by Jonathan Brinckman
NAMPA, Idaho -
Wearing a pressed plaid shirt and glossy cowboy boots, Walt Minnick
is doing his best to fit in with the crowd at the Snake River
Stampede, an annual rodeo here, 15 miles down Interstate 84 from
It's not working.
Minnick, I'm running for the Senate," the neatly groomed
54-year-old says again and again, buffeted by the crowd streaming
past him through the stadium gates. "Walt Minnick, nice to meet
The introductions are lost in the rush,
with Minnick's voice drowned by the calls of women hawking
programs. "Data sheets on the cowboys!" vendors shout. "Find who's
The soft-spoken Democrat, out of
place in the raucous rodeo scene, also seems out of place in the
Republican rodeo of Idaho politics. Minnick is after the U.S.
Senate seat held by Larry Craig, a one-term incumbent seeking
re-election. The other three members of the state's congressional
delegation are Republicans. The governor is a Republican, and the
party dominates the state Legislature.
jarring: In the state that spawned freshman Rep. Helen Chenoweth -
most famous for her statement that salmon aren't endangered because
they can be found in grocery store cans - Minnick has deep ties to
He was a key fund raiser
for the Idaho Conservation League, one of the state's most
influential advocacy organizations, and served on the Wilderness
Society's national governing board.
a multimillionaire, doesn't fit in among environmentalists either.
He's a former timber executive, a 21-year veteran of TJ
International, formerly Trus Joist Corp., a Boise-based
wood-products company with $600 million in annual sales. He also
served on the White House staff of President Richard
A closer look, though, shows Minnick may
not be as out of place as he seems.
While many in
the crowd wear cowboy hats, most residents of the booming Boise
area of 360,000 are urban dwellers or suburbanites. An increasing
number hold high-tech jobs in companies such as Micron and
Hewlett-Packard, both of which have major facilities in
One of those city dwellers, a young man in
tight jeans and a white cap, stops for a second after shaking
Minnick's hand. "Good luck," says Ron Herrold, 29. "We need you
Many are drawn to the Boise area by the
region's stunning natural beauty: ponderosa pine mountains to the
north, sagebrush deserts to the south, clear rivers running
through. They are more interested in preserving that beauty than in
giving carte blanche to timber, mining and agriculture - Idaho's
traditional extractive industries.
In Idaho, as
in much of the Intermountain West, the demographics are changing.
In 1970, farming, mining and lumber jobs accounted for 24 percent
of the work force - in 1995, only 10 percent. The number of
computer and electronics jobs, by contrast, increased 15 fold over
the same time period.
"This race is about the old
Idaho vs. the new Idaho," Minnick says, turning briefly from his
handshaking duty. "It's urban vs. rural, new West vs. old West,
emerging industry vs. old industry, political reforms vs. old-style
"It's all of those things."
Minnick was drafted by Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb.,
leader of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign, in an effort to
return the U.S. Senate to Democratic control. At first Minnick's
campaign seemed quixotic. No longer.
conducted for Minnick's campaign back in May found the candidate
trailed Craig by 25 points. A second poll in August found that gap
had narrowed to 12 points. More significantly, according to the
polling company, Lake Research of Washington, D.C., only four in 10
said in August they would vote for
Kerrey's group classifies each of its
targeted Senate seats by odds of victory. Originally Craig's seat
was ranked "improbable." Now, says Bill Mauk, chairman of the Idaho
Democratic Party, it has reclassified the seat as "probable."
"Larry Craig has never had a hard race in his
career," says Rick Johnson, executive director of the Idaho
Conservation League and a strong Minnick supporter. "This is going
to be a hard one."
The Craig campaign sees
things differently. It cites polls showing that Larry Craig, 51, a
U.S. congressman for 10 years before winning a U.S. Senate seat in
1990, maintains a 24-point lead over Minnick.
bottom line, says Craig campaign spokesman Mike Tracy, is that
Minnick seriously underestimates the continued importance of
extractive industries and jobs associated with farming, logging and
Craig has sponsored several proposed
bills widely decried by environmentalists. He co-authored with New
Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici a bill to roll back many of the grazing
reforms set in place by Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt.
And he supported a forest health bill that would give the Forest
Service more flexibility in proceeding with salvage sales of dead
or dying timber.
"Larry understands what the
miners and ranchers and people who work the land are going
through," Tracy says. "The pendulum swung to way over in the "80s
and early "90s for the environment. Now the laws and rules and
regulations on the books are hurting individual families. I think
most people would say we went too far."
clearly faces a challenge in Idaho. The last Democrat voters put in
the U.S. Senate was Frank Church, who won re-election in 1974.
Church was defeated by slightly more than 4,000 votes by Republican
Steve Symms in 1980. But the state has a reputation for fiercely
independent voters who, while generally voting Republican, will
support charismatic Democrats. The most recent of those was former
Gov. Cecil Andrus, who retired in
How could a
wood-products industry executive wind up a Democratic U.S. Senate
candidate championed by environmental groups? The key lies in Walt
Minnick was born in Walla Walla,
Wash., over the Blue Mountains from Lewiston, Idaho. His father was
a small-town lawyer and wheat farmer. His mother was head of the
county's Republican Party.
