Butch Otter Rides Again

Idaho' next governor demonstrates the possibilities--and limits--of libertarian politics in the Republican Party.

WHEN HE'S IN his Washington, D.C., office, Rep. C.L. “Butch” Otter (R-Idaho) wears a pin-striped suit, a solid tie, and a white shirt with his nickname stenciled on the cuffs. But it’s the morning of July 4, and Otter is the keynote speaker at a flag-raising ceremony in Idaho Falls, so he’s sporting a different ensemble. Dark blue Wrangler jeans are held up by a black leather belt, cinched with a commemorative buckle Otter won at a 1981 rodeo. He has tucked in one of his campaign shirts, bright banana yellow, just like his “Otter for Idaho” signs. The cuffs and collar are Pacific Ocean blue, one shade darker than the jeans. And all of this, like Otter’s Capitol Hill outfit, is anchored by weathered black cowboy boots.

“Butch, man!” says one of the patriots attending the 8 a.m. flag raising, eyes goggling, as he takes in the full horror of Otter’s shirt. “Wow! Is that legal?”

Otter throws his head back and laughs loudly. It would be strange if he didn’t laugh loudly. Everything he does is boisterous, friendly, and high volume. He slaps a hand on the shoulder of the Gem State’s answer to Don Rickles, jokes along, then pivots on his boot heel to greet more of the people on the lawn.

“Butch Otter,” he says. “Good to see you. Isn’t this a terrific set-up this year? Boy, just look at what Sheila’s put together.”

Sheila is Sheila Olsen, the widow of former Idaho Republican Party Chairman Dennis Olsen, Otter’s Eastern Idaho consultant, and the 1987 National Multiple Sclerosis Mother of the Year. She’s circling the assembled neighbors, Mormon church bigwigs, and politicians in her scooter before the ceremony kicks off. Otter keeps shaking hands and trading jokes. But while he’s talking to Tom Luna, the Republican candidate for state superintendent of public instruction, the subject of South America comes up. A different side of Otter’s brain takes over.

“You know, Milton Friedman taught all the economists who were running Chile when it went very open free market,” Otter says.

“He educated them?” Luna asks.

“He educated most of those guys that were in that government. Graduates of the University of Chicago.”

For about a minute, Otter discourses about Milton Friedman— how Otter discovered his work, how he was one of a handful of free market economists to win the Nobel Prize, how short he is in person. And then another patriot ambles over to meet Otter, and the candidate flips back into meet-and-greet mode. Do you live here in Idaho Falls? Boy, have you seen the fireworks display they put up here?

Butch Otter is a study in contradictions. After Ron Paul of Texas, he’s the most libertarian Republican in the entire caucus. Unlike Paul, he has libertarian victories on his legislative scorecard. In June 2003 he shocked the Bush administration by sponsoring an amendment to a funding bill that stripped out the money the FBI needed to conduct sneak-and-peek searches— that is, raiding a target’s home without issuing a notice to the target. It passed with 309 votes. In 2004 he fought hard to amend the PATRIOT Act to bar the government from searching bookstore and library records. The amendment almost passed, until Otter’s own party leadership held the vote open for an extra 23 minutes to twist arms and get Republicans to vote against it. He was bitter about that vote. “You win some, and some get stolen,” he told reporters.

During three and a half decades in politics, Otter has had his decisions overruled by everyone from Idaho legislators (on obscenity laws they wanted to pass) to his fellow House Republicans (on medical marijuana they wanted to ban) to President Ronald Reagan (on the drinking age his administration wanted to raise).

Now Otter is running for governor of Idaho. In this heavily Republican state, matched up against a Democrat who ran and lost this same race four years ago, he’s the heavy favorite to win. In a July poll conducted by Greg Smith & Associates, Otter leads eastern Idaho newspaper publisher Jerry Brady 47 percent to 25 percent, with the rest of the voters undecided.

Otter has wanted to be governor ever since he was a two-term state legislator from Canyon County, a suburban satellite of Boise. When he made his first gubernatorial bid in the late 1970s, he was known for his flamboyant libertarian beliefs as much as for being the son-in-law—and an employee—of the state’s richest man, potato magnate J.R. Simplot.

Back then, Otter had a hard-core philosophy and a knack for getting it into the headlines. He had opposed a state anti-pornography law by saying, “I vote not just no but hell no.” In a March 1978 interview with Reason, gubernatorial candidate Otter mused that “if a person, of his own free will, wants to use marijuana, I question whether the government has any propriety in telling him he can’t.” By limiting freedom, he said, “the government, in effect, is taking away the only real gift the Lord gave us.” But Otter lost the Republican primary that year; in a seven-way tussle, he came in third.

“I played the young, energetic, up-and-coming role that was unseasoned by politics—I sort of was the businessman,” Otter remembers. “But there was a crowded field, and as sometimes happens when you’ve got a crowded field, I came up short.”

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