Businessman and longtime Boise school board president A.J. Balukoff launched his second run for governor of Idaho on Wednesday.
He made the announcement in Pocatello and planned campaign stops in Idaho Falls, Twin Falls, Ketchum, Boise and Coeur d’Alene this week.
“In 2014 when I ran, education was my top issue and Idaho was 50th in funding, we were near the bottom in student achievement – four years later, we’re still about the same place,” Balukoff, a Democrat, said in an interview. “Even though the Legislature has increased funding a little, we’re still way lower than we ought to be. Our student performance is still in the bottom part of the 50 states, and we’re just not living up to the mandate of our state Constitution that says we should provide that uniform and thorough system of public schools.”
Balukoff lost to Republican Butch Otter in 2014, garnering 38.6 percent of the vote, despite spending $3 million of his own money on the campaign. This time, he’s facing a contested Democratic primary, with Rep. Paulette Jordan, D-Plummer, already an announced candidate in the race. There also are a passel of Republicans running.
“I’m pretty excited that we have a primary race,” Balukoff said, “because I think it says that the Democratic Party in Idaho is gaining some strength.”
He said the contested race also will draw more attention to the Democratic rivals earlier in the year. Idaho’s primary election is May 15, followed by the general election in November. “It’ll give us both an opportunity to talk about our values and where we think the state ought to go,” Balukoff said.
Jordan, a second-term lawmaker and a Coeur d’Alene tribal member, had a similar reaction.
“I’m looking forward to the competition,” she said. “I definitely wish him well.”
She said she expects an “amenable” primary contest focused on issues.
“We have a party to keep in mind, and everyone in this state that I call family,” Jordan said. “We need to support each other, because in the end, we all have to work together.”
Balukoff, 71, said in addition to education, he’s focusing his campaign on health care and public lands access.
“Four years ago, we were debating whether or not to expand Medicaid,” he said. “Here we are in 2018 – we’re still having that discussion, and I’d like to see us get some of those things done.”
He called Otter’s proposed Idaho Health Care Plan “a good start.” That plan is based on seeking waivers from the federal government to allow 35,000 currently uninsured Idahoans to qualify for subsidized health insurance through the state insurance exchange and shifting some seriously ill patients to Medicaid.
But he criticized Otter and Lt. Gov. Brad Little’s executive order allowing insurance plans that don’t meet Obamacare standards to be sold in the state as move to lower premiums.
“It seems to me like a much simpler solution would be to expand Medicaid coverage,” he said. “Idahoans are already paying federal income tax that funds Medicaid expansion, and that’s happening in other states. … We ought to be getting some of that money back and helping us in our state.”
He also vowed to oppose any moves to privatize public lands, saying, “I think it’s important to preserve access for future generations.”
With the governor’s race wide open this year as Otter’s not seeking a fourth term, three big-name Republicans already are actively campaigning: Current Lt. Gov. Brad Little; Boise businessman, developer and physician Tommy Ahlquist; and 1st District GOP Rep. Raul Labrador.
More than a half-dozen lesser-known candidates also have formed fundraising committees to run for governor in 2018, four of them running as Republicans, including former Constitution Party candidate Steve Pankey. There also are two independents and three Democrats, including Troy Minton, a homeless man who was jailed on theft and probation charges in April.
Balukoff, a longtime Boise School Board member, is an accountant and businessman who co-owns the Grove Hotel in Boise along with CenturyLink Arena, the Idaho Steelheads minor league hockey team, downtown buildings and more.
Balukoff is a former independent who has contributed to candidates from both parties over the years; he was a supporter of Mitt Romney for president both in 2007 and 2012, and candidates he’s donated to in the past have included GOP Sen. Larry Craig in 2001 to Democratic congressional hopeful Shirley Ringo, who challenged Labrador in 2014.
In something of a twist, Ahlquist donated $5,000 to Balukoff, a personal friend, when Balukoff ran against Otter in 2014. But Ahlquist also donated $2,500 to Otter that year, and said he voted for Otter. Both men are prominent Boise businessmen and members of the Mormon Church, to which Labrador also belongs.
When Balukoff ran against Otter four years ago, Balukoff was targeted by big-bucks independent ad campaigns from groups including the Republican Governors Association and the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, who tried to paint Balukoff as “typical politician” and tie him to President Barack Obama. Other than his school board positions, Balukokff had never sought elective office before his 2014 run for governor.
Balukoff, who is known for wearing bow ties, is a retired CPA who holds an accounting degree from Brigham Young University. He also has served on the boards of the Boise Public Library, St. Luke’s Regional Medical Center, the Esther Simplot Performing Arts Academy, and Ballet Idaho, and is the former bishop of his LDS church ward.