Larry Craig

Experts weigh in on ideal Idaho senator

Whomever Gov. Butch Otter names as Sen. Larry Craig's successor should be a consensus builder willing to reach across the aisle, several veteran Idaho politicians and political observers say.

It won't hurt to be steeped in the issues of federal land management, either. And the appointee will have to work double time to make up for the lack of clout a freshman senator brings to the seniority-driven upper chamber.

"They will come in 100th in seniority," said longtime Idaho political watcher Jim Weatherby, a retired Boise State University political scientist.

Craig has said he intends to resign at the end of the month unless he can clear his name by winning a discharge of his guilty plea for disorderly conduct. He pleaded guilty after an undercover police officer accused him of soliciting sex in the Minneapolis airport men's room. A court hearing is scheduled Wednesday. Meanwhile, Gov. Butch Otter is considering a lengthy list of potential replacements. They include Lt. Gov. Jim Risch and Attorney General Lawrence Wasden.

Whoever replaces Craig will enter the Senate an unelected Republican freshman at the bottom of the heap in a Congress controlled by Democrats.

"You don't want to be stridently partisan," said former Sen. Jim McClure, a Republican who represented Idaho for 24 years in the House and Senate from 1967 to 1991. "That will get you off on the wrong foot very quickly."

Proving integrity and a willingness to be a team player will be crucial, McClure said.

"Take some time. Pay attention. Don't expect to make big changes all of a sudden," he said.

Several people interviewed for this article pointed to former Idaho Sens. McClure, Frank Church and Len Jordan as models of leadership.

Rod Gramer, a former Idaho journalist who co-wrote "Fighting the Odds: The Life of Senator Frank Church," said those three brought moderation and thoughtfulness to the job. These qualities are especially helpful when representing a small, rural state that many people are unfamiliar with, Gramer said.

"When you're in the minority, there's probably two ways you can go — you can either be an outspoken critic of the majority ... or work effectively with the majority leadership," he said.

Providing excellent constituent services, while not glamorous, is key for a new senator to gain the support of voters, Gramer said. Church prided himself on his constituent service, Gramer said.

"What has marked some of the best senators from Idaho is someone who is in touch with the state," he said.

One issue crucial to Idaho is public lands. Nearly two-thirds of the state is owned by the federal government, and Idahoans rely on these lands for hunting, recreation and tourism. Several people interviewed named public lands as one of the most important issues Idaho's next senator will deal with.

"We just have to have someone in that position who really has an understanding of what our environment means to the health — and not only the physical health and but the monetary health of the state," said Bethine Church, the widow of Frank Church, who served 24 years in the Senate.

But senators have to keep in mind that they have a national and even international responsibility and must have an understanding of issues beyond Idaho, Church said.

"An Idaho senator can't just be parochial," she said.

Mirroring Idaho's independent streak, state leaders have to be able to stick to their principles, even if it's unpopular with voters, she said. She cited Craig's stands for an immigrant guest-worker program and against the Patriot Act as two recent examples.

"Frank said, ‘I have to be able to look at myself in the morning when I shave,'" she said.

Despite all the obstacles the next senator will face, former Idaho Gov. Phil Batt hopes whoever is picked can make a dent in what he sees as the hopeless partisan bickering that has taken hold of the nation's Capitol.

"I would like to see the entire Congress, including Idaho's representatives, be more cooperative with each other and get things done and not have a constant stalemate over there," Batt said.

Heath Druzin: 373-6617