By aligning himself with the Idaho Freedom Foundation, former State Sen. and Republican Gubernatorial Candidate Russ Fulcher is either building a stepping stone, or digging his political grave.
Fulcher gives the editorial obit writers plenty of fodder with his new role as a member of the Freedom Foundation’s board of directors. It’s another opportunity to paint the Freedom Foundation, led by Wayne Hoffman, as a backward-thinking right-wing kooky organization that is against progress.
Having known Hoffman since our days working with the Idaho Statesman a decade ago, I have a different view. Hoffman, a press secretary to former Congressman Bill Sali, has built this conservative think tank from scratch and has drawn quite a following in just a few years. Politics aside, that’s a major accomplishment. The organization’s online news service, the Idaho Reporter, does a competent job covering state government. According to Fulcher, the Idaho Reporter certainly has some clout with the legislators.
“If you look at laptop screens, you’ll most often see two things – Betsy Russell’s blog (Spokesman-Review) and Idaho Reporter,” Fulcher said. “That’s how (legislators) track the pulse of what’s going on. That was not the case six years ago.”
Fulcher says the Freedom Foundation’s influence goes beyond government reporting. The IFF has been a strong advocate for open meetings and the televising legislative floor debates.
“I personally know of legislators who would not cast their vote until they knew the position of the Freedom Foundation,” Fulcher said. “That’s influence.”
As some editorial writers see it, that kind of influence has led to the decline in the commitment to education and tax breaks for the favored few. The mind-set has promoted the thinking that the state can manage lands better than the federal government. If Fulcher ever runs for a statewide office – and he says it’s possible that he will – he won’t be getting any help from the editorial writers or the media in general. Of course, that’s nothing new. The media largely ignored his run for governor in last year’s primary election, and he still got close to 44 percent of the vote.
But Fulcher says that for now, he is not thinking about his political future. He views himself as a “policy wonk,” and the Freedom Foundation gives him a platform for keeping discussions going.
“There were people who pinned their hopes and dreams on things I was championing,” Fulcher said. “I accepted the loss, but there are a significant number of people around the state who did not accept that well and still don’t.”
Fulcher and the Freedom Foundation are mostly on the same page philosophically. They think that government has too much control and spending is too high. They are against Obamacare in any form and are opposed to programs such as Common Core.
One area where Fulcher agrees with media critics is the Freedom Foundation’s tendency to say “no,” without presenting solutions. Fulcher says his approach is to offer alternatives to policies such as the state health exchange and Common Core. “I’d like to take the good of Common Core, and there is some good, and leverage that into something that is much better.”
Through radio talk shows and other venues, he will be speaking out about issues. Fulcher will not be a lobbyist for the organization, but he respects the Freedom Foundation’s growing influence in the lobbying arena.
“The insurance industry, the education industry, the corrections industry, health and welfare, parks and recreation and fish and game – they all have significant lobbies that come down with an agenda that is printed ahead of time and presented by somebody who is paid,” Fulcher said. “Who’s the lobby for the taxpayers? The closest I can think of is the Freedom Foundation.”
Time will tell whether Fulcher’s move is a wise one politically. For now, he’s enjoying a more relaxed life as a private citizen. He says his commercial real estate business is going well and was able to enjoy the holidays without gearing up for a legislative session – or thinking about the media rejecting his campaign press releases.
But if this gig with the Freedom Foundation works out and Fulcher builds a stronger conservative base, then we haven’t seen the last of him.