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Source: Spokesman Review (Spokane)
Author: Betsy Z. Russell
7/5/2006
Idaho's indomitable politician
He'll be in office only seven months, but Risch is leaving his mark as governor
Original Article

BOISE - In his first month in office, Idaho Gov. Jim Risch has zipped all over the state, raised eyebrows with controversial comments to the international press, fired state agency heads, reorganized the state's largest department, and prompted a frenzy of activity among legislators with his offer of a special session of the Legislature to cut property taxes.

"I don't think there's anybody that knew me that thought I was going to park myself in that chair," Risch said. "They knew I was going to engage, and I'm engaged."

Nevermind that it's a short engagement  Risch will be governor for only seven months, finishing out the term that former Gov. Dirk Kempthorne left to become secretary of the interior. At the end of Idaho's 31st governor's term, he'll ask voters to return him to the office of lieutenant governor.

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Risch's critics say the longtime politician  he's among Idaho's longest-serving state senators  is clearly campaigning, whether it's for another term as lieutenant governor or a future run for governor.

Former Idaho Congressman Larry LaRocco, a Democrat who's challenging Risch in the lieutenant governor's race, has taken to referring to Idaho's state plane as "his campaign vehicle."

"He's taken it on in a very flamboyant way, which is disproportionate to his tenure in office and the fact that he's unelected," LaRocco said of Risch's governorship.

But Risch said, "I think this is what you need to do to be governor."

In a single week in June, he made appearances from Rexburg to Rupert to Wallace to Coeur d'Alene. "That was the busiest," Risch said. In a single day that week, "we did 12 events in seven different cities."

Asked why he's been traveling so much, Risch said: "First of all, they need me in a lot of places. I've had lots and lots of requests  from all over the state." He added, "I'm not the governor of Boise; I'm the governor of Idaho and glad to be such."

Political observers say Risch's conduct in office thus far is no surprise.

"I think part of it is the Risch approach, which is to always be on the offensive," said Northwest Nazarene University political scientist Steve Shaw. "He's always been known as a very high energy level politician  no one would ever call him a shrinking violet."

Boise State University political science professor emeritus Jim Weatherby said, "He's out to make an impact, and he's not letting the fact that this is a very unique seven-month term stand in the way of making some changes."

Those changes, so far, have included replacing the head of the Health and Welfare Department, the state's largest department, and issuing an executive order to reorganize it. He's also replaced the chairman of the state Transportation Board and the state's director of human resources.

"It does appear to be that anybody who has not agreed with him is history," former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus said. " He's tough. He has been known to be vindictive, he's been known to lop off the heads of his adversaries."

But Andrus, who was known himself for some of the same, said, "As governor, he has the absolute authority to do exactly what he's done."

A bit of a rocky start 
Risch gained international publicity during his first week in office when a left-leaning British newspaper, the Guardian, published an interview with him that portrayed him as the head of "Bushlandia," which the paper described as the few states where President Bush still enjoys majority approval ratings.

The article opened with Risch appearing to criticize victims of Hurricane Katrina, by saying, "Here in Idaho, we couldn't understand how people could sit around on the curbs waiting for the federal government to come and do something," and citing the Teton Dam break in 1976, saying Idahoans "got on with our lives. That's the culture here. Not waiting for the federal government to bring you drinking water. In Idaho there would have been entrepreneurs selling the drinking water."

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The fallout from the article, published the day after Risch's inaugural, included sharp criticism from the New Orleans newspaper, which called Risch ignorant and smug.

"It just wasn't one of his better moments," Shaw said. "It didn't make the Idaho governor look particularly statesmanlike."

Andrus, who was governor during the Teton Dam collapse, was incensed.

"He's intelligent, he's tough, but Jim sometimes has a tendency to shoot from the lip, which he did on the Katrina statement," he said.

Andrus recalled: "I was overhead in an airplane as water came cascading through Rexburg, Idaho. I know firsthand and personally what we did and had to do. And I immediately  before I even flew back to Boise  I had called and activated the Idaho National Guard and requested help from the federal government."

