Metro September 25, 2018

With Conviction to Serve

Brad Little and Paulette Jordan face off in Idaho's gubernatorial race

Thomas Jefferson. James Madison. George Washington. Abigail Adams. Betsy Ross. Most Americans regard the Founding Fathers and Mothers with no less than distant respect and gratitude for their contributions to our country’s history. Few Americans, however, can name the political parties of those dedicated patriots who built the enduring democratic framework of our independence.

The U.S. Constitution does not address political parties, specifically because the Founding Fathers struggled mightily to create an order that served all American citizens beyond factionary partisanship. Long before he was a Broadway star, Alexander Hamilton and his fellow wordsmith, James Madison, expounded on the dangers of a domestic, two-party system in the Federalist Papers. And yet, it was Hamilton and Madison who became opposing leaders in America’s once-distained two-party system, with Hamilton advising the Federalists and Thomas Jefferson and Madison directing the Democratic-Republicans.

The point is not to elucidate the fluidity of conviction in our earliest politicians, but rather to illustrate it was their personal conviction to serve the democratic principles set forth in the Constitution that still spark the divisive political passions flaring in America today.

A politician, by definition, is a public servant. With the rise of brawling, racist brutality and derogatory rhetoric dominating our tweets and headlines from both sides of our political spectrum, the notion of The Great American Statesmen appears as romantic an illusion as peace in the Middle East. Where are our politicians of historic lore, those men and women,who risked and gave all to serve the will and betterment of the people? Who can end our political discord?

Idaho’s top two gubernatorial candidates insist they have the answers, albeit from opposing viewpoints.

With the surge of gentrification, economic development, and newcomers expanding Boise and the Treasure Valley exponentially, the established conservative paradigm of white male leaders of our rural “Ag” state faces new challenges and challengers. Few expect a revolution, though, especially with the current administration’s announcement of a $100 million budget surplus for fiscal year 2018 with the lowest unemployment figures in a decade. The age-old adage of, “If it’s humming, why bust it?” dominates any chant for change.

Still, in 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 16,000 of Idaho’s 447,000 workers paid hourly earned the minimum wage, $7.25 per hour, or less. In addition, Idaho has yet to accept federal funding to expand Medicaid coverage. This has the potential to cause 50,000 or more workers to fall into the “Medicaid gap”—those who neither qualify for Medicaid, nor for subsidies on the Idaho health insurance exchange.

Suddenly, The New York Times and Fox News have ended the age-old confusion between Iowa and Idaho. The 43rd state is being heralded as a petri dish of what’s left of the American dream stewing with our nation’s unpredictable political landscape and two candidates who couldn’t be more different from one another.

Brad Little: Number Two No More

“I wake up at night, worrying about the debt load of the federal government,” says Idaho’s lieutenant governor. “I worry what will happen to people when some of these programs go away…” Brad Little’s voice trails off as he stares out the window of his office in the Idaho Capitol Building. “That’s why it is so important that Idaho be fiscally solvent. Independent.”

The Idaho-bred independence Little speaks of is in his DNA. His grandfather, Andrew Little, arrived in the state in 1884 with $25 and two dogs. He settled in Emmett, and, by 1935, “Andy” Little was “The Sheep King of Idaho” with 400 men caring for his 100,000 head of sheep that delivered a million pounds of wool a year.

Brad Little, 63, was born in Emmett and has lived in the same house on the main street, with his wife, Teresa, for 40 years. This family home once belonged to his aunt. Cattle have replaced the sheep herds, and David, one of the lieutenant governor’s two sons, now manages the family ranch and approximately 1,000 cattle.

“The ranch is where I go to unwind,” Little says. “I ride Old Buster out to look at the cattle, the grass, the range improvements. I check out the seedlings we planted 10 years ago and see how that investment has made a big improvement in the ecosystem.”

“Making a difference—on the land—for the people,” he says, is also the best part of his 17-year political career, first as a state senator from 2001-2009 and then, as lieutenant governor with his appointment by Gov. Butch Otter when Jim Risch moved to the U.S. Senate. Little went on to be re-elected in 2010 and 2014 with a 62 percent margin over Democratic candidates.

