CHUCK MALLOY: Is early retirement for Otter a possibility?

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Lt. Gov. Brad Little, the political establishment’s golden boy in the race for governor, has some big plans for the Gem State if he’s elected.

He wants to improve the chances of keeping young Idahoans at home, ease up on business regulations and bring an Idaho solution to health care. More details on taxes and education will be coming soon in a campaign stump speech near you.

Little is hitting some of the right buttons, for sure. But think about the punch he’d have by presenting all this — and more — in a State of the State address as governor. He could count on generous reviews for offering tax cuts, such as repeal of the sales tax on groceries, to go along with a progressive education plan.

A successful legislative session, with Little in charge, would go a long way toward elevating him to the Republican nomination in next year’s primary. Congressman Raul Labrador would be relegated to temporary political retirement, and Boise developer Tommy Ahlquist would be planning for his next high-rise office building.

Of course, none of these things could happen unless Gov. Butch Otter stepped down — an unlikely prospect under normal circumstances. It would be more fitting for the John Wayne of Idaho politics to finish his third term, soak in the accolades and go out of office with the same wide smile he had when he took office in 2007.

But lately, the circumstances have not been normal for the usually-robust Otter. He had surgery on a bulging disk in his back early last month, and a second surgery followed a week later. He remained hospitalized for treatment of a post-surgery infection. I’m no doctor, but that’s not the kind of thing you’d want to see for someone who is 75 years old.

Otter’s spokesman, as reported by the Spokesman-Review’s Betsy Russell, says the governor is resting and recovering at home and that state business didn’t miss a beat. Otter stayed in touch with his office and participated in daily briefings. He also did some “official business,” issuing a statement lauding the Idaho Supreme Court’s grocery-tax ruling and appointing a new member to the state Board of Parks and Recreation.

Best wishes to the governor for a speedy recovery. But, as Russell’s story points out, the recovery may be slow, and there is no timetable for his return.

I see a political subplot to the governor’s health situation. How much does Otter want to see his friend, Brad Little, become Idaho’s next governor? And how much does Otter despise Labrador, who has been a thorn in the side of the governor for more than a decade? During his time in the Legislature, Labrador helped kill Otter’s plan to boost highway funding through a two-cent gas tax, then later led the way in changing leadership in the state Republican Party and going against Otter’s wishes. On both of those matters, Otter was the clear loser and Labrador has been taking victory laps ever since.

A couple of other blows came after President Trump was elected to office. Otter’s name surfaced as a possible candidate for Interior secretary, but it was Labrador who had the interview for the job with the big man himself at Trump Tower. Later, Otter talked about his interest in the agriculture secretary’s position, and nothing came of that. Score another point for Labrador, who at least had an interview with Trump.

But there’s more to come during the gubernatorial campaign when Labrador brings out his own version of “draining the swamp.” It will start with Otter handing over the keys to the governor’s office to Labrador and the new governor touting the end of Otter’s brand of “crony capitalism.”

One thing I’ve learned from Otter over the last 30-plus years is that he’s a man who does not like to lose. And he hasn’t lost a lot of political battles over the years — except to Labrador. But Otter could get the last laugh by stepping aside, for understandable health reasons, and giving the power of incumbency to Little.

Who knows? The governor might find that howls of protest from Labrador and his followers would provide therapeutic value to his ailing back.

• • •

Chuck Malloy, a Silver Valley native and longtime Idaho journalist, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly and an editorial writer with the Idaho Press-Tribune.

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