Idaho needs a workhorse in the attorney general’s office, not a ‘show horse’

By Bob Kustra

During the many years I spent in politics, I’ve never been able to figure out just why some do it. We do need good people in government at every level, from the Congress of the United States to local school boards or city councils. We need people who run for elected office for the right reason — a genuine concern for their city, state or nation and an interest in making it better.

What we don’t need are candidates who run just for the thrill of the ride or the attainment of power. Some who lose never give up. Perennial candidates who just keep on searching for an office that will have him. They leave the impression it’s not so much about the office that interests them, it’s about capturing an office for the purpose of climbing to the next higher office. A case in point is the Idaho attorney general’s race.

The incumbent, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, a dedicated civil servant intent on serving the people of Idaho as the state of Idaho’s lawyer, prides himself on playing by the rules, respecting the norms of Idaho’s democratic process and, as he said recently in a debate, “calling the balls and strikes as he sees them.” Lawyers who know the law and how that office operates think he’s done a fine job over recent years and deserves to be nominated for the office again in the upcoming primary.

That’s the way it looked to me over the years I served as Boise State University president when we would occasionally have legal issues that required an opinion of the attorney general. We didn’t always agree, but we knew he called the shots as he interpreted them in the law.

His most competitive opponent, Raúl Labrador, was one of the founding members of the Freedom Caucus where Republicans store their right-wing ideologues. He represented half of Idaho in Congress but quit to run for governor in 2018 against Brad Little, who was finishing his term as lieutenant governor, an office that is a natural progression to the governor’s office.

Labrador didn’t see it that way. He was convinced Idaho Republicans were just waiting for him to make his move for governor. That didn’t work out so well for him when he lost to Brad Little in the Republican primary that year.

Labrador then reemerged as a member of the Central District Health Board where he demonstrated how little he knows about public health, but how committed he was to remaining in the public eye. Obviously playing to those who did not want a mandated mask requirement, Labrador went so far as to question the value of the mask in preventing the spread of COVID. No matter where one stands on mask requirements, the science behind the use of masks is clear. They work to prevent the spread of COVID, even the common cold, but with Labrador applying his political calculus to everything he touches, he proved just how far he will go to play to right-wing Idaho.

It should come as no shock that his board membership on the Central District Health Board proved undistinguished. Criticized as he was for his lack of any public health expertise, at a Lewiston town hall, he failed to show any appreciation of how the delivery of health care is related to socioeconomic status when he declared that “nobody dies because they don’t have access to health care.”

Labrador is back at it again, trying once again to resurrect his image and his record from one short on accomplishments and long on hyperpartisanship.

Once again, he will force Idaho Republicans to choose between his lack of experience, in this case the legal affairs of the state, and Wasden’s impressive command of the issues that come before the attorney general’s office.

This time, Labrador is pulling out all the stops, calling in the Club for Growth, an out-of-state, dark money outfit known mainly for its highly partisan attacks on Republicans who just don’t measure up to its extremist agenda. Wasden is just the latest target with its negative campaign commercials.

Labrador makes no secret of his intent to take the office of attorney general in a very different direction. He promises to be more of a political activist, apparently planning to draw from his gadfly days in the Freedom Caucus. He is good at that.

I’m old enough to remember when the GOP didn’t tolerate political activists expanding beyond the law’s original intent. Labrador’s ads suggests he is likely to attack the actions and rulings of Idaho’s elected officials and judges. Is that what the citizens of Idaho want in an attorney general, especially when the ulterior motive is serving as Idaho’s “attack dog”? Just doesn’t sound like Idaho to me.

Labrador joins a growing number of Republicans who have deserted Republican principles and tossed in with candidates and officeholders who challenge the rule of law and blithely ignore norms and practices of democratic government that are the signatures of our republic.

In Labrador’s case, his latest candidacy proves he has little use for the Republican Party. I suspect this all about Raul and his personal agenda of setting himself up for another run for governor. Apparently, the office of AG is a mere steppingstone for a very ambitious politician who cares little for officeholders like Wasden, who are not highly ambitious activists.

Former Speaker of the House Carl Hayden coined a term for members of Congress who seem to spend lots of time sending out press releases and grabbing headlines as opposed to digging into the details of legislation before Congress and gaining the respect of his colleagues. If Hayden was around today, he’d have no trouble labeling Labrador a “show horse” rather than a “workhorse,” more interested in sparring with Republicans and Democrats than searching for mutual agreement that might lead to bipartisan solutions to the challenges facing Congress or the state of Idaho.

In one of the more insightful commentaries on Labrador’s years in Congress, the online magazine, Politico, called him a loner during his years in Congress, even by House Freedom Caucus standards. According to Politico, “Hardly any member of Congress has been tougher on his own party’s leadership, and less popular on Capitol Hill as a result.” Politico also reported that House Speaker Paul Ryan at the time didn’t shed any tears when Labrador left Congress to run for Idaho governor.

When you can’t satisfy the conservative standards of Paul Ryan, you know the show horse just kicked the workhorse out of the barn.

Republican primary voters have an opportunity in the upcoming primary to send a message to Labrador that they cannot vote or support a gadfly exercising his political ambition.


Bob Kustra served as president of Boise State University from 2003 to 2018. He is host of Reader’s Corner on Boise State Public Radio and he writes a biweekly column for the Idaho Statesman. He served two terms as Illinois lieutenant governor and 10 years as a state legislator.

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