Four differing Idahoans — the longest serving Republican governor, his former Democratic challenger, the last Democrat to represent the Gem State in Congress, and an Olympic athlete — are joining forces to tackle the incivility and partisanship plaguing national politics.
Former Republican Gov. Butch Otter and former Democratic U.S. Rep. Walt Minnick are co-chairing a statewide board along with Olympic three-time gold medalist Kristin Armstrong and about two dozen other political, business and community leaders in the state.
Helming the endeavor is Keith Allred, who challenged Otter in 2010 and is the new director of The National Institute for Civil Discourse, which was formed following the 2011 shooting of then-U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords. The organization’s mission is addressing the incivility and dysfunction in American life, and repairing American democracy.
Allred, Minnick and Otter met with the Statesman on Tuesday to talk about their vision to replace toxic political discourse with one based on respect and productivity.
Congressional dysfunction needs common-sense solution
Longstanding and deeply ingrained dysfunction in Congress and Washington, D.C., shows no sign of righting itself.
“Part of what has gone wrong, as the parties become more polarized, is they are not picking issues in D.C. right now for the sake of solving them, they are trying to find the best club to beat up on each other with,” Allred said.
“If we are holding our breath waiting for the two parties to solve this current civility crisis, we are going to be disappointed,” he added.
Allred sees the solution: The American people need to step up.
“I really believe the American people will be our saving grace,” he said. “I don’t think we are going to climb out of this ditch we have gotten into without the American people. We cannot just wait for the political parties and elected officials to do it.”
Minnick agrees that deeply divided partisanship does not mirror the lives of everyday people.
“If you look at the major issues of the day, whether they be school shootings, climate change, runaway federal deficits or trade, none of those issues are inherently partisan,” he said.
All three agree on who can fix the problem — the average American — and how: find the middle ground.
The challenge is giving those in the center the ability and confidence to rise above the cacophony and implement meaningful change.
To help accomplish this, Allred wants to create civility boards in each state to lead by example and “to champion civil discourse in the country to make the point that this republic won’t function if just one party gets to impose its will on everybody else.”
“If you do not bring your best game, to really listen to both sides, you are not going to solve problems,” he said.
The Idaho way
Otter said Idaho has examples of civility in its past.
“When I was elected lieutenant governor and (Democrat Cecil Andrus) was governor, Cece and I agreed from the get-go that there were more important problems for the state than either one of our political agendas,” Otter said. “We had our disagreements in the back office, but that is where they stayed. … We got along great, to the chagrin of both of our parties.”
But not only has Idaho worked to maintain civility among its politicians, it has led on civil discourse and public policy, Allred said.
Over the years, leaders from various, sometimes warring, groups have come together to address water issues and to get the Owyhee and Boulder White-Clouds wilderness compromises passed through Congress.
“I have always believed the best public policy is rendered from full knowledge of both sides, and in some case three sides,” Otter said. “I think Idaho can be the model. We seem to have our problems from time to time, but we always seem to come back together and get the job done.”
This Idaho way is one of the reasons Allred, a fifth generation Idahoan, chose his home state to launch his national organization’s first bipartisan state advisory board.
Allred reached out to Otter, his political rival in the 2010 gubernatorial election (spoiler alert: Otter won), and asked him to co-chair the board.
“We had a spirited campaign, but we did it in a friendly, civil, even a warm way,” Allred said.
Otter said his first question was, “Who is the other co-chair?” When Allred told him it was Minnick, Otter responded, “I’m in.”
“Walt’s campaigns were very gentlemanly,” Otter said. “They were on the issues and they were looking for bi-partisan solutions.”
Allred invited 24 other Idahoans to the board, some are political powerhouses, like Senate Pro-Tem Brent Hill and House Speaker Scott Bedke, both Republicans, and Democrats Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb and Rep. Melissa Wintrow. Others included, like Armstrong, are instead community or business leaders.
“Like most Idahoans, I haven’t been deeply involved in politics,” Armstrong said in a news release. “But I strongly believe that we as citizens have to do our part to bring common sense to politics.”
The National Institute for Civil Discourse will host a public event at 7 p.m. Friday, May 17, in the Simplot Ballroom at the Boise State Student Union Building to introduce its Idaho State Advisory Board and discuss how Idahoans can be part of the effort.