With a ‘little bit more experience,’ A.J. Balukoff hits the campaign trail again

Idaho Democratic gubernatorial candidate A.J. Balukoff greets football fans in September 2014 before a college football game in Boise.
Idaho Democratic gubernatorial candidate A.J. Balukoff greets football fans in September 2014 before a college football game in Boise. AP file

A lot has happened nationally in the nearly four years since Republican Gov. Butch Otter defeated Democrat A.J. Balukoff in the 2014 gubernatorial race. A Democratic White House flipped over to a Republican one, bringing reversals on immigration, regulatory, environmental and other policies.

But in Idaho, not so much has changed, Balukoff said. From his perspective, education, health care and the gender pay gap remain stalled in a Gem State dominated by one party.

The one thing that did change? One of Idaho’s second-longest-serving governors (Otter will be tied with Robert Smylie) decided to retire.

The stagnation and the open gubernatorial seat convinced Balukoff, 71, to throw in for another run for governor. On Wednesday morning, the Boise businessman and school board member planned to officially launch his campaign with a multi-day, cross-state tour starting in Pocatello.

In a Tuesday phone interview, he reflected on the past four years:

“First of all, I’ve got a little bit more experience and know a little bit better about what I am getting into this time around. The issues haven’t changed a whole lot because in the state of Idaho, things in education haven’t changed a whole lot. They’ve funded education a little better, but so has everyone else, so we are still at the bottom of the barrel. We need to make sure we are living up to the constitutional mandate to provide a uniform and thorough education all across our state. That is still not being done.

“Health care is another big issue. We talked about Medicaid expansion four years ago. We are still talking about it. In a lot of respects, not a lot has changed in the landscape.”

Balukoff outlined key elements of his platform:

▪  Education: “Clearly number one in my book. I do not believe there is anything we do more important for our kids than provide an excellent education for them so that they are prepared for the jobs of the future. Jobs and a strong economy depend on a strong public education system.”

▪  Health care: “The politicians in charge of our state Legislature, for some reason, have refused to do what I think should be an easy decision — to expand Medicaid and cover the people that don’t have access to health care right now. The easiest solution for Idaho is for Idaho to expand Medicaid. Idahoans are already paying federal taxes that fund this expansion. This expansion is going on in other states, so Idahoans are helping to expand Medicaid in every other state, but we are not getting anything in our state. We are leaving the money on the table.” On new health insurance proposals by Gov. Butch Otter: “The plans that I have seen are skinny plans. To my way of thinking that is similar to buying automobile insurance that just covers you on the interstate. I do not have a lot of faith in these skinny plans that Republicans are talking out.”

▪  Public lands: “We have some politicians who want to put things in motion that would lead to selling off our public lands. Having access to our public lands is an Idaho tradition and heritage. We need to make sure than we maintain access and we preserve our public lands and waterways for the generations that follow us.”

▪  Gender pay gap: “Idaho women make 76 cents for every dollar that Idaho men make in the workplace. We have got to make sure that we provide equal pay for equal work.”

Not going up against an incumbent levels the playing field a little more, Balukoff said.

But he said he relishes having at least one Democratic challenger in the May primary. North Idaho Rep. Paulette Jordan also seeks the nomination.

“A contested primary gives Democrats an opportunity to put Democratic values out there, so it is just not one primary everyone is paying attention to, but we are paying attention to the vision for the state on the Democratic Party,” Balukoff said. “I think people will be energized. I am excited for the opportunity to start putting out our values and vision sooner than we maybe would have been able to if there had been no primary challenge.”

Balukoff said he hopes Idaho will participate in any sort of “blue wave” that some political analysts suggest may boost Democrats’ fortunes in the 2018 midterms.

“I would hope we would bring some balance to our state government,” he said. “We have had a one-party domination for 57 years. People are not happy with where that one-party domination has taken us. ... I think people are ready to take a look at the Democratic values of fairness, making education truly important, making sure all Idahoans have access to health care and that we protect our public lands.”

Balukoff said he also wants to bring a better tone and tenor to the Gem State’s election season than what has been happening nationally.

“I think people are tired of negative campaigns and calling your opponent names,” he said. “I plan to run a very positive campaign to show an optimistic vision for Idaho. I think people here in Idaho know that we desperately need change from the way we have been doing things.”

But first, Balukoff wants to hear from Idahoans. Over the next few days, he is holding campaign events in Idaho Falls, Twin Falls, Ketchum, Coeur d’Alene and Boise.

“I am looking forward to getting around the state and having conversations with the people of Idaho,” Balukoff said. “That is one of the things I really enjoyed about the campaign in 2014 was getting out to all parts of the state and talking to people and hearing what was on their minds and what’s important to them.”

Cynthia Sewell: 208-377-6428, @CynthiaSewell