Not much changed in Idaho this election — but Ontario pot vote may point to our future

A man in Fruitland talks in 2012 to an Idaho State Police trooper who stopped him and charged him with possession of marijuana after leaving Oregon. The man said a friend bought the marijuana at a medical co-op in Ontario, Oregon.
A man in Fruitland talks in 2012 to an Idaho State Police trooper who stopped him and charged him with possession of marijuana after leaving Oregon. The man said a friend bought the marijuana at a medical co-op in Ontario, Oregon. AP

“The election of a generation,” we called it in a story April 2017.

Three of Idaho’s seven statewide elected offices were coming open in 2018, no incumbents running. The 1st Congressional District seat would be open, too.

Not since 1994 had Idaho seen so many open statewide seats in one election.

Fast-forward to November 2018. What change did we get?

Gov.-elect Brad Little is a smarter, savvier version of Gov. Butch Otter. Little’s relationships with the Legislature and its leaders should be his strength; cowboy Otter never figured out how to wrangle legislators, or if he even wanted to. But Little ran, and won, a stay-the-course campaign.

Ditto in the 1st Congressional District. Russ Fulcher is a kinder, gentler version of Raul Labrador, who endorsed him. Fulcher will be more approachable — a change in tone, but not policy. Stay the course.

The one undeniable change is the addition of a female lieutenant governor and treasurer, with a female state superintendent of schools already in place. That’s an important cultural moment for Idaho, even if policy does stay mostly the same.

The generational change Idaho may be witnessing is with Idaho’s perpetual minority party. As a candidate for governor, Paulette Jordan welcomed young, new, diverse activists and voters into state politics. It wasn’t enough to overcome Jordan’s disorganized candidacy, but those activated Democrats helped teacher Cindy Wilson give incumbent Sherri Ybarra a scare in the state school superintendent race.

This was the first election after the death of former Democratic Gov. Cecil Andrus. The party can no longer look to Andrus. Its leaders have to make the party their own. Emerging legislative leaders like Mat Erpelding and Melissa Wintrow, smart new Democratic voices like Wilson and Kristin Collum, and local leaders like Ada County Commissioner-elect Diana Lachiondo and Boise Councilwoman Lauren McLean may do just that.

“The generation symbolism cannot be ignored,” said Gary Moncrief, a political scientist retired from Boise State. “I really do believe there is a changing of the guard in the Democratic Party — and it has less to do with Paulette Jordan and more to do with people like Wilson and some of the young legislative talent.”

“The history of the Democrats in the state is of attachment to individuals — e.g., Andrus and Church — and not to party organization,” said College of Idaho political scientist and professor Jasper LiCalzi. “If the party can turn the excitement generated by Jordan, principally, into an organization that will last beyond her, then yes, this is a generational change for Democrats. The problem is the Democrats in Idaho never seem to fail to disappoint.”

Democrats have failed to build the farm system of local officials who can move into statewide office. There were no Democrats in the races for state controller or treasurer. That has to change if Idaho is to be a competitive two-party state.

“It’s hard for D’s in so many places like Idaho to move up the political ladder from local to statewide contests,” said NNU political scientist Steve Shaw. “We’ll see if a generational bump appears — I’m somewhat skeptical — for D’s and also if candidate recruitment gets a boost after this year.”


One of the most interesting elections for Idaho was in … eastern Oregon. As someone who travels to eastern Oregon often to visit Mom, I’ve been interested in Ontario’s vote on legalizing sale of recreational marijuana — not as a potential customer, but as a watcher of Idaho culture and potential cultural clashes. (I have visited Washington pot shops, and the brightly lighted, pharmacy-style experience was a surprise.) The measure passed with 54 percent support.

Heretofore, the closest Oregon pot store was in tiny, out-of-the-way Huntington, another 30 miles west. Ontario sits right on Interstate 84, an hour from Boise, and very close to Fruitland or even Caldwell. It offers the lure of shopping and dining in addition to a stop at a pot shop — what one friend called “plausible deniability” for a visit there. If 1A license plates fill Huntington parking spots, what will thousands of potential Treasure Valley customers do for much-closer Ontario? Potential retailers started camping outside City Hall last week, wanting to be first in line when permits for shops are issued at some unspecified date.

What will it mean for Idaho’s no-marijuana-ever stance, if residents can easily acquire legal products just across the border? How will leaders and law enforcement handle arrests and penalties for people who participate in legal commerce with a neighboring state? What will prohibition politicians say when supporters and donors, or their kids, get tickets and fines or jail time for bringing pot to Idaho, after engaging in what is an increasingly lawful act in the Northwest?

I was one of those who predicted Idaho would stick to its guns, and I’d not see legal pot in Idaho in my lifetime. No more. I’m beginning to think that Idaho’s zero-tolerance policy may yet go up in smoke.

Bill Manny is a longtime Statesman editor and writer and current IdahoPTV producer. Reach him at billmanny208@gmail.com.