Phil Batt

We've had a bad rap in the national press, and I hope some of these kids are able to wipe that right off the face of the map.

Phil Batt

Former Idaho Governor Phil Batt (1995-1999) is known for his human rights advocacy. When he was a state senator in 1969, he held unofficial hearings on the problems that minorities in Idaho were having, and then pushed for a law to establish a Commission on Human Rights, which passed that session.

As the head of the Republican Party, he advocated for a Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, when others in his party disagreed. And as governor, his legislative agenda included more protections for farm workers, including a minimum wage law and workers' compensation.

At the same time, he also had to deal with the reputation that the Aryan Nations was giving Idaho with their cross burnings and marches. He was annoyed by the "sensationalistic" attention he thought a "few oddballs" were getting.

Gov. Phil Batt grew up on a farm in Wilder, Idaho, near Oregon. Although many different types of people worked on the farm, including "braceros" from Mexico, and German and Japanese war prisoners, they didn't mix with the community. And it was clear that some residents didn't want to be near them.

Here is a portion of an interview that Marcia Franklin conducted with him.

Franklin: You remember a sign in a window in your hometown.

Batt: There were a few people who were definitely racist, and one of them would be a store- keeper who had a sign, "No Dogs or Mexicans" in his window. Of course that was disturbing to most of us. For the most part I don't think the people thought much about race at all. They just thought their own insular affairs were what dictated their lives. They were very patriotic. They thought we had the best country and the best state and the best town in the world and they let it go at that.

Franklin: When do you remember first seeing somebody different?

Batt: There was a black fellow came around, a transient who wanted some work. Nobody saw fit to hire him. My dad hired him, but he put him off in a corner of the field said he won't cause any trouble there.

That's about the only black I saw until I went to the Army and then I went into the Army down in Biloxi, Mississippi and I was just appalled at the segregation down there. We got on a bus to go to the post and they rudely shoved the blacks to the back of the bus, got off and started walking down the sidewalk. The blacks would get off in the gutter and let us go through.

There were separate fountains, separate schools of course, separate phone books, separate obituaries, separate entrances to parks. Totally segregated and I, you know; I was appalled really.

Franklin: Do you remember the first action you took to tell people (racism) is wrong?

Batt: Oh, yes. I was an Elk, and I wanted to take (a Japanese friend) in as a guest, and they wouldn't let him inside the doors. They had a whites-only policy. So I turned my membership in at the time. And sent a letter to the national committee telling them what I thought about the policy.

Well, of course, they didn't change it at the time, but finally they did and I asked to be re-instated. I got 14 'blackballs,' which was the highest anybody ever got, from people who didn't like me criticizing them to begin with.

M - When you withdrew your membership, you were making a statement as a business man in a small community. Why did you do that?

Batt: I thought it was patently wrong that some of the finest people in the world being denied membership strictly on the basis of their race… it was really a very poor policy which I thought I would try to change.

M - Did you go into politics knowing these inequities were things you wanted to work on?

Batt: I don't think I gave it much thought, but it was a natural avenue for me to take when I got in because there was a void of anybody who took an interest in such things, and I immediately started angling for a Human Rights commission.

M - Why was that important to you?

Batt: Well, because Idaho had no comprehensive civil rights law and it was one of the very few states that didn't, and there was really no avenue for anybody to seek redress for racial discrimination, and I thought that was a very serious omission in our code. That was very unpopular with the legislators and I had hearings off and on for 60 days trying to convince folks that we needed it.

We had all kinds of testimony from Native Americans, blacks, Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, Orientals; whoever was a little different came in and told their various ordeals they had undergone because of their race and we finally convinced enough legislators to let that go through with an appropriation of $30,000.

Franklin: You wrote in your autobiography that when you were governor and wanted workers' compensation for farm workers that "this was the only legislative matter for which I appealed privately to legislators."

Batt: I felt pretty strongly about that one…farm workers of all employees are probably the least able to initiate a tort action if they are injured. So I thought they should be under the system. I felt pretty strongly about it and I could see, I should say, blood in the water, that we had a chance of doing it.

So I pushed it really hard and I used all the allies I could summon up and I had some very good ones - among the farm community some of them- and we finally tipped them over.

Franklin: But you said it was a bittersweet victory.

Batt: Well, it was because I made some of my farm friends very angry. In fact, I think I lost friendships for a long period of time with some of them.

Franklin: Wilder, the town in which you grew up, is now almost 80% Hispanic. Does that surprise you?

Batt: Well, I'd have been very surprised had I known this 50 years ago. The way it has developed I think it makes good sense. Wilder was one of the earlier settlements to get a big percentage of Hispanics and I think they grew to be comfortable there and the other folks grew to be comfortable with them.

I'm proud of it. I'm very proud of it. It's a good little town and people get along well. There are whites and Hispanics on the various boards and they progressively look at ways to better Wilder. I think it's a very good town.

Franklin: What do you think about illegal immigration issues in Idaho?

