Larry Craig

From shy farm boy to powerful senator: Craig left a mark on national policy (see photo gallery)

By Rocky Barker and Gregory Hahnrbarker@idahostatesman.comghahn@idahostatesman.com

Sen. Larry Craig rose from his family’s Crane Creek ranch near Midvale to the pinnacle of power as one of the most senior members of the U.S. Senate.

His success was built on methodical discipline, keen intellect and oratory skills in the tradition of his Idaho predecessors Sens. William Borah and Frank Church.

Most of all, Craig was able to continually reinvent himself, to mature and evolve from a shy, overweight farm boy to a powerful, if partisan, voice for farmers, loggers, miners, energy interests and adopted children.

As a youth, he became a national leader of the Future Farmers of America and a campus leader at the University of Idaho.

He entered Idaho politics as a moderate Republican and became more conservative when elected to Congress in the Reagan Revolution in 1980.

There he developed a strident partisanship he carried through his move to the Senate in 1990, the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 and the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998 and 1999. As his power grew he reshaped himself again, reaching across the aisle to Democrats to make adoption easier, help forest communities and promote energy development.

He even teamed up with one of the most liberal members of Congress, Democrat Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, in an unsuccessful bid to reform the nation’s immigration laws earlier this year and provide a path to citizenship for undocumented workers. Despite his role in the Republican Party, Craig would team up with anyone, if he thought the result could help Idaho, his former staffers say.

How long will it take to replace him?

“It’s going to take 27 years,” said Toni Lawson, a health expert and former Craig staffer. “And someone who is as willing as he was to work with people.”

Anyone who replaces Craig will rank last out of 100 senators, and regardless of political skills, the new lawmaker won’t be able to replicate Craig’s influence, Lawson said.

“Any new person doesn’t have that sense of comfort,” she said. “That sense of knowing when he can push the envelope and when he can’t.”

MODERATE ROOTS, CONSERVATIVE CRED

Craig’s political career began in 1972 when he campaigned for Republican Gov. Bob Smylie, who was one of the last of the Nelson Rockefeller moderates as Reagan conservatives were taking over the Idaho GOP.

He was elected to the Idaho Senate in 1974.

“In the Legislature, we thought he was liberal because he was educated and thought about things more broadly than the rest of us," Emmett Republican Sen. Brad Little said in 2002.

When Steve Symms gave up the 1st District seat in Congress, Craig ran and won in 1980.

Craig now called himself a conservative and appealed to conservative and business interest groups.

In July 1982, Craig faced his first personal challenge in office. He issued a pre-emptive press statement when a New York reporter contacted his staff and said he would be linked to a Justice Department investigation into a sex scandal involving House pages. Craig, a bachelor, said the allegations were an attempt to assassinate his character and ruin his political career.

But he was never linked to the scandal in which several congressmen were chastised. His opponents tried to belittle Craig for his defensiveness, but he defeated Larry LaRocco in the November Senate election by 11,000 votes.

In 1983, after they had dated for three years, he married Suzanne Thompson, a divorced mother of three and director of the Idaho Beef Council. He adopted her three children, and they got a house in Boise.

Craig’s time in the House was unremarkable. The Democrats were in charge, and he had little chance to push his legislative initiatives through. He became one of the leading voices against gun control and gained a seat on the board of directors of the National Rifle Association.

He also became an early supporter of the balanced budget amendment. At a time when Democrats were in control and deficits were soaring, the amendment was an effective tool for asserting his role as a fiscal conservative.

He never succeeded, though — even with the rhetoric of the 1994 “Republican Revolution” — to pass the measure.

FIGHTING CLINTON'S 'WAR ON THE WEST’

In the Senate in the 1990s, Craig became a champion for ranchers, farmers, loggers, miners and motorized recreationists — all, he said, threatened by what Craig called Bill Clinton’s “War on the West.”

When Symms left in 1992, Craig became the senior member of the Idaho congressional delegation and one of the leading voices of Western natural resources interests. He used the threat of filibuster to stop several grazing and mining reforms he opposed. He used appropriations bill riders to shape salmon and water policy in the Columbia Basin.

He became the major defender of the Bonneville Power Administration, which sells electricity from the region’s public hydro dams at cost to public utilities in Washington, Oregon Idaho and Montana.

His own legislative proposals had only industry backing, and he was unwilling to compromise. He continued the strident partisanship he had shown in his House days.

The partisanship paid off in 1994 for Republicans, who gained control of both the House and the Senate. But Clinton was still in the White House.

INDEPENDENCE BROUGHT BY POWER

Craig rose to the fourth-highest Senate leadership position in his first term, when Republicans elected him chairman of the Republican Policy Committee. After defeating businessman Walt Minnick to win his second Senate term, he was re-elected to the post responsible for developing policy positions for Senate Republicans.

During his second Senate term, Craig began reaching across the aisle, not just to conservative Democrats but to liberals, to help get legislation passed. He joined with Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu and other Democrats to pass a tax credit increase to $10,000 for families who adopt.

Then Craig, an adoptive father himself and one of the Senate’s leading advocates for adoption, joined with Democrats to pass the Adoption and Safe Families Act, which gave financial incentives to states to increase the number of adoptions of children waiting in the foster-care system.

In 2000, he joined with Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden and the Clinton administration to pass one of the few acts that carries his name — a law that increased timber payments to counties that have lost timber income over the past 10 years.

“The most important thing wasn’t for him to have his name on a piece of legislation,” Lawson said. “The most important thing was that the policy would go through.”

Lawson is her own best example of Craig’s Idaho-centric independence. Craig hired Lawson to advise him on health policy not long after North End Democrats picked her as one of three candidates to replace Dave Bieter.

“I was not one of the top Republican candidates out there,” she said. “He wanted someone from Idaho who could look at health care policy and understand the impact for Idaho.”

FALTERING AT THE TOP

After easily defeating Alan Blinken of Ketchum in the 2002 election, Craig lost his bid for assistant majority leader to Sen. Mitch McConnell R-Ky., who eventually would become the Republican leader in the Senate — and one of the Republicans to call for an ethics inquiry this week.

Craig’s power in the national party waned but his seniority keep him in a position to steer national policy.

In 2003, he also joined Wyden and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California in passing the Healthy Forest Act, which helped communities thin surrounding forests with less rules, to reduce the threat from forest fires.

Craig’s biggest victory was the Energy Act of 2005, which authorized the Next Generation Nuclear Plant at Idaho National Laboratory, helped Idaho Power scale back the costs of new licenses for the Hells Canyon dams, and provided billions of dollars in subsidies for the nuclear industry, oil and gas companies and coal mining companies. Craig personally added amendments to aid each of these industries, which had supported him since he was elected to the Senate.

But his devotion to another resource industry — agriculture — left him fighting a growing number of fellow Republicans and conservatives on immigration, one of the hottest political topics in the country.

“I respect him a lot for continuing to recognize the complexity of that issue and not backing down,” Lawson said. “He was putting his neck on the line for Idaho farmers.”

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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