Sen. Jim Risch’s late-night paroxysm on the Senate floor to keep Cecil Andrus’ name off of Idaho's White Clouds Wilderness he helped create shocked almost everyone.
The effort appears to have failed, giving Risch’s longtime political rival, who died last year, the last word. No matter what happens from now on, Risch’s temper tantrum will always be a part of his narrative.
President Donald Trump signed the omnibus spending bill Friday that included Republican Rep. Mike Simpson’s provision to add Andrus’ name to the iconic area in Central Idaho he devoted his career to preserve. Risch had gotten the Senate to vote for a correction that would need House approval later – approval that will not come because of Simpson’s objection.
What’s surprising is that Risch did not do it quietly and effectively.
But to understand why the powerful senator and former Idaho governor got to the place where he would threaten a government shutdown over such a small matter, you have to understand the politics of Idaho in the 1980s. Risch, as president pro tem of the Senate, and Andrus, as governor, fought vicious battles over education, taxes and power.
As soon as Andrus took office for his third term in 1986, he put out a dramatically higher education budget in an effort to make up for deep cuts made during the recession in the early 1980s. Risch and Republicans had largely gotten their way with former Gov. John Evans and now they were facing a tough, relentless Democrat.
Andrus used the press and speeches statewide to pressure Republicans, and in response Risch and his caucus upped their own education spending to be just slightly higher than what Andrus proposed.
“Andrus could be mean and nasty behind the scenes, but what we saw was a congenial, open leader,” said Chuck Malloy, now a political columnist for Idaho Politics Weekly and in the 1980s the political editor of the Post Register in Idaho Falls. “In so many ways Risch and Andrus were alike.”
The big difference was Andrus was extremely media savvy. His folksy Orofino logger image came through individually with voters, and through television and press reports.
He had already played on the national stage as Interior secretary under President Jimmy Carter, going toe-to-toe with Alaskan politicians such as Republican Rep. Don Young and Gov. Jay Hammond, who got a wilderness named after him in the same omnibus spending bill Thursday night. Convincing Carter to use the power play of proclaiming 55 million acres as a national monument with the signing of a pen, to force them to come to the table and finish the Alaska Lands Act, had prepared him to play hardball with a Republican Legislature in Idaho that always had the voting edge.
Risch came off as partisan and only interested in winning, which cost him. He lost his Boise seat to Democrat Mike Burkett in 1988 by a wide margin. He didn’t return to the Senate until 1995, after Andrus left.
They might have had a lot in common, but when they went head-to-head, Andrus usually came out on top. More important, they just didn’t like each other.
Andrus would ridicule Risch every chance he got, and it often got him big laughs. I remember specifically two instances.
The first was in 2013, when he was speaking to the Idaho Environmental Forum and Risch’s name came up over his successful effort to quash Republican Rep. Mike Simpson’s Boulder-White Clouds bill in 2010.
“That short little son of a bitch. Oops! I didn’t mean to call him short,” Andrus said. In all the years that I saw Risch speak, I never saw him attack Andrus the same way.
In 2015, Andrus and Rick Johnson were talking about Simpson’s renewed efforts to revive the bill that later was pushed through Congress with Risch’s critical support.
“If I ever agreed with Risch, say we’re both wrong,” Andrus said.
Andrus never gave Risch the credit he was due for finally helping get Simpson’s bill through the Senate, a final slight that must have continued eating away at Risch.
“Even from beyond the grave he could make Jim Risch look vindictive and stupid,” said Marc Johnson, Andrus’ former chief of staff.