Democrats try to target ‘toxic’ Luna in 2014 election

Dan Popkey

The last time an Idaho Republican failed to win a statewide campaign, the loser was Tom Luna. Democrats think they can do it again.

Seizing on the sweeping defeat of Superintendent of Public Instruction Luna’s K-12 reforms last November, Idaho’s minority party wants to make education the signature issue of 2014.

The Democrats’ aim goes beyond unseating Luna. The party promises a vigorous challenge to Luna’s close partner in enacting Students Come First, two-term GOP Gov. Butch Otter, as well as Republicans down the ticket.

“The voters on Propositions 1, 2 and 3 voted against bad Republican ideas and they’re going to vote against bad Republican candidates,” said Democratic Party Chairman Larry Kenck. “It not only points at Tom Luna. It points at Governor Otter and the whole Republican Party.”

While saying those who campaigned to save Students Come First “botched it terribly,” Idaho GOP Chairman Barry Peterson waves off Kenck’s threat. Peterson said 2012 is ancient history in political terms and predicted that the education loss will have zero effect in 2014.

“The same people that voted ‘no’ on those three referendums already had a chance to defeat legislators who voted for the laws,” Peterson said.

Though Luna’s three laws passed the Legislature without a single Democratic vote, the same electorate that rebuffed Luna kept a lopsided Statehouse wholly intact, with 85 Republicans and 20 Democrats.

Luna and other statewide officials who serve four-year terms weren’t on the 2012 ballot. They will be next year, along with all 105 legislative seats.

That, said Kenck, makes supporters of the so-called Luna Laws vulnerable. Kenck takes heart in polling by the No on Propositions 1, 2 and 3 campaign, which outspent proponents $3.6 million to $2.8 million.

David Williams, the Maryland consultant who ran the repeal campaign, said Luna’s misreading of the electorate was so serious that half of the Republicans in a May 2012 poll rated his job performance negatively.

“That led to our early decision to brand these propositions as the Luna Laws in our messaging,” Williams wrote in the July/August edition of “Campaigns & Elections” magazine.

When the campaign to defend the propositions continued to use Luna as its chief champion, Williams was stunned.

“We fully expected the other side would see what we saw in our polling — Tom Luna was toxic — and that he would eventually be put on the bench,” he wrote. “But it never happened.”

A No on Props 1, 2 and 3 campaign poll showed that 33 percent put the principal blame for problems facing public schools on elected officials for failing to provide adequate funding. Seventeen percent blamed unions for making it hard to fire bad teachers.

The vote that counted wasn’t close. While presidential candidate Mitt Romney won 65 percent of the vote in Idaho, 57 percent rejected limits on unions in Proposition 1, 58 percent opposed pay for performance in Proposition 2, and 67 percent killed the Proposition 3 mandate for laptops and online classes.

“Be careful going after teachers,” Williams wrote. “They are beloved.”


Luna hasn’t made a formal announcement for re-election but has said he plans to run. He declined to comment for this story.

His spokeswoman, Melissa McGrath, said Luna has addressed the defeat several times, most recently in September when he told the Statesman editorial board, “We should have been far more aware of a broad discussion amongst the general public and not just focus on a strategy that would have legislative success.”

McGrath said Luna is now working to convince the 2014 Legislature to implement 21 recommendations from a task force convened by Otter to pick up the pieces after the defeat of Students Come First. The proposals have an estimated cost of $350 million, about two-thirds of which is a six-year plan to boost teacher pay.

“We have moved beyond the results of last November to focus on working with education stakeholders to continue the process of moving education forward in the state of Idaho,” McGrath said.

The man who helped run Luna’s winning races in 2006 and 2010 and the losing 2012 campaign says the personalization of reform drew blood.

“When you spend $4 million to demonize a guy like Tom Luna, surprise, it works,” said Ken Burgess, a Boise-based consultant and lobbyist.

Burgess agreed that “teachers are very well loved and people listen to them ... I think it really did boil down to the impact of teachers.”

