Editor’s note: This is the first of two profiles of Idaho’s major-party candidates for governor in 2018. Coming next week: Democratic nominee Paulette Jordan.
The big question, on this hot and smoky Tuesday night at Memorial Stadium, was who would reach into the baseball cap and pull out the name of a deserving student to receive a $1,000 scholarship to the College of Western Idaho.
Would it be Humphrey, the Boise Hawks team mascot, tall and big-beaked, with outsized claws and wings that would be hard pressed to fit into a 10-gallon hat, let alone a ball cap? Or would it be the guest of honor, here in his official capacity, the No. 2 man in the state of Idaho sharing the stage on this night with a guy in a cartoon bird suit?
“What am I gonna do, make 20 people mad and one happy?” joked Lt. Gov. Brad Little, as the CWI crowd in the Hawks Nest laughed and the hometown team faced off against the Tri-City Dust Devils.
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“Have Humphrey do it. I wanna make everybody happy.” Little paused. Grinned. “At least for 98 days.”
That 98th day is Nov. 6, when Idaho voters will pick their next governor. They’ll choose between Little and Paulette Jordan, between the tried-and-true and the brand new, the third-generation Idaho rancher and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe member he describes as “a big wild change,” a “continuation” of the “socialist from Vermont” (Bernie Sanders) who won Idaho’s Democratic presidential caucuses in 2016.
Idahoans haven’t picked a Democratic governor for more than a generation. And it’s not as if Little, the Republican in the race, is wanting for name recognition. His grandfather, Andy Little, was the “Idaho Sheep King.” His late father, rancher David Little, was a long-time state senator.
Little himself filled in for his ailing dad during the 1981 and 1985 legislative sessions. And he represented his Emmett-area district in the state Senate for almost nine years before he was appointed lieutenant governor. He has since been re-elected twice to his current job.
So, the 64-year-old cattle rancher doesn’t have to prove who he is. His task, in part, is to prove who he isn’t: Gov. Butch Otter, the man who named him to the No. 2 spot in 2009 and with whom he has served ever since.
“Some people know of him, kind of have a general sense of what he’d do, but it would be difficult for them to separate him from Otter,” said Jaclyn Kettler, an assistant professor who specializes in American politics in the School of Public Service at Boise State University.
Little’s website features some details of his plans for office, and he’s spoken to the Statesman on issues like school spending, shootings and government waste. His main priority, he’ll tell anyone who’ll listen, is that he wants Idaho to be a state where young people want to stay — or at very least, come back to. That will take a better education system, he says, better infrastructure, better jobs.
But Kettler said that, for rank-and-file Idahoans, “it’s not clear what his ideas are. People know of him but not what he wants to do. … It probably won’t really hurt his campaign. But it is hard to differentiate at times how he will be different from the Otter administration.”
More willing to dive in
On a Monday afternoon in late July, Little leaned back in a slate blue recliner at the American Red Cross headquarters on Franklin Road. He was donating plasma in what was either a campaign stop or an official visit; like many of his appearances these days, it was hard to tell which one.
Little is among the 0.6 percent of humans with AB negative blood, and he donates plasma and platelets as often as his schedule allows. His mother, aunt and godmother, he said, ran regularly scheduled blood drives in his hometown of Emmett.
On this day, the right sleeve of his white dress shirt was rolled up high. The needle in his arm was obscured by a piece of gauze. The white pad kept falling to the floor as he tried to explain, over the hissing of nearby medical equipment, the difference between him and the man whose job he wants.
“Oh, there’s a lot of style differences,” Little said. “And, I can tell you that the first part of the Butch Otter governorship was different from the end of it. Things change, what he did on education, what you’re doing on taxes, what you’re doing, look at the changes in health care that have happened.
“That was the first meeting I had this morning, was one on health care. I was actually talking to somebody on the congressional staff this afternoon about it, is, you’ve got to, there’s a lot of change taking place. A lot of growth in Idaho, but a lot of change taking place. You have to adapt to that change.”
