BOISE — At the front end of what will be a scorching hot Idaho summer day, Brad Little, the state’s lieutenant governor, is driving his pickup north through rolling hills on Idaho 16. The moment’s conversation concerns Brexit, the U.K.’s recent vote to leave the European Union, a topic interspersed with asides on local geography, economy and landmarks he passes en route to his family’s cattle ranch in Emmett.
From Brexit, Little shifts to decry ballooning debt loads that he fears threaten the global economy and everything comprising it.
“If we don’t increase productivity in the world, and in the United States, and in Idaho, I don’t think our current growth is sustainable,” he says. Then, near the turnoff to his ranch, another aside that returns him and his passenger to his Idaho roots. The open land he’s driving by is part of family holdings, once slated for development. The infant corn in a roadside field, land leased to a farmer, had to be replanted after ground squirrels devoured the first crop.
This tour’s purpose is larger than a geography survey and dissection of world affairs. Little, a rancher, businessman and political figure for more than 30 years, has extended an invitation to visit on the eve of taking his first official step towards running for governor in 2018: Little on Wednesday plans to file paperwork creating his gubernatorial campaign committee, effectively announcing his bid for office.
“My line was always, ‘You wouldn’t agree to be lieutenant governor if you didn’t think you were qualified,’” he said. “But now that the governor is not running again, I’m running for governor, and I should quit being cute about it.”
He’s told few people so far. Gov. Butch Otter is one, and Sen. Jim Risch, himself a former lieutenant governor.
“It’s not a formal announcement,” he adds. “We’re just filing the paperwork, but we knew that if we file the paperwork it would be something.”
It is. Little, a Republican serving as Otter’s lieutenant since 2009, and before that as a state senator, is the first official candidate in the 2018 race. Other Republicans who get mentioned as possible contenders are Attorney General Lawrence Wasden; U.S. Rep Raul Labrador, now seeking re-election to Congress; and former state Sen. Russ Fulcher, who lost to Otter in the 2014 Republican primary.
“I fully expect to be the underdog,” Little says. Given the relatively low profile of his office, whose chief duty is presiding over the state Senate, it’s all the more reason to launch his bid early.
Rep. Steve Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, offered his “unqualified endorsement” to Little on Wednesday.
“Brad has been an outstanding lieutenant governor, a tireless advocate for economic development in Idaho, and a seasoned spokesman for Idaho’s many interests,” Hartgen said in an email. “He has served as a prominent liaison to the Legislature and is regarded as a leading Idaho community and civic leader. I am proud to offer my early support for his campaign!”
A head start
“I don’t know that he is the underdog, but certainly he needs to run as though he is if he’s going to be successful,” said Martin Peterson, whose decades of government and community service in Idaho include stints on the staff of Sen. Frank Church, as state budget director to two governors and assistant to seven University of Idaho presidents.
Little, Peterson said, is “very smart and he has really taken a page from Otter’s book in getting out there and announcing very early. Presumably he will pick up a lot of significant endorsements before anybody else even gets out of the starting block. ... I think it’s smart politics on the part of Brad to do this.”
Little said: “I’ve got people from all over the state — it’s very humbling — that ask how they can support me and what they can do. And they can’t do anything until I file the paperwork.” With a committee in place, Little can accept political contributions.
Little, 62, is a third-generation rancher. His grandfather immigrated from Scotland in 1894, working as a sheepherder and coming to manage his own ranch with, at one point, 120,000 sheep. His father took over the business and also served as state senator. Today, one of Little’s two sons manages the ranch, which switched to all cattle in 2001. Today, the operation, headquartered in Emmett, includes about 1,100 head of cattle and 30,000 acres.
Little temporarily took his father’s Senate seat twice in the 1980s due to illness. In 2001, then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne appointed him to a Senate vacancy. Little was elected the following year and served until 2009, when Otter tapped him to fill the seat vacated by Risch when he won his U.S. Senate seat. In that role, besides presiding in the Senate, Little has focused on economic development, trade and attracting business to Idaho, particularly technology firms.
Preparing for bad times
“I’ve got a great relationship with the Idaho Legislature. I’ve got a great relationship with local government, whether they be school boards, city councils, county commissioners. I’ve got a great relationship with our congressional delegation,” he said. “I think I understand Idaho about as well as anybody because of my past experiences and all the travels I’ve been fortunate to have all over the state of Idaho. I want to see peoples’ kids want to stay here after they go through our education system, and then I want to see the people that have left have the opportunity to come back.”
What does he see as Idaho’s challenges, today and in the future? The state’s economy is good, by some measures among the best in the country. But he cites a favorite saying from a friend and fellow rancher, House Speaker Scott Bedke.
“It’s not what you do in the bad times that is survival, it’s what you do in the good times to prepare for the bad times,” he said. “What do we do from a tax policy standpoint? What do we do from a workforce training standpoint? What do we do to put a safety net in where people can get out of the safety net? I think that’s the fork in the road that we’re at, particularly compared to other states. And we shouldn’t let that opportunity languish.”