Columnist: Guv won’t break bread with reporters

By Dan Popkey

Note: This column was first published in the Idaho Statesman on March 22, 2011; it is reprinted here by permission. Lt. Gov. Brad Little addressed a full house at a Press Club Headliner event on March 23.

Idaho’s governors have met with the Idaho Press Club during the annual legislative session since the tradition began with Cecil Andrus in the early 1970s.

They did it because they honored the media’s duty to inform.

But this year, Gov. Butch Otter begged off. On Feb. 25, spokesman Jon Hanian told a club organizer Otter would end the streak “due to scheduling constraints.”

On Monday, Hanian dispensed with the niceties. “The governor said, ‘Look, I’m not going to do it this year.’”

Lt. Gov. Brad Little has agreed to fill in Wednesday.

Otter declined my requests for comment. Otter’s clamming up seems more common now that he faces lame-duckhood.

Otter had a brief period of openness in early January, appearing at an Associated Press legislative preview and a joint press conference with Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna to pitch their “Students Come First” K-12 reform plan.

Since then, he’s held two bill signing ceremonies and kept up his ceremonial schedule of basketball games and fifth-grade classrooms. This week Otter has no public events. Hanian said Otter was at home Monday, and expected back in the office Tuesday.

Otter kept the Press Club tradition for four years, through a horse wreck and a hip replacement. Safely re-elected, he likely will leave office after 28 years in 2015. He’ll be 72.

Ducking questions sometimes is warranted, as when Otter declined to opine on a proposal to use federal stimulus funds to cut income taxes. Hare-brained ideas are best left to fizzle on their own.

With Otter, however, there’s a correlation between the gravity of an issue and zipped lips. A few examples:

* When Sen. Larry Craig reversed his “intention to resign” pledge.

* When Micron wouldn’t disclose the size of layoffs.

* When Health & Welfare workers didn’t enforce a court order on living arrangements for 8-year-old Robert Manwill and failed to examine the boy for abuse. Robert, you remember, was killed in 2009.

* When lawmakers accused Otter buddy and Department of Administration Director Mike Gwartney of strong-arming Idaho companies and lawmakers.

* When Tax Commission Chairman Royce Chigbrow was accused of using his post to help his son’s clients.

* When I asked about his role in crafting the Luna-Otter education reforms.

House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, who appeared at the Press Club this session with Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, doesn’t fault Otter.

“Smart man!” said Moyle.

House Speaker Lawerence Denney agreed: “He’s tired of getting beat up.”

“Sometimes the decisions you make here are not easy or comfortable,” Moyle added, “and that gives credence to not being in the limelight all the time. Do the right thing and move on.”

Last year’s event may offer a clue to Otter’s absence. He spoke of how hard it was to cut schools, services for the blind and disabled, state parks and public TV.

One line drew jabs from editorialists: “I’d just like — I would like to see some compassion, maybe that’s the word I’m looking for, some compassion. This is a tough, tough position to be in. And it’s not fun.”

Denney thinks Otter’s drawn the curtain because times are harder still.

That Otter quietly signed the first two education reform bills last week without a ceremony is not a measure of a lack of pride in his work, Denney said. Rather, Otter didn’t want to say anything to jeopardize the third bill.

Davis said Otter is doing his job, even if he’s shy with reporters. “When I show up, this man is fully engaged. He knows numbers, he knows details.”

Perhaps Otter’s silence is a grand strategy. Maybe he learned from the 2008 and 2009 transportation tax debacle, when he used the press to jawbone recalcitrant lawmakers and lost.

I’m told Otter was his charming self last week at a reception hosted by his lobbyist friends, Pat Sullivan, Phil Reberger and Roy Eiguren. A photo of Otter appears on the Sullivan Reberger Eiguren homepage. Seated at the governor’s desk, apparently ready to sign a document, Otter is flanked by the power trio.

At least he’s on the job for somebody.

Dan Popkey is a columnist for the Idaho Statesman in Boise, and is a former board member of the Idaho Press Club.