Postscript on Conley Ward: A partisan with a conscience

Conley Ward’s death Monday was mourned across the Idaho political spectrum, in part because the former state Democratic Party chairman was such a decent man.

“He was a good guy,” former GOP Gov. Phil Batt told me Tuesday. Batt was a key player early in Ward’s career, serving as Senate President Pro Tem in 1977 when Ward was confirmed on an 18-17 vote as a Public Utilities commissioner.

The story of Ward’s confirmation reveals his preternatural political skills. There wasn’t space for the tale in the obituary I wrote today, but it reveals what a fine political poker player Ward was at an early age.

On Feb. 11, 1977, the Senate rejected outgoing Gov. Cecil Andrus’ nominee to the PUC. Before he resigned to become President Jimmy Carter’s Interior secretary, Andrus named Matt Mullaney, who senators called unqualified and too sympathetic to environmentalists.

On March 8, Gov. John Evans named Ward. But on March 17, the Senate State Affairs Committee voted 6-4 along party lines to hold Ward’s appointment. Republicans suggested Evans re-appoint Ward after the Legislature adjourned, allowing him to serve until the 1978 session and be considered again for confirmation.

Ward wanted no part of it, saying he was inclined to withdraw. “The PUC is, after all, a quasi-judicial body. I simply don’t think it’s acceptable for the people to have a PUC commissioner who has this kind of sword hanging over his head.”

Republicans said they liked the 29-year-old lawyer, who was educated at Columbia and the University of Colorado and worked for two years at the PUC. “I was very much impressed,” said Senate Majority Caucus Chairman Walt Yarbrough, R-Grand View. “I think he’s a good young man, but I hate to make a decision on something as important as this with no more information than we have on Mr. Ward.”

Batt, R-Wilder, was among the six voting to hold Ward’s nomination because the GOP caucus had directed the vote. But Batt allowed that he wasn’t comfortable with the arrangement.

“I disagreed with that direction,” Batt told Statesman Political Editor Steve Ahrens. “There was no one in the caucus who was not impressed with him and who doesn’t wish him well. I don’t anticipate that if he performs even adequately, he will have any difficulties with confirmation next year.”

As it turned out, Ward didn’t have to wait. On March 21, his confirmation was the “going-home” vote of the year, a dance that took six hours to complete.

Minority Leader Cy Chase, D-St. Maries, cited a Senate rule requiring the State Affairs Committee to report on the nomination to the Senate. Instead of a committee report, Republicans agreed to submit a letter from Chairman Leon Swenson, R-Nampa, urging Evans to reappoint Ward later.

With the letter before the Senate, Chase made a substitute motion to confirm Ward. Ward won support from all 15 Democrats and three Republicans, Vern Brassey and Edith Miller Klein of Boise and Dick High of Twin Falls. (High later served on the PUC with Ward, helping advance consumer rights).

Ward said the ordeal left him “limp,” but wasn’t concerned by the one-vote margin. “I’m sure the people who voted against me were as concerned as the people who voted for me,” he said with his usual class. “My door is open to all.”

Karl Shurtliff, who Ward succeeded on the PUC, spoke Tuesday about Ward’s integrity, which he said was inherited from his parents. The late Conley Ward Sr., was a farmer, teacher and Democratic nominee for secretary of state in 1966, winning 48 percent of the vote against Republican Edson Deal. In 1962, Ward finished fifth in a six-way primary for governor. Eloise Ward, now 89, was a teacher and lives on the Ward family ranch in Kuna.

Though Ward’s 1988-91 tenure as party chairman marked the recent apex of Democratic influence, Shurtliff said Ward was too intellectually honest to be an effective chairman in the long run.

“He wanted to fight issues out on their merits,” said Shurtliff, himself a former Democratic lawmaker and Carter’s appointee as U.S. Attorney in Idaho. “He wasn’t a gutter fighter. That’s what you need in a chairman.”

Ward’s Democratic loyalties were deep, but he also called B.S. when he saw fit. Last year, he defended GOP state Treasurer Ron Crane, who was being battered for his practice of filling his car with state-paid fuel for his commute from Nampa to the Capitol. Crane was entitled to a state car, or he could have charged 45.5 cents per mile for use of his own rig.

Ward calculated Crane saved taxpayers $5,000 a year. “What is his reward for saving the state approximately $5,000 per year?” Ward wrote in a letter to the editor of the Statesman. “Threats of criminal prosecution and vilification by the press! The state can choose to reject Mr. Crane’s well-intended reimbursement method for accounting reasons, but the suggestion that it was self-serving or criminal is patently over the top.”

Despite Shurtliff’s assessment, Ward could get sharply partisan. When he was elected chairman in 1988, among his goals was to defeat then Senate President Pro Tem Jim Risch, now Idaho’s junior U.S. senator.

“That party is corrupt,” Ward said. “They’ve fallen prey to a boss system. He (Risch) controls the money and he controls the access.”

Risch was defeated that fall by Democrat Mike Burkett of Boise, but resurrected his career in 1995 when Batt appointed him to a Senate vacancy.

Ward also played Mama Bear. In 1990, Sen. Roger Fairchild, R-Fruitland, was the GOP nominee trying to deny Andrus a fourth term. After Fairchild encouraged Andrus to take an AIDS test, Ward said, “The insinuation is one of three things: either that the governor is an intravenous drug user, or a homosexual or a Haitian, and he patently is not (any) of the three. To me, that goes way beyond the pale.”

Ward aggressively countered GOP claims that Andrus was mean and arrogant. As Sen. Rachel Gilbert, R-Boise, entered the GOP primary late as an alternative to the troubled Fairchild campaign, Ward said he would welcome Gilbert’s nomination.

“I can’t wait for the spectacle of Rachel Gilbert running against the governor on grounds that he’s mean,” Ward said. “If we went over the Legislature and said, ‘Who’s the meanest woman in these halls?’ she’d get 90 percent of the votes at a minimum.”

Fairchild defeated Gilbert 37 percent to 32 percent in a three-way primary. In November, Andrus defeated Fairchild 68 percent to 32 percent, carrying 43 of 44 counties. (Lemhi, which never voted for Andrus in five runs for governor, was the outlier.)

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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