He sported a crewcut
at Whitman College in Walla Walla and was president of the campus
Young Republicans. By 1969, Minnick had received degrees in both
business and law from Harvard University.
1971, when some his age were dropping out and heading to
Haight-Ashbury, Minnick moved to Washington, D.C. There he took a
job with the Nixon White House, first as a staff assistant to the
president, on the Domestic Council. At age 30, he was named deputy
assistant director of the Office of Management and
He shared an office with Howard Hunt and
Gordon Liddy, later convicted of masterminding the Watergate
burglary. The day after the bungled break-in at Democratic
headquarters made the inside pages of the Washington Post, Minnick
and a colleague guessed immediately who had done
"We turned to each other and said, "It has to
be crazy Gordon," "''''he recalls.
resigned from the White House the Monday after the "Saturday Night
Massacre," when Nixon fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald
In late 1973, Minnick found himself with a
$2,500 severance check from the U.S. Treasury in his pocket and
three conclusions: He couldn't work for Richard Nixon, he didn't
want to be a lawyer, and he had the education and talent to make a
living anywhere he chose in the country.
picked Boise, he says, because the nearby mountains offered the
fishing, hiking and camping he had grown up with in eastern
Washington. He took a job at Trus Joist as a management trainee.
Five years later, at age 36, Minnick was president of the
Minnick arrived in Idaho having never
voted for a Democrat in his life. But he says he learned that, in
Idaho, being Republican meant supporting subsidies for timber and
other extractive industries and opposing efforts to protect public
Minnick is against subsidies because, he
says, they make make companies less competitive.
"Businesses with government subsidies are the
ones that become less efficient and less globally competitive," he
says. "They become fat and lazy and eventually fall to some foreign
He believes protecting public land is
important because the quality of the environment - not extractive
industries like logging and mining - fuels Idaho's economy. If
people stopped moving to Idaho, he reasoned, TJ International's
sales would fall as home construction growth
"The Republican Party seemed hell-bent on
destroying the quality of life that led me to come to the state in
the first place," he says.
In the 1970s, Minnick
became increasingly outspoken on environmental issues. First, he
supported efforts to create the Frank Church-River of No Return
Wilderness, at 2.4 million acres now the largest contiguous
wilderness in the lower 48. "I could not believe that people could
be so shortsighted as to want to take the Idaho Primitive Area and
turn it over to mining and timber," he
Then he funded an Idaho Conservation
League study of below-cost timber sales, and he began an attempt to
educate politicians, writing to Republican congressional candidates
to tell them the scale of timber
"Hopefully, this information will be
useful to you and other free-enterprise, fiscal conservatives as
you shape your campaigns," he closed one
Not surprisingly, by
1990 he became known as a corporate iconoclast. "Mr. Minnick is not
cut from the timber-industry mold," a story in the Wall Street
Journal observed. "(He) sees the downturn in Northwest logging as
He resigned under pressure from TJ
International in January 1995, he says, after unsuccessfully
arguing before the board of directors that the company should
aggressively expand beyond its core
Now, with neatly cut graying hair, he
still looks like he'd be far more comfortable in a corporate board
room than buttonholing potential voters. He is happiest, though,
when he is outdoors.
"I would consider a summer a
bust unless I made five backpacking trips and spent a minimum of 20
days under the stars," he says. "This summer I got out a total of
He spent them hiking in Idaho's
White Cloud Mountains with his 3-year-old son, Dixon. He has two
other children from his first marriage, Adam, 21, and Amy, 24, who
is the campaign's finance manager. Minnick has brought his
corporate training to the job of campaigning for Senate, hiring the
best team he could, he says, including Karen White and Scott Tyre.
White, on a short list of the nation's best
campaign managers put together by the Democratic Senatorial
Campaign Committee, agreed to take Minnick's campaign after the
candidate flew across the country to meet her. Tyre, said Mauk,
Idaho's Democratic chairman, "could sell snake oil to a snake."
Minnick follows his team's advice, and his main
job isn't shaking hands at rodeos. It's raising
Campaign managers say that winning the
U.S. Senate seat in Idaho will cost about $2.5 million, most of it
going for television spots. That's about $4.25 for each of the
590,000 registered voters in Idaho. Minnick, who on campaign
disclosure forms lists his net worth as between $3.65 million and
$11.9 million, says he will kick in about $500,000 of his own
money. The rest he's raising from individuals, corporations and
political action committees, or PACs.
campaign says it will likely spend about the same amount. The fact
that Minnick is putting up his own cash makes him more of a threat,
says Craig's campaign spokesman.
"When a man says
he's going to spend his own money, that means he's committed not
only with resources, but committed inside of himself," Tracy says.
"We have to take that seriously."
nothing if not serious. He gets up most mornings at 4 a.m. and
spends a couple of hours revising speeches and other campaign
documents before joining his 6 a.m. jogging group. He works many
evenings until 10 p.m. or later.
figure out how he goes on such little sleep," says Bill Broadhead,
Minnick's spokesman. "He has the strongest work ethic of anyone
I've ever met."
