In Idaho’s AG race, candidates battle over the philosophy of the office
The battle to be Idaho’s next attorney general is one of the most consequential statewide races in 2022 that will be decided on Nov. 8.
Under Idaho law, the attorney general’s office is part of the executive branch and is responsible for providing legal representation for the state of Idaho, including its state agencies, offices and boards to protect the state’s legal interests. The office also issues written legal opinions for the Idaho Legislature or statewide elected officials and has a seat on the Idaho Board of Land Commissioners, which advises the Idaho Department of Lands on how to manage about 2.5 million acres of state endowment trust lands.
Regardless of the outcome, the state will have a new attorney general for the first time in 20 years, replacing Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, who holds the title of the state’s longest-serving attorney general.
The Idaho Capital Sun spoke with both candidates about their backgrounds and what their priorities would be as the leader of one of the state’s largest law firms.
Longtime Boise attorney was motivated to run by opponent’s political background
Tom Arkoosh’s plan was always to be a cattle farmer in Gooding, just like his father.
But when he came home as a fresh graduate with a degree in government and economics from Harvard University, he developed severe hay fever — a condition generally incompatible with farming.
So instead, he headed up to the University of Idaho to earn his law degree and worked in federal courts and the Washington Attorney General’s office before moving back to Emmett and opening a law office. He eventually moved the office to Boise and practiced as a litigator in civil, commercial, criminal, natural resources and water resource law for the next 40 years, which he would still be doing if Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden had won the Republican primary in May.
“I think everybody thought Lawrence had a good shot. If Lawrence had won, I wouldn’t be running,” he said.
Arkoosh entered the race for attorney general very late, as elections go, when he replaced Democratic candidate Steve Scanlin on the ballot in late July. He also hasn’t been a stalwart Democrat as a voter. Arkoosh said he was unaffiliated until this year, when he registered as a Republican to be able to vote in the party’s closed primary.
After former U.S. Rep. Raúl Labrador emerged victorious in the Republican primary, Arkoosh decided to accept an invitation from the Idaho Democratic Party to run. He takes issue with Labrador’s affiliation with and financial support from the Idaho Freedom Foundation and Labrador’s stance on abortion. To Arkoosh, having Labrador as attorney general will also mean spending time on what he sees as frivolous lawsuits and issues.
“I concluded … that he wanted to partner with what he called conservative legislators, and I think he means the radical right of the Republican Party, that if he were in that office, he would weaponize that office,” Arkoosh said.
He ascribes to Wasden’s philosophy of the office, which is that the role of the attorney general is to follow the law as written and advise legislators on how best to comply with the law, but not to get involved in the process of lawmaking or policy itself.
During the only televised debate for the attorney general’s office in early October, Arkoosh said he wants to run a law office.
“I think my opponent wants to run a cultural war room,” he said in the debate.
Prominent Idaho Republicans have endorsed Arkoosh over Labrador
Arkoosh has received endorsements from 50 longtime Republicans across Idaho, including former Idaho Attorney General and Idaho Supreme Court Justice Jim Jones, who is Arkoosh’s campaign treasurer and an outspoken critic of the far right in Idaho.
His endorsements also include former Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, who has never endorsed a Democrat until now. Ysursa cited Labrador’s past support for decertifying the 2020 presidential election results as one reason for his decision.
“Being a life-long Republican, it’s hard to endorse a Democratic candidate. But Tom Arkoosh is clearly the better candidate,” Ysursa said in a press release. “Make no mistake, the rule of law, which has made this country the envy of the world, is under attack, both at the state and national level. Tom’s opponent has bought into the discredited ‘Big Lie’ about the 2020 presidential election. … That is dangerous talk. It directly attacks the heart of our system of government. It has no place in the Idaho Attorney General’s office.”
Former first lady Lori Otter, wife of former Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, also endorsed Arkoosh, along with former Gov. Phil Batt and Sens. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, and Fred Martin, R-Boise. Lodge said in a press release that Arkoosh is the first Democratic candidate she has supported in her 66 years of work with the Republican Party.
Arkoosh said two of his main legal priorities as attorney general would be water rights and reproductive health care. He said the U.S. Department of Justice has partially helped Idaho solve legal issues around its abortion laws by filing a lawsuit and winning an injunction from the state’s federal court, but he expects more problems to arise.
And overall, Arkoosh said he won’t make the office one that is focused on political talking points rather than what is stated in the law.
