Butch Otter, Jack McMahon join chorus of praise for the late Perry Swisher

Two men who worked with Swisher added to the tributes for the journalist, legislator and Idaho public utilities commissioner who died last week.

First, from Gov. Butch Otter, who served with Swisher in the Idaho House in the 1970s.

Otter, speaking to the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry Monday, called Swisher a "great friend" and "probably the smartest man I ever served with when I was in the Legislature."

Swisher, who'd been a moderate Republican in the 1960s, had switched to the Democratic Party and Otter said he was a reliable touchstone for Otter to oppose.

"Perry always inspired me to the other side," Otter said. "He was an engaging, smart, gutsy guy. Whenever he would get up and give a speech on the floor of the House, I always felt it was my obligation — the obligation for the full House — to hear my side of the story."

Swisher tabbed Otter "the state pest," as the Legislature debated whether the state insect should be the painted lady butterfly or the leaf cutter bee. (Both bills failed; the Monarch butterfly subsequently got the nod in 1992.)

Otter told IACI that the give-and-take of ideas produces better policy and decision making.

"Don't worry about disagreeing with people," he advised. "I've looked back on those years with Perry, which was a good thing. If that firms you in your own convictions of what you want to do and what you think is right, then go forward and do it. Because it's probably never the wrong time to do the right thing."

Jack McMahon was chief counsel at the Public Utilities Commission in the 1980s, when the PUC wrestled with high-stakes rate cases and policy. McMahon is a former president of the Idaho State Bar Association and was chief deputy attorney general under Attorneys General Jim Jones and Larry EchoHawk.

Here are McMahon's memories, excerpted from two emails early this week:

Hearings on formal cases were a delight. Perry would ask a question that was, in fact, a five minute diatribe. We had to train the court reporter to put a question mark after the “question” just to keep the record straight for the Supreme Court.

My favorite was when Mountain Bell was regionalizing many of its services and petitioned the Commission to move Directory Assistance out of Idaho and off to Salt Lake City. The company sent in the Denver executive in charge of regionalizing services to make its case. Perry got him on the witness stand and very politely asked him to write down some letters, namely “W-E-I-P-P-E.” After the executive had written it down, Perry would ask him how to pronounce it. The responses would be hilarious, with the whole hearing room in an uproar. After trying that with P-I-C-A-B-O and some other Idaho landmarks, Perry would say, “I rest my case.”

The poor executive didn’t know what had happened . . . except that the petition was not in the best interest of Idaho citizens and was not going to be approved.

....

I admired him for being a good public servant. I remember when he first came on the PUC. He ordered the consumer protection division to designate a staff member to stay in the office and work the phones till 6:00 p.m. He believed the PUC was an agency for and open to all Idahoans, even those on Pacific time.

In fact, when he came on board at the PUC, he was a bull in a China shop: wanting to make all kinds of changes. A scourge to us attorneys who had to go to him and explain that one couldn’t just do things. There needed to be notice, an opportunity to be heard, and a written order. Perry’s reluctant answer was: “I hope I never stay at this job long enough to understand that there are things that can’t be changed.” If something was wrong, he wanted it fixed, and didn’t want to be told it couldn’t be done on the spot.

....

It was the Commission’s most exciting era. The controversy over a coal-fired plant just outside of Boise was recently finished and had put the P.U.C. in the public’s eye.

The utilities came in for rate increases every single year. (It was the Jimmy Carter era, when inflation was running at 18% and some rate increases were arguably justified. Cases were not bargained. Hearings were held. Three weeks’ worth: a week for the company, a week for staff and interveners, and a week rebuttal for the company. And an order went out within 7-9 months of filing!

It was also an era of rapid growth in Idaho, yet another reason to expand rate base and request increases. People still cared about their rates. One could count on a stack of thousands of signatures being dramatically placed on the Commission’s desk at hearing by the public interest interveners.

And, nationally, the sleepy old era of undisturbed monopolies and complacent Commissions was coming to an end.

# The National Energy Act had just passed and the states were instructed to have their utilities address issues of conservation, alternative energy and cogeneration. Perry tracked the legislation and Idaho held hearings on all those issues and became a leader in the nation (the second in the country to have a weatherization program).The contracts process set up for alternative energy endured until its demise last year. The P.U.C. did a better job administering the program by use of “avoided costs” than the Legislature does by ad hoc lobbied interventions. (Which is why we have a Commission of experts in the first place.)

# The century-old AT&T phone monopoly was about to be sundered into a bunch of “baby Bells.”

# The airplane industry was still being regulated for intrastate service – a thankless task.

# The trucking industry, the bane of the P.U.C.’s existence, was still required by law to be regulated. That meant a hearing was required every time a new truck wanted to provide service, or an existing truck wanted to change its rates. Perry Swisher and Mike Gilmore (deputy A.G.) figured out a way to pass a rule setting maximum rates, and denominating everything under that ceiling to be a just and reasonable rate. That pretty much ended truck regulation without having to go to the legislature (which would have been lobbied by the entrenched providers to keep it).

Final point. The one aspect of Perry – perhaps his most obvious and remembered trait – that has not quite been nailed in any of the memorials, is that he was Idaho’s raconteur par excellence. When in a group – whether it was at the Tenth Street Station, or the 'Lude, or Moon’s, or Dawson Taylor or at a national conference of the 50 state Commissions – Perry would always wind up presiding and holding session.

When I worked at the PUC, we didn’t use airplanes to go to hearings. So, there were endless hours spent in cars en route everywhere from Coeur d’Alene to Pocatello. (Perry always went where the people cared passionately about an issue: once even a hearing in the grade school lunch room in Mullen, while one of the Mom’s cooked lunch on the stove. We were there because the town’s water supply was not working properly and three dozen people had complained!) And, after hearings, there were endless hours in Perry’s favorite watering holes (he knew all the bartenders).

I remember one time going over to Pocatello. I had recently been to that restaurant in Jackpot that had placemats featuring pictures and legends about Diamonfield Jack. I told Perry about the picture and the accompanying legends. He launched into a narrative that lasted the full four hours to Poky, about the entire history – Jack’s early years before he became an outlaw, through all his encounters and trials, and correcting the false points in the legends, and some others made by historians.

I can honestly say that in the years I spent with Perry I never heard him repeat a story. Perhaps others, who were closer to him that I, had that experience. But I never did. Perry is often remembered as having an “encyclopedic” memory. Which is true. But it was not for parlor games of Trivial Pursuit. It was a deep understanding of the entire context, the background and history, and all the players and power struggles, involved in any issue one might raise.

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How come nobody learned anything from him then?

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oh. well.