The infamous “hole” that was a part of Boise’s downtown landscape for 25 years, doesn’t have much meaning to people living outside the city – especially to those who think of Boise as one big hole in the first place.
But that gigantic pit was a huge, ugly embarrassment. Then along came Tommy Ahlquist, a physician-turned-developer, who started making something happen. Ahlquist, the chief operating officer of Gardner Company, was the developer of Zions Bank – the tallest building in Idaho that sits proudly in the heart of downtown. But, as he tells it, it wasn’t easy.
“People told me there was no way I could do that – no way,” he said from his 17th-floor office across the street at the U.S. Bank building he owns. “I had people laugh me out of their office.”
No doubt, there are a few naysayers who are laughing at Ahlquist’s entry into the governor’s race. He has never run for a political office, and here he is seeking the most powerful political position in the state.
A warning to challengers: Be prepared to dig deep into your pockets. Ahlquist plans to raise “one more dollar than I need to win.” Fill in the blank for how many millions of dollars that might be. Three years ago, A.J. Balukoff raised some eyebrows by putting in more than $3 million into his race for governor. But running as a Democrat, he had little chance of winning. Ahlquist is more formidable because he’s a Republican who talks about red-blooded conservative ideals. If he can build the largest building in Idaho, then turn around and buy the state’s second largest building across the street, he could easily spend $3 million … on breakfast, alone.
Ahlquist has had two careers, his first as a physician in which he estimates he has seen 40,000 patients in 15 years. In his development business, he says, “We’ve invested $331 million in Idaho in the last 10 years and created thousands of jobs during that time.”
He’s the poor man’s Donald Trump – without the fancy hotels, lush golf resorts, or the twitter account gone wild. As with Trump, the businessman, Ahlquist has friends across the aisle. While voting for Otter and putting money into the governor’s campaign, Ahlquist donated $5,000 to Balukoff’s campaign because he thinks the Balukoffs are “wonderful people.” He describes Boise Mayor Dave Beiter, one of the few Democrats with the ability to win elections, as a “great man who has done good things for the city.”
Such words of praise could come back to bite Ahlquist during a primary campaign, where Republican politics becomes the dominant religion in the state. Political pachyderms tend to shy away from candidates who say nice things about Democrats. But Ahlquist, who is crisscrossing the state, talking with mayors, school superintendents and anyone else who will shake his hand, isn’t worried.
“This is small ball,” he says. “This is the stuff that comes out during campaigns. It’s a distraction technique to get away from talking about issues and ideas. I think a lot of this silly talk goes away pretty quickly.”
What people want to see are solutions and a vision, and the 49-year-old Ahlquist says he will deliver with both. He boasts of an agenda that contains “the conservative principles this state was built on. Combine that blueprint with leadership that I know I can do, then we can do great things.”
He talks about reducing regulations on businesses, having more local control and choice for education and relying on competition and the free market to help fix health care. With his leadership, he says, “We are going to recruit companies and create jobs like never before. And they will be the right jobs, with the right pay, for Idaho families.”
Idahoans will be hearing much more about his “conservative blueprint” over the next 14 months – and people may not need to leave their living rooms. He’s already running television ads, which is a warm-up to what to expect as the primary election draws closer.
There’s no way to predict how a jungle primary with four or more candidates might turn out – where the person getting 30 percent of the vote could be a landslide winner. Crowded primaries can work to the advantage of the candidate with the most money, and Ahlquist has no intention of finishing second in the money race.