There have always been politicians and wannabe candidates who seem to have been sent by Providence to provide comic relief in humdrum political seasons. James Traficant comes to mind, as does Ralph Nader. Eliot Spitzer, David Paterson, Charlie Rangel, John Edwards, Mark Sanford, the list is almost endless. In Idaho, we have Rex Rammell, a Gem State gem.
Rex isn't well known outside of Idaho, but within the state's borders he enjoys a certain comic cult status. It's fun to watch him. He hails from the eastern side (born in Tetonia, 1961), and for most of his life this devout Mormon and family man had prospered as a veterinarian (Dr. Rex) and elk rancher. Oh right, the elk ranch.
Rex owns a ranch where until 2007 he raised elk for "canned hunts." He was doing well charging city slickers $6,000 a pop to shoot a trophy bull. These operations –while legal -- are controversial and regulated because elk raised like livestock in an enclosed setting are more susceptible to disease, especially "Chronic Wasting Disease" (CWD), which can be spread to wild elk populations with devastating results. Rex was almost constantly at legal loggerheads with the State of Idaho over inspection practices, which in Idaho are lax at best. His elk didn't sport the orange ear tags certifying them as disease-free. Rex considered this a governmental intrusion on his rights as an elk rancher. He did, however, tag his with brown ID's, which would later make them easy to identify.
Anyway, one day in 2006 an enterprising elk on the ranch located a hole in the fence and tipped off 160 fellow wapiti, and the herd promptly escaped Rex's ungulate gulag and headed east toward the western border of Yellowstone National Park, thereby alarming both state and federal wildlife officials.
Idaho's then-governor, Jim Risch was furious, and ordered state fish and game personnel to shoot on sight as many of Rex's wayward elk as possible. Many were shot; some 40 were captured and returned to the ranch; and a small number actually escaped into Yellowstone. The defiant legal contretemps continued. "America will soon know there's a mountain man out here," said Rex.
Well, all this radicalized Rex (even more?) and marked the birth of his ongoing quixotic political aspirations. In 2008, he ran as an Independent for retiring Larry Craig's (him of the wide stance, and someone I neglected to include in my list above) Senate seat against Republican former Governor Jim Risch (who won) and Democratic former Congressman Larry LaRocco, and garnered 5.4% of the vote. This year he's in the gubernatorial contest as a Republican, and faces incumbent Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter in the May 25 GOP primary. Rex is again crisscrossing Idaho as he tries to hang ten on the edge of America's current tsunami of raging populism. He's slated to campaign in my town of Salmon on April 2, and he's putting on a free spaghetti dinner. Eliminate Idaho's income tax? Banish those pesky wolves? Free spaghetti? I wouldn't miss it!
Rex is outdoing himself with his current gubernatorial run. At a townhall meeting in Twin Falls last August, the subject was Idaho's then-upcoming first legal wolf hunt, and licensing or "tags." A woman in the audience called out: "What about Obama tags?" Rex chuckled along with the crowd, and then added: "Obama tags? We'd buy some of those." Some reporters were present and made note of the gaffe. It touched off the predictable liberal media storm (Rex even made the Huffington Post), as the editorial page and political reporters at the Idaho Statesman and New West's Jill Kuraitis (the closest you come to a Helen Thomas in Boise) cynically attempted to tie right-radical-Rex to Idaho's mainstream GOP establishment. The stern Statesman called Rammell's faux pas "deplorable rabble-rousing." Kuraitis was her usual hysterical self: "What would Rammell's mother say? Mine would have said: threatening a president is a felony, and you will never say anything like that again. Clear?" GOP pols got the media message. Senator Mike Crapo: "Rex Rammell's comments were in poor taste and should not have been said." Changing the subject, Rex responded to Crapo by chiding him for "giving away" two million acres "to environmentalists." (the Owyhee Canyonlands wilderness legislation). Ex-Governor Phil Batt weighed in, calling Rammell's comments "totally irresponsible, maybe criminal." In response, Rex suggested that "Phil Batt should go to jail for allowing wolves to enter Idaho in the first place" (in 1995). For the record, Rex never apologized for the gaffe, but did issue a statement: "Anyone who understands the law knows I was joking, because Idaho has no jurisdiction to issue hunting tags in Washington, D.C." You've got to love Rex.
Then there was the "White Horse Prophecy" affair of last December. Rex initially sought to convene a January meeting in Idaho Falls of male Mormon Church leaders that excluded all females, non-Mormons and the press, and discussed the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) founder Joseph Smith's 19th century revelation, which says that during a time of future civil strife it will be left to a select group of Mormon "Elders" to uphold the U.S. Constitution. "The Latter Day Saints, the Elders of Israel, will step forward to its rescue and save it," quoth Rex. This sparked another media uproar. The LDS Church distanced itself from Rammell because it doesn't consider the prophecy to be official LDS doctrine. Rex eventually opened the controversial meeting -- and three subsequent meetings -- to the public.
Despite Rex's fringe status, Idaho Democrats (actually in sheer numbers a fringe party themselves) and the media never tire of attempting to tie him to mainstream Idaho Republicans, and those Republicans continue to dismiss him as a crank. At a recent GOP dinner in Idaho Falls attended by both Governor Otter and Rex Rammell, the latter challenged the governor during some allotted time at the podium to a debate of the issues sometime before the May 25 primary. The Governor sat silently but later told the Idaho Falls Post Register that he would consider such a debate, but first he needed to continue wrangling with the state legislature about Idaho's current budget problems.
In the meantime, T-Rex soldiers on. I wonder what's for dessert after the spaghetti dinner?
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