Once upon a time, the state of Idaho was not rock-solid Republican territory. Democratic giants, the likes of U.S. Senator Frank Church and Governor Cecil Andrus, once were elected and reelected by healthy margins. In 1990, up here in the Northern Panhandle, we Democrats danced on election night, celebrating a jubilant victory that sent 14 Democrats to the next legislative session in Boise out of 15 legislative races.
Today, in this new millennium, Idaho holds the questionable title of the most conservative state in the Union. The four members of the congressional delegation are all Republican, as is the governor. For the last two years, four Democrats have served in a state Senate that totals 35, while the House of Representatives includes a valiant dozen Democrats in its 70-member chamber. Idaho Democrats endure the anguished status accorded to a super-minority.
In a recent column in the Boise Weekly, former Governor Phil Batt took Idaho Democrats to task for not providing sufficient ballast to keep the Idaho Ship of State from listing too far to the right. The ex-governor is correct that the Idaho legislature spends too much time dwelling on religious and moral issues such as abortion, religion and homosexuality and not enough time solving the real problems facing the state. But I think it's unfair to expect Democrats to correct somebody else's mess.
So what's our excuse? How do we Idaho Democrats account for our recent failures at the polls and our dwindling influence on state policy? First of all, the entire country took a lurch to the right in 1994, with Newt Gingrich riding a wave of anti-government rhetoric all the way to the top of the heap. Republicans surged ahead in Congress and in state legislatures everywhere.
Second, the demographics of Idaho have changed. A quarter of a million residents have been added to the population since 1990. Among these new residents are many immigrants from other states looking for a refuge from crowded urban life. Unquestionably, a number of those immigrants fall under the category of "white flight" -- pilgrims in search of a less stressful place to live, where they can be surrounded by faces the color of their own. These new residents tend to vote Republican.
Our communities have worked hard to remove the cloud brought on by the racist presence in our midst from neo-Nazi groups such as the Aryan Nations and the 11th Hour Remnant. But Republican County Commissioner Ron Rankin's "English Only" ordinance in Kootenai County may have been perceived as a welcome mat by white flighters. The Republican legislature's weakness for pursuing right-wing fantasies, such as their recent attempt to regulate Idaho Public Television programs, certainly sends a signal to the outside world that Idaho is a hot-bed of conservatism.
In the eight years of the Clinton presidency, we have seen an amazing turnaround in our nation's economy. Low unemployment, higher wages, corporate profits and bulging stock portfolios all add up to a time of unprecedented affluence. Affluence tends to breed Republicans. At the same time that Idaho's economy is humming along with the rest of the country, traditional industries such as timber and mining have been caught in a slump. For this, President Clinton and Idaho Democrats have caught the blame.
Nevertheless, Governor Batt's admonition to Idaho Democrats to get with the program has merit. We Democrats must accept partial responsibility for our own decline. Republicans have out-organized and outflanked Idaho Democrats in recent years. Because we are Democrats, we have a hard time delivering a message in one voice.
But times are changing and elections are cyclical. What goes up must come down. The signals are blinking amber that the year 2000 election may be the last cakewalk for Idaho Republicans. House Democratic Leader Wendy Jaquet is a hardworking Superwoman, determined to breathe Democratic life into the Idaho House of Representatives. Leader Jaquet believes in recruiting dedicated, reasonable individuals and turning them into knowledgeable, winning candidates. The state Democratic Party also has a dynamic new leadership team, led by Boise CPA Carolyn Boyce.
Like the rest of the nation, Idaho is cooling to the right-wing, anti-government message. That wave crested sometime after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The success of President Bill Clinton's brand of limited government helped reverse the trend. Moderate Republicans are reasserting their birthrights; Phil Batt called for reason in the legislative workplace. Democrats can provide just that.
The $6.3 million judgment that the jury unanimously awarded in the court case against the Aryan Nations and Richard Butler may be the signal for the end of an era for hate groups in Idaho. The judgment clearly reflected community sentiment that firmly rejects violence in the cause of racial and religious discrimination. Idaho should not be seen as a haven for bigots. The tide of white flight should subside.
Democrats champion issues Idaho voters care about -- good public schools, protection of the environment, human rights, affordable health care and many others. In future years, when Helen Chenoweth-Hage's political tenure is only a memory, politicians who want to protect Idaho's special natural environment will be on the winning side.
Democrats in Idaho have a lot of organizational work to do before we can win back a respectable presence in the Statehouse and the county courthouses. But as the party of the people, we're willing to work. And to be a Democrat is to be an optimist. The party of the Comeback Kid will make a comeback in Idaho. Just you watch and see.
& & Mary Lou Reed is a former Democratic Idaho state Senator from Coeur d'Alene. & & & &