By Betsy Rothstein - 04/06/05 12:00 AM EDT
The smell of hazelnut coffee emerges from an anteroom of Rep. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s (R-Idaho) private office in the Longworth Building.
“Don’t tell any of my cowboy friends I drink tutti-frutti coffee,” he says, pouring a cup and letting out his first belly laugh.
His humor is almost always at his own expense. Otter is outgoing and sociable and has a propensity for banter. He does not take himself too seriously, but is serious about leaving the House and running for governor in 2006.
He has raised $250,000, and he wants to have a million before the GOP primary in May 2006. Idaho’s lieutenant governor, Republican Jim Risch, is expected to run. One Democrat, Jerry Brady, a former newspaper publisher who ran in 2002, has jumped into the race. State Senate Minority Leader Clinton Stennett (D) and former Rep. Larry Larocco (D) are rumored contenders.
Otter has served in Congress four years, but his statewide ambitions are no shock. He was lieutenant governor from 1986 to 2000, and in 1977 he made a long-shot run for governor, having served in the Idaho House for only two terms.
“I’ve learned an awful lot about state governing from being a U.S. congressman,” he says. But naturally not everyone likes the prospect of Otter as governor.
Maria Weeg, executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party, seems to want to avoid discussing the matter. Perhaps she wants to deny Otter publicity; that or she’s having a bad day.
“We obviously don’t feel that Rep. Otter is doing that great of a job,” she says tartly. “In fact, right after he was reelected to Congress, he announced that he was running for governor, so there’s a question in our minds whether he can adequately represent his constituents.”
Does she have other issues with him? “Well, he’s a Republican and we’re the Democratic Party, so we have issues with him,” Weeg snaps. “We don’t like his stance on Social Security. Do you know that you’ve called the Democratic Party?”
Richard Stallings, the state Democratic chairman, calls Otter a “viable candidate” and a “very charming guy” but says, “We have a candidate who is running full time at the taxpayer’s expense. I don’t think he’d be a particularly good governor, but that’s a partisan take on my part.”
Otter grins. With his bright blue eyes, straight white teeth and full head of brown hair, he looks like an old-time movie star. The 62-year-old has been told he resembles Ronald Reagan or is a cross between Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford, “but I’m way younger than both those guys,” he says.
The lawmaker has never grown accustomed to Washington and is looking forward to going home. To keep a part of himself in Idaho, he sets his watch two hours back. And he always wears ostrich cowboy boots with his suits.
Otter isn’t full of himself and talks plainly about such past embarrassments as bad grades, divorce, a DUI conviction and winning a “Mr. Tight Jeans” contest. His tendency to invite you into his private life is reflected by his office, which is set up like a series of living rooms — one in the waiting area by the front door, another in his private office, where the chairs are placed in a circle.
Otter is tall (6 feet 2 inches) and rugged. He is so animated when talking that it’s advisable to get out of the way. A flailing hand slaps my tape recorder off the arm of his chair, sending the batteries flying. His exuberance almost takes out a lamp.
Despite his perpetual good mood, Otter has not led an easy life. His first name, Clement Leroy, got him into trouble on the Catholic school playground, where children called him Clem Kadiddlehopper, a village-idiot character created by comedian Red Skelton. Fights broke out, and the nuns urged Otter to go by his family nickname, “Butch.”
Otter is the sixth of Ben and Regina Otter’s nine children. He was born in Caldwell, Idaho. Ben was a journeyman electrician. Regina drove the school bus. For years they lived on an 80-acre farm three miles outside Corning, Kansas, where they grew vegetables and raised chickens, rabbits, and cows.
But travel was a constant because of his father’s job. From elementary school until college, Otter attended 15 schools in such places as Grande Island, Neb., and Walla Walla, Wash. The family was poor. Otter didn’t get new shoes until fourth grade; his mother sewed his shirts from flour sacks.
After high school, Otter thought he wanted to be a priest. He entered St. Marten’s Abbey in Lacy, Wash., but decided he wasn’t ready for the rigid lifestyle.