“This morning, I connected a small, family-owned company with a food company coming into Post Falls. That means jobs. Like Clif Bar opening manufacturing sites in Twin Falls. It’s satisfying to be able to initiate the kind of change that puts food on the table for rural families.” He nods, taking deserved satisfaction for his pivotal role in attracting the California-based company and its 300 jobs. “There’s our real challenge—to expand the state’s rural economy.”

Brain drain in Idaho mirrors the national migration of young people from remote areas in search of better education and vocational opportunities. Even if adamantly satisfied with the inherent value of living surrounded by wildlife rather than grocery stores, many of these Gem State families are low-income and 22 percent exist without broadband access in their elementary schools. The FCC estimates that 83 percent of inhabitants on the Idaho Nez Perce Reservation live without any connectivity options. In a technology-driven world, lack of access equates to a quarter of our state’s population living in the dark ages.

“We’ve got to bring rural Idaho up to speed,” says Little, but so far, his platform for fixing the broadband problem is a blurry reflection of his predecessor’s.

Conservative consistency works just fine for Republicans in Idaho. The majority voted in support of continuing the current political architecture when they elected Little over Raul Labrador and Tommy Ahlquist in the hotly-contested Republican primary last spring. Depending on political affiliation, many Idahoans applauded, or lamented, the 2018 Republican primary as the real race for Idaho governor.

Brad Little disagrees. “We’re not taking anything for granted in this election. My job is to prove I’m the best person to serve Idaho and our citizens, every day.”

His main opponent is never mentioned, as if he sees beyond the race to the serious challenges awaiting any victor. The greatest: affordable health care. “Fast-growing incomes don’t matter if health care costs continue to rise 15-25 percent,” Little explains. ‘I hear it all the time. People are scared. The Federal agencies are slow to act, so we’re working on our own way out this. And a plan is coming in three to four months.”

The lieutenant governor is not known for his beaming charisma or sparkling wit. He is, however, recognized as an approachable man with an easy smile and clear intention of word and deed, which makes him a rare, likeable breed in an era of partisan aggressions. His state salary is $35,700, while his personal assets were voluntarily listed during the primary as somewhere between $12-24 million. Obviously, the grandson of the “The Sheep King” is not seeking the hardest job of his life for the money. Serving Idaho is Brad Little’s stated purpose in replacing his boss, and his boss is all for it.

“Brad has been a great partner in keeping Idaho’s financial house in order,” says Gov. Otter. “He’s been closely engaged with my cabinet and has taken the lead on transportation funding, business development, cyber security, and affordable health care. He has developed strong working relationships with members of Idaho’s congressional delegation and state leaders nationwide. He’s a commonsense leader who understands that family is the first form of government … and works tirelessly at applying Idaho values to ensure our state remains the best place in the world to live, work and raise a family.”

The potential next First Lady of Idaho agrees. “His energy has never diminished,” says Teresa, Little’s wife of 40 years. “Idaho would be lucky to have him as our next governor.”

At a time when Brad Little could be juggling his five grandkids on his knee and taking sunset rides across his familial range on Old Buster, his priority to serve the state and its residents remains steadfast, even when asked about his stance on President Trump. “There’s plenty of good news for Idaho with a Republican administration.”

And what if his worst fears, the nightmares about the mounting federal debt, comes to pass?

“If it’s bad in Idaho,” he says, “it will be worse everywhere else.”

Paulette Jordan: The Game Changer

She is 38, close to 6 feet tall, with a dark-eyed gaze so intense it could be used as a weapon or to charm. Her smiles are earnest and, therefore, not plentiful. No matter what she’s talking about—lack of affordable health care, immigration policy, rural poverty, or her two sons—the Democratic candidate for Idaho governor emits an aura of authority deemed arrogant by detractors and inspirational by supporters. Paulette Jordan is, by nature and intention, controversial.

