In This Republican Stronghold, Why One Idaho Man Still Votes Democrat

Oct 28, 2014

Jerry Panko working in his north Boise front yard.
Credit Adam Cotterell / Boise State Public Radio

Jerry Panko vacuums up leaves around the candidate signs in his north Boise front yard. Panko is a retired teacher, he refers to himself a liberal, he’s a big fan of unions and he’s a long-time Democrat.

With Election Day a week away we’re profiling some Idaho voters. We talked with Panko about the experience of being a hardcore Democrat in Idaho.

Panko says the affiliation came in handy nearly three decades ago when he first asked out the woman who would become his wife. She had some requirements for him.

“[She said] ‘I hope you’re both a Methodist and a Democrat,’” he recalls.

Panko brags about always making it out on voting day.

“I hate to say it’s habit, but if it is habit it’s a good habit,” he says. “I look forward to watching NCAA football and the election returns. They’re my two favorites.”

Panko punctuates that statement with a long laugh. He laughs a lot. But when he’s watching those election night results he’s usually not laughing. That’s because as a Democrat in Idaho, the people he likes usually lose. That’s why he doesn’t get his hopes up.

“Realistically, I don’t think I’ve ever thought a Democrat on a statewide level would have a chance,” he says. “Ever since John Evans left office.”

Evans was Idaho's governor and left office 27 years ago. There have been Idaho Democrats elected to high offices since, but not many. And none have won a statewide race in more than a decade.

“We’ve had some good candidates but [most of them] haven’t even come close,” Panko says.

This year, Panko thinks the Democrat who will come the closest is Holli Woodings. She’s running for Secretary of State against Lawerence Denney.

“She just wiped him clean in the debates,” Panko says. “Of course nobody watches the debates to speak of. People who watch those political debates probably know who they’re going to vote for anyway.”

Panko says it’s hard to be an Idaho Democrat, unless you live where he does, northeast Boise. The neighborhood known as the North End is one of the most solidly Democratic strongholds in this very Republican state.

“When I go down to the voting booth - and I like to vote in person not by mail - I don’t have a lot of influence on the vote,” he says. “I do in the North End. You know, if you’re a Republican in the North End you can probably say the same thing, why even put up the effort to put a candidate out because the Democrat is going to beat him every time. Republicans in the North End should know how I feel statewide.”

But even though Panko gets to send who he wants to the state legislature, he thinks when they get there, they won’t be able to accomplish much. That’s because Republicans outnumber Democrats in the legislature about four to one.

“It’s frustrating," he says. "But they’re good people and I think they probably know that up front."

He thinks some of his state legislators over the years quit running for reelection because they came to feel they couldn't do much good from the Capitol.

Panko says Idaho Democrats have adopted a strategy in many races of picking candidates who are almost indistinguishable from moderate Republicans. It hasn’t worked so far, but Panko says he’ll wait and see. He points to his A.J. Balukoff yard sign. Balukoff is running for governor as a Democrat against incumbent Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter.

“A.J.’s probably about as close to a Republican as the Democrats could ever field,” Panko says. “I actually have a certain amount of hope for A.J. except that only one time has he shared his internal polling. So I think if it were really looking good he’d let us, those of us who paid a little bit of money, know how the internal polling was going.”

This elicits another long, hearty laugh. Panko is frank about the experience of being an Idaho Democrat. He jokes about it but he’s often frustrated and frequently disappointed. However, he says, he never despairs.

“A lot of things have happened in my lifetime that have only been the result of long-term effort,” he says. “I never thought I’d live to see the day when Apartheid ended in South Africa. I thought maybe the Berlin Wall might come down but I didn’t think it would happen as soon as it did. The pendulum swings. It’s just got an extra-long swing in Idaho. And it will swing back some time.”

Panko says he plans to keep voting even when he’s pretty sure he’s backing the losing side.

Find Adam Cotterell on Twitter @cotterelladam

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