BOISE, Idaho — This article originally appeared in the Idaho Press.
The two rivals to be the next Idaho Attorney General clashed in a live, televised debate Monday night, on issues ranging from abortion laws to water to school vouchers to staffing the attorney general’s office.
Republican Raul Labrador, an outspoken former four-term congressman and state legislator, charged that Democratic rival Tom Arkoosh has “already lost the trust of the Legislature.”
Arkoosh, a former independent and longtime Boise attorney who’s drawn support from an array of high-profile Republicans, countered, “I’ve not lost the trust of the Legislature. I might have lost the trust of some conservative legislators that he’s promised to partner with and exclude everybody else, but I think the moderate legislators will come with me to the middle and talk.”
The two articulated sharply differing approaches to the role of Idaho’s attorney general, with Labrador saying, “I think the attorney general’s office deserves a strong, aggressive, conservative attorney general that understands that the people of Idaho need somebody who will defend their rights, their freedoms and their liberties.”
Arkoosh said, “He promises to fight for freedoms. What freedoms might those be? It’s the freedom to deny women health and arrest their doctors. It’s the freedom to defund our schools, it’s the freedom to ban our books and close down our libraries. Ladies and gentlemen, I want to run a law office and I think my opponent wants to run a cultural war room.”
Arkoosh said he’d work with legislators to try to reach middle ground, rather than go right to court. But Labrador charged Arkoosh would put his political positions ahead of those of the state, as each accused the other of planning to politicize the office.
Labrador defeated longtime GOP Attorney General Lawrence Wasden in the primary, after losing to current Gov. Brad Little in the 2018 GOP primary for governor. Arkoosh launched his campaign in July after previous Democratic placeholder nominee Steve Scanlin withdrew; when he announced, he said of Labrador, “If you want controversy and conflict, he’s your guy. If you want competence, I hope you’ll consider my candidacy.”
Labrador called Arkoosh “cravenly political,” saying, “First he was an independent, then he was a Republican so he could vote against me, and then he ran as a Democrat to run against me. I think the only person in this race who is a political opportunist is my opponent.”
Here are some of the issues the two sparred over in Monday night’s debate, which is part of the “Idaho Debates,” a three-decade collaboration between the Idaho Press Club, the League of Women Voters and Idaho Public Television that also is co-sponsored by the state’s public universities:
Arkoosh said as attorney general, he’d support whatever decision the Idaho Supreme Court reaches on the state’s abortion laws. “The Attorney General has to support their decision,” he said. But he said there’s a “hierarchy” of law and in certain cases, federal law controls. He cited the federal lawsuit brought by the U.S. Department of Justice over Idaho’s “trigger law” to ban nearly all abortions, which contends the law conflicts with a federal law requiring emergency health care to be provided at hospitals that receive Medicare funds. An injunction from U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill partially enjoined Idaho’s trigger law with respect to those situations.
“Judge Winmill bailed us out,” Arkoosh said. “The difficulty is that the Legislature has doubled down, after they’ve been bailed out.” Idaho’s trigger law contains no health exception; it permits an affirmative defense against felony prosecution for performing an abortion, at any stage of pregnancy, only in cases of rape or incest documented with a police report or "to prevent the death of the pregnant woman."
“Frankly, it’s not only common sense, it’s common decency not to leave these people in trouble,” Arkoosh said.
Labrador responded, “The reality is that our law is really clear. Our law says that if a woman’s life is in jeopardy that abortion can be provided. … So our law would allow the abortion.”
“We need to defend the law of Idaho instead of saying that we’re going to cave to the federal government,” Labrador declared. “We’re going to win on appeal and in the Supreme Court.”
Asked about a University of Idaho memo to employees regarding refraining from advocating for abortion, including in classroom discussions, Arkoosh said state laws can’t override federal constitutional provisions like the right to free speech under the First Amendment. “I was just criticized by my opponent for not understanding the law. I don’t think he understands the hierarchy here,” he said. “All of these problems result from a deliberate effort to confront the federal Constitution.”
Labrador said, “I haven’t read the memo. But what I understand from reports is … if you were just going to have a discussion about the policy of abortion, that would be fine. … That’s where your First Amendment rights are implicated.”
The Sept. 23 memo states that instructors must remain neutral in any classroom discussions on the topic, allow them only if they are “relevant to the class subject,” and “must themselves remain neutral on the topic and cannot conduct or engage in discussions in violation of these prohibitions without risking prosecution.”
Arkoosh, who represented American Falls Reservoir District No. 2 for more than a decade in water law litigation related to the Snake River Basin water rights adjudication, was asked what he would do differently from how the Idaho Attorney General’s office has handled water rights. “They’ve done a good job,” Arkoosh responded. “The attorney general and his staff were excellent. I have no criticism of them.” He then attacked Labrador for saying “that he would sit down with other states and negotiate the apportionment of our water.”