“I thought I was,” he says. “It’s hard to say. I think it was part of the maturing process — am I ready to give up the other things in life, a family, a profession and dedicate my entire life to being a priest? I realized I wasn’t able to cross over that mystic bridge.”
In truth, he attended the abbey only because of his father’s opinion that “unless you were going to be a priest, you didn’t need to go beyond high school.”
But he never got good grades, and, even though Otter wanted to be educated, he didn’t believe he’d amount to anything beyond blue-collar work. “My dad graduated from high school. My expectations weren’t built beyond being a good electrician or carpenter.”
Otter was 20 when he graduated from high school — a childhood accident involving gasoline badly burned his younger brother and forced Otter to take a year off. Throughout high school he worked — janitor, theater ticket taker, lawn boy. He was the only member of his family to graduate from college — the College of Idaho — where he made the dean’s list in his last term.
By December 1963, Otter was working on a road construction crew in McCall, Idaho, and it was then that he first laid eyes on Gay Simplot, daughter of one of the state’s richest potato farmers, driving a little sports car.
“It’s kind of like a rock star,” he says. “You look.”
In 1964, Otter and Simplot married, despite protests from her relatives who thought she should marry wealth. But, he says, “I never ever felt like I wasn’t a part of that family, like they looked down on me.”
He got on well with his father-in-law, J.R. Simplot, a billionaire businessman and eponymous owner of the largest potato processor in the world. Simplot, like Otter, grew up poor. Simplot never finished the eighth grade.
Otter and his wife had three daughters and a son. In 1969, his political career sprouted when he was appointed assistant secretary and parliamentarian of the Idaho Senate. In 1972 he was elected to the Idaho House.
Throughout his time in the Legislature, Otter worked for J.R. Simplot Co. He started at the bottom, making french fries, shoveling potatoes and loading boxcars with the frozen fries. In 1979 he became president of Simplot International, and for a decade he traveled to some 80 countries promoting the company.
His marriage didn’t survive. In 1992, despite counseling, he and Gay divorced. Otter blames himself for not paying enough attention. They still have a respectful relationship but are not close.
That year was eventful for Otter. In July, he won a “Mr. Tight Jeans” contest at the Rockin’ Rodeo bar in Boise. (He thought he had entered a line-dancing contest.) In early August, he was convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol, and in September he moved into the apartment over the garage. In November he and his wife separated.
And all that time he was the state’s lieutenant governor.
“I just never thought any of my actions, so long as they weren’t infringing on anyone else’s rights, would embarrass anyone,” he says, but “would I get into another tight-jeans contest? No.
“I’m not so much embarrassed about the tight jeans as I am about the DUI. I understand that there is a certain demeanor that is expected of one when he holds public office.”
He’d been at a club with some cowboy buddies. As they drove away in his Jeep, his hat blew off and he swerved, and a police officer pulled him over.
He had to do 72 hours of community service and 16 hours at an alcohol treatment program.
“I was really shocked,” he says. “I always thought … you had to be stumbling around, can’t hang onto your keys.”
Otter says he has mellowed and won’t go to bars except if that’s where his guests want to go. He gives up alcohol for Lent — sort of: No wine with dinner, or vodka martinis, but beer is OK.
“I like to be around a guy who enjoys life,” says Rep. Mike Simpson (R), Idaho’s other congressman, who is Otter’s campaign co-chairman. “He has tamed down, but he does get out on the weekends to the rodeos. He shouldn’t be on wild animals, but he enjoys life.
“People are smart enough to know that all of us would do things over if we could. What people expect you to be is honest about it.”
Otter has come a long way from the poor kid who got teased on the playground. Today he owns a 70-acre ranch in Star, Idaho, overlooking the Boise River, and keeps horses, deer, turkey, quail, ducks and geese. He owns a smaller ranch eight miles outside of Boise that boards horses.
He also has a steady girlfriend, Laurie Easley, vice principal of a school in Meridian, Idaho. Otter admits that the idea of marrying again frightens him, saying, “I’ve really gotten used to my independence. I like finishing my own sentences.”