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A Tale of 2 Idaho Republicans

Times-News Editorial Board
December 20, 2010
Twin Falls Times-News

Fifty years next November, a tall, 31-year-old life insurance salesman was elected mayor of a small Idaho town that doesn't exist anymore.

But George Hansen went a long way from the City Hall in Alameda, a suburb of Pocatello that merged with its larger neighbor in 1962. By 1964, he was in Congress. By 1985, he was in federal prison.

When U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge sentenced Hansen to four years in prison for 45 counts of bank fraud in 1993, the judge said he was stunned that so many of Hansen's victims still supported him - even though they were owed hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"I've never seen that kind of blind allegiance," Lodge declared

Until now. State Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol - a politician with a lot of tax problems and even more followers - is inspiring George Hansen-caliber loyalty.

Like Hansen, Hart is a virulent critic of the Internal Revenue Service. Unlike Hansen, he doesn't believe the Constitution requires him to pay federal or state income taxes.

Hart owes more than $500,000 in back state and federal taxes, penalties and interest. He also has an outstanding judgment for thousands of dollars stemming from a 1996 timber theft on state endowment lands that he unsuccessfully defended in court.

The four-term lawmaker is the subject of a current investigation by a special ethics committee of the Idaho House of Representatives. Earlier this year, at the recommendation of another ethics committee, Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, kicked Hart off the influential House Revenue and Taxation Committee.

That didn't faze his backers.

"We know that Rep. Hart received 75.2 percent of his district's vote and this was after the people already knew about his problems with the IRS and (state) tax commission," wrote Pamela Kaynor, Benewah County GOP chairwoman, in a letter on to the ethics panel.

According to the Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Wash., W.L. Leiby of Coeur d'Alene wrote: "What is the problem here? Is it that Rep. Hart supported and was supported by the Tea Party? Is it that he supported staunch new conservatives against tired old dead-wood? Why is it Rep. Hart is being persecuted by the establishment?"

Many of Hart's partisans are newcomers to politics and to the GOP, as were many of Hansen's fervent fans. Most believed the federal government was too big and spent too much, but Hansen was never a tax protester.

Hart is, and proudly so. Even if it means flirting with the criminal justice system.

It took a long time for the GOP establishment to part company with Hansen, and the few Republicans who challenged him - like current Idaho Supreme Court Justice Jim Jones - were soundly rebuffed. In 1984 Hansen was reprimanded by the House for failing to include transactions on federal disclosure forms, but lost to Democratic challenger Richard Stallings by fewer than 200 votes in the 2nd Congressional District.

Eventually, though, Hansen's critical mass of support ebbed.

Will the same thing happen with Hart? Much depends on his tax cases, of course. And while he's well liked by a majority of the members of the House GOP Caucus, it's hard to imagine him becoming a member of leadership or chairman of a major committee anytime soon.

Hansen's legal problems were his undoing, and it looks as if Hart's courtroom challenges are just beginning.

But Hansen was still popular enough to be reelected six times, despite his ethical issues and his financial misdeeds.

Many Idahoans - then as now - just need to believe in a political outsider who speaks truth to power.

Whatever the messy consequences.

Originally posted at

The editorial posted here is provided by permission of its original publisher and does not necessarily reflect the views of Idaho Public Television.

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