Labrador vehemently denied that, and said, “What I said on the Facebook post is … I will work with anybody on the issue.”
In an Aug. 25 Facebook post, after attending a day-long Idaho Water Users Association “Water College” event, Labrador wrote, “From farmers and ranchers to those working in our labs and startups, Idaho’s hardworking men and women want an attorney general who will defend our water rights and craft sensible policies with our sister states to ensure we have the resources necessary for sustained economic growth.”
“I never said I was going to sit down and do adjudication and negotiate,” Labrador said. “I just said that I’m going to work with our sister states if necessary. There’s nothing wrong. I get accused of being a lone wolf who’s not wanting to sit down with people, and then when I say I’m going to sit down with people, the people will misconstrue what I say. I think it’s ridiculous. I think the people of Idaho will see right through that.”
He also accused Arkoosh of playing only an “insignificant role in some of the small cases” in the Snake River Adjudication.
Arkoosh responded, “Nice try, counselor. You will see my name on the cases that are the current law in Idaho on water law.” He noted that the American Falls district he represented was “one of the largest users of water in the Magic Valley.”
Labrador said, “I’m going to hire experts to work on that issue. … I will have the best lawyers.”
Both candidates were asked if they believe vouchers to allow state funds to go to private schools are constitutional. Arkoosh said flatly, “No.” He cited a 2020 U.S. Supreme Court decision that held that if state money is given to private secular schools, it must also be provided to private religious schools. “I believe that that is a dead issue, and it should be a dead issue,” he said. He added, “The most important issue in education today is funding,” and said the state needs to address school facilities funding, in the wake of a 2005 Idaho Supreme Court decision that found the state’s funding system for that unconstitutional.
Labrador said lawmakers aren’t considering private school vouchers, but instead, “What they want to do is ‘money follow the child.’ And when money follows the child, the parent can decide … whether that money goes to a private school, whether it goes to a public school.” Under the U.S. Supreme Court decision, he said, “That money can then be used for religious purposes as long as it’s being used by the parent.”
He said he didn’t believe the clause known as the Blaine Amendment in Idaho’s state Constitution, which forbids public funds from going to schools “controlled by any church, sectarian or religious denomination whatsoever,” would apply, and said if lawmakers pass such legislation, “I will strongly defend it.”
The Blaine Amendment clause is Article IX, Section 5 of the Idaho Constitution, “Sectarian Appropriations Prohibited.” The 2020 case struck down Montana’s Blaine Amendment, finding it discriminatory against religious schools.
STAFFING THE AG’s OFFICE
Asked about how they’d attract and retain attorneys in the attorney general’s office given salaries that lag well below the private sector, Arkoosh said, “The first thing that you do not want to tell them is if they don’t agree with their agenda, they’re fired, and that’s what my opponent has said would happen to anybody in his office that disagrees with his thinking.”
“The only thing that’ll keep them if you don’t have money is treat them like professionals,” Arkoosh said.
Labrador retorted, “There he goes again. Disagreeing with the agenda is not the same as disagreeing with legal analysis. … I want different opinions to be expressed.” But, he said, “After we’ve hashed out all the issues … if somebody on that team cannot abide by the decisions that I make, they shouldn’t be working in that office, and they shouldn’t be working for the people of Idaho.”
He said, “I already have a group of lawyers that have reached out to me that work for large law firms that want to work in the attorney general’s office.”
Arkoosh said, “Economics isn’t going to help us. … I think you’re going to have to inspire them, and they’re going to have to truly hold in their hearts a spirit of public service.”
THE IDAHO DEBATES
Here are the scheduled debates, airing on Idaho Public Television:
Oct. 3: Idaho Attorney General Candidates Raul Labrador, Republican, and Tom Arkoosh, Democrat, aired live statewide. Now available for viewing online anytime at idahoptv.org/idahodebates.
Oct. 4: U.S. Senate candidates Mike Crapo, GOP incumbent; David Roth, Democrat; and Scott ‘Oh’ Cleveland, independent, aired at 8 p.m. in both time zones. We’ll have full coverage in Thursday’s print edition of the Idaho Press. Due to scheduling issues, that debate was be taped Oct. 3 at 2 p.m. MT; it was immediately available online at Idaho Public Television’s YouTube channel, and will be available for viewing online any time starting Oct. 5 at idahoptv.org/idahodebates.
Oct. 24: Superintendent of Public Instruction candidates Debbie Critchfield, Republican; and Terry Gilbert, Democrat, airing live statewide at 8 p.m. MT, 7 p.m. PT
Oct. 28: Lieutenant Governor candidates Scott Bedke, Republican; and Terri Pickens Manweiler, Democrat, airing live statewide at 8 p.m. MT, 7 p.m. PT
This article originally appeared in the Idaho Press, read more on IdahoPress.com.
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