Batt: Well, we're like every other place in the country. We have some troubles evolving from it. I lend my voice to those who say we have to secure the border first thing. I think we could easily take care of the internal ones we have now if we could keep more from coming in.

Franklin: This is not a human rights issue for you.

Batt: No, it isn't. Of course the answer is for Mexico to develop a less corrupt society. It's just terrible down there and poverty is rampant and job opportunities are non-existent, and I expect most of us with some ambition if we were down there would try to get out of it. So I don't fault the people for wanting to leave, but I don't know. I'm not smart enough to have the solution to that problem.

Franklin: Talk about your efforts to establish a Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday in Idaho.

Batt: I think it's a manifestation of Idaho's collective attitude that we didn't feel as if that was an important thing to Idaho. That is, we were happy in our own heterogeneous culture - I mean homogeneous - and we didn't feel as if we ought to be wearing a hair shirt and trying to change our society because we didn't think it needed that much changing.

That failed to take into consideration the things I saw when I was in the Army down south and other activities throughout the country that indicated that there was a large part of our population not receiving equal opportunity in this country. I could see that is was staining our reputation as a state far and wide, and I admired Dr. King for what he had done and I thought it was high time that we got on the road to honoring him with a special day. So I went down there and told them all that at the committee, that I thought it would be really injurious to Idaho to old that in committee and not pass it out, and they finally did.

Franklin: You were irritated by all the coverage of the Aryan Nations.

Batt: The Eastern press in particular likes to come out to Idaho and do a piece on the Aryan Nations and publish it and then everybody could tell what a terrible state Idaho state was.

We got way more than our share of black eyes over those folks. We never did like them. Nobody liked them. We finally got rid of them, and I think every state has a few oddballs in it so we shouldn't be penalized for that.

Franklin: Did you ignore them when you should have paid attention?

Batt: I really don't know what we could have done to dislodge them. There were people who made the effort the minute they discovered who they were, but there was no legal way really until they finally sued them and forced them into bankruptcy.

I never felt we could ignore that kind of hatred. It was something to be dealt with. I guess I didn't know how to deal with it.

Franklin: You wrote in your book that one of the pleasant surprises you had as governor was your warm relationship with Idaho's tribes.

Batt: I did. I had no idea that would take place. During my campaign I was on several reservations and I was struck by the grinding poverty there. I mean poverty I had never seen to the extent it was, and lack of opportunities, unemployment. Really a sad situation.

So I was happy to have an opportunity to work with the various tribes. And they came into my office, their tribal council, the first day I was in there - maybe a couple of days - demanding an audience, and came trooping in and they were belligerent and they said, "Who are you going to have for an Indian desk?" I said, "I'm my Indian desk; I'll meet with you."

I met with them every month from then on and we formed some really strong friendships. I'm not saying we settled all our problems, but we made some progress.

Franklin: You disagreed with them vehemently on the gambling issue.

Batt: Yes, at first. I wasn't about to give at all on it….there's not much to be gained from gambling. It just transfers it from one person to another.

I fought that for a while, tried to get a legal opinion that would sustain us. But I could see that we were probably going to lose and I decided maybe it would be better to go ahead and lose and give them an economic opportunity.

Well, it's worked out very well that way. A tremendous amount of jobs have been formed, poverty has been greatly reduced, unemployment greatly reduced. It's just a lot different atmosphere on the reservations than there used to be.

Franklin: You've said that of all man's baser motives, racism is the worst.

Batt: It's pitiful. It seems endemic in mankind that they have to go around killing in the name of religion and race. It's happened throughout time. I read the Bible from cover to cover to try to get some answers. It was just as bad in the old days as it is now, killing each other for no good reason and sectarian reasons. I don't know the answer.

Franklin: What are the human rights challenges for Idaho as we move forward?

Batt: Well, the Hispanic population increase which has been spectacular is going to affect every facet of our life, and I hope we do that with some aplomb and some understanding from everybody.

I was proud of Idaho for rejecting by a two-to-one margin a proposition or initiative which would have prevented the legislature or the state of Idaho from giving protection based on sexual orientation in the Human Rights Act. I think that would have been a real mistake to say it is legal to discriminate against people on the basis of sexual orientation.

I think that discrimination in the main categories of housing, equal job opportunities and all that certainly, the gay people should be protected.

Franklin: How do you feel about gay marriage?

Batt: Well, I don't know what to think about all that. I'm for allowing civil unions. I don't know what to think about gay marriage.

Franklin: People remember this as your legacy--the human rights issues when you were governor.

Batt: I'm very happy about that.

Franklin: Is there anything else you'd like to say, perhaps to young people?

Batt: Well, this is one place in which young people are superior to adults or at least older adults. They are not buying onto this racism or sexism or whatever. It comes natural with them to not have these negative thoughts and I just hope they will keep that up. I think Idaho is among the better states for understanding each other. We have a bad rap in some of the national press and I hope those kids are able to wipe that clear off the face of the map.

Phil Batt

Governor Phil Batt with children at Wilder Elementary