Larry Craig: the last of the 'servants of the lords of yesterday'

Environmentalists argue that the disgraced Idaho senator represents a constituency that has declined in importance in the minds of voters – the legacy timber, grazing, and mining interests. Says one: "Now Idaho's a different place."
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U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho. (U.S. Senate)

Environmentalists argue that the disgraced Idaho senator represents a constituency that has declined in importance in the minds of voters – the legacy timber, grazing, and mining interests. Says one: "Now Idaho's a different place."

It was after a congressional forest hearing, and U.S. Sen. Larry Craig found himself besieged by reporters and activists. He had tried to slip out the back door, but they caught him, and as he hopped into his car and motored away, a cycling activist grabbed his rear bumper and pedaled after him.

"Pimp! Pimp! Pimp!" the activist shouted.

That was 1996, long before his Republican allies abandoned him amid allegations that Craig solicited sex from another man in an airport bathroom stall. The Idaho senator was cursed by environmentalists' as an unflagging ally of timber, grazing, and mining interests.

His recent fall from power ends an era. Craig was so beholden to industry that if he resigns, few could follow in his footsteps, environmentalists say. Even if Gov. Butch Otter, a fellow Republican, appoints a staunch conservative to take his place, they say, it would be hard to match Craig's anti-conservation legacy. And even if Craig doesn't resign, his tumble from influential positions on key committees like appropriations and energy and natural resources would leave him far weaker than the Western power broker he once was.

"I don't know if there is anybody who is ideologically similar to Larry Craig," says Idaho environmentalist Mark Solomon. "He really is the last of what I call the "servants of the lords of yesterday," who unblinkingly take the grazing industry, the forest industry, and the mining industry line and just go with it."

Mired in controversy over his guilty plea to disorderly conduct stemming from a June 11 arrest in a Minneapolis airport restroom, and by an ongoing ethics investigation, Craig said he would step down by Sept. 30. Then he suggested he would stay in office, even though he has been stripped of his committee seats, if he could reverse his guilty plea. Now it looks like he will, after all, step down.

That would leave Otter picking a replacement. Among possible successors are Lt. Gov. Jim Risch and Attorney General Lawrence Wasden. Neither would likely make conservation groups' short list, but both are being greeted with more optimism than Craig. As attorney general, Wasden is largely a "blank slate" on the environment, Solomon said. Risch's petition to the federal government for roadless protections was welcomed, if not altogether loved by conservation groups.

Whoever takes his place, "I think they're just going to take a little more of a through-the-windshield view than a through-the-rearview-mirror view," says Rick Johnson, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League. "Larry Craig sort of came of age, and came of age politically, at a time when the resource industry really called the shots. Now Idaho's a different place."

As the senior in the Idaho delegation, Craig wielded influence over his colleagues, Johnson says. Without him, two wilderness bills proposed by Idaho Republicans stand a better chance. Craig hasn't rallied behind either Rep. Mike Simpson's Boulder-White Cloud bill or Sen. Mike Crapo's Owyhee bill.

"He's anti-wilderness. It's as simple as that," Johnson says.

Craig has used his power and influence to put his thumbprint on public lands across the West. He has stalled a bill to protect the Snake River in Wyoming, arguing along with the Idaho Water Users Association that it could threaten Idaho water. He de-funded a center to study the decline of salmon on the Columbia River. Over his tenure, he helped blaze logging roads in roadless areas and pushed forward a 1995 salvage logging rider that limited environmental restrictions on tree thinning projects.

Critics say he's not been afraid to pick up the phone and directly pressure officials in field offices. When John Mumma, a Forest Service regional supervisor overseeing forests in Idaho and Montana, questioned the legality of the speed of timber cuts, Craig turned up the pressure on Forest Service Chief Dale Robertson, who pushed Mumma out.

"He's a coward and a bully," Solomon says. "As long as he's had power, he's been able to exert that strength over public lands. Even if he stays in office, which I don't think he will, he will not have the power he had before."

That's bad news for his supporters, who counted on having Craig's clout in the Senate. After Craig announced his plans to resign, the Idaho Water Users Association issued a statement in support of its old ally.

This represents the loss of an extraordinarily effective and tireless supporter of sovereignty and state control over Idaho's water," executive director Norm Semanko wrote. "He has consistently defended Idaho's natural resources against out of state interests and has effectively represented the interests of Idaho's family farm and ranching community, thereby helping Idaho's multi-billion dollar agricultural economy continue to flourish. Senator Craig's lasting legacy in support of issues of importance to Idaho's water user community will not be forgotten.

Environmentalists won't forget Craig's legacy, either.

Flashback to the 1996 congressional hearings. Solomon, who was testifying, warned the reporters gathered at the Capitol that Craig would take a beating from environmentalists. Instead of walking out the front door, he told them, Craig would try to slip quietly out the back. That was indeed where they found him, Solomon says.

Eleven years later, facing a conviction, an ethics investigation, and gay-sex allegations, and stripped of the powers he once wielded and abandoned by his GOP peers, Craig will likely step out the back door again, he says.

And the West won't be the same without him.


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