Editor’s Note: This is the fifth in a series of stories about former Gem state governors from eastern Idaho.
IDAHO FALLS — Idaho’s Republican conquest of state and state offices in Tuesday’s general election adds to the state’s long history of conservative politics.
Governor Brad Little ended up receiving 60% of the vote, for a total of 318,479 votes. The results for Lt. The governor, attorney general and state superintendent showed a similar breakdown, with Republican candidates coming out on top.
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It has been nearly three decades since Gem state’s last Democratic governor, Cecil Andrus, left office. Democrat John Evans had occupied the seat a decade before him.
While the Democrats have only held the state’s highest office three times in the past 75 years, it’s worth noting that there was a time when both parties appealed equally to Gem state voters.
Clarence Bottolfsen became the state’s first Republican governor in seven years when he was elected in 1938. (The governor’s term at the time was only two years.) The 48-year-old journalist from Arco had defeated Democratic incumbent Barzilla Clark by 57% of the vote, or 106,268 total votes according to the ballot record.
In the book Idaho’s Governors, Robert Sims points out that Idaho voters at the time were “disillusioned” with FDR’s New Deal policies and Bott, as people across the state called him, had emerged victorious by promising , cut taxes (Clark’s predecessor, Ben Ross, was seeking re-election in 1938 after three terms in office and had reportedly introduced sales and other taxes during his tenure), and clean house.
Bott was sworn in as Idaho’s 17th governor in January 1939 and would become the state’s first chief executive to serve non-consecutive terms.
Life before the governorship
Botlfsen was born on October 10, 1891 in Superior, Wisconsin. A biographical sketch from the University of Idaho shows that he attended high school in Fessender, North Dakota, where he worked as a “printer at the local print shop.”
“The man who owned the business moved to Arco, Idaho, and bought the Arco Advertiser, a weekly newspaper. He soon sent to Bottolfsen, then 19, to work for him,” reports U of I.
As Botlfsen gained experience in the printing business, his interest in the newspaper industry grew. He eventually took over the Arco newspaper during a difficult economic period and “made it one of Idaho’s leading weeklies.”
“He arrived in Arco on October 3, 1910 and took over the management of The Arco Advertiser, soon converting that newspaper into a paid service,” writes Sims.
Bott served as the state legislature throughout the 1920s while running the newspaper. He became editor in 1934 and two years later acquired and edited the Blackfoot Daily Bulletin.
He retired in 1947 but reportedly continued to work as a correspondent for several newspapers and even worked as a freelancer.
The Arco Advertiser still exists today. It also offers commercial printing services for businesses.
It’s not clear what motivated him to run for office, but after years in the legislature, he surprised his opponents by becoming the Republican nominee for governor.
Achievements as governor
Bott requested a $5 automotive license fee during his inaugural address. Sims notes that he also called for administrative changes to the state’s liquor distribution, which may have contributed to his unsuccessful 1940 bid for reelection. His Democratic opponent, Chase Clark, voted against changes and ultimately won a narrow victory.
“Two years later, the candidates for governor in the general election were the same. This time, they both had their records to set, and Idaho voters had trouble deciding which one they wanted. When the results were final, Bottlelfsen became the first ex-governor to regain office, but by fewer than 500 votes,” Sims writes.
Bott’s second term was much more eventful, according to Sims, and one issue was to blame. In the 1942 election, voters passed the Senior Citizens Grant Act, a measure that increased the state’s monthly subsidy payments to people age 65 and older by $40.
The effects of the Great Depression and the start of World War II made financing this measure a challenge.
“In his second inaugural speech, Bottolfsen stated that ‘Economy must be the motto of the session’. He … asked for “thrift that borders on thrift,” writes Sims.
Cuts in state personnel and other departments did not bring savings to fund this initiative, and Bott knew a tax would have to be introduced to pay for it. Despite running on a platform with no new taxes, Botlfsen reluctantly introduced a 5% sales tax to fund this.
“He believed that since the pension plan had been approved by voters, the Legislature had an obligation to fund it,” Sims writes. “While it was clear that Idaho voters liked the retirement plan, they no longer liked a sales tax.”
Lawmakers eventually rejected the governor’s plan and overwhelmingly voted to repeal the voter-approved bill.
Bott later endorsed the Legislature’s action in a joint session, saying the pension plan “joined all of Idaho’s other patriotic endeavors and went to war.”
Ultimately, Bott failed to convince even the strongest supporters of the pension fund and led to his political downfall.
After an unsuccessful run for the United States Senate in 1944, Bott served two terms in the Idaho legislature before retiring in 1961.
“Not only did this service make him the only chief executive to later serve in the state legislature, but his last election came 40 years after his first, a record in Idaho,” writes Sims.
In 1961, the 70-year-old had provided public service for Gem State for decades. Poor health prompted him to resign at the end of his term.
The University of Idaho reports that he suffered from emphysema for several years and died at Veterans Hospital in Boise on July 18, 1964.
“While Bottolfsen was neither the most effective nor the most popular chairman of Idaho, it must be remembered that he served through its most trying times, depression and war,” writes Sims.
He is buried in Hillcrest Cemetery in Arco.
As someone who had given many speeches throughout his life, Bottlefsen used many of the same stories and quotes. At the height of World War II, he was often asked to deliver memorial addresses for local people who had been killed.
One of his favorite passages was the last stanza of John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Field,” written specifically for fallen soldiers.
But it’s the second stanza that could serve as a tribute to the life of a civil servant.
“We are the dead. A few days ago
We lived, felt the dawn, saw the sunset glow
Been loved and loved and now we’re lying
On Flemish fields.”
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