At what point should you be given a pass on things you did as a teenager because they were a “youthful indiscretion?" And how “pure” do we want our legislative candidates to have to be?
That question is coming up again in connection with Rep. Bryan Zollinger of District 33, in Idaho Falls. He posted on Facebook recently that unspecified “powers that be” were “coming after him” for his criminal record. At least one Idaho legislative reporter, Betsy Russell of the Spokane Spokesman-Review, said she had received an anonymous letter telling her about his criminal record. As it turns out, his record includes felony grand theft, misdemeanor driving under the influence, two misdemeanor malicious injury to property charges, and several other alcohol-related offenses.
It isn’t clear if the criminal record is why, but Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter recently passed over Zollinger, as well as Bonneville County GOP Chairman Mark Fuller, to replace Sen. Bart Davis, recently appointed as U.S. Attorney for Idaho. Following the usual process for replacing a legislator, precinct captains in District 33 voted among themselves and gave the governor three options. The governor doesn’t have to choose the top name on the list, but he usually does so — and if he doesn’t, people usually talk about it. Instead, he chose Tony Potts, a property manager and salesman at Bish’s RV Supercenter.
That said, it isn’t unusual for the criminal pasts of candidates to come up. Criminal records are public records in Idaho, and anybody can look up the criminal record of anybody else. (I’ll save you the time: I’ve been to court for my divorce and to fight a debt I’d already paid.) For example, Russell also looked up the records of Fuller and Potts and learned they had a speeding ticket each.
Similarly, in 2014, voters learned that Greg Chaney of District 10, who was going to be unopposed in the primary, had domestic violence charges from 2009. In 2012, voters learned that Brandon Hixon, also of District 10, had five misdemeanors before he was 19. Both candidates won their elections, have been unopposed in primaries since, and have won their general elections, as well (Since then, Rep. Hixon has resigned after reports of an unspecified criminal investigation.)
Aside from research, newspapers often ask candidates about their criminal and bankruptcy records when they’re running for office. For example, in the fall of 2016, the Idaho Press-Tribune included that question in its candidate survey; it also asked other candidates in 2012.
Zollinger also posted on Facebook that he was 41 and these charges were more than 20 years old. Chaney and Hixon also chalked up their records to youthful indiscretions and said they were different people now. Should crimes candidates committed in their youth still count against them decades later? Or should people running for public office be held to a higher standard of behavior?
For that matter, when Idaho has so many citizens in its prisons, does having a criminal record make candidates more sympathetic to the problems of ordinary Idahoans who also have criminal records? Are there Idahoans who don’t trust a candidate who didn’t sow some wild oats when he was a kid?
Keep in mind that, despite their criminal records, Chaney and Hixon still got elected — and re-elected. While it’s surprising Zollinger’s criminal record never came up, it isn’t clear it would have hurt him any. He won the 2016 primary election by 340 votes, with 56.2 percent, and he won the general election by more than 5,000 votes, with 66.2 percent.
One thing’s for sure: You can bet that reporters will be looking up the criminal records of all the candidates from now on.