Eight days later, during an interview at his campaign office, Little was asked again about how he might differ from Otter as a governor. He returned to his earlier theme, that Otter was a different politician at the beginning of his career in government than he is today.
But he also gave a concrete and telling example of how his governing “style” would be different from his potential predecessor’s.
“I think my inclination is, I’m kind of more apt to dive into the minutiae of governance more,” he said.
Little’s hands-on approach is at the root of what he describes as his proudest moments as lieutenant governor. In the interests of economic development, he said, he was willing to “kind of go anywhere, and it was usually in response to a company or a community that wanted me to help.” That was especially true during the depths of the Great Recession “when we had real, real critical employment issues.”
One example that stands out in his mind, he said, was when he helped bring Clif Bar & Co. to Twin Falls. Two years ago, the organic energy bar maker opened its first company-owned bakery in the Magic Valley. The $90 million, 300,000-square-foot plant employs about 300 people today.
One of the reasons Little remembers the Clif Bar effort so well is because a key meeting for clinching the deal was held on the 35th anniversary of his wedding to the former Teresa Soulen.
“My job was to convince Clif Bars that Twin Falls wasn’t all about dairy cows. I talked about the other companies that were there. Clif Bars is an ESOP,” he said, a company that offers an employee stock ownership plan. “Clear Springs trout is an ESOP. WinCo’s an ESOP.
“I talked about the non-dairy part of the industry in Idaho, and particularly around the Magic Valley,” he continued. “They’d be a great addition. And it got done, so that was good. And they’re one of the top employers and the top wage payers in the Magic Valley.”
Don Hall was vice mayor at the time and the Twin Falls City Council’s lead in the effort to woo Clif Bar. He described Little’s participation as “very instrumental” in bringing the company to his city.
Equally significant, Hall recounted, was the fact that “it was his anniversary. He jumped in a vehicle, drove to Twin Falls and helped us land Clif Bar. We’ve since apologized to Teresa. ... It means a lot to a company that he sacrificed personal time because it was important to him.”
Attorney Ed Miller represented Clif Bar in that negotiation. He also represented two other firms that he said Little helped land for Idaho cities: Amy’s Kitchen, a Petaluma, California-based purveyor of organic and vegetarian food, which took over a former H.J. Heinz food plant in Pocatello. And Chobani, which opened what’s billed as the world’s largest yogurt processing plant in Twin Falls, a $450 million, 1-million-square-foot behemoth.
The time couldn’t have been more critical, recalled Hall, who was mayor when Chobani broke ground in 2011 and is now a Twin Falls County commissioner.
“When Chobani came, we were in the middle of the recession,” Hall said. “What a game-changer for our community. It’s kind of emotional to me. I always equate it to our people and the ability for them to have jobs and afford Christmas presents under the tree for their kids.”
Critics & support
Miller considers the lieutenant governor a close friend and has held several fundraisers for Little at the home he shares with wife Teri Stein in the gated Boise subdivision, The Island at River Run. Miller and Stein also have hosted events for Democrat Holli Woodings, a Boise City Council member and former state lawmaker.
“My observation over time is that good government comes from good people, good human beings, good citizens,” said Miller, who calls himself a “Republicrat.” “Brad’s the kind of guy who’s going to treat the janitor at the Statehouse the same way he’s going to treat the governor. … He’s thoughtful. He’s respectful of what people have to say. He’s a good thinker. He’s a smart guy.”
Then that “good guy” unveiled a flurry of negative ads right before the May Republican primary. Miller said he found them “disappointing.” Little wasn’t the only gubernatorial candidate to go nasty, but to those who know him and moderates who supported him, his shift in tone was a jarring departure.
In one Little attack ad, a deep-voiced narrator bashed rivals Rep. Raul Labrador and Tommy Ahlquist on a myriad of immigration-related semi-truths. The ad also threw around the term “illegals” when referring to undocumented workers.
