Pot-growing 'outlaw,' economics author face off for Idaho congressional seat

Aaron Swisher, left, and Peter Rickards are both Democratic candidates for Idaho's 2nd Congressional District in the May 15, 2018 primary.
Aaron Swisher, left, and Peter Rickards are both Democratic candidates for Idaho's 2nd Congressional District in the May 15, 2018 primary.

Peter Rickards had all but given up on Idaho.

The longtime anti-nuclear activist and repeat candidate for statewide office was tired of not getting through to voters. And after a publicized arrest for growing marijuana, his political aspirations felt more distant than ever. He put his Twin Falls home up for sale and set his sights on Oregon.

Then, while watching Republican politicians debate Obamacare alternatives on TV one night, the retired podiatrist changed his mind.

“I literally pulled out my ‘for sale’ sign and said, ‘I’m going to give this one more try,’” Rickards said. “The good news is that I have forgiven the people of Idaho. And instead of turning my back on them, I am willing to try to help one more time.”

Rickards, an outspoken opponent of nuclear energy, is no stranger to running for office.

He challenged then-U.S. Rep. Mike Crapo in the 1996 Republican primary, made a bid for governor as an independent two years later, and ran against then-Rep. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, as a Democrat in 2008.

Now he’s turning his attention once again to Congress, running as a Democrat for the District 2 seat currently held by U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, a Republican. He’ll face Aaron Swisher, an economist from Boise, in the Democratic primary on May 15.

Rickards said he decided to run as a Democrat this time around because he leans more to the left than to the right on social issues. But he considers himself a fiscal conservative.

While he’s eager to work on a broad range of issues, such as increasing choice in healthcare coverage and ending “unwinnable wars in the Middle East,” Rickards has two main priorities: marijuana legalization and ridding Idaho of nuclear energy and waste.

“A meltdown at INL could force the evacuation of southern Idaho,” Rickards said. “Why in the world would we take the risk of evacuating the most beautiful place in the nation?”

Instead, he suggests, the state should focus on other forms of energy, such as geothermal, solar and wind.

His other priority, the legalization of marijuana, is a matter of both ethics and economics for Rickards. If the state — or the country — were to legalize marijuana, he says, it could bring in money while reducing the costs of policing and incarceration.

“The only law that won’t be broken is the law of supply and demand,” he said. “We can tax it and regulate it and grow it here in America, or spend billions making El Chapo and the next El Chapo after him. It never stops.”

Though he worried that his 2013 arrest might impede his chances of winning an election, he won’t apologize for growing his own marijuana. He sees his crop as an act of civil disobedience.

“There’s a huge difference between an outlaw and a criminal,” Rickards said. “I’m proud to be an outlaw.”

His primary opponent, Swisher, also has a “D” next to his name. But the two differ when it comes to background and platform.

Swisher, who has worked in economics and finance, is the author of “Resuscitating America: An Independent Voter’s Guide to Restoring the American Dream.” The 2011 book serves as a blueprint of sorts for his vision if elected.

“I think a lot of the economic approaches that are taken in Washington, those on the Republican and Democratic side, are misguided,” Swisher said. “I would like to take a different approach to Washington...that will hopefully revive the economy and give us a different approach for balancing the budget.”

What might that approach look like?

“The basis of it is undoing, or reducing, the extreme level of income disparity that we have in our society,” Swisher said. “The goal is to raise wages for working people, build a stronger middle class, and then use that as a springboard for solving all sorts of societal issues, as well as fiscal issues.”

That would mean raising the minimum wage while simultaneously implementing tax reform that focuses on individuals and small businesses, Swisher said.

Also on Swisher’s to-do list: immigration and trade reform.

“Both of these would be done in a way that our immigration and trade policies are fair to American workers and don’t undermine people’s abilities to go out and earn a good living,” he said.

Swisher, like Rickards, is in favor of green energy, though his approach is different. An energy plan posted on Swisher’s campaign website calls for establishing a gradually increasing BTU tax, eliminating all fossil fuel subsidies and tax credits, and encouraging “smart growth” at INL.

“I can tell my opponent is committed to the environment, as I am as well,” Swisher said. “But I also try to research every issue and come up with a comprehensive, well-rounded knowledge of both sides, so to speak, in that issue.”

The winner of the Democratic primary will face Simpson, who is serving his sixth term in the U.S. House of Representatives, in the general election in November.

But regardless of which candidate finds himself in Washington come January, it’s likely that Idaho voters won’t be seeing the last of Peter Rickards anytime soon.

“Even if I lose this time, I would consider doing it again because it’s just so invigorating. I really enjoy it,” Rickards said. “The fact is you can never change society if your name’s not on the ballot.”

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