Sen. Craig Keeps Idaho Politics on Hold

Idaho Gov. C.L. (Butch) Otter is a popular man these days. Ever since U.S. Sen. Larry Craig announced his plan to resign from Congress, effective this Sunday, after his arrest in a Minneapolis airport-restroom undercover sex sting, Otter—who must name Craig's replacement—has been inundated with résumés and phone calls from senatorial wannabes. "I get letters from some of them, with their résumés," Otter told NEWSWEEK. Some, he says, are even willing to move to Idaho for his consideration. As the clock ticks down on Craig's 27-year congressional career, Otter's not-so-short list now has 29 names. They include Lt. Gov. Jim Risch, the presumed front runner, as well as a pack of state legislators hoping to make it into the major leagues. One hopeful even tried to wangle the nomination from Otter in public when the two appeared at a recent event in Boise to unveil Idaho's new license plate. "I haven't talked to each one of them," says a weary Otter, who has cleared much of his official schedule to deal with the succession. "But I have to be ready."

The question now is whether Craig will relinquish his seat in a few days, as he promised following revelations last month that he had pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct after an undercover police officer arrested him for allegedly soliciting sex in a restroom at the Minneapolis airport. In Minneapolis Wednesday, lawyers for Craig will argue that the senator's guilty plea should be withdrawn—perhaps the first step in a long-shot attempt at political rehabilitation. Craig surprised colleagues when he returned to the Senate following the Labor Day recess, and just last week told a reporter "I just don't know yet" when asked if he would leave office as planned on September 30, saying he wanted to see how Wednesday's hearing turned out. In a motion filed with the court, Craig's lawyer wrote that the lawmaker was in "a state of intense anxiety" after the arrest and that he "felt compelled to grasp the lifeline offered to him by the police officer, namely, that if he were to submit to an interview and plead guilty, then none of the allegations would be made public."

In a press conference last month Craig said he feared that if he fought the charges in court it would be covered by the state's largest newspaper, the Idaho Statesman, which had spent months examining persistent rumors that Craig, a staunch opponent in Congress of gay rights, led a closeted gay life. The prosecutor in the case, in his reply filed Monday to Craig's motion, accused the senator of "politicking and game playing."  Craig's complaint, wrote prosecutor Christopher Wrenz, hardly meets the "high bar of manifest injustice" required by law.

But it is a manifest embarrassment for Republicans. While national GOP leaders cringe at the spectacle of yet another round of Larry Craig headlines—and punch lines—at home in Idaho attitudes are a bit more complicated. Craig, known as a straight-talker, has baffled even supporters with his cloddish damage control, starting with his explanation for apparently playing footsie with an undercover cop in the restroom ("I have a wide stance," Craig said) and including a disastrous press conference in front of the state capitol at which he insisted, "I am not gay. I never have been gay."

But nothing riles Idahoans more than the leaked voice-mail message Craig mistakenly left on an answering machine (the phone's owner, whose identity is unknown, forwarded it to news organizations). In the message Craig said that he deliberately stated only his "intent" to resign in order to leave himself some wiggle room. "Everybody who was at that press conference said, 'He's resigning'," says U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, a Republican. "I've heard a lot of people who are Larry's supporters who said, 'Wait a minute. He lied to us'."

Until now, Craig has been known for speaking his mind, even in the face of criticism. He has confronted conservatives in his own party over the need for immigration reform and taken heavy fire from Democrats for his hard-line anti-environmental positions. "He may drive you nuts sometimes because of his cocky attitude," says Greg Smith, a Boise pollster and political consultant who used to work for Craig. "When he says something, you've got to take him at his word."

Even Craig's former staffers say it's hard these days to recognize their old boss, who has been dogged by rumors of a secret sex life since he was a freshman in Congress. In 1982, during a scandal involving congressional pages and alleged gay sex and drug abuse on Capitol Hill, Craig took it upon himself to declare his innocence publicly, even though he had not been publicly implicated in the scandal. "It was clear he was going to be strong in his response to those allegations," says Brad Hoaglun, who was a staffer for Craig in 1982, when a network TV crew landed in a helicopter at a ranch where Craig was holding a campaign event—and interviewed him on the spot about the page scandal. Craig addressed the reporters without batting an eye, says Hoaglun, and then went back to campaigning. "To stand up and fight, that's Larry Craig," says Hoaglun of his former boss. "But to hide [news of the arrest]? That's the incongruity that folks are trying to resolve. It's part of that puzzle."

But there is also a residue of support for the man who has served Idaho for more than a quarter of a century. Otter, a tall, cowboyish pol whose appearance is sometimes compared to Ronald Reagan's, knows all too well that it's easy to kick a politician when he's down. In 1992 Otter, then lieutenant governor, was convicted of drunken driving. A night earlier, the press gleefully revealed, he had entered and won a "Mr. Tight Jeans" contest at a Boise Bar. Later that year he and his wife were divorced. Throughout the ordeal Larry Craig stood by him, Otter says. And when Craig announced in early September that would resign from the Senate, after his own conduct had cast a "cloud over Idaho," Otter was right there behind him, one of the few politicians willing to be captured in the same frame. "As a public servant who has made mistakes in my private life, I am mindful that you don't really know who your friends are until you stumble," Otter told the Spokane Spokesman-Review.

This being Idaho, a state George W. Bush carried in 2004 with 68 percent of the vote, there's no question that Craig's seat—should he vacate it, after all—will remain in Republican hands. Otter, who admits to some awkwardness in his relationship with Craig now that he spends a good part of each day interviewing would-be replacements, says he wants to appoint only a candidate who is willing to run for re-election in 2008, when Republicans are desperate not to lose more Senate seats. (A Democrat, former Idaho Congressman Larry LaRocco, has already declared his candidacy, although he's given little chance of winning.) There's also the issue of seniority. Craig's status as ranking member on the Veterans' Affairs Committee, the Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests, and the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior, brought to his sparsely populated state a clout no successor is likely to replicate anytime soon. "There were a couple of key things we were looking for," Otter, a former congressman, told NEWSWEEK. "Who will hold the senator's staff together? I can tell you, from my six short years in D.C., you don't get much done unless you've got a great staff, and Larry had one of the best staffs in Washington, D.C."

One Idahoan who won't be tossing his hat into the ring is State Senate President Bob Geddes, an engineer from eastern Idaho, who says he's waiting to see if Craig will live to fight another day. "I'm not totally convinced that he's going to resign," Geddes said. "If I was going to bet the baby-shoe money, I'd say that he won't. Until there's a vacancy, Sen. Craig is still my senator."