The “surprise factor” sets McGeachin apart from 1987’s Lt. Gov. Otter

By Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports

On Thursday, Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, in her capacity as acting governor, issued an executive order banning mask mandates from all state entities, including school districts and cities.

In addition to causing confusion for school districts, who were not notified of the coming change, the order also surprised Gov. Brad Little, who was traveling out of state for a meeting.

Though a lieutenant governor has all the powers of the chief executive while acting governor, traditionally, that person doesn’t do anything to surprise the governor (or anyone else). 

In 1987, then-Lt. Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter vetoed a piece of legislation that would raise Idaho’s drinking age from 19 to 21. Otter, a Republican, served as lieutenant under Gov. Cecil Andrus, a Democrat. 

The difference? Otter didn’t blindside Andrus with the veto.

Marc Johnson, who served as communications director for Andrus, recalled he had traveled to Washington DC for the National Governors’ Association annual winter meeting.

“I remember him coming into my room at the hotel and saying ‘I just got off the phone with Butch, who was calling to ask my advice on a piece of legislation coming down related to the drinking age,’” said Johnson in a phone interview with Idaho Reports. (Before working for Andrus, Johnson hosted Idaho Reports.)

Otter opposed the bill, which would have raised Idaho’s drinking age from 19 to 21, saying at the time that the drinking age was a states’ rights issue and shouldn’t be dictated by Congress. 

“I firmly believe the time has come to express our disapproval, as a state, of the usurpation of… Idaho’s sovereign power by the Congress and the president, acting on behalf of the federal government,” Otter said, according to a Feb. 1987 Associated Press report. 

Johnson told Idaho Reports that Andrus had advised Otter not to do it, noting that many of Otter’s fellow Republicans supported the move. A veto also could have cost the state millions in federal transportation funding, as Congress had tied the drinking age to those highway funds. 

Andrus was right; Fellow Republicans criticized the move, with then-Rep. Mack Neibaur telling a reporter, “I think Butch just got shot in the butt.”

“I’m going to think of Butch whenever I hit a pothole,” the Paul Republican added.

The 1987 Legislature ultimately passed another similar bill, which Andrus signed.

Though Otter and Andrus were in different parties, the two had a good relationship, Johnson said. Otter was a regular in the governor’s office, and both men kept each other informed on what they were up to — even if they knew their colleague wouldn’t agree. 

“The difference in what (McGeachin) has done to Brad Little, it seems to me, is the surprise factor,” Johnson said. 

The “surprise factor” may go both ways. Last year, McGeachin said her office wasn’t informed of Little’s initial Stay At Home executive order. In the following months, she became one of the state’s most high-profile critics of Little’s orders, and launched her 2022 gubernatorial campaign upon criticisms of Little’s coronavirus response. Little, meanwhile, told reporters that his office and McGeachin’s didn’t communicate often, though he did make her a member of the Coronavirus Financial Advisory Committee.

“Andrus and Otter were talking to each other all the time on a very collegial basis, and clearly that doesn’t exist between the current occupants of those two offices,” Johnson said.

Another lieutenant governor blindside launched the career of US District Judge Edward Lodge. In 1965, when Lodge was a promising young lawyer in Canyon County, a judicial opening came up in Idaho’s 3rd Judicial District. Lodge was one of many names floated to Gov. Robert E. Smylie to fill the vacancy. As Chris Carlson recalled for the Lewiston Tribune in 2014:

“Smylie, however, preferred another candidate. So how did Lodge emerge? Here comes one of the great quarterback sneak plays in Idaho political history.

Under Idaho’s Constitution, the state’s lieutenant governor can exercise all the powers of the office of the governor when the governor is out of state. Two northern Idaho Democratic legislators, Rep. Ed Williams of Lewiston, and his good friend, Clearwater County Sen. Cecil D. Andrus, somehow learned that Smylie would shortly be out of state.

They also saw he was leaving for a few days and had not made the 3rd District selection. The two legislators, not particularly happy with the ever-growing arrogance of Smylie, consulted with Brauner and Miller about who they might suggest to fellow Democratic Lt. Gov. William Drevlow of Craigmont and then convinced him to appoint Lodge.

Drevlow did and, of course, Smylie was furious but there was nothing he could do about it.”

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