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2003 All rights reserved.


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The following article appeared in the Idaho Statesman for August 15, 2004.


Mike Simpson can be the Cecil Andrus of his generation

By Dan Popkey

His mix of straight talk, moderation and political courage transcends partisanship. The three-term GOP congressman will become the dominant figure in Idaho politics.

Andrus vaulted to power by championing preservation of the White Clouds in 1970, winning the first of four terms as governor. A Democrat in a Republican state, Andrus won over Republicans, revived education and the environment in Idaho and later saved Alaska as Interior secretary.

Simpson's ambition dangles from the same peaks in central Idaho, where his Boulder-White Clouds wilderness bill resolves conflicts that frustrated the formidable team of Andrus and GOP Sen. Jim McClure.

Five years ago, Simpson flew over Castle Peak the gleaming monolith that Andrus saved from a mine with California Rep. George Miller and Rick Johnson, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League.

"That mountain helped open the door for Cece Andrus to become who he became," Johnson told Simpson. "That door's still open."

On Wednesday, Simpson kicked in the door with an historic speech to the City Club of Boise. He shattered conventional GOP rhetoric with a celebration of wilderness and a truth-telling assessment about an economic future where computer chips trump cow pies.

He called the Boulder-White Clouds "God's cathedral," and said, "just because you can put a dirt bike on the top of Castle Peak doesn't mean you should." He closed stirringly: "We've been debating this for 30 years. We've been saying no for 30 years. It's time to get to yes. It's time to solve this problem. After the last no, there comes a yes, and on that yes, the future depends. We're not doing this for us; we're doing it for untold future generations, so that they have the opportunity to enjoy what is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular places on Earth. And you know, they're not making any more wilderness."
Such passion for the environment had never before been uttered by an Idaho Republican in public.

Simpson wanted maximum reach for his groundbreaking talk. It will air on public radio across southern Idaho. He also chose the audience well, as ranchers and environmentalists nodded approval at an event sponsored by Boise Cascade and the Conservation League.

Ranchers can't sustain operations in sensitive places like the East Fork Salmon River, Simpson said. "Five years from now they'll be gone. Can we do something to give them some economic benefit for the sacrifices they've made?"

He proposes paying ranchers $300 for every animal unit month (AUM) on federal land, though he also realizes ranchers are nervous about establishing a larger precedent. "I'm getting used to this term, 'economic impact payments' to the ranchers," he joked. "We were actually calling them AUM buyouts at one time."

Simpson represents what has been one of America's most conservative congressional districts. A lapsed Mormon who opposed the landmark 1990 anti-abortion bill and the 1994 anti-gay initiative and tax credits for private schools, he's never been a right-wing hero.

Now, he's broadening his appeal and winning the loyalty of moderates who worship quality of life in Ada County, the fast-growing part of his district.

Bethine Church watched the speech and said Simpson reminded her of the good ol' days with her late husband, Sen. Frank Church. "It elevates him as a lawmaker and expands his image nationally. Here I am trying to be as good a Democrat as I can be, but certain issues transcend politics. This is one of them."

"He's going to be a rock star," said Johnson, the Conservation League director.

Simpson's leftward shift infuriates conservatives. Former Sen. Stan Hawkins, who chickened out on challenging Simpson in 1998, says he's being urged to run in 2006. But Hawkins is blind to a changing Idaho.

"He'll never beat Mike, not in a million years," said House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, a rancher and Simpson pal who led the standing ovation at City Club.

Simpson has raised ten-fold more money than his Democratic opponent in November, Lin Whitworth. He'll stomp Whitworth in Boise's Democratic precincts because of his leadership on wilderness.

Simpson has always wanted to be governor, but is staying out of the 2006 race between Rep. C.L. "Butch" Otter and Lt. Gov. Jim Risch. That's wise. He's building power in Congress, where he's a favorite of Speaker Dennis Hastert.

Simpson, 53, has time on his side. Otter is 62, Risch 61. Either might serve only one term. Sen. Larry Craig will stay put or retire. Sen. Mike Crapo will either remain in the Senate or become a judge. Neither has Simpson's cross-over appeal.
By 2010 or 2014, Simpson will decide whether to stay in Congress or come home as governor. Either way, he's poised to remain in power a very long time and help transform Idaho into a leading state in the New West.

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