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The Nation

Idaho is red-faced over senator's sex scandal

In the conservative state, the Craig incident elicits outrage, shame and a sense of betrayal.

August 30, 2007|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

BOISE, IDAHO — So what are people in one of the nation's most conservative states saying about the gay-sex scandal surrounding their much-revered, oft-elected Sen. Larry E. Craig?

Family-values organizations, powerful in Idaho, want his head. Politicians, most of them Republicans like Craig, want more facts. Gays, a seemingly small group here, are embarrassed and yet strangely appeased by the spotlight on a politician who consistently has voted against gay-rights legislation.

The rest of the folks don't know what to think.

The repercussions on Craig's career have been immediate. On Wednesday, at the request of Republican leaders, he agreed to temporarily give up four Senate committee seats. At least three Republican lawmakers called for his resignation. Among them was Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who told CNN that "when you plead guilty to a crime, then you shouldn't serve."

Earlier this month, Craig pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, stemming from a June incident in a men's restroom at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The senator allegedly made a sexual advance toward an undercover police officer who was there as part of a sting operation to curtail lewd behavior in public bathrooms. Craig's arrest came after decades-long rumors about his sexual orientation.

News about Craig has dominated Boise in the past few days. And reaction has run the gamut from confusion to indignation.

"I guess he's human. But if he did do those things, they should be exposed," said J.D. Walker, a laborer who was sweeping a sidewalk four blocks from the state Capitol. "People with that kind of power should be held to a little higher standard."

Adam Graham, a longtime resident and Republican voter, said he had hoped Craig would set the record straight, but the senator's comments this week did not seem to help his cause.

"I thought his statements might clear things up, change my mind, but they didn't," Graham said. "I don't take pleasure in saying it, but I don't think Craig is very credible at this point."

On Tuesday, a day after his arrest became public, Craig stood in downtown Boise and told reporters: "I am not gay and never have been."

The letters in Wednesday's Idaho Statesman, Boise's hometown newspaper, reflected anger and a sense of betrayal.

"This is now a personal matter between God, his wife, his family; however I believe that Sen. Craig should be honorable and quietly resign from public office," wrote Aaron Book of Nampa. Marc W. Anderson of Emmett wrote that he "didn't want to pay [Craig's] salary anymore. We have enough lying idiots in Washington, D.C., without adding to it. Do the right thing, Senator, resign."

Even some who have strongly supported Craig over the years have turned against him -- including Bryan Fischer, executive director of the Idaho Values Alliance, a powerful advocacy group espousing traditional family values.

"He should have accepted responsibility and culpability," Fisher said. "He did not wind up in that restroom by accident."

Fischer said he had been praying daily for healing and restoration for Craig and his family, but that the senator should nevertheless step down.

A local commentator, Jill Kuraitis of NewWest.net, said Craig's swift fall from grace is "one of the biggest stories in the history of Idaho politics."

The state's entire congressional delegation is Republican, and the party holds overwhelming majorities in both houses of the Legislature. Idahoans sided staunchly with the GOP in at least the last three presidential elections.

Craig, 62, is the second longest-serving Idahoan in Congress, having first been elected to the House in 1980. He has a record of opposing gay-rights legislation -- including gay marriage and civil unions and allowing homosexuals to serve openly in the military.

But the gay and lesbian community in Boise long has harbored suspicions about Craig's sexuality.

"It's been an open secret since forever," said Travis Riggs, editor of the local gay newspaper, Diversity.

There is no record of the number of gays living in Boise, but the turnout for this year's gay pride festival was about 3,000, Riggs said. Boise, the state's largest city, has a population of 211,000.

"After years of speaking out against the gay community, him getting caught like this is about poetic justice," Riggs said of Craig. He added he was certain that "there are other gay Republicans who have not come out of the closet."

At the same time, Riggs said, he was embarrassed by Craig's alleged behavior because it put gay men in a bad light. "What some people will take away from this is gay men cheat on their partners, or gay men look for sex in bathrooms."

Local politicians, including the head of the state Democratic Party, said they were withholding judgment on Craig. "This is not a partisan battle. Therefore, the Idaho Democratic Party has nothing to add to the public conversation at this time," Chairman Richard Stallings said.

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