TWIN FALLS — The last time Idaho had a Democratic governor, he didn’t have a Democratic House speaker or Senate president pro tempore to work with.
Both chambers were controlled by Republicans when Cecil Andrus was governor, although in 1991 and 1992 the Senate was evenly split, with Republican then-Lt. Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter casting the tie-breaking vote to keep Republican then-state Sen. Mike Crapo in the pro tem’s seat.
Republicans never held a majority big enough to override a veto while Andrus was governor. In fact, only one of his 114 vetoes was ever overridden.
Back then, both sides had to learn the art of compromise, said Bruce Newcomb, former representative from Cassia County. Newcomb was part of the Republican leadership while Andrus was governor and would become speaker after.
“I think we came up with pretty good policy that way,” Newcomb said.
Republican from the Magic Valley who were in the Legislature during that period remembered Andrus as a man who could play the game and knew how to pressure others to get his way — “a consummate politician,” said Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome.
“He was good at using the media bully pulpit,” said Dean Cameron, a Republican from Rupert who was appointed to the state Senate in 1991. “He was about as good as I’ve known of being able to take his message to the public and make his case so the public would apply pressure on the legislators.”
But they also remembered an era where partisan divides weren’t as stark as today, and when some voters preferred a split government.
“People thought it was a good idea to have the governor one party and the Legislature another,” said Bell, who was first elected in 1988 and whose time in the Legislature overlapped with Andrus’s last term-and-a-half. “They thought it was some kind of check and balance there. We have to be very careful when we don’t have that so-called check and balance and run over people.”
Unlike today, bills needed some Democratic buy-in just to make it to the Senate floor.
“To get anything to the Senate floor required cooperation between both parties,” Cameron said. “You go back and look, there was a lot of bills passed. … The focus is always on the controversy, but there were a lot of things that were accomplished in those years when we had a tie in the Senate. … Where I cut my teeth, you had to learn how to cooperate and work with both sides to get something done.”
Former state Sen. Laird Noh, a Republican from Kimberly, was chairman of the Senate Resources and Environment Committee during Andrus’s second stint as governor.
“He was a strong leader and very articulate and energetic and also good to work with both Republicans and Democrats, but he could play hardball politics also,” Noh said.
They had their share of political fights, but, Noh said, they were still able to get things done.
“Partisanship wasn’t so intense and personal at that time, so obviously that led to challenges, but anyway both sides talked and gave a little and sometimes they wouldn’t, but I thought that was a very constructive period in Idaho government,” he said.
“I think he was a good governor,” said Lynn Tominaga, who was a Republican state senator representing Mini-Cassia and Jerome counties before stepping down in 1991. (Cameron was appointed to succeed him.) “He represented education and natural resources issues very well. … The Republican state Legislature didn’t always agree with him, but he was considered to be a person that would take all sides into consideration and hopefully come out with a solution that benefitted both sides.”
One of Noh’s first conversations with Andrus was over a proposal to eliminate a part-time worker who monitored waste cleanup at Idaho National Laboratory.
“Of course he got real interested in that and picked right up on it, because he was very much involved in establishing that (and) in restoring that position,” Noh said.
Andrus took a personal interest in INL issues and others that went through Noh’s committee.
“He … had a very strong interest in advocating for a strong education system, and also for reasonable and protective management of our natural resources and our water,” Noh recalled. “He was an ardent outdoorsman and hunter and fisherman. He was extremely interested in the natural resource area.”
Otter said Andrus was a friend and a mentor to him and many others.
“He combined stubborn idealism with common sense — a lunch-bucket liberal proudly reflecting his timber country upbringing and values,” he said. “Whatever you thought of his politics, Cece was always true to what he believed, and he believed in Idaho.”
Newcomb also used the phrase “lunch-bucket Democrats” to describe the Democratic leadership of the period as blue-collar, pro-business and more conservative.
“Cecil (was) the same way, but he wanted to fund education,” Newcomb said. “And he would hold your feet to the fire on that.”
Cameron remembers Andrus as being committed to making sure state employees were paid well — he was on an interim committee Andrus created to study the state’s employee compensation system — and to education.
“He certainly attempted to try and get the most amount of money he could for education given the circumstances, and I know that created some consternation between the Legislature and him, but they managed to work through it,” Cameron said. “The debate was healthy.”
Newcomb’s father and uncle were both Democrats and Andrus supporters.
“They always maxed Cecil out on campaign contributions,” Newcomb said.
He recounted a time when Andrus called Newcomb and his brother Russell, who was also a Republican state legislator, into his office.
“He said, ‘You know, your uncle and your father have always been great supporters of mine,’” Newcomb recalled. “They’re Democrats. What the hell happened to you guys?”
“I guess we saw the light,” Bruce Newcomb replied, an answer which didn’t please Andrus at the time.
Despite their political differences, Newcomb said he and Andrus were close friends, keeping in touch over the years.
“He was a good man,” Newcomb said.
Cameron said he heard rumors of Andrus’s “take no prisoners” approach but never saw it in action himself. Cameron went on to serve more than two decades in the Senate and is now director of the Idaho Department of Insurance.
“He’s always been very kind with me whenever I would see him on the street, even after he was no longer governor,” Cameron said. “He was always willing to talk and certainly willing to give advice and counsel.”
As a fairly new lawmaker, Bell didn’t have many personal interactions with Andrus. But she does remember one time when she was on the East Coast for a Farm Bureau event and got into a taxi. The driver didn’t know much about Idaho, but he recognized Andrus from a commercial he had done promoting the state’s potatoes.
Andrus cut three ads for the Idaho Potato Commission as governor, according to the book “Cecil Andrus: Idaho’s Greatest Governor,” written by Chris Carlson, who was Andrus’s press secretary. One showed Andrus walking through a potato field in Teton County, one showed him preparing potatoes in his kitchen, and the third had him standing atop a huge pile of potatoes in a warehouse near Boise.
“The cab driver didn’t know anything about anything, except he knew Cecil Andrus stood on a pile of Idaho potatoes,” Bell said. “He was a good salesman for Idaho, too.”