Larry Craig

Step by step, senator rose to power in Washington

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 matured, evolving 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 the U.S. House in the Reagan Revolution in 1980.

There he developed the sharp 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.

Yet 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, Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, in an unsuccessful bid to reform immigration laws earlier this year.

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 care policy expert who worked in Craig's office for about two years. "And someone who is as willing as he was to work with people."

Craig's predecessor, former GOP Sen. Jim McClure, spent 24 years in Congress. He said Craig gained the knowledge and contacts to get things done. One measure of it was being elected to lead the Senate GOP Conference and the Republican Steering Committee.

"That's a very personal evaluation," McClure said. "It's not done casually, and it means something."

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 — that sense of knowing when he can push the envelope and when he can't," she said.

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

Craig 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," state Sen. Brad Little, R-Emmett, said in 2002.

When U.S. Rep. Steve Symms gave up the 1st District seat to run for the Senate in 1980, Craig ran for Congress and won. Craig now called himself a conservative and appealed to business interests.

In July 1982, Craig faced his first personal challenge in office. He issued a pre-emptive statement saying he was not involved in a scandal implicating members of Congress for allegedly having sex with underage pages. Craig, a 36-year-old bachelor, said the allegations were an attempt to assassinate his character and ruin his career.

Opponents belittled Craig for his defensiveness, but he defeated Larry LaRocco in the November election by 11,000 votes, winning 54 percent of the vote.

Later, a House ethics committee inquiry cleared all but two members of the House, who were disciplined. Craig was not mentioned in the ethics report.


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

Craig's tenure in the House was unremarkable. Democrats were in charge, and he had little legislative success. He gained a reputation for strident partisanship. But Richard Stallings, who served with Craig in the House and is now Idaho Democratic Party chairman, said they worked together on state issues.

He fought wilderness bills and gun control. He gained a seat on the board of the National Rifle Association.

"He was in Congress to make sure the nation and Idaho did not move too far into the 21st century," Stallings said.

His signature issue in the House was a balanced-budget amendment that established his image as a fiscal conservative. The amendment failed, however, even after Republicans took control of Congress in 1994.

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 President Clinton's "War on the West."

When Symms left the Senate in 1992, Craig became the senior member of the Idaho 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. And 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 cheap electricity from the region's public hydro dams 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 partisanship he had shown in his House days. That paid off in 1994 for Republicans, who gained control of both the House and the Senate. But Clinton was still in the White House.

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.

During his second Senate term, Craig began reaching across the aisle, not just to conservative Democrats but to liberals, to help get legislation passed. An adoptive father, 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 joined with Democrats to pass the Adoption and Safe Families Act, which gave financial incentives to states to increase adoptions of children in the foster-care system.

timber-payments bill bears his name

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 payments to counties that had lost timber income over the previous decade.

"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."

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

In 2003, he also joined Wyden and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California in passing the Healthy Forest Act to help communities thin forests to reduce the threat of 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 Co. scale back costs of new licenses for the Hells Canyon dams, and provided billions of dollars in subsidies for the nuclear, oil, gas and coal industries, which had backed him.

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

"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