"A big surprise": That was the Idaho Statesman's headline last December, when Keith Allred announced his candidacy for Idaho governor –– running as a Democrat in one of the most solidly Republican states in the country. A decade ago, Allred, a fifth-generation Idahoan educated at Brown, Stanford and UCLA, was a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He moved back to the Gem State in 2003 to start a consulting and mediation business and raise his family. (He and his wife, Christine, now have three children.) Then, in 2004, Allred, 45, founded a nonprofit political organization, The Common Interest, to advance nonpartisan public policy solutions in the Idaho Legislature. The group interviews political leaders, policy experts and members of the press to identify the most important issues before the state, polls its 1,600 members to determine those issues' priority, then researches and writes policy papers and urges Idaho representatives to seek practical solutions.
The Common Interest has suspended operations during Allred's run for office. Eight weeks into the campaign, High Country News correspondent Jeremy N. Smith talked with Allred about his candidacy, what he hopes to accomplish and why he thinks he can win.
HIGH COUNTRY NEWS Given your work with the The Common Interest, whose nonpartisanship was central to its identity, why run as a Democrat?
KEITH ALLRED If you think about the three possibilities for running: You can run as the majority party candidate, the minority party candidate, or as an independent. In our country, most independent problem-solving governors have come from the minority party. Brian Schweitzer in Montana and Dave Freudenthal in Wyoming are examples. In Idaho, my honorary campaign co-chair, Cecil Andrus, is a Democrat and former governor. When Christine and I lived in New York, a moderate Republican, George Pataki, was governor. When we were in Massachusetts, it was Gov. (William) Weld and Gov. (Mitt) Romney -- moderate Republicans.
HCN How did friends and family react when you told them?
ALLRED For my parents, the wisdom of this was not immediately apparent. My family and I have a perfectly peaceful and happy life -- why ruin it? Former state Sen. Laird Noh, a Republican on the board of The Common Interest, had an even stronger initial negative reaction. Over an hour and a half conversation, though, he agreed to become the (other) honorary co-chair of my campaign.
HCN What convinced him?
ALLRED I told him what the Democrats had told me: "We get who you are and what you're passionate about, and we're not asking you to change." Only solutions that gain broad and diverse support make it through our complex system of checks and balances, which creates a leadership imperative to bring people together. I got a Ph.D. in organizational behavior and conflict resolution and ended up on the faculty at Columbia and then at Harvard to find out, "OK, how do you actually do that?"
HCN What did you conclude?
ALLRED In work I did with Dale Bosworth, who was chief of the Forest Service at the time, I developed an idea called "collaborative polling," and the then-governor of Utah, Republican Mike Leavitt, heard about the idea, and asked me to use it to help him consider whether to ask the Bush administration to declare the San Rafael Swell -- 600,000 acres of red-rock country southwest of Moab -- a national monument.
As at many spectacular areas in the West, what should happen had become highly controversial, (so) I engaged environmentalists, off-road enthusiasts, hunters, and cattleman in the collaborative polling process to develop a policy brief. The goal was not to decide outcomes, but to gather as accurately as possible the competing arguments and factual information behind them, then take that to random samples of the public and ask them what they thought should happen after they'd read the brief.
As we neared completion, I felt confident that we'd develop a wise compromise, and I flew to Washington, D.C., and had a separate meeting with the senior Republican and Democratic staffers for this question in Congress. Each of them said, "Yeah, that does sound like good policy. (But) we're not going to be able to publicly support this. In fact, politically, it's going to be necessary for us to publicly criticize it."
This was a deeply frustrating experience to have in the nation's capitol. It led me to found The Common Interest as a way of mobilizing everyday citizens in an informed and coordinated way.