J.R. Simplot's Legacy

Popkey: J.R. Simplot didn't play favorites

J.R. Simplot always saw government as just another cog in his machine.

When I joined him for dinner at the Arid Club in Boise in April 2001, Simplot was warned to watch what he said to me because I write about politics and it might wind up in the paper.

"Don't worry!" he barked. "He can't find out what my politics are! I've played both sides my whole life!"

For Simplot, partisan neutrality was key to getting what he needed from government: water for his fields, grass for his cattle, phosphate for his fertilizer plants, a big customer for his products - and an occasional tax break along the way.

"He was genuinely apolitical," said former Republican Gov. Phil Batt, who knew Simplot for more than 40 years. "While he was a great free-enterpriser, he used government a lot. He struck a lot of good deals."

As a state senator in the 1980s, Batt fought a tax credit for ethanol - which was a big benefit to Simplot - because he opposed government subsidies. Simplot and his allies won. "His reasoning was it was money in his pocket and he didn't worry about the political philosophy," Batt said. "There are numerous examples of that."

Another governor who knew Simplot well, Democrat Cecil Andrus, agreed. "He was known to play both sides, but it was always to his advantage. Whether it was water or land, Jack didn't hesitate to use every federal program in the world."

Simplot made his first fortune selling dehydrated potatoes to the government during World War II and built long-term wealth by winning bids for phosphate on federal land.

But he resented regulation. During a 1987 interview about Idaho's energy future, he told me he'd build 100 coal-fired power plants on the Snake River if he could just - in the unique vernacular he used for impediments - "get the ecology kicks out of the road."

Andrus remembered how difficult it was to persuade Simplot to help clean up the Snake, where he and others were dumping raw sewage, in 1971. "It was a scum pool," Andrus said.

Andrus went to Simplot, thinking that if he could get him to agree to treat waste from his potato-processing plant at Heyburn, Simplot would bring along other polluters.

"Jack said, 'Jesus Christ, Guv, that's why I built that plant on the river - so I'd have a place to throw my trash,' " Andrus recalled.

Andrus countered with a threat: He'd invite reporters to watch him drive wooden plugs into Simplot's effluent pipes. "He sat there, looked at me, and said, 'If I do it, will you guarantee all my competitors have to? I don't want to be at an economic disadvantage.' "

Andrus - who in 1988 helped persuade Simplot not to move Micron Technology to Oregon - said negotiating with the Spud King was tough. "He treated every occasion like he played gin rummy. It's like an athletic contest you've got to win at any cost."

But when the game was over, Simplot moved on. The day before the Snake River treatment plant was to open, Simplot called to say he'd meet the governor at the airport and fly him to the ribbon-cutting. "You gotta go throw the switch on that turd-crusher you made me build," Simplot told Andrus.

"He had to be forced to do what's right, but when he decided it had to be done, he stepped up and did it," Andrus said.

Simplot didn't ask for anything somebody else couldn't get. He was just better at it than most.

Former U.S. Rep. Bob Smith, R-Ore., who chaired the House Agriculture Committee, was impressed that Simplot never sought to expand federal subsidies to cover potatoes and cattle. "He never asked for any special treatment, but he's taken full advantage of what was out there for everybody else."

Simplot was a big-time businessman for 50 years before the J.R. Simplot Co. hired its first lobbyist, Mark Dunn, in 1994.

"His attitude was, if you're a good neighbor and give people jobs, they ought to just leave you alone," Dunn said. "And because he was J.R. Simplot, he was able to pick up the phone and call a U.S. senator and talk."

After six years on the job, Dunn finally got a compliment.

"My God, son, you're doin' a hell of a job," Simplot said. "I wasn't real hot about bringin' you on board, but we shoulda done it 30 years ago."

In 1999, Simplot read a story in the paper about a visit from Chinese Ambassador Li Zhaoxing. Unaware that his company was hosting a country club dinner for Li, Simplot showed up at a lunch downtown instead.

"With no invitation or anything, he just goes over," Dunn recalled. "I'm standing there thinking, 'Oh, no, what's going to happen?' He's calling the ambassador 'Bub' and slapping him on the back and saying, 'I've got plants over there!'

"But the ambassador loved J.R. He insisted he sit at the head table, and he wrote him a poem," Dunn recalled. "He had that extra sparkle that attracted people. They loved being around him; they loved listening to him."