“As a woman, especially a woman of color running for political office, you can’t wait your turn,” says Jordan, “Otherwise, the people in power, the rich, white men, will make sure your turn never comes.”

Jordan delivers this opinion weighted with experience from two terms as a state representative and centuries of tribal history. A member of the Coeur d’Alene tribe, she is also of Sinkiuse, Nez Perce, and Yakama-Palus descent. She is the great-great-granddaughter of Chief Moses, and Chief Kamiakin. Her mother grew up in a dirt-floor cabin on the reservation, one of 15 brothers and sisters. No more than 5 feet tall, she attracted the affections of a six-foot-seven-inch NBA basketball player named Michael Jordan, who is not the legendary MJ, but is the father who bestowed Paulette’s height.

Genetic roulette may play a role in this unlikely candidate’s regal stature and self-assuredness, but it was her adopted grandfather, Felix Aripa, who convinced an awkwardly tall, 10-year-old Native American girl to believe political ascendancy was not only her responsibility but her destiny.

“When I was a child, my grandfather looked me in the eye and said, ‘You are the only one who can do this.’ He believed in me, and I believed him.”

Growing up on the northern Idaho reservation, Jordan admits, almost proudly, her life had humble beginnings. She comes from abject poverty. A doctor visited their only health clinic once a month. There were no dentists. As a teen, she worked at her aunt’s café every summer, seven days a week. As a Native American girl at the all-white Gonzaga Prep School, she learned how it felt to not fit the mold and excel anyway. Graduating with honors provided Jordan an academic scholarship to the University of Washington. College activism honed her public-speaking persona.

“My mother reminds me all the time: remember where you came from—the poor, invisible people. Those are our people, and I’m constantly going where nobody has bothered to go, meeting and listening to these people. I know their struggles, and they know I’m committed to helping them. They are the heart of my grassroots campaign, and we won with their votes and their $5 and $10 bills. I’m here to serve the people and the land, not profit. I have never taken money from special interests who favor profit over people, and I never will.”

Such conviction would sound naively idealistic if Paulette Jordan had not soundly bested the established white male millionaire, A.J. Balukoff, who ran against her in the Democratic primary. At the same time, her staunch unwillingness to yield personal principle in the interest of political-party-line progress has garnered Jordan criticism and a lack of public endorsement from her own party. Ironically, the most damning opinions come from Democratic women.

“Paulette’s a ‘mean” girl,’ says one wellknown elected female official who requested anonymity. “She doesn’t support anything besides her own agenda. That’s not the way things get accomplished in politics.”

When Jordan hears this, she shrugs. “Democrat or Republican, they’re all playing political games to benefit their own self-interest. I was there to make the best choices for the people and the land. This did not make me popular, but it did assure me I was the only leader who could win the governor’s office back for the people of Idaho.”

Again, results that affirmed such an unlikely claim are not unsubstantiated. When Jordan ran for re-election in the 2016 election, she was the only Democrat north of Boise to withstand the Idaho red wave that helped carry President Trump into the White House.

Whether blessing or curse, Paulette Jordan’s status as an outlier, stubbornly resistant to PAC or party influence, could mightily serve in her favor with Idaho’s solid block of self-proclaimed independent voters. There’s also a fervent aspiration among residents to make history, electing the first female Native American governor in U.S history. This election year is experiencing a groundswell of Democratic females running for all manner of public office, but statistics and polls still insist a Jordan victory is improbable. Then again, remember the proven ineptitude of the 2016 presidential polls. And do consider, Idaho allowed women the right to vote 24 years before the passing of the 19th Amendment.

“Elected women, especially women of color like Paulette and myself, have no role models,” says Liza Sanchez, the first Hispanic woman elected to the Boise City Council. “Just by running for office, we’re breaking the rules.”

In the end, breaking the rules may offer Paulette Jordan, and future generations of female candidates, their best chance of winning. After all, the impossible is always improbable until it happens.

This article appears in the Fall 2018 Issue of Territory Magazine.