Idaho has a new governor, and Larry LaRocco might need a new campaign issue.
In a brief news conference the morning of Gov. Jim Risch's inauguration, LaRocco reminded reporters of his focus on Idaho's methamphetamine problem in his race to unseat Risch as lieutenant governor. During his Democratic primary race against Dan Romero, LaRocco called the meth issue his focus when few other candidates were talking about it. He revived the subject Friday.
"I will fill the leadership void and be a champion to eradicate methamphetamine from Idaho," LaRocco said.
Hardly an hour later, that void started getting crowded. During his 12-minute inaugural speech, Risch announced that he would be naming a drug "czar" to head Idaho's battle against illegal drugs such as methamphetamine.
"Drug users and sellers are clogging courts, filling prisons and rendering their own children wards of the state," Risch said. "Due to its easy production, it continues to plague us," Risch said.
Risch even waxed hip, by noting the many federal and state initiatives now underway and saying that "some help--some, not so much."
But the anti-drug push was the news to many in the audience.
"I just don't remember Jim Risch making that a priority before," said Boise State political science professor Jim Weatherby. "It does seem like more than a coincidence."
Perhaps LaRocco can take comfort: Risch is at least aware that he's there.
In fact, if anything, LaRocco at this point is running a more substantive campaign than the man who might be his boss, fellow Democrat Jerry Brady. While Brady is raising money and building an organization to go after Republican Congressman Butch Otter for the governor's chair, LaRocco has become a policy wonk. On Friday, he rolled out a series of initiatives that sounded distinctly like a gubernatorial candidate unveiling his platform. He wants to raise the Idaho minimum wage to at least $6.15, he said, and expand pre-kindergarten programs, as well as bolster the state's Medicare support for seniors. And he wasn't shy about presenting a four-point plan for how the Legislature might manage any possible special session, something Risch might do later this summer.
Brady's campaign manager Matt Hurm dismissed the notion that LaRocco was taking the lead on the campaign trail, noting that LaRocco's announcement didn't get a second of air time or a drop of ink during the inaugural coverage last weekend, despite the presence of several print and television reporters.
Still, the LaRocco barrage didn't go unnoticed.
"It's an odd mismatch, with LaRocco running as lieutenant governor promoting a substantive legislative platform," Weatherby said. "It could be a little confusing."
Confusing, of course, because LaRocco's ability to do a single thing as lieutenant governor will largely be up to whomever wins the Otter-Brady matchup in the fall. Otter, who is the favorite in the race, would be unlikely to allow LaRocco much more than a short leash, Weatherby pointed out.
Brady, meanwhile, did not comment on Risch's speech. He is instead doing that thing that Democrats in Idaho have always struggled with: raising money. A recent push to get supporters to beef up his campaign finance reports worked; his campaign said they have raised $100,000 in a matter of weeks.
As to commenting on Risch's inauguration, Hurm said only that the 31st governor was "not our opponent."
Risch now has the luxury of running for a lower office from a higher perch. The longtime veteran of state politics started his term out by announcing that his governorship would be marked by attention to constituent service, not policy. His inauguration would be simple, and modest, he said.
Then on Friday, he stood before most of the Idaho Legislature on the steps of the Capitol, and received a 19-gun salute from Idaho National Guard cannons that rattled the statehouse windows and jumpstarted car alarms throughout the capitol blocks. At his side stood his wife Vicki, a host of dress-uniformed Guard members, and a list of dignitaries that included Otter, U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo and former governors Cecil Andrus and Jerry Evans, both Democrats. Risch followed the cannon fire with with a speech that may have been short on minutes but long on committment to new policy initiatives.
This, of course, is not the only party Risch will headline. In fact, the Idaho Republican Party has several inaugural events planned for Risch that can serve as fundraisers for his campaign.
"What he's trying to do with his sprint here, is to divert attention away from his do-nothing record," LaRocco huffed Friday morning.
The seven-month Risch sprint, meanwhile, is turning into a bit of a jog. Risch has said he will name his own lieutenant governor soon, and finish the parlor-room discussions now going on around Boise as to who that might be.