s board.
And this year, she became CEO of a group called Women in Leadership, a nonprofit that aims to coach and encourage women to climb corporate ladders as well as run for public office. She said 275 women attended the group’s kickoff event in October at The Grove Hotel in Boise. She plans to remain active in both groups when Gov. Otter’s term ends in January 2019.
There’s a lot of women who think they could never run for office. Why? You run the PTO. You run your husband’s business. Why can’t you run for office?
Idaho first lady Lori Otter
The Otters live in Star and commute down State Street to the Capitol. Her husband, 74, says he doesn’t plan to run for a fourth term after 12 years in office. Lori Otter, 49, a former Miss Idaho, says she will leave with unfinished business, especially when it comes to advocating for the next generation of female leaders, starting with legislation to help the Girl Scouts.
Q: As an educator and coach you worked with students of various ages, but the bulk was with middle-schoolers. That’s a notoriously difficult age.
A: Yes, but I loved it. They are so honest. It’s a hard age, and an untactful age, and that’s what I liked about it.
Q: Is there a woman who’s been particularly influential with you?
A: My parents always told me I could do anything, as long as I was willing to work for it. My mom was a military wife. She moved our family from coast to coast, by herself, while my dad was deployed. She’s a great, strong lady.
Q: How did you get involved in Women in Leadership?
A: It’s a brainchild of Scott Anderson [president and CEO of Zions Bank]. He started a similar group in Utah, the Women’s Leadership Institute. Scott approached me at a banquet, saying we should do something like that. Next thing you know, he’s saying, “We’re going to do this, and you are going to do it.” Zions is a founding sponsor.
Q: What are the group’s goals?
A: It is a nonprofit with two missions. First, we want to encourage women leaders in the corporate setting. Scott is dialed in with that. The more I dug into that, a lot of our Idaho companies are doing a great job with that.
The politics side is bipartisan, trying to get more women to run for public office. We will do some political leadership series.
Because of children and other obligations, women tend to put politics on the back burner. We want training and involvement started earlier so they understand it’s not so daunting.
Q: How will the group tackle those goals?
A: On the corporate side, we’ve teamed up with a group called Network of Executive Women, which is a grocery retailers and suppliers network. We’ve become a grocery retail hub in Idaho, especially the Treasure Valley. They do a lot of corporate training, so we’ve tried to increase their numbers in their corporate leadership programs to find professional women that would be a great asset in public service.
Q: And on the political side?
A: We are doing three-day candidate schools regionally. We will try to do four a year. The first will be in December, probably in the Zions building. Women can learn about media, campaign structure, finance law and party registration. It’s bipartisan. We’ll ask them to think about what they believe, politically, and how that fits into the framework of a campaign.
We have a deep pool of political resources with Butch’s connections. We think we can bring in quality speakers.
Q: You are not a lawmaker, but you are embedded in that world. Do you have advice for women?
A: It’s not as hard as they think. That’s one of the reasons I took Scott up on this. I’ve been trying to get a bill providing tax relief on Girl Scout cookies, and in a male-dominated Legislature, even as conservative as Idaho is, we are one of two states that taxes Girl Scout cookies.
It just fries me that we are so short-sighted and penalizing young females in leadership positions by taxing their sole fundraising opportunity. To me, it speaks a lot to how we view our young ladies coming up through the ranks, because they are our future leaders.
Our Girl Scouts program in Idaho is huge. They hustle. They make money to support the programs so they can go to camps and other things. They are entrepreneurial. You are teaching kids about business. They are selling their product.
We penalize our Girl Scouts. I’ve been trying for the last three years to get this done. They opened it in the House this year on caveat that it includes the Boy Scouts. The Girl Scouts couldn’t stand alone. Then Senator Siddoway [Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, chairman of the Senate Local Government and Taxation Committee] put it in the drawer again.
Q: This clearly struck a nerve.
A: I’m pretty independent, but that’s when I thought, “This has got to change. This is not a representation of how we should value our young ladies coming up through the ranks.” It really struck a chord with me.
I hear so many women say, “We’re doing so well.” But then I think about how the best press I’ve got in 10 years in office was because I wore the same dress twice, once at a function here and again in Washington, D.C. [The Idaho Statesman reported that story.] Butch has worn that same tux in that picture every time we go out. It’s the little things like that that got me fired up and made me realize females have come a long way, but there’s still a long way to go.
Q: Do women have further to go in Idaho than elsewhere?
A: I think Idaho is coming around to the fact that women bring something different to leadership. It’s not better. It’s not worse. We just have different ideas and have different ways of looking at things. Fortune 500 companies are usually pretty diligent about encouraging women to be involved on corporate boards. They’ve seen the return on investment from how policy is made.
Q: Did you face additional obstacles in your education career because you are a woman?
A: I didn’t, and I didn’t really think of it that way. But other women weren’t raised in a military family where they had three older brothers and they were the only girl. You keep up, or you get run over. I don’t know where I get it, but I’ve always had it.
Q: What do you do for fun?
A: Riding my horses. Golf. Team-rope. Hanging out with the grandkids. Taking the dogs for a walk. We have an Australian Shepherd, Duke, and an English Lab, Hank. We always get those breeds.
Q: Why those breeds?
A: We call it, “Security and PR.” The shepherd is is more aggressive, and the lab loves everybody. People usually refer to me as the Australian Shepherd and Butch as the Labrador.
Q: Are you going on the trade mission to China?
A: I’ve been to China three times. That’s enough for me. It’s not my favorite place.
There’s a lane I have to stay in here. I don’t always stay in it, but that’s what they tell me.
Q: How will your life change when you give up your seat?
A: I’ve worked hard to keep our lives as normal as possible. I think it’s going to be less of an adjustment for me, because I already gave up my career for this. I’d been a teacher and a coach, and it was completely independent of politics. He had no influence on that sphere, other than the fact his policies sometimes made me unpopular in the room. I’ll be able to do a little more professionally than I can now.
Q: Do you have any advice for whoever will be the next first lady?
A: Don’t be afraid to speak up. It’s a team sport. You have to find your niche. We go to conferences, and the first ladies come together. The new women come in shell-shocked. Like, “What has my husband done?”
Butch was lieutenant governor, and he was in Congress. Then, I did the fun stuff, the things I wanted to do with him.
In this job, there are days I want to stay home, or go to the movies with my mom, but there are much bigger expectations in this position. You have to learn to say no and embrace the things when you say yes.
I’ll be on speed dial if they need me. I don’t care if it’s a Democrat or a Republican. This office is what you make it. There’s no shortage of things that need to be done.
Q: The governor calls you “Miss Lori.” How did that come about?
A: You’d be surprised how many people call me “Miss Lori” around the state. I think it’s cute. It’s the first nickname I ever had. And I was born in Florida, and there’s a little southern left in me, so I like calling people miss, ma’am, or sir.
The Idaho Statesman asked state Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, the chairman of the Idaho Senate’s Local Government and Taxation Committee, to respond to Lori Otter’s criticism of him for blocking the proposed sales-tax exemption on Girl Scout cookies. He said he takes a dim view of proposals to add to the list of sales-tax exemptions already in law.
The exemption passed the Idaho House in February, but Siddoway used his authority as a Senate committee chairman to “put it in a drawer” — an expression that means to keep the bill from receiving a hearing and kill it without a vote.
“I’m sure what she said was truthful,” he told the Idaho Statesman. “I’ve been pretty hard against any of the exceptions unless they make real economic sense for the state of Idaho. For me, the cookie exemption hasn’t even come close to clearing that bar.
“I’m still pretty committed to standing my ground, and I’m sure that is frustrating for her.”