Numbers Game

Community college vote on May 22 could help Democrats


At the headquarters for the Community College Yes campaign, the staff makes for an interesting study in contrasts.

At one desk sits Jason Lehosit, a longtime Republican campaign consultant, alertly answering phones in his pressed khakis and button-down shirt. Just one desk over, Democratic political adviser Tara Wolf hovers, barefoot, over a computer, coordinating the upcoming North End campaign efforts by Mayor Dave Bieter.

Neither Lehosit nor Wolf are excited to talk about their respective differences. The script here is bipartisanship. The stars of the show are Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, a Republican hero, stumping for schools alongside the likes of Bieter and Sen. David Langhorst, a Boise Democrat.

"I'm learning some things from them, and I think they're learning some things from me," Lehosit said.

But as the campaign to create a new taxing district to pay for a community college rolls into its final week, the two parties are showing distinct differences in how they perceive the election.

For Democrats, Idaho's minority party, the election is an opportunity. Leaders from the Democratic Party say the community college election is a chance to gain new friends and influence in conservative Idaho.

"People in our party recognize how important this is and are lending support as best they can," said John Foster, the executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party.

From party figureheads like Bieter and Langhorst, on down to the left-wing bloggers who recently organized online efforts to support the election, Foster's party appears solidly united behind the measure.

On the other side of the aisle, Idaho Republicans appear to have a bit of a rift when it comes to the community college vote. Certainly, the party's mainstream is on board, as evidenced by workers like Lehosit, boosters like Otter, and a four-page list of donors to the campaign that is peppered with prominent Republican names. The list, which was published recently by the Kuna-Melba Times newspaper, includes names like Sen. Brad Little, an Emmett Republican; Michael Gwartney, a longtime Otter compatriot; and Steve Ahrens, the former head of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, to name only three of the hundreds of people that helped the campaign net $300,000 in the early going.

But early this week, advertisements airing on KIDO 580 AM began to show the other side of Idaho's conservative party. Calling the community college a "government college," the ads, sponsored by the Ada County Property Owners Association, play up the increased property taxes that will result from a "yes" vote on May 22 and take note of the other private vocational schools already in existence in the Treasure Valley.

"The new government college will simply be redundant, except that it will be subsidized by your increased property taxes," the ad states. "Say no deal to this new deal."

Notably absent from the Republican support for the new school's funding is House Majority Leader Mike Moyle of Star, who led a push in the Legislature to vote against reducing the supermajority vote threshold for approving the measure. As a result of this and other votes against chamber initiatives, Moyle received one of the lower approval scores from the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce.

"These are just not necessarily partisan issues," said Ray Stark, the chamber's vice president. "They were regional issues."

And Democrats are hoping that if the community colleges measure passes, their party will be remembered by business interests.

"It'll be clear to all involved that we had more than a hand in this passing," said Brian Cronin, the chairman of the Ada County Democratic Party. "Business leaders in this county are beginning to see that not only can they work with us, but we can help get things done."

Timing is a factor, too. The election is specific to the Treasure Valley, where Democrats have made some gains of late. Although the party is still firmly in minority status across the state, where every single statewide office is held by Republicans, the community college election does afford Cronin's party the chance to flex some new muscle.

"When you have the whole city represented by Democrats, the business community has to start looking at that," said Roger Sherman, program director for United Vision for Idaho.

To be sure, nobody from within the well-funded campaign is talking much about the political marriage of convenience they have going. Organizers play down any scorekeeping with regard to Democratic vs. Republican workers and spokespeople.

"I don't necessarily want to address that," said Art Swift, the spokesman for the campaign. "We're looking at them equally."

Lehosit agrees.

"This isn't necessarily about the politicians," Lehosit said. "This was really about the citizens putting this together. On the Republican side, [Gov. Otter] has been great. On the Democratic side, a lot of the legislators over here have been great."

Yes, he can rattle off a list of GOP lawmakers who are actively backing the measure. He is careful to note that several legislative supporters are from Canyon County, where the measure is likely to get less than the 66 and two-thirds percent vote that's needed for successful passage.

"To get 67 percent of the vote anywhere, you have to have that [support from local lawmakers]," Lehosit said.

But organizers are also sitting on top of an exceedingly well-funded campaign, with a diverse and energetic ground operation. Political veterans in the valley have marveled at what some political junkies call a thing of beauty: a slick mailing, sent to voters who have voted absentee in previous elections, with absentee ballot request forms already filled out with a voter's information. Usually, such forms are blank, and require that little bit of extra effort from voters to get it on the way to the post office. Not this one.

Backers of the measure say that's what they'll have to do to get the community college over the vote-tally hurdle they'll face next week.

To be sure, that two-thirds "supermajority" vote has many of the measure's backers nervous. Many of them said they could easily foresee getting 60 percent of voters approving the new school. But 67 percent?

"Sixy-seven percent," Lehosit said, "is a major obstacle."

"Cautious optimism," said Stark.

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