It was only appropriate that Governor Phil Batt passed away on March 4 which was his 96th birthday — and the day we celebrate as Idaho Day. Perhaps more than any other political leader of the past half century, Governor Batt personified what it means to be an Idahoan.
Born on a farm in Canyon County near where he spent his life growing hops, onions and other crops, Idaho’s 29th governor was a man who lived close to the soil of Idaho and equally close to the people who he served his entire adult life.
Like the people of Idaho, Governor Batt was a fiscal conservative who appreciated a government with a light touch in people’s lives. But he was also a humanitarian who fought for the underdog, the vulnerable and those who didn’t have a fair shot in life.
Long before anyone ever heard of inclusion and equity, Governor Batt believed deeply in the dignity of all people, regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or stature in life — something he learned from his mother. This commitment to human rights was reinforced when he was stationed in Mississippi as a soldier and saw firsthand the evil of racism.
More than any other political leader, Phil Batt stood for human rights. That is one reason why the Wassmuth Center for Human Rights named its soon-to-be constructed education building for him.
As a young man, he dropped out of the Elks Club when a friend who was of Japanese descent was rejected because of his race. He never went back.
As a legislator, Batt sponsored creation of the Idaho Human Rights Commission at a time when supporting civil rights wasn’t popular. He also voted for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment for women and later voted against the move to repeal the ratification.
Long before it was required, Governor Batt provided toilets for his workers who labored in the fields during the hot Idaho summers. And as a state legislator he sponsored the legislation to require farmers to provide these facilities.
As governor, Governor Batt fought to require farmers to provide workers compensation to farmworkers who were injured on the job, even though he knew he would lose many friends in the process.
After he was elected governor the leaders of Idaho’s Native American tribes asked him which member of his staff would be assigned to work with them. He replied that he was personally going to be their contact in his government, and he kept his promise to meet with them regularly.
Governor Batt was a master of one of the most basic arts of politics, the ability to work with people who disagreed with him or belonged to the opposite political party. One of the people who influenced his budding political career most was Senator Art “Pops” Murphy, a Democrat from Shoshone County who schooled Idaho’s future governor on the ways of the Senate.
Governor Batt’s close relationship with Idaho’s Democratic Governor Cecil Andrus is legendary. To the end of Andrus’ life and long into Governor Batt’s, the two former governors worked to remove radioactive waste from the eastern Idaho desert and prevent more waste from entering their dear state.
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Governor Batt was also a man of great humility. Once his staffer Lindy High asked him why he frequently ate at the same restaurant near the capitol. He said the food and service was good and he almost always got an open table. High thought to herself, “You’re the governor. You could probably get an open table anywhere.”
Governor Batt wasn’t perfect, mind you, and he was the first to admit it. He had a trigger quick temper, but he was also quick to apologize to the receiving party and he was also the rare politician who admitted when he was wrong.
He was a man of many talents, including a master of the English language. He used words as a newspaper columnist sparingly, but with the skill of a surgeon to get to the art of a matter. His poetic tribute to the 91 miners who lost their lives in 1972 at the Sunshine Mine in Kellogg are among the most beautiful words ever written by an Idahoan. It began:
“Our tongues have not tasted the bitter dust
The roar of the drills has never reached our ears.
Unfelt to us is the darkness of the shafts.
Yet we are Idahoans
And we were miners then.”
Governor Batt is the last of a generation of leaders who shaped the modern Idaho. Now he is gone along with giants of both parties like Cecil Andrus, James McClure, Frank Church and others who saw public service as a privilege and a responsibility, not as a way to advance their own self-interest or narrow ideology.
In one of the last interviews with Governor Batt, I asked him which of the nicknames fit him best: the Little Giant, a reference to his short physical frame, yet large political stature; Machine Gun for how he rattled off words quickly and sparingly; or Squeaky, because of his high-pitched voice. He said the best word to describe him was “Lucky.”
The truth is that we Idahoans are the lucky ones. We are lucky to have had a man of integrity living amongst us like Governor Batt. We are lucky that he dedicated his life to serving the state and people he loved.
On Idaho Day, we lost more than a former governor. We lost the singular person who represented the best of us. You might say we lost the conscience of our state.