“For the last six years, we’ve spent a lot of government time and government money focused on things that don’t matter. And it takes all the air out of the room for providing resources and attention to things that do matter. And I think he is the poster boy for that misdirection.”
‘Political’ doesn’t mean putting politics above the law, Labrador says
Throughout his time in college at Brigham Young University in Utah, former U.S. Rep. Raúl Labrador was working toward becoming a college professor with his bachelor’s degree in Spanish and minor in philosophy. He was born and raised in Puerto Rico by a single mother who moved them to Las Vegas when he was 13 for a job in the hotel industry. Labrador said to his mother, a good education was paramount, and she worked hard to provide the opportunity for him to go to college.
But as he talked to professors about the job and heard about the day-to-day interpersonal drama of academia, he started thinking maybe that wasn’t the place for him, and he went on to earn his law degree at the University of Washington instead.
“Ironically, they said (academia) was too political,” Labrador said.
That’s what opponents have accused Labrador of being since he entered the race in November 2021, after he gave up the seat he held in Congress for eight years to make an unsuccessful run for governor of Idaho in 2018. While he believes attorney general is a political position, that doesn’t mean he’ll put politics above the law, Labrador said, which is where he objects to Arkoosh’s criticism.
Labrador has frequently pledged to be a more aggressive attorney general who won’t be afraid to take on the federal government in court, and said watching the shutdowns take place across the state during the COVID-19 pandemic made him all the more committed to that idea.
Labrador, an attorney and registered lobbyist, served four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives representing Idaho’s First Congressional District. He was the first Hispanic member of Idaho’s congressional delegation and a founding member of the U.S. House Freedom Caucus. During his time in Congress, Labrador focused on immigration reform issues and voted on a bill to replace the Affordable Care Act. After he left Congress, Labrador was elected chairman of the Idaho Republican Party from 2019 to 2020. He was then appointed to the Central District Health board in January, and has also acted as a lobbyist for the National Coalition for Public School Options, Coeur d’Alene Tribe, Independent Doctors of Idaho and Treasure Valley Hospital.
Labrador says as attorney general, Idaho would join more federal lawsuits
Unlike the current attorney general, who has always said he sees his job as calling “balls and strikes,” Labrador said he will be willing to work with legislators to craft bills that pass constitutional muster.
“There’s ways to draft abortion laws that will survive constitutional challenge, and there’s ways that won’t survive,” Labrador said. “The left is really good at this, where they just do everything step by step, and they understand how the law works, and I think we just need to be smarter when we’re dealing with legislation.”
Labrador said he wants to join more lawsuits against the federal government, and if he had been attorney general this year, he would have signed on to West Virginia’s lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan and the recent lawsuit against President Joe Biden’s administration over his student loan forgiveness plan.
“There’s going to be a lot of lawsuits that we’re going to join,” Labrador said.
To that end, Labrador said he plans to create a solicitor general’s division in the Idaho Attorney General’s office that would recruit top appellate lawyers who would focus on federal cases and help determine where the state should be involved. He intends to use existing staffing levels to create that new office.
As attorney general, Labrador says he’ll work with members of all parties
Labrador has touted endorsements from former Idaho Attorney General and former lieutenant governor David Leroy, who is also a former lieutenant governor of Idaho, along with former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. He also said he was endorsed by 33 Idaho legislators during the primary.
Labrador has also said he supports the idea of the Idaho Legislature having its own attorneys rather than relying on the attorney generals’ deputies and sometimes hiring private counsel.
Among his other priorities, Labrador said two big issues on his mind are fentanyl and human trafficking, which he said causes an increase in gang violence and activity. He said he has met with many sheriffs and police officers across Idaho talking to them about those issues.
“Idaho is interesting because the role of the attorney general is limited, but you can be a partner to the local law enforcement community and you can also encourage the Legislature to pass legislation that will deal with some of these issues,” Labrador said.
Labrador said he will let the Legislature set the policy agenda for the state and he will be there to answer questions and suggest solutions, which he thinks will be a welcomed change. Even legislators who think he’s too conservative know he’s approachable, Labrador said, and he’s not worried about his ability to work with Gov. Brad Little even after losing the governor’s seat to him in 2018.
“Right now, the other party seems to really have it out against me, but when I was in the Legislature, I actually had some really good friends who were Democrats, and very good working relationships,” Labrador said. “When people come to me and they have a problem or an issue that they’re dealing with, I want to find solutions to those issues regardless of the party affiliation.”