Furthermore, Andrus said, with help from the feds and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, portable water trailers from all the National Guard units in Idaho and Utah were moved into the area to provide drinking water.

"Every well was contaminated; every system was out of service," he said.

Risch said he regrets ever granting the interview and said his comments were taken out of context. "The actual words that they wrote down, I said," he said. But as a former prosecutor, Risch said he thought the missing part was the "whole truth and nothing but the truth."

"The guy accused us of having sex with animals," Risch said  an assertion that appeared in the fourth paragraph of the Guardian article. "The people in Louisiana were unhappy with it; I was unhappy with it. It was shocking."

Risch said he learned a lesson about giving open-ended interviews to foreign reporters, and he said he's thankful the article didn't cause more of an international stir than it did.

"New governors make mistakes," Weatherby said. He referenced former Gov. Phil Batt's move early in his term to call for the resignation of the state Fish and Game Commission  a move he quickly rescinded and acknowledged as a mistake.

Three top priorities
Risch has announced plans to appoint a "drug czar" to go after methamphetamine abuse and related issues, and he also says he'll work with colleges to expand nursing education in the state to respond to increasing nursing shortages.

Risch said that as he looked into the Health and Welfare reorganization, he was struck by the prevalence of methamphetamine problems in child-protection cases, not to mention how offenses involving the drug are driving the growth in the state's prison population.

"Nobody's ever going to solve this drug problem," Risch said, "but what you can do is you can try to control it to some degree."

LaRocco, who has been riding along with police officers and highlighting the fight against methamphetamine in his campaign for lieutenant governor, accused Risch of stealing his idea. But Shaw called it "smart politics on Risch's part. There's no patent or copyright on these ideas."

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Risch said with the time he has in office and the many things already on the governor's plate, such as carrying out already-approved statewide highway bonding plans and overseeing sweeping reforms of the state's Medicaid program, he chose three of his own priorities on which to focus: "the drugs, the nursing thing and property tax relief. But those are pretty substantial things."

The one that resonates the most in North Idaho is the property tax issue, which has northern homeowners up in arms, county assessors on the defensive and area legislators desperate for change.

Risch has called for lawmakers to reach a new deal to shift school operations funding off the property tax and replace it with a higher sales tax or other state funds. That's a plan the House repeatedly endorsed this year but the Senate repeatedly rejected. If they agree now, Risch said, he'll call a special session to enact the changes.

Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, called Risch's moves on property tax "outstanding. We needed the leadership, and he's demonstrating the leadership," he said.

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said: "I've been very impressed with Gov. Risch. He has obviously made North Idaho's issues a priority for him in his term in office."

She also praised Risch for opening a North Idaho office in Coeur d'Alene, which she called "way overdue."

Risch also has reached out to other areas of the state, promising to open an Idaho Falls office and naming 81-year-old eastern Idaho political icon Mark Ricks as his lieutenant governor.

"I suspect every bone in his body is political," Shaw said. "Very few decisions are made without some kind of calculation of political costs and benefits."

Risch, 63, wouldn't be too old to run for a full term as governor four years from now, in the next gubernatorial election, Shaw noted. "In political time that's a long time from now, but chronologically that's not a long time."

Andrus said, "Jim Risch is a planner and a conniver, and you can bet your boots that he's looking down the road four years from now."

Risch decided to run for re-election for lieutenant governor this year rather than take on three-term Congressman Butch Otter in the Republican primary. Otter now faces Democrat Jerry Brady and two third-party candidates in the November election for governor.

Risch won't discuss future runs for office, but he also wouldn't rule them out. However, he said he and wife, Vicki, "had our life where we wanted it" before he became Idaho's shortest-term governor. "That's where we're going to be again when this is over.  We were dealt this, which is a great opportunity, something I've always wanted to do."

Asked what would make his brief term in office successful in his eyes, Risch said, "When I'm done, if people say he was decisive, he got some good things done  I think that's good."
 
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