Politics: Idaho’s once-Democratic District

I love seeing people frown when I describe the Democratic district where I grew up.

Sooner or later, someone will interrupt to say they thought I was an Idaho native.  Even though I have “Fourth Generation Idahoan” tattooed on my forehead, it’s easier for people to believe I grew up elsewhere than to believe Idaho was once awash with Democrats.

Wikipedia reports that Idaho Senator Glen H. Taylor is considered the fourth most liberal member of Congress during the last half of the 20th century.  Taylor promoted civil rights legislation during the 1940s and was the vice presidential candidate on the 1948 Progressive Party ticket.  (The Democrats considered kicking him out of their caucus for this, but didn’t.)

Later, Senator Frank Church would support John Kennedy in his bid for the presidency and vie for the nomination himself in 1976.

And Idaho’s First District was almost continually represented by Democrats from FDR’s inauguration in 1933 until 1967.

Democrat Compton I White, Sr., was swept into office in the midst of the Great Depression and served seven terms in the U.S. House before losing to a Republican in 1946.  In 1948 he won his seat back, only to lose it again in 1950.  Democrat Gracie Pfost of Nampa won the seat in 1952 and served five terms.

When she retired, Compton I White Jr., was elected to his dad’s seat.

These Democrats were strongly supported by Canyon County farmers, as well as by the miners and lumber workers up north.  White, Sr., chaired the House Committee on Irrigation and was instrumental in getting Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams.

Pfost would later earn the nickname “Hell’s Belle” for her efforts to get a high dam in Hell’s Canyon.

My father regarded White’s greatest accomplishment as getting electrical power to Idaho farms.  Like companies in much of the country, Idaho Power didn’t see any profit in installing miles of lines and poles to serve one or two outlying farms.  FDR’s Rural Electrification Administration provided loans to farmer co-ops to set up their own electrical company.  Dad would laugh recalling how once the REA started stringing lines on one side of the road, Idaho Power lines was soon stringing on the other side.

During the summer of 1964, I interned in White, Jr.’s office in Washington, D.C.  At that time he was working to get the Washington dams that made the Port of Lewiston possible, to get a massive north-south power interchange so we could sell excess summer electricity in California, and to ensure that no Idahoan would be blocked from their homes by the Federal plans for Idaho’s forests and wilderness.

I remember White once earnestly talking strategy with his aide in the House lobby while tying the bootie of a baby in a backpack nearby.  The mother never noticed.   He was a regular kind of guy, and the California interns envied me.

Democrats felt they lost control of the First District because reapportionment brought a Republican portion of Ada County into the district.

And, although Republicans have controlled the Idaho legislature more years than Democrats, when I was in high school Democrats outnumbered Republicans in the House by 25-19 and 27-17.

A retired Republican legislator stopped by the Democratic booth at the Canyon County Fair one year and reminisced about the Democratic legislators he’d enjoyed working with.  When I asked him what had happened to all Idaho’s Democrats, he chuckled as he told me environmentalists and civil rights workers had alienated farmers, loggers, and miners.

Now, with the middle class shrinking, the party that puts jobs, schools, and fair taxes first deserves another look.

Published by Judy Ferro

Judy Ferro is communication director for the 2C Dems and a columnist for the Idaho Press.

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