Betty Richardson, a prominent Democrat and former U.S. attorney, raised the ad in a scorching commentary to the lieutenant governor after his primary victory: “Your incessant use of this pejorative and divisive term was unconscionable. When you refer to people as ‘illegals,’ you use the term as a noun, implying that the person’s very existence — as opposed to their actions — is criminal.”
Without the negative ads, Miller said, “the outcome of that [primary] would have been different, I think. You either have to rise — or fall? — to the occasion. I don’t know what the right word is. Don’t ask me to defend negative ads by anybody.
“What I would hope is that he not be judged based on political ads in a primary.”
Little also drew questions for the way he and Otter rolled out a January proposal to let Idaho health insurers sell plans that don’t fully comply with the Affordable Care Act. Both men signed an executive order to allow the plans. Four months before the primary, Little declared in columns and social media posts he was “ending Obamacare for many Idahoans.”
Criticism was quick to follow: Little’s effort, some griped, appeared more about his campaign than about health care and the benefit of Gem State residents. Idaho is still working with the Trump administration on a way to allow the plans after regulators warned they seemed to violate the law.
Those negative interludes seem to have drifted out of the political consciousness already. And Little is getting support — or at least open-mindedness — in some unexpected places.
Columnist Chris Carlson served as press secretary for the late Cecil Andrus, Idaho’s last Democratic governor and a beloved elder statesman. He wrote an affectionate biography, titled “Cecil Andrus: Idaho’s Greatest Governor.” A centrist member of an increasingly populist party, he supported AJ Balukoff in the Democratic primary and has been critical of Jordan.
On July 30, he wrote a goodbye column, announcing that he is dying of a rare form of neuroendocrine cancer. The headline? “Opinion: Columnist Chris Carlson says goodbye -- and vote for Little.”
“(Little) is more than qualified, has paid his dues, has crisscrossed the state, knows all the issues and now that he is out from under the shadow of Governor Otter, will be free to adopt his own approach to solving the challenges,” Carlson wrote.
And some of Idaho’s most conservative voices, who in recent years often criticized Otter, are treating Little gently so far.
Bjorn Handeen, a conservative activist from Coeur d’Alene, said he is supporting the lieutenant governor in November because “I suspect that the more we as far-right conservatives engage with Brad Little, the more that he’s already demonstrated his willingness to listen to our views. It’s our job to help convince him.”
Wayne Hoffman, president of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, pointed to 2003, when then-state Sen. Little voted to cut state spending during that year’s recession. However, and it’s a big however, “when it came time to raise taxes, he also voted to raise taxes,” Hoffman said. “I wouldn’t describe him as liberal, but he’s not a strong conservative voice.”
That said, Hoffman noted Little has gone out of his way to reach out to the Freedom Foundation. The lieutenant governor has visited the group’s offices, Hoffman said, met with its board members and was “receptive” to various policy issues the group stands for.
“What we’re trying to do right now is talk about how Brad can lead as a conservative and do the things that the current governor has not been willing to do: occupational licensure reform, health care reform, more choice in education, reduce taxes with the goal to eliminate some of the more egregious taxes.”
‘We can get things done’
The general election campaign is slowly gearing up, and the political knives are still sheathed — for now. It is the getting-to-know-you phase of the race. After decades traversing Idaho as rancher, businessman and elected official, Little has a leg up on his opponent.
Not that he necessarily needs one, says Matthew Miles, professor of political science at Brigham Young University-Idaho. “All you need to say in this state,” Miles said, “is ‘I’m a farmer, I’ve been here forever, I’m a Republican. That’s it.”
Still, Little has more to say than just that. The people of Idaho should vote for him, he said, “I think, because we can get things done.” If you like the trajectory Idaho’s on, vote for him, he said, “if you want to continue that.”
Which doesn’t answer the question dogging the candidate: How Little will be different from the man he hopes to replace.
But for Republicans in Idaho, will he really need to be?