OPINION — CHUCK MALLOY: No ‘learning curve’ for this governor; he’s ready

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Gov. Brad Little.

That has a nice ring to it. Almost any change at the top looks good to me, whether it’s the presidency, or governor of Idaho — and Little’s rise to the state’s highest office is no exception.

Our new governor is as down-to-earth as a politician gets. He’s a third-generation Idahoan, a longtime Emmett rancher, and is not hung up with formalities. So, if folks want to call him “Brad,” that’s fine with him.

The day before his inauguration, and moments after he was grilled by statehouse reporters about the avalanche of issues facing his first days as governor, I happened to browse into the lieutenant governor’s office. The door had the name “Janice McGeachin,” but there was Brad (errrr … the future 33rd governor of the state of Idaho) at his old desk doing some last-minute work on his computer.

“Well … how did I do down there?” he asked.

He did fine. Little was confident, calm and in control during his nearly hour-long meeting with the media and showed flashes of humor.

“The Legislature never drags its feet,” he said in response to one questioner. “Where did you come up with that idea?”

Little told me that friends have been teasing him about the idea of being governor since his days with the Idaho Cattle Association, of which his family were charter members. He heard more of that friendly “teasing” when he was in Senate leadership, and certainly after he became lieutenant governor in 2009.

“There are so many people I admire who I’ve always thought were smarter, and more politically astute,” he said. “But it wasn’t until I became lieutenant governor, and started seeing things, that I thought I could do this job, and do it well.”

Little had to wait his turn. Gov. Butch Otter decided to run for a third term in 2014, and it wasn’t easy after that. Little survived a hotly contested primary election, then defeated former Democratic Rep. Paulette Jordan after a spirited general election campaign.

“I’m still a little bit in the mode of waking up in the morning and asking if this really happened,” he said on the eve of his inauguration. “As retired governors from both parties have told me, I should never forget about the honor that has been given to me.”

As governor, he represents the interests of roughly 1.7 million Idahoans, with diverse opinions on issues. And not everybody wants to follow the extreme conservative model of burning down state government. Little intends to comply with the wishes of Idahoans, who voted heavily in favor of Medicaid expansion. He wants to stick with his campaign pledge to do all he can to encourage young Idahoans to stay in the state, which means striving for improvements to education.

Little has long supported repealing the state’s sales tax on groceries, a bellwether issue for conservatives. But it won’t be at the expense of his education goals, or the career-ladder for teachers. He dismisses talk about turning over federal land management to the state, which is another conservative rallying cry.

“That isn’t going to happen,” he said bluntly.

Asked how he would be different from Otter, Little says he prefers to look toward the future rather than dwell on the past. But from what I saw during the news conference, Little — a self-described “policy wonk” — seems more focused on details. He has regular conversations with senior management officials from the Agriculture and Interior departments. On the morning of his news conference, he was looking at some 40 charts in the Wall Street Journal pertaining to economic trends. He wants to see “flow charts” from the Department of Correction to see why people are incarcerated.

Don’t expect any tirades about the Idaho media being “enemies of the people.” Little gave props to Betsy Russell of the Idaho Press for her recent analysis regarding repeal of the sales tax on groceries — something he shared with legislative leaders. He said Russell explained the issue far better than accountants.

As with any governor, Little will have his share of detractors along the way. I hear from conservatives who think he’s too liberal by their standards. But I suspect that overall, Idahoans will be seeing competent, thoughtful and sane leadership from the top.

• • •

Chuck Malloy, a longtime Idaho journalist, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at ctmalloy@outlook.com.

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