Minnick estimates he spends 80
percent of his 15-hour work days on the telephone, seeking
contributions. "We've got to raise an ungodly amount of money," he
says. "If we had campaign reform I could spend 90 percent of my
time out in the field, meeting people."
the ability to receive large sums of money from centralized
industries is the main reason people like Larry Craig retain power
in Northwest states.
Borrowing a term from
Charles F. Wilkinson, a law professor and writer at the University
of Colorado, Minnick describes the individuals and corporations who
direct extractive industries as the "lords of yesterday."
"The lords of yesterday are the only ones that
contribute (money) in the Rocky Mountain states. Consequently, they
control the policy. The new industry, based on high tech, doesn't
contribute. The old industry, the natural resource industry, is
fighting to protect its subsidies and restrict public meddling with
resources it needs.
"The culture changes but
politics doesn't adjust."
Minnick says he is
amazed that Republicans who tout the benefits of a free market are
so willing to compromise those principles when it comes to Western
"The same conservative congressmen
who spoke so fervently about free enterprise were the most
supportive of industries that wrote their PAC checks and chaired
their finance committees," he says. "It dawned on me that moneyed
special interests rather than principles determined how
professional politicians voted."
to eliminate campaign contributions from PACs but he hasn't sworn
off them himself in this election, because "there's no point to
While he'll talk at
length on campaign reform, Minnick is getting the most Idaho media
attention on another issue: His opposition to storage of nuclear
waste at Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, a vast federal
weapons complex about 30 miles west of Idaho Falls. In particular,
Minnick opposes a deal cut by Gov. Phil Batt that lets the federal
government store high-level nuclear waste at a site on the east
Idaho desert in exchange for a promise to remove the waste and
clean up old contamination by 2036 (HCN,
Minnick supports the Stop the
Shipments Campaign, which has a referendum on the Idaho ballot that
seeks to nullify the agreement. He doesn't trust the federal
government to honor its commitment to remove the
"We're basically taking the federal
government's word that the politicans who aren't out of their
diapers yet will choose out of the goodness of their hearts to
comply with this thing 40 years from now," he says. "The federal
government's track record of keeping its word is abysmal. Look at
the agreements it made with Indian tribes 100 years ago."
Ask him about what bothers him about putting
nuclear waste in Idaho and he sounds like the state's most ardent
"We will be storing nuclear
waste over an aquifer within 50 miles of the epicenter of one of
the two biggest earthquakes in North America in the last 25 years
and in the most active volcanic area in the U.S. outside of Mount
St. Helens," he says, leaning intently over a desk in his
campaign's harried headquarters.
"It's not an
issue of whether we're going to contaminate our aquifer, it's just
a matter of how and when."
One of Minnick's
campaign proposals, though, deeply worries some environmentalists.
The current system of selling timber from national forests, he
argues, should be streamlined. Rather than allowing each timber
sale to be contested in court, the U.S. Forest Service should
propose all of them at one time, then let the industry and its
opponents battle them out in a single shot.
result, he says, will be better for both the timber industry and
"The system we have now is
tied in knots," Minnick said. "Mostly what it produces is a lot of
wasted time and energy, and uncertainty. As a businessman I can
manage any situation as long as I know what it is. And
environmentalists have better things to do than fighting sale after
Don Smith, Idaho director of the Alliance
for the Wild Rockies, a Missoula-based environmental group, calls
Minnick's proposal scary. "It's not the politicians' job to ensure
for the timber industry that their timber quotas are met."
Smith believes that Minnick has a higher
appreciation for maintaining environmental integrity than Craig
does. But that, Smith adds, "doesn't say an awful lot."
Indeed, some say Minnick's credentials as an
environmentalist make him more dangerous than
"Craig's less of a danger than Minnick
because he's so much a buffoon," says Jeffrey St. Clair, editor of
Wild Forest Review magazine in Portland. "To have him lead the
crusade for salvage logging and forest health is the greatest gift
environmentalists could have. It's like having James Watt back."
St. Clair says Minnick, on the other hand, "is a
real smooth person." Yet he serves on the board of directors of
MacMillan Bloedel Ltd., a Canadian forest products giant that St.
Clair calls "the real Darth Vader of the timber industry."
"I don't think Minnick's stance on forest health
is that much different from Craig's," St. Clair said. "But if
Minnick sponsors a forest health bill, it has a lot more chance of
environmentalists say that while they may differ from Minnick at
times, that won't stop them from supporting
"I just know, knowing Walt, there would be
times when he would not be on our side and would offend us," says
Pat Ford, a Boise resident and conservation director of Save Our
Wild Salmon, a consortium of fishing and environmental groups. "But
he's got the kind of mind that's not locked into a world view."
Johnson of the Idaho Conservation League agrees.
"There's a lot that Walt supports that I won't like. He's very big
on cutting the budget. But he'll at least listen to us. He's
already proved who Walt Minnick is. Now he's just adding another
Brinckman, a former environmental reporter for The Idaho Statesman,
recently went to work for the Oregonian in Portland,