Voices from the Idaho EdNews Community

Idaho Primary: The good, the bad and the ugly

The best way to describe the election last Tuesday is to borrow the title of a Clint Eastwood movie — it was the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I’ll start with the bad.

Right after the primary, the self-styled Idaho Freedom Foundation bragged that the election was “historic” and concluded that “Idaho has spoken.” In one sense, the Freedom Foundation was right – in another it missed the mark completely.

Yes, the election was historic in the number of thoughtful, courageous, and dedicated legislators who were defeated. Even one of the IFF’s biggest targets, long-time President Pro Tempore Chuck Winder lost, perhaps becoming the first Senate leader to lose to a member of his own party. Winder, who is a fixture in Idaho politics, lost to a far-right candidate who grew up in California and moved to Idaho six years ago.

But the IFF is dead wrong about “Idaho has spoken.” That’s because only 24 percent of the one million registered voters exercised their most important right and responsibility. It was one of the lowest primary turnouts in the last few years.

It is exceedingly difficult to call an election a mandate for the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s extreme politics when 75 percent of registered voters didn’t cast a ballot in a state with two million citizens.

Now for the ugly.

The other thing that questions the credibility of the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s assertion is the amount of money out-of-state billionaires and their front organizations poured in to poison our election with their lies, distortions, and vitriol.

Not counting what might show up in the post-election sunshine reporting, the Dallas-based American Federation for Children and the Ohio-based Citizens Alliance invested $400,000 each in the election. The Virginia-based Make Liberty Win, which is aligned with the Texas-based Young Americans for Liberty, added $656,000.

Even Idaho Secretary of State Phil McCrane took notice of this out-of-state money dump: “We just have never experienced this kind of outside money coming in,” he said.

These out-of-state groups didn’t invest $1.5 million because they love our state and its citizens. They poured this money in because they want to destroy our public schools and use taxpayers’ hard-earned money to fund private and religious schools. Even though they won’t pay a penny toward supporting these private and religious schools if voucher-like legislation is passed.

Thanks to them the odds of a farmer in Kimberly, a logger in St. Maries, a rancher in Challis, a single mom in Nampa having their tax dollars subsidize the private and religious school tuition for people who have never sent their kids to public schools has significantly improved.

Rep. Wendy Horman, the chief architect of voucher-like legislation in Idaho, said after the vote: “School choice is not a fringe Republican issue. This is an issue that is at the center of the electorate,” she told Idaho Ed News.

Really? How can Horman say that when 75 percent of Idaho’s registered voters didn’t cast a ballot and when the out-of-state dark money groups attacked the incumbents on culture war issues like book banning rather than on their anti-voucher votes.

Now for the good.

It is also hard for Horman to make the argument that supporting vouchers is a mandate from voters when Idahoans voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to increase funding for public schools by $110 million.

In all, voters passed 35 of 45 supplemental levies. Seven bond elections passed by 70 percent or more in rural communities like Salmon, Cottonwood, and Cambridge. In Clearwater County voters saved two schools from closing by passing a $5.8 million supplemental levy. In West Ada, voters approved a $27.7 million levy to hire 152 more teachers and school resource officers.

This resounding support from grassroot Idahoans for their community schools defies the rhetoric from pro-voucher lawmakers and the billionaire funded dark-money privatization front groups that people are unhappy with their schools.

Furthermore, on Tuesday several anti-voucher legislators and candidates won like Reps. Stephanie Mickelsen, Lori McCann, Mark Sauter, Rich Cheatum, Jeff Cornilles, and Dan Garner. In the Panhandle, former senator, James Woodward, who voted against vouchers two years ago, beat one of the most out-spoken advocates for vouchers Scott Herndon.

In fact, in District 32, anti-voucher Rep. Stephanie Mickelsen received 60 percent of the vote in a three-way primary while pro-voucher Rep. Horman received 45 percent of the vote in a three-way race. District 32 Senator Kevin Cook, who also opposes voucher legislation, received 69 percent of the vote in his race. Those results hardly signal a mandate for privatizing our schools.

Another “good” thing that came out of the Tuesday election was the overthrow of the far-right on the Bonneville County Republican Central Committee. Now the true conservative Republicans control this bellwether central committee, and it may signal a reversal of fortunes for GOP party boss Dorothy Moon when the party’s convention is held next month.

Still, there is no room to celebrate the election. Far too many good people lost their seats on Tuesday. And it looks like both the House and Senate will turn farther right in the 2025 Legislature.

Many of those who lost, like House Education Chair Julie Yamamoto, who was the target of many ugly and misleading out-of-state dark-money attacks, knew that they would be targets because of their opposition to school privatization. Yet they stood their ground, did the right thing for the students of Idaho, and paid the political price. They were profiles in courage.

Vouchers won’t be the only issue on the agenda for the next far-right Legislature. Much of the progress we have made in education over the last decade will likely be on their hit list.

In its post-election boast, the Freedom Foundation said it plans to eliminate the popular Idaho Launch program that will send thousands of high school graduates to postsecondary so they can get a credential for a good, family-supporting career. More than 14,000 students graduating this spring from Idaho high schools applied for the Launch grants.

Since when is giving a hand up to our young citizens so they can achieve the American Dream and become productive citizens a radical idea? What’s radical is an extremist group like the Idaho Freedom Foundation and the out-of-state dark money groups that want to destroy public education, while controlling the lives of Idahoans in the name of freedom.

The writer Wallace Stegner once said that the West is the “native home of hope.” After Tuesday many have lost hope that the politics of Idaho will ever take a turn toward sanity. But one must keep hope alive because to do otherwise is to leave our great state in the hands of the political extremists and their out-of-state benefactors.

Rod Gramer

Rod Gramer

Rod Gramer is president and CEO of Idaho Business for Education, a group of Idaho business leaders dedicated to education excellence.

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