Election Central

Agitated Otter confronted Idaho Statesman over gay rights coverage (w/audio)

Sunday’s three-page package exploring how the absence of civil rights protections for gays impacts business and Idaho’s image was sparked by Gov. Butch Otter’s challenging the assumption made in the Idaho Statesman’s Feb. 12 story that the Gem State has an “anti-gay reputation.”

Seeing me in the Capitol’s garden level rotunda that day, Otter turned on his heels to tell me we were “dead wrong.”

His impassioned statement prompted our decision to carefully vet the issue. The result was Zach Kyle’s Page 1 report on how business leaders view the controversy. Also on Page 1 was my story acknowledging the paucity of survey research and admitting that “Otter may be right” that no such reputation exists.

Idaho, it turns out, is among 29 states whose anti-discrimination laws don’t cover lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people — the aim of the “Add the Words, Idaho” campaign.

Otter, it’s worth recalling, spent much of his private sector career as a salesman, pitching the agricultural products of the J.R. Simplot Co. During his 14 years as lieutenant governor, six years in Congress and seven-plus years as governor he’s thrived in his role as a pitchman for Idaho goods on overseas trade missions, including visits to China, Cuba and Russia. Had Mitt Romney been elected president, Otter said the job he’d want was U.S. trade representative.

The Feb. 12 story hinged on Otter’s telling the Idaho Press Club that the gay rights controversy wasn’t hurting business recruitment. Otter declined to take a position on “Add the Words,” which made national news with the Feb. 4 arrest of 44 protestors at the Capitol.

Here’s how my encounter with the governor went:

Around noon Feb. 12, Otter was walking to his office on the second floor of the Capitol as I chatted nearby with Department of Commerce Director Jeff Sayer, Otter’s point man on the economy.

Starting up the stairs from the garden level, Otter halted to confront me, saying, “You’re done. I’m done with anybody at the Statesman.”

Confused, I gazed dumbly at the governor and turned on my audio recorder.

“I did not accept the premise that the state of Idaho has a racist attitude,” said Otter, upset enough that he confused racism with homophobia.

“I totally reject —” he continued, stopping when he observed my continued puzzlement.

“Didn’t you see your headline? Go read your headline, “Otter denies that we —”

I replied, sputtering, “It wasn’t — it says — it said that it didn’t — it wasn’t having an effect on business.”

“Read the headline; you read the headline and then let me know,” the governor said, turning to continue his walk upstairs to his office on the second floor.

Troubled by the governor’s complaint, I excused myself from Sayer, opened my laptop to find the story and headed upstairs hoping to catch the governor before he slipped back into his office. Thankfully, Rep. Linden Bateman was just outside the governor’s office, introducing Otter to two sweet-faced grandchildren, whom Otter quickly charmed.

Niceties over, I showed Otter the headline, “Otter says Idaho’s anti-gay reputation is not hurting business” and reactivated my recorder.

“Idaho doesn’t have an anti-gay reputation is what I’m saying!” Otter said. “You guys are dead wrong on that!”

“Governor,” I replied, “you’re not looking at what the national media’s saying.”

“Well,” Otter said. “The national media — you guys shouldn’t join — don’t you have your own opinion? I never ever heard — except for those people whose benefits it is to have us — I’m done! I’m through!”

In departing, Otter left me with his spokesman, Jon Hanian.

“That wasn’t a fair headline, ‘Otter says Idaho’s anti-gay reputation,’” Hanian said. “He never said — we never said — that we have an anti-gay reputation. That’s your opinion. That’s not fair.”

Hanian said Otter had another beef: He was unhappy with a caption in our coverage of anti-debt motivational speaker Dave Ramsey’s Feb. 6 appearance in Boise. Underneath a photo of the governor and First Lady Lori Otter, it read, “Politician with a spending problem?”

Hanian had spoken with a mid-level editor to complain but said “nobody’s ever called me back on that.”

“It was totally out-of-place,” Hanian said. “It was an effort to be cute and it wasn’t cute. And that’s not fair. That’s bias.”

(I reported the complaint to Statesman Editor Vicki Gowler, who then reached out to Otter’s chief of staff, David Hensley. The headline was changed to read, “Idaho Gov. Butch Otter and first lady Lori Otter were part of the sold-out crowd listening intently to financial guru Dave Ramsey at the Morrison Center on Thursday, Feb. 6.”)

Returning to the story Otter confronted me about, I told Hanian I thought he was misreading the headline.

“No, I’m not misreading it….You show me where he said we have an anti-gay (reputation)?” said Hanian.

“But it’s a fact!” I countered. “We have it!”

Hanian ended the conversation, saying, “He never said that. You’re making him sound like he said that. That’s not right. That’s not right.”

Our Sunday package was an attempt to push beyond the emotion and deal with the facts as we best know them. If you haven’t read it, I hope you’ll click the links in the third paragraph above or get your hands on a copy of Sunday’s print edition.

Dan Popkey came to Idaho in 1984 to work as a police reporter. Since 1987, he has covered politics and has reported on 25 sessions of the Legislature. Dan has a bachelor's in political science from Santa Clara University and a master's in journalism from Columbia University. He was a Congressional Fellow of the American Political Science Association and a Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan. A former page in the U.S. House of Representatives, he graduated Capitol Page High School in 1976. In 2007, he led the Statesman’s coverage of the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news. In 2003, he won the Ted M. Natt First Amendment award from the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Association for coverage of University Place, the University of Idaho’s troubled real estate development in Boise. Dan helped start the community reading project "Big Read." He has two children in college and lives on the Boise Bench with an old gray cat.

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Posted in Election Central, Idaho Politics