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An Idaho Original

Cecil Andrus' passing reminds us of the kind of politics we used to have

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Former Idaho Governor Cecil D. Andrus has slipped away and out of our lives, passing away last Thursday at his home in Boise, one day short of his 86th birthday. He was the last of the Democratic Party giants who Idaho produced in the 20th century. His departure leaves a gaping hole in the fabric of the state's civic culture and Democratic Party, and in our hearts.

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Cece — everyone called him Cece — had a big heart, big enough to hold thousands of Idahoans. He remembered the name of every person he ever met, and forever after, he remembered what mark that person left on his — Andrus' — view of the best of all possible worlds. In that same massive memory, he also silently stored flaws and disagreements and funny stories. He didn't carry a grudge, but he never forgot a misstep.

Cece was a born leader and a natural politician, in the kinder sense of the word. He cared about people — individuals — which is why he remembered them. Cece and his wife Carol, a lifelong devoted team, moved from Oregon to tiny Orofino in North Idaho after Cece's service in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War. He was only 29 years old when he was elected to a seat in the Idaho Senate.

In his years in the Senate, Andrus and his fellow senators were almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, with Republicans holding the edge. Forced by numbers to work together, legislators made legendary strides — they passed a 3 percent sales tax to fund public schools, started the state park system, created the water resource board, and reorganized the state's election system to include a primary vote.

After his first two terms in the state senate, Andrus was encouraged to run for governor. It was on that 1966 campaign trail that I first observed Cecil Andrus in action. I have a vivid memory of the young Andrus, speaking with fire in his voice, his face turning reddish in excitement. I instantly understood that he was energized by the responsiveness of the crowd. He was in his element.

And it was ever so. Cecil Andrus loved crowds, and crowds loved him. He didn't take up all the oxygen in a room — he received and radiated energy back, making a roomful of people smile, laugh, think, appreciate and clap happily.

He didn't win that first gubernatorial race, but he bounced back to win handily in 1970 on a platform of saving the White Clouds and Chamberlain Basin from being mined for their molybdenum, a mineral that's hard to spell, and to consider significant. Recent Congressional designation of White Clouds as a wilderness area finally vindicated Andrus' vision, 45 years later.

Two years into his second term, Gov. Andrus was tapped by President Jimmy Carter to serve as Secretary of the Interior. His signature achievement in that role was the establishment of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with its more than 19 million acres under federal protection. Glorious pictures of Alaska's frozen beauty were hung with pride on the walls of his offices.

The headline in last Friday's New York Times obituary named Andrus "Carter's Preservationist Interior Secretary." Secretary Andrus would have been horrified. He rejected all labels — "environmentalist" or "tree-hugger," and certainly "preservationist." As Interior Secretary and Idaho governor, Andrus maintained that the environment and the economy were not an either-or proposition. He believed that good practices in the forests or on the land would not compete, but would be mutually beneficial.

All his life, Cecil Andrus cared about the great outdoors. He fished the streams, he hunted deer and elk, he rode horses and mules. He had hunting and fishing buddies, whom he listened to all their lives. He was a man's man, who valued friendship, trust and loyalty.

Never sold on the games and gossip of Washington, D.C., Cece and Carol returned to private life in Boise in 1981. The New York Times repeated his classic statement: "The only reason so many people live on the East Coast is that they don't know any better."

Back on the ballot in 1986, Cece once again became Gov. Andrus. As governor, Andrus was a natural. He understood executive power and exercised it with diligence and ease. He understood budgets and their significance in the public arena. He understood the importance of good staff and treating them respectfully. Early in his career, he recruited a passel of bright, young college graduates, who remained as close as family members over the course of his lifetime.

Gov. Andrus was a centrist, which is where most of the people usually are. I was a little left of center in the Boise Statehouse and wasn't always on his A-list, but time healed all differences.

Gov. Andrus was strong and tough and fair. Lots of stories have circulated about individuals calling on him and asking for help. The governor kept lists of people who had supported him and lists of people who had supported his opponents, and he took some glee in pointing out when a suppliant had not been on his side.

Gov. Andrus stood up to the National Rifle Association and refused to be bullied by the gun lobby. He was adamant in efforts to keep additional nuclear waste from being buried in Idaho.

The Andrus appeal to Idahoans of all political persuasions was his independence, his authenticity, his willingness to look at both sides, and his ability to bring opposing parties together.

We need more just like him. ♦

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