Wednesday’s passing of Perry Swisher prompts an undisciplined flood of admiration for the newspaperman-turned-policymaker who left a huge footprint in five decades in public life. Among his most significant achievements was his leadership on establishing the sales tax in the 1965 Legislature, but Swisher was no one-trick pony.
My esteemed former Statesman colleague, Rod Gramer, likened Swisher to Columbo, the disheveled TV detective. That’s a good fit, but underplays Swisher’s sharper side and gift for irony. To me, he’s a mix of William F. Buckley and Andy Rooney.
Above all else, Swisher made people think, using his talent as a journalist to translate complexity into digestible bits.
In the late 1980s, the Idaho Legislature was debating deregulation of the telephone industry. As president of the Public Utilities Commission he knew more about the topic than just about anyone in Idaho, except perhaps his former Senate colleague, Bill Roden, the phone company’s lobbyist.
Swisher struggled with deregulation, lamenting the dismemberment of the Bell System, which he’d called “the only perfect thing in the world.”
After Ma Bell fell, state legislators were pressed to free up the Baby Bells. Swisher favored deregulation to spur innovation and competitive rates, but feared overdoing it, calling “utter deregulation” an “act of faith.”
He knew Idaho had to invest in speedy fiber optics and other technology to benefit from entrepreneurs fleeing to live in uncongested, pretty locales. Testifying in the House State Affairs Committee in 1987, I still remember Swisher helping ordinary minds like mine grasp what was about to happen to us.
The nugget: There were more horses in Los Angeles County than in all of Idaho.
“Now,” Swisher asked, “if you liked to ride horses, where would you rather live?”
The California (and Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Nevada, etc., etc. ) exodus Swisher predicted dominated the Idaho economy in the 1990s, booming as those well-heeled riders shipped their ponies to greener pastures.
Swisher was prescient on other topics, including energy and transportation. In the late 1970s, he pressed utilities to supplant electricity with natural gas because of cost and environmental concerns. In the late 1980s, he said small nuke generation plants could help solve what then was called the “greenhouse gas effect.”
In 1989, he predicted that the Treasure Valley would be planning light rail development by 2004. Boise Mayor Brent Coles, an effective rail advocate and Republican, bought abandoned Union Pacific track before he was forced from office in 2003 over petty financial misdeeds. Boise Mayor Dave Bieter tried to sustain the idea with a light-rail route Downtown, but the economy, ham-handedness and the fact he’s a Democrat contributed to stalling an idea whose time will yet arrive.
Swisher, 88, had a dizzying career. He ran the one-man Pocatello bureau for the Salt Lake Tribune from 1943-52, then edited and published The Intermountain, a weekly must-read for Idaho opinion-makers from 1952-67.
He also sold books; served in both houses of the Legislature; switched from Republican to Democrat; was night editor at the Lewiston Tribune when newspapers were fat; was director of special services at Idaho State University; and a member of the Pocatello City Council. He spent 12 years at the PUC, when the commission was far more involved in decisions that impacted the pocketbooks of ordinary Idahoans and big corporations, with long reach into energy, water, telecommunications, rail and trucking.
At least twice he aspired to jobs he didn’t get. He ran for governor in 1966 as an independent and something of a spoiler, getting just 12 percent of the vote. That teed off Democrat Cecil Andrus, who had to wait until 1970 to win, though the two later reconciled out of mutual respect.
In 1998, he ran for the Ada County Highway District commission, falling short despite his notoriety for having arrived in pajamas and robe, armed with a hatchet, to tell the promoters of a Little Feat concert to turn down the noise at 11 p.m. Five hundred people had called police dispatch to complain; only Swisher was outraged enough to threaten to cut the power off — literally. The result was a new curfew for acts at the Western Idaho Fairground.
The late-Sen. Walt Yarbrough called Swisher “his own man.” Former lawmaker and Supreme Court Justice Charles McDevitt said he had a “rare mind.” Longtime PUC court reporter Connie Bucy struggled with Swisher’s head-in-the-clouds vocabulary — he said things like cutting back rail service was “monocarpic,” a gardener’s term for plants that flower and die. But she came to respect his brilliant earnesty. (Swisher’s wife of more than 60 years, Nicky, liked to say of their mutual passion for gardening, “Perry makes policy; I carry it out.”)
Swisher expected the best of people given the gift of self-governance, but got mad when they didn’t care enough to pay attention. After the 1987 Boise municipal election generated just 14 percent turnout, he said, “There are more people jogging than voting.”
I wish I’d thought to call last month after the first-ever closed GOP primary established a new record for low turnout, 24 percent.
Swisher could be cutting, even mean.
Marc Johnson’s tribute to Swisher today in his Many Things Considered blog offers a priceless anecdote.
On the day Gov. John Evans appointed Swisher to the PUC in 1979, Johnson, then a TV reporter, asked about Evans, who had become governor after Andrus became U.S. Interior secretary.
“John Evans,” said Swisher, “is the mayor of Malad who by a quirk of political fate has become governor of Idaho.”
In 1995, when Democrats were touting the young Dan Williams as the white knight to upset GOP Congresswoman Helen Chenoweth, Swisher said, “He’s soporific. If a doctor prescribed him, you’d fall asleep.” (Williams lost, narrowly, in 1996).
Swisher was an equal-opportunity critic. In 1994, commenting on the sorry state of negative campaigning, he summarized the climate in two words, “Unrelieved meanness.”
And then he added the metaphor that explained the convolution of a busted government: “The mainspring broke when a Republican president and a Democratic Congress brought us $3 trillion in debt.”
Born on a ranch in Bruneau, Swisher understood and explained Idaho with an elegance and depth that few have matched. Here’s his take on the confounding place we call home:
“What Idaho tolerates and by its customs encourages is a pride of place, usually a specific place, together with a degree of independence mingled with a mutual tolerance for those who chose another corner where lifestyles are different from one’s own.
“When the state’s business must be done, the votes are cast in the precincts or a roll call is taken, and there is some new accommodation between the Mormon bishop from Malad and the bartender from Mullan, the logger from Hope and the tree hugger from Ketchum, the spud grower from Ucon and the railroader from Pocatello, the Boise lawyer and the Mackay libertarian, the Elk River school trustee and the Twin Falls teacher.”
Thank you, Perry, for advancing Idaho's cause.
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