When news broke Monday of Idaho Sen. Larry Craig’s arrest and subsequent guilty plea to disorderly conduct for an incident in a men’s bathroom at the Minneapolis airport, it became one of the biggest stories in the history of Idaho politics.
But it’s not as if anyone, especially those in the political media here, could be shocked. Surprised, perhaps, but overall, Monday’s news came with a certain sense of relief: Finally, there was something concrete to the story that had been well-known, but unsubstantiated, for decades.
That relief was fully apparent in today’s Idaho Statesman, where veteran political columnist Dan Popkey finally got to put months of work on the story into public hands. In a report which takes pains to be fair, Popkey presents corroborating evidence of Craig’s sexual orientation and activities, gathered over a six-month period this year.
The public speculation on Craig’s sexuality started during the 1982 congressional page scandal, in which Craig proclaimed his innocence before he was really implicated. Then, last fall, when activist and blogger Mike Rogers reported, citing anonymous sources, that Craig had sex with men. That report, which was covered here and in several other places, rapidly spread across the Internet and prompted the Statesman’s investigation.
Craig called the allegations “laughable” and “ridiculous.”
That said, Rogers had sparked a new fervor in the Larry Craig story.
Popkey’s work on the story has been publicly acknowledged by Statesman editor Bill Manny and openly discussed by everyone except Popkey. Among reporters, it’s long been the go-to topic on a slow day, or when anything involving Craig’s votes in the Senate might be questioned. “Someone tell Popkey,” one of us would say, as if we all hadn’t hounded him to death about it already.
Among Republicans, attitudes about the issue have varied widely. A friend of mine recently told a Larry-Craig-is-gay joke to a group of Idaho House Republicans, and said his joke went over as if it had been a group of Democrats: with loud guffaws. Nobody objected; nobody seemed surprised.
Several Washington, D.C. contacts whom I’ve known for years have said Craig’s sexuality has long been a source of open secrets there as well.
The refusal of people to go on the record with these statements illustrates the same problem the Idaho Statesman has apparently had for years. NewWest.Net/Boise’s calls to many sources, old and new, have gone unreturned or the recipients will not speak officially. “Craig will have to get caught before the story can be told,” has been the line-du-jour for many journalists.
But now, because of an anonymous tip to Roll Call (staff writer John McArdle tells NewWest.Net only “we got a tip on it”) about the Minneapolis incident, the Larry Craig story begins to unfold.
This, in the Reddest of Red States
The arrest and Craig’s guilty plea coupled with his denials are just the first shovels of dirt in a hole he’s digging. So far, it would seem that Idaho Republicans are not going in after him.
No one in the Idaho Republican party was immediately returning calls Monday and largely, Idaho’s political leaders weren’t even peeping about the news. All the chatter that last week was plentiful about Craig was silenced Monday.
At Tuesday’s press conference, well-known Republican staffers, including Brad Hoaglund, former press secretary to then-Gov. Jim Risch, shook their heads and walked away when asked for on-the-record comment.
But finally, Idaho Republican Party Chairman, J. Kirk Sullivan, issued the following statement:
“United States Senator Larry Craig has been a stalwart in supporting Idaho and ensuring that the needs of Idaho citizens have been well-represented at the highest levels of our nation’s government. Until the facts of this situation are made clear, I would encourage all Idahoans to avoid rushing to judgment and making brash statements about a man who has dedicated his life to public service.”
On the Internet, the word from some of Idaho’s top Republican bloggers is: This is the end of the line.
Right-wing Idaho blogger Adam Graham wrote: “Senator Larry Craig’s guilty plea in June of this year to a charge of lewd conduct should lead to the end of his Senate career. The honorable thing for Larry Craig to do is to resign.”
Another Idaho ultra-conservative, Clayton Cramer, wrote: “Senator Craig should go ahead and resign, and let Governor Otter name a replacement who can serve out Craig’s term with dignity and respect for the people of Idaho. (I’m available!)”
Cramer also cites the Minnesota Monitor’s story which points out squirt.org, a gay website, has directions to the men’s room in question and states that it’s a well-known site for soliciting gay sex.
A Senate Seat Up For Grabs?
Craig’s seat in the Senate has been regarded as safe — a Republican seat in a Republican state. But Craig’s debacle comes at an interesting time in Idaho politics.
Frustration with the Iraq war and the national mood opposing Bush in high numbers have never had much effect on Idaho. But the last Idaho election changed the core of the capital city of Boise from purple to blue, a Democratic mayor is set to be re-elected in November, and Idaho Democrats across the state have been gaining momentum.
For Democrats, the fodder in the speculation about Craig has always been about hypocrisy. As a member of Congress, Craig voted yes on a constitutional ban of same-sex marriage (June 2006) and on prohibiting same-sex marriage. (Sep 1996). He voted no on adding sexual orientation to the definition of hate crimes (Jun 2002) and on prohibiting job discrimination by sexual orientation (Sep 1996).
The question of his sexual orientation was settled long ago for Democrats, who tend strongly to believe in where-there’s-smoke-there’s fire. Now, Craig has been convicted in a court of law for disorderly conduct in a bathroom known as a place for sex solicitation.
Idaho Democratic Party Chair, former Congressman Richard Stallings, issued this statement after Tuesday’s press conference: “This matter is between Larry Craig, his family, the police investigators and other people around the senator.”
“This is not a partisan battle. Therefore, The Idaho Democratic Party has nothing to add to the public conversation at this time.”
Another former Congressman, Democrat Larry LaRocco, has also been silent on the issue since the news broke. LaRocco has been at the forefront of the Democratic challenge to Craig, but certainly, Idaho Democrats will be looking to capitalize on this new chink in the Idaho Republican armor, whether it’s Craig running in ’08 or not.
This question of whether Craig will resign is the real story on the ground in Idaho, and most of the off-the-record chatter is that Craig will eventually have to step down. In comment threads here and in letters to the Statesman readers, Idahoans and others are calling for Craig’s resignation.
But his denials have been so strong that it’s hard to tell if he would actually go through with a resignation, which would be, in the eyes of the public, an admission of guilt.
Craig said Tuesday he will make an announcement about running for reelection as planned, which he has said all along will be in September.
For Republicans, losing the seat would be deeply painful. Craig’s seniority and top committee assignments (ranking member on Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Related Agencies as well as on the Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Superfund and Environmental Health) have given them considerable power in Washington, and he’s knocked off two challengers easily.
If Craig does resign, Gov. Butch Otter will appoint a replacement. The list of possible appointees – the usual suspects – includes Lt. Gov. Jim Risch, Congressman Bill Sali, and Congressman Mike Simpson.
Craig’s fall will probably end a long political career which has been the touchstone of Republican power – which is almost complete – in Idaho. With that touchstone gone, there could be a sea-change in Idaho politics which has opportunities for both the right and the left. The fallout of the story, including the damage it may or may not do to the Republican stronghold here or in the West, is just in its infancy.