The Race to the Middle: The Contest for Idaho District No. 6

'The term moderate is a good characterization. They vote the person, not the party'


Don't even think about talking politics in Idaho's heartland until after the harvest. With one eye on the weather and another on commodity prices, farmers along the high plains and rolling hills of Central Idaho don't have much time for electioneering. With a growing season of just over 200 days, it's all about the wheat, barley, lentils and peas and less about bipartisanship.

But come October, with harvest in many of the tractors' rearview mirrors, Idaho's ag community is more amenable to listen to the candidates looking to represent their interests. With this year's redistricting resulting in the expansion of Idaho Legislative District 6 to include all of Lewis and Nez Perce counties, more than 43,000 Idahoans across 1,335 square miles are more than anxious to size up the two men who want to be their state senator and represent the district that includes Lewiston, Idaho's ninth-largest city. Nez Perce County has seen its population grow by 45 percent in the past 50 years while Lewis County dropped by 13 percent.

And perhaps more than any other region of the state, District 6 may be Idaho's most moderate district, continually sending representatives from both sides of the aisle to the Idaho Legislature.

"I'm my own man," said Republican Sen. Dan Johnson, hand-picked by Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter to fill out the term of Joe Stegner--the seven-term GOP moderate--who is now the University of Idaho's chief lobbyist at the Statehouse.

"The term 'moderate' is a good characterization of the voters around here," said Johnson. "They vote the person, not the party."

Meanwhile Johnson's opponent, Democrat John Bradbury, fully expects to garner the support of a good many moderates, even though they were corralled into registering as Republicans during last May's closed GOP primary.

"I'm really surprised at how many moderate Republicans are supporting me," said Bradbury. "Plus, I've received a lot of contributions from a lot of people who told me they previously supported Republicans."

Bradbury lives in Lewiston and Johnson spends his days serving as a commissioner for the Port of Lewiston, but both men said they were just as comfortable in the back roads of their district.

Bradbury was born in the tiny blink-or-you'll-miss-it Clearwater County hamlet of Headquarters, a town of about five families. After a stint in the U.S. Army and a successful law career (Bradbury told Boise Weekly that he went to law school after seeing his father treated poorly by the Potlatch logging company), Bradbury rode the range of his own cattle ranch outside of Kamiah.

About the same time, Johnson was spending his formative years in Kansas, North Dakota and Minneapolis, before deciding he wanted "the cowboy way of life," ultimately moving cattle around in Sheridan, Wyo.

"I thought that was a pretty good life," said Johnson as he sat on the tailgate of his pickup truck in a dusty parking lot in Lapwai. "But I remember seeing a bumper sticker once that said, 'If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.'"

Johnson earned a degree in forestry from the University of Idaho. Bradbury is another proud Vandal, earning a degree in political science at the U of I before going to the University of Michigan to earn his law degree. After building up successful private practices in Alaska and Washington, specializing in maritime law, Bradbury decided to run for Idaho district judge in 2002.

"I'm proud to say that every lawyer in the district opposed me at first," Bradbury said with a laugh, but he served eight years on the bench, before retiring in January 2011.

Bradbury said he's particularly anxious to introduce judiciary reform if and when he is sent to the Idaho Statehouse.

"Just look at the judiciary. Including the Idaho Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and the magistrates, we have about 140 judges in Idaho," said Bradbury. "We have one black, one Hispanic, fewer than 10 percent are women and no Native Americans. All five Supreme Court justices are white Protestant males. It's a good-old-boy's club run amok. Over 50 percent of the people in our law schools are women, yet fewer than 10 percent of Idaho's judges are female."

When Bradbury talked about gender inequality and, in particular, a proposed legislative measure that would have required Idaho women to undergo an ultrasound prior to an abortion with no exceptions for rape or incest, the former judge raised his voice with increasing indignity.

"And then this transvaginal ultrasound bill came along," he said, poking the air with his finger. "Let me tell you, this is a critical issue. The fact is, this bill wouldn't have stopped abortions. The purpose of that bill was to demean women who dared to want something that the bill's sponsors didn't approve of."

In his first year as an interim legislator, Johnson voted to support the ultrasound measure.

"I'm pro-life, that's why I voted yes," said Johnson. "I'll vote according to my conscience and I ..." Johnson took a long pause and stared at the horizon while thinking about his next words. "I felt I just had to vote yes."

But Bradbury said, if elected, he would fight the measure, which is expected to return in the 2013 legislative session, with "everything I have."

"I was raised Catholic. I don't like abortions," he said. "But nobody wants to talk about this issue. It's critical."

Another high-profile debate facing both candidates surrounds the "Luna Laws," the Students Come First reforms that voters will have the opportunity to affirm or reject.

"When I talk to individuals about this, I don't think it's a straight 'no, no, no' or straight 'yes, yes, yes,'" said Johnson.

But when BW asked Johnson how he would vote on the referendums, he said he would vote "yes" on two and hadn't yet made up his mind on a third. However he declined to identify which referendum he had yet to decide on.

"That's bullshit," said Bradbury, who opposes each of the measures.

Bradbury and Johnson met face to face at Lewis-Clark State College Oct. 9, when a packed house heard the two repeat their resumes and platforms during a candidates forum in Lewiston. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two came when Johnson turned to Bradbury and asked him to list three things the Idaho Legislature got right in 2012. The question was met with an awkwardly long pause.

"To be honest, I can't think of one," saidBradbury.