Can this man break the right's grip on Idaho?

  • Walt Minnick: At first his campaign seemed quixotic

    Glenn Oakley
  • Minnick presses the flesh in Nampa, Idaho

    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 Boise.

It's not working.

"Walt 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 you."

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 riding tonight!'

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.

Even more 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 environmental groups.

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.

But Minnick, 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 Nixon.

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 Boise.

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 badly."

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 politicians.

"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.

Polling 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 Craig.

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.

The 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 mining.

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."

Minnick 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 1990.

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's past.

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.

In 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 Budget.

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 it.

"We turned to each other and said, 'It has to be crazy Gordon,' " he recalls.

Minnick resigned from the White House the Monday after the "Saturday Night Massacre," when Nixon fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox.

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.

He 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 company.

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 land.

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 business."

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 slowed.

"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 recalls.

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 subsidies.

"Hopefully, this information will be useful to you and other free-enterprise, fiscal conservatives as you shape your campaigns," he closed one letter.

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 inevitable."

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 businesses.

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 three days."

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 money.

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.

The Craig 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."

Minnick is 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.

"Nobody can 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."

He says 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 public lands.

"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."

Minnick wants to eliminate campaign contributions from PACs but he hasn't sworn off them himself in this election, because "there's no point to unilateral disarmament."

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, 11/13/95).

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 waste.

"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 environmentalist.

"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.

The result, he says, will be better for both the timber industry and environmentalists.

"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 sale."

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.

"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 becoming law."

Other environmentalists say that while they may differ from Minnick at times, that won't stop them from supporting him.

"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 chapter."

Jonathan Brinckman, a former environmental reporter for The Idaho Statesman, recently went to work for the Oregonian in Portland, Oregon.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- Craig: Betting on Idaho's enduring conservatism

- Compare the candidates

- How the New West will vote is anyone's guess

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