The immortal anecdote: Butch Otter’s tight jeans triumph makes political ‘Bible’

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter’s winning a tight jeans contest has become an unwelcome part of his legacy.

In the new edition of the “Almanac of American Politics,” word of Otter’s 1992 victory at Boise’s Rockin’ Rodeo lounge appears on page 523 of the 1,904-page book published by National Journal and the University of Chicago Press.

Otter was 50 at the time and bested competitors half his age, who were judged on “looks, appearance in jeans, total body shape and sex appeal.” A waitress said the then-lieutenant governor’s win was no upset. “He looked great,” she said.

The Almanac has also used the Otter bit in at least two prior editions, 2004 and 2006. The mention in the 2014 edition got extra attention Monday from Al Kamen of the Washington Post, who calls the Almanac a “Bible for the political class.” Kamen mentions the Otter story along with other highlights including which congressman pointed out the historical error in the film “Lincoln;” who carried the “football” with the nuclear codes for Presidents Carter and Reagan; and who is the only politician to beat President Obama in an election.

Time and circumstance have bloated the legend of Otter’s July 29, 1992, jeans gig, which was reported by the Statesman’s Tim Woodward. Otter won the men’s division of a weekly contest that ran through August. Semi-finals were set for September. The record is unclear on whether Otter showed up to compete.

It seems, unlikely, however. On Aug. 1, three days after his win, Otter was arrested for DUI in Meridian. Many folks wrongly conflate the events, believing the DUI happened on the same night. Not so. But taken together they mark a low point in Otter’s public and private life.

Seven months later, in March 1993, a jury convicted Otter of DUI. His testimony added to the legend: his knee was sore from running eight miles; he asked to take a sobriety test in stocking feet because he couldn’t keep his balance in cowboy boots; he swerved his yellow Jeep while reaching for his cowboy hat; and blew his Breathalyzer test because he soaked his chewing tobacco in Jack Daniels.

The same day of his conviction, Otter tearfully apologized to the state Senate, a moment I will never forget because of the sincerity of his contrition. Otter also said he had retired from the J.R. Simplot Co. Not long after, he and the mother of his four children, Gaye Simplot, divorced.

Woodward, who knew Otter from high school, wrote after the conviction that Otter had “lost any realistic hope of attaining his long-time goal of becoming governor.”

But Otter showed remarkable resilience, winning a three-way Republican primary for lieutenant governor with 40 percent of the vote and the 1994 general election over Democrat John Peavey with 53 percent. After being elected to Congress in 2000 and 2002 and 2004, Otter indeed attained his goal to be governor, beating Democrat Jerry Brady in 2006 with 53 percent of the vote.

Otter, who hasn’t had a tough race since, appears to be well positioned to win a third term next year at age 72. He’s clearly overcome those dark times.

I don’t know what Otter makes of the revival of the tight jeans story in the political almanac that retails for $90 in paperback, $115 in cloth. But I’d guess it’s about as welcome as the occasional reminders I get about my insisting that the Statesman publish a Polaroid of me sitting on the laps of two barmaids at Humpin’ Hannah’s while I was going through my divorce in 2000. (I was writing a column on deadline about nightlife on a Friday the 13th which coincided with a full moon. My daughter, then 8, was horrified.)

I asked Otter’s spokesman, Jon Hanian, whether Otter might comment about the revival of the jeans story. Hanian said he’d get back to me if the boss chose to weigh in.

Since Woodward’s first story in 1992, the Statesman has republished the news of Otter’s tight jeans 46 times. With mixed feelings, here’s No. 47.

For those who might be interested, Woodward didn’t know about the Aug. 1 DUI arrest when he wrote his piece that appeared Aug. 4, 1992.

Here’s an excerpt from Woodward’s three-dot column:

IDAHO’S LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR WINS … TIGHT-JEANS CONTEST?

Tim Woodward

Sexy lieutenant governor: It wasn’t the smoke-filled room of political lore or the sort of activity state officials are noted for, but the winner of last week’s tight- jeans contest at the Rockin’ Rodeo lounge was none other than Idaho Lt. Gov. Butch Otter.

Otter nudged out the competition in the men’s division at Wednesday night’s contest in the lounge of the Ramada Inn on Capitol Boulevard. Contestants, according to Rockin’ Rodeo waitress Loree Hoffman, were judged on “looks, appearance in jeans, total body shape and sex appeal.”

Was anyone surprised that the middle-aged Otter beat contestants half his age?

“No!” Hoffman said. “He looked great.”

Weekly contests will continue throughout the month, with “semi-finals” in September. As a weekly winner, Hoffman said, Otter is in the running for the grand prize, a trip to Las Vegas.

I tried to reach him for a re action Monday, but he was out of his J.R. Simplot Co. office and hadn’t returned the call by the time this column was put to bed.

Otter didn’t get off to such a great start last week.

After failing to receive a copy of a pertinent article while presiding over the Senate on Monday, he joked that he felt like “a potted plant.”

I have no idea whether he was potted Wednesday night … but he definitely wasn’t a wallflower.

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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