“A big surprise”: That was the Idaho Statesman’s headline last December, when Keith Allred announced his candidacy for Idaho governor –– running as a Democrat in one of the most solidly Republican states in the country. A decade ago, Allred, a fifth-generation Idahoan educated at Brown, Stanford and UCLA, was a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He moved back to the Gem State in 2003 to start a consulting and mediation business and raise his family. (He and his wife, Christine, now have three children.) Then, in 2004, Allred, 45, founded a nonprofit political organization, The Common Interest, to advance nonpartisan public policy solutions in the Idaho Legislature. The group interviews political leaders, policy experts and members of the press to identify the most important issues before the state, polls its 1,600 members to determine those issues’ priority, then researches and writes policy papers and urges Idaho representatives to seek practical solutions.
The Common Interest has suspended operations during Allred’s run for office. Eight weeks into the campaign, High Country News correspondent Jeremy N. Smith talked with Allred about his candidacy, what he hopes to accomplish and why he thinks he can win.
HIGH COUNTRY NEWS Given your work with the The Common Interest, whose nonpartisanship was central to its identity, why run as a Democrat?
KEITH ALLRED If you think about the three possibilities for running: You can run as the majority party candidate, the minority party candidate, or as an independent. In our country, most independent problem-solving governors have come from the minority party. Brian Schweitzer in Montana and Dave Freudenthal in Wyoming are examples. In Idaho, my honorary campaign co-chair, Cecil Andrus, is a Democrat and former governor. When Christine and I lived in New York, a moderate Republican, George Pataki, was governor. When we were in Massachusetts, it was Gov. (William) Weld and Gov. (Mitt) Romney — moderate Republicans.
HCN How did friends and family react when you told them?
ALLRED For my parents, the wisdom of this was not immediately apparent. My family and I have a perfectly peaceful and happy life — why ruin it? Former state Sen. Laird Noh, a Republican on the board of The Common Interest, had an even stronger initial negative reaction. Over an hour and a half conversation, though, he agreed to become the (other) honorary co-chair of my campaign.
HCN What convinced him?
ALLRED I told him what the Democrats had told me: “We get who you are and what you’re passionate about, and we’re not asking you to change.” Only solutions that gain broad and diverse support make it through our complex system of checks and balances, which creates a leadership imperative to bring people together. I got a Ph.D. in organizational behavior and conflict resolution and ended up on the faculty at Columbia and then at Harvard to find out, “OK, how do you actually do that?”
HCN What did you conclude?
ALLRED In work I did with Dale Bosworth, who was chief of the Forest Service at the time, I developed an idea called “collaborative polling,” and the then-governor of Utah, Republican Mike Leavitt, heard about the idea, and asked me to use it to help him consider whether to ask the Bush administration to declare the San Rafael Swell — 600,000 acres of red-rock country southwest of Moab — a national monument.
As at many spectacular areas in the West, what should happen had become highly controversial, (so) I engaged environmentalists, off-road enthusiasts, hunters, and cattleman in the collaborative polling process to develop a policy brief. The goal was not to decide outcomes, but to gather as accurately as possible the competing arguments and factual information behind them, then take that to random samples of the public and ask them what they thought should happen after they’d read the brief.
As we neared completion, I felt confident that we’d develop a wise compromise, and I flew to Washington, D.C., and had a separate meeting with the senior Republican and Democratic staffers for this question in Congress. Each of them said, “Yeah, that does sound like good policy. (But) we’re not going to be able to publicly support this. In fact, politically, it’s going to be necessary for us to publicly criticize it.”
This was a deeply frustrating experience This was a deeply frustrating experience to have in the nation’s capitol. It led me to found The Common Interest as a way of mobilizing everyday citizens in an informed and coordinated way.
HCN Describe a typical day on the campaign trail. What’s surprised you most?
ALLRED Like any campaign, we’re touring the state and meeting with people in the various communities. What’s unusual is the amount of time we spend with Republicans. In Idaho Falls, one of the most heavily Republican areas in the state, we had three days of meetings coordinated by Sharon Perry, a campaign coordinator for Gov. (Butch) Otter in the 2006 election. She’s a prominent Republican, and she came to us and asked if she could work on our campaign this election. That made a splash in the news and opened a lot of doors that had not been open to Democratic candidates in the past. Here somebody had put her whole political future on the line by publicly supporting a Democrat.
HCN There’s a broad perception Democrats will suffer in this fall’s elections. How do you assess your chances?
ALLRED In most years, even a candidate as independent as I am would not have much of a chance running as a Democrat in Idaho. But the mood in the country isn’t so much anti-Democratic as anti-incumbent, and Gov. Otter is the weakest we’ve had in Idaho in my lifetime. He has not been successful on a single priority he has had — and this is operating with a 75 percent majority of his own party in the Legislature. Last year, we had the second-longest session in Idaho history, and nothing got done. There came a point where Gov. Otter was proposing to raise car and pickup registration fees by 138 percent while raising heavy truck registration fees by 5 percent simply because the heavy truck industry wouldn’t agree to any higher rate. Americans and Idahoans are frustrated with partisanship and special interest influence.
HCN How has The Common Interest sought to address these problems?
ALLRED The Common Interest has 1,600 members: Republicans, Democrats and Independents. Together we identify those practical solutions that can get at least two-thirds support within our diverse group, then we champion those in the Legislature.
Likewise, as governor, I will use The Common Interest collaborative polling process on high-priority issues.
HCN Is your ultimate ambition to eliminate political parties?
ALLRED No — I think parties can be quite useful. For any given policy, I would want a conservative and a liberal lens. It’s useful to be skeptical of anything that would require more taxpayer dollars. And, on the other side, it’s useful to ask what government could do well and appropriately. Parties play that function.
HCN Have your academic credentials and experiences been a help or hindrance when working with Idaho lawmakers? How do you reply to those who attack you as an Ivy League East Coast liberal?
ALLRED I think if I didn’t have a biography of a fifth-generation Idahoan who grew up working on his family’s cattle ranches, it would be a hindrance. When I was a sophomore in high school, my grandpa called to tell me he had had to let the last of his hired hands go. He was going to have to focus on his real estate business if he was going to hang on to the ranch. This was 1981. The cattle market had plummeted. He asked me to help. At age 16, I had 1,200 acres and 400 head of cattle to work on my own. That’s not the typical profile of a Harvard professor. What people want to know first is, “Does he share our values? Does he get who we are?” If they’re sure that that’s true, then the more education and experience and skills a leader has, the better.
HCN If you win, what will be your first three actions as governor?
ALLRED The legislative session will start right after I’m sworn in. (First) I’ll establish more equitable roads funding, where car and pickup drivers are not subsidizing the heavy trucking industry. Then I’ll begin immediately the process of collaborative polling on K-12 investments and which tax exemptions ought to be closed to reduce the overall tax rate.
HCN Outside the campaign trail, what do you do for fun?
ALLRED We’ve got three horses, and I spend a lot of time riding the foothills near our place with the kids. I used to compete on cutting horses and went to the national championships in 2003 and 2004. I love cutting because of the combination of power and grace that the horse has to show to be successful. Like all sports, when you’re at your best, it’s quiet and effortless.
HCN Will politics ever be quiet and effortless?
ALLRED No, but I think it can be quieter and more rational than it is.
Jeremy N. Smith writes about books and other subjects at jeremynsmith.com. His stories and essays have appeared in Audubon, the Chicago Tribune, the Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.
This interview originally in the March 15, 2010 issue of High Country News (hcn.org).