Attorney general hopefuls spar in statewide debate


BOISE — The three GOP candidates for Idaho attorney general faced off in a spirited debate on statewide television, with incumbent Lawrence Wasden and challengers Raul Labrador and Art Macomber offering differing views of the role of the state’s chief legal officer.

“The most important thing that I have is the political experience,” said Labrador, a former four-term 1st District congressman, and before that an attorney and member of the Idaho House. “This job is not just a legal job, it’s a political job.” He said, “I would just be a lot more aggressive.”

Macomber decried both Wasden and Labrador as “insiders,” charging that Wasden, the state’s longest-serving attorney general, is “corrupted by 20 years of cozy relationships with the political insider class,” and Labrador, who lost to current Gov. Brad Little in the GOP primary for governor in 2018, is a “legislator turned lobbyist” and “establishment candidate” who “will provide lackluster job performance as he prepares for his 2026 gubernatorial bid.”

Wasden said, “The choice in this race is very clear. You can choose the Idaho way, or you can choose the D.C. Beltway. You can choose an attorney general that follows the law, or one that thinks he’s a congressional activist or a policy maker. I’m not running for Congress. I’m not running for A.G. so I can use it as a stepping stone to become the governor. … I call legal balls and strikes fairly and squarely. I don’t waste your time and trust by throwing you a curve ball. I don’t shade the truth just to score political points. Either it meets constitutional muster or it doesn’t.”

The full hour-long debate, which aired statewide on Tuesday evening on Idaho Public Television as part of the “Idaho Debates,” can be seen online at Additional debates coming up in the series include one April 25 among the GOP primary rivals for state schools superintendent; and another April 26 among the GOP candidates for Idaho secretary of state.

In the attorney general race, the winner of the GOP primary will face Democrat Steve Scanlin in November; he’s unopposed in the Democratic primary.

Responding to questions from a panel of reporters, the three candidates covered issues ranging from state Land Board positions to joining multistate lawsuits to relationships between the executive and legislative branches. The debate was moderated by Melissa Davlin, host of Idaho Public Television’s “Idaho Reports,” and the League of Women Voters of Idaho provided the volunteer timekeepers. The Idaho Debates are a collaboration between the Idaho Press Club, Idaho Public Television, the League, and Idaho’s state universities.

All three candidates appeared to enjoy themselves, with both Macomber and Labrador pronouncing it a “spirited debate” and Labrador calling it “fun.” Wasden had some of the debate’s most colorful pronouncements, dubbing some of his opponents’ allegations “hogwash” or “utter nonsense,” then citing specific Idaho statutes to refute them.

Labrador charged that during the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, “The governor was doing things that were probably unconstitutional, that were outside the law,” and said the attorney general should have stopped him. “Sometimes you have to tell the governor no,” he said.

Macomber took that charge a step further, saying when Gov. Brad Little allocated millions in federal CARES Act COVID-19 aid to the state, Wasden “wasn’t able to keep him within the bounds of the law.”

Wasden responded, “First of all, it’s really important that we take a look at the actual language of the law.”

Idaho law specifically authorized the governor to spend the CARES Act funds, he noted, in Idaho Code Section 67-3615. “There is a statutory framework,” Wasden said. “The attorney general’s job is not to make the governor’s decision. The attorney general’s job is to give advice and to represent the governor. That’s what a lawyer does. … He doesn’t get to usurp his client’s authority or attack his client.”

Macomber disagreed. “Attorneys keep their clients within the law; that’s what we do,” he said. “It’s not as if Gov. Little is some kind of a meth-head who’s going to go break the law regardless, OK? That’s not true. He’s the governor of the state of Idaho. So he should be susceptible to reason.”

Labrador said, “I have over 33 legislators that are endorsing me in this race. … They don’t trust the attorney general any more, they don’t trust his legal advice – even when he gives good legal advice, they ignore it.”

Wasden said, “I have some clients that don’t want to receive good legal advice and they choose not to, and it costs the state dearly. We try and help them to improve their legislation. But some of them just simply are unwilling to accept good legal advice. That’s not my choice; that’s their choice.”

Morgan Romero of KTVB, who was one of three reporter panelists along with Keith Ridler of the Associated Press and James Dawson of Boise State Public Radio, asked Wasden, “Who are you referencing specifically?”

“Members of the Legislature, specifically,” Wasden responded. “Some of them have a vision of what the state is and has and can do, which is not correct. On one occasion, I had a legislator who said, ‘We can do anything we want, because we’re the Idaho Legislature.’ The answer is, ‘No, you can’t. You’re limited by the Constitution.’ That’s a critical factor. … The answer is you can’t do whatever you want – you have to comply with the Constitution.”

Macomber pointed to both Wasden and Labrador as “two insiders battling over who can get more endorsements from the Legislature,” and said, “There’s a fundamental separation of powers issue here which has not been recognized, which is that the attorney general’s office, the executive branch, should not be giving legal advice to the legislative branch. The legislative branch should have their own attorneys in-house.”

Wasden retorted, “That answer completely ignores the Idaho law. The attorney general is bound by the law.” He noted that Idaho Code Section 67-1401 “says that the attorney general renders a legal opinion upon request by any member of the Legislature. I don’t get to change that language. When I am asked, I am required to give an opinion, and my opinion is a legal opinion.”

Then, he said, “They get to make their policy choices. … I’m not telling them what to choose.”

Labrador said he’d be willing to work with Little should Little be reelected as governor and Labrador be the new attorney general. “Absolutely, I will have to work with whoever the governor is, and I will have to have a cordial relationship with the governor,” he said. He said he’d do so with “pushback,” because, “That’s what the people of Idaho demand.”

Labrador and Macomber both criticized Wasden for not joining more federal lawsuits, but Wasden said, “I sued the federal government over vaccine mandates. I’ve sued the federal government repeatedly. … You have to try and make sure that you have a legitimate cause of action, and that’s what we do.”

Labrador responded that he’d be “more aggressive,” saying, “I think the greatest battles for the soul of our nation and the soul of our state are happening in the federal courts.” He claimed that Wasden “sits back” rather than get involved.

“Hogwash, hogwash,” Wasden responded. “We’re not afraid to file lawsuits. We do it all the time.”

When Dawson asked Labrador if he was prepared to handle a workforce the size of the Idaho attorney general’s office, which includes 120 lawyers, Labrador said, “In Congress, we had 15 employees that worked for us in four different offices. … I constantly hired and fired employees. I worked with government employees. … I have plenty of experience.” He said, “I think I would do a very good job doing that.”

Macomber, a land-use attorney, declared in his closing statement, “Vote Macomber or suffer the corrupt Boise elite for another four years.” Labrador said, “The reality is that Idaho needs a new attorney general.” Wasden said, “Abraham Lincoln said, ‘Put your feet in the right place and stand firm.’ That’s my promise to you, that’s what I’ve done and that’s what I’ll continue to do.”


Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

By BETSY Z. RUSSELL Apr 20, 2022

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