Burgess said he and Luna discussed scaling back his role. One campaign ad featured Otter’s wife, Lori, a former teacher who was called a “formidable messenger” by repeal consultant Williams. But Burgess said it was ultimately Luna’s call to remain front and center.

“He wanted to be out there fighting the fight,” Burgess said.

Burgess said Luna’s advocacy of reform is paying off, citing the near-unanimous recommendations of the 31-member task force.

“None of these conversations would ever have occurred had it not been for Tom Luna’s courage,” he said.


Two Democrats who ran when Luna was first elected to an open seat in 2006 are considering a challenge.

The 2006 nominee, Jana Jones, lost to Luna by 2 percentage points — 11,000 votes out of 443,000 cast. Jones, who lives in Pocatello and works for a national education software company, was chief deputy to two-term Democratic Superintendent Marilyn Howard. Howard was the last Democrat to beat a Republican for a statewide position — Luna in 2002.

Asked whether Luna’s alleged toxicity will last, Jones said: “That’s a strong word. But I think trust is gone. What people are looking for is leadership that they can trust for their public schools. They want leadership that is transparent, inclusive and focused on what’s best for students, not politics.”

Acknowledging the Democrats’ structural disadvantage, Jones said, “I think the public is at least ready to listen and not just blindly follow political lines.”

The second Democrat is former state Sen. Bert Marley, of McCammon, who became a lobbyist for the teachers union, the Idaho Education Association, after losing to Jones in the 2006 primary.

Marley said Luna is rehabilitating himself in the public eye, including his work as a member of the task force and a budget proposal to boost K-12 spending 6 percent next year — the highest since 2008.

“I think he was toxic (in 2012), but people’s memories are pretty short,” Marley said. “There are some people who think it would be a cakewalk to beat Tom Luna. I don’t believe that for a second. It would be a pitched battle and very, very close.”

Rumors swirl about Republicans considering a primary challenge to Luna, but none of those mentioned who replied to the Statesman said they plan to run.

Former GOP state Rep. Steve Smylie, who lost to Luna in the 2002 primary by fewer than 900 votes of 130,000 cast, explored the race. A teacher for 37 years, Smylie has the motive, but not the means.

“You put a lot of professional pride into a career and you have these people basically telling you that you’re incompetent nincompoops producing mindless incompetents,” Smylie said. “That hurt.”

Still, Smylie says, he’s not in.

“One thing I’ve discovered is there are a lot of people unhappy with Tom, but I’m not sure their unhappiness translates into a willingness to support someone else,” Smylie said. “If somebody’s willing to write you a check, then they’re really upset. Other than that, it’s just coffee talk.”


A key figure in the repeal campaign said proponents of increased support for public schools must not let momentum fade, calling their win “a unique moment in Idaho history to effect some positive change.”

“The vote was a sea change in the perception of education issues, from the governor’s office to the Legislature, from the public to the business community,” said Mike Lanza, co-founder of Idaho Parents and Teachers Together.

Lanza, who served on Otter’s task force with Luna, said he’ll measure both by the effort they put into getting the recommendations funded.

Having put in hundreds of hours as a volunteer for IPTT, Lanza aims to convert a loose group of unpaid activists into a nonprofit force with tax-exempt status and a small staff.

“We’d like to go out to the public and try to put pressure on the Legislature to implement these recommendations from the task force,” Lanza said. “If you want to have lasting and broad impact, you’ve got to have some money and some staff.”

One of Luna’s closest allies, House Education Committee Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, said folks writing Luna’s political obituary underestimate his commitment to reform.

Also a member of the task force, DeMordaunt said Luna’s expertise will be key to convincing lawmakers to implement the recommendations.

“Again, he’s going to be out changing things so it’s going to make some people uncomfortable,” DeMordaunt said.

DeMordaunt is among those rumored as a GOP successor to Luna, but he said he has no interest in challenging his friend.

“Tom will fight for what he cares about to the end,” DeMordaunt said. “That doesn’t mean he’s not going to change strategic direction on how to achieve the goal. But you’re never going to see him throw in the towel.”

Dan Popkey
Idaho Statesman