Idaho 15th District State Senate hopeful Rick Just joins Matt to discuss his candidacy, his campaign, and the fate of humanity.
Matt Dundas (MD): The first thing I wanted to say – somebody has to have pointed this out cause it’s just too coincidental – but electric! Electric! Your campaign is electric! ElectricJust, and if you were running for ICE, which I know isn’t electable – the Immigration and Customs Enforcement – it could spell ElectrickJustice.com.
Rick Just (RJ): Yes it could! Well, my wife has been big on calling me Sparky for that very reason.
MD: I love it. See I knew I couldn’t be the first.
RJ: Yeah, yeah. I use that occasionally on the campaign. It’s Elect Rick Just, but it sounds like Electric Just, doesn’t it?
MD: It absolutely does and I could see that being a real boon to any campaign. To have that just land at your feet; how could you not run for office with a name like Rick. It makes me want to tell every Rick I’ve ever met, Have you thought about running? Cause… You’re electric. Anyway, neither here nor there. Not the serious stuff that I’m sure compelled you to run. So let’s start there. You’re running for the State Senate in Idaho in the 15th District. Let’s just start with, why?
RJ: Well, two years ago a gentleman by the name of Jim Bratnober ran for this seat – Senate seat. He lost by six votes. And I would’ve been voting for Jim again this time but earlier this year he had some health issues and had to drop out. He stepped out, I stepped up, and I was happy to do so. He was a great candidate and he’s given me a lot of help since then, by the way.
MD: Oh interesting. So you’re coming off the bench?
RJ: I am. I started in April.
MD: And so, how’s it going? Do you have polls? Do you have a sense of how your campaign is doing versus your opponent?
RJ: We don’t have polling. What we have is support, and what I mean by that is that we have about 350 individual donors in the district and some outside of the district as well, of course. And that compares with my opponent who has 14 individual donors, so we think it’s going pretty well.
MD: And how about the take? You have way more donors but who has more money?
RJ: We’re about even.
MD: Interesting, how about that.
RJ: Yeah, he makes fewer phone calls. He just calls some of the PACs and the corporations and such. And I’ve decided not to do that.
MD: Excellent, why don’t you spell out, what is the difference between you two? Why would you feel compelled to run for a seat? What’s wrong with the incumbent?
RJ: Well, you know, the incumbent is okay, he’s what you would call today a moderate Republican.
MD: I’m sorry, it sounded like you said moderate Republican. I don’t know those two words together.
RJ: In Idaho, yes, I remember moderate Republicans I voted for years ago. And nowadays it’s the whole scene has shifted to the right of course, but he’s one of the more moderate ones here. But there are things that we do not have in common, for instance he tried to get a bibles in schools bill passed a couple years ago, which is strictly unconstitutional, Idaho’s constitution prohibits it. So that’s one thing. But there are a few differences, yeah.
MD: Okay, so why you though, what is it about your background that sets you up to represent the people of the district?
RJ: Yeah, well, I’m an Idaho native, which is somewhat important here. Not that I was so bright to be born here but I’m glad I was. My great-great-grandparents came here in 1863. So we’ve been around a while. I was in the Marine Corps, served in the Marine Corps. Came back got a masters in public administration at Boise State University. Go Broncos, where the blue turf is, and all of that. Then I worked for thirty years for the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, that’s our state parks agency here in Idaho. And so I’ve got some good public lands background. I’ve worked with all the state and federal agencies and something called the Idaho Recreation Initiative, I was the coordinator of that for five years, and a lot of other public lands kinds of things. That’s probably why I was interested in running. I want to protect our public lands. Now when I talk to our constituents – to our voters out there – I shouldn’t say constituents cause I’m not elected yet. But to the voters in the district, public lands is big. It’s third or fourth for a lot of people, but it’s not number one. Number one is education funding, number two – close second – is property tax relief. And so that’s what I’m running for, is to represent the district.
MD: And what role does the state senate have? I know different states have different kinds of legislatures – some are full-time, some are part-time, some are really important, some are kind of back seat to the executive branch – what’s Idaho set up like?
RJ: Well it’s in flux in a sense, it’s a part-time legislature. And we did have a special session because of some coronavirus issues here three or four weeks ago, I guess. I actually got to serve in that. Jake Ellis, who is one of the representatives in District 15, couldn’t serve for a few days – those particular few days – and he asked me to sit in, so I was able to sit in on that one. And one of the issues that was the big buzz in the legislature – of course, I was on the House side at that time – they wanted the authority to call their own special sessions, and they didn’t get that during this special session because the governor limited it to only a couple of subjects and that wasn’t one of them, but they will be revisiting that one soon. So that’s why I say it’s perhaps in flux. If they could call their own sessions they’d be a little more powerful and probably meet more often, and probably cause more trouble.
MD: And so you want to cause trouble?
RJ: Yeah, yeah. I don’t think we need to cause trouble. By the way – this made the national news, I think – during that special session, Ammon Bundy and a group of about 150 people kind of stormed the gallery on the House side. Broke through a door and such. They were allowed in there but we were social distancing, and they didn’t wan to social distance, they wanted everybody in there. At least one of them that we could see was packing a rifle. And – cause that’s legal in Idaho’s capital.
MD: You can bring a rifle right on into the building?
RJ: Oh yeah.
RJ: Not any kind of a metal detector or anything to get in. So, that’s a little unusual.
MD: Ammon Bundy’s a little unusual. Or he used to be.
RJ: He actually lives here in Boise now. Or not in Boise, in Idaho. He lives in Emmett.
MD: Oh you must be very proud to welcome a member of the Bundy family.
RJ: Well, you can think that.
MD: You know I have – we don’t need to get all sidetracked on Ammon Bundy – but I have the strangest respect for him. He seems to be at least consistent. He’s anti-Trump, which is fascinating. And he’s for defunding the police. He really doesn’t like the police. And I do respect a person for sticking with his beliefs even if I don’t agree. But let’s move on from in.
MD: Anytime he does anything it seems to make the news cause he’s always packing heat and he’s always getting too close, but… So, so, you came off the bench to help represent in the House of Representatives, and then you came off the bench to run for the Senate but is this your first time campaigning for office yourself.
RJ: I ran four years ago for the Ada County Highway District, which seems like a small thing anyplace but Ada County. We’re the only unit of government that has a highway district that is entirely countywide, city and county – this highway district runs the whole show for the cities and everything. And it’s about a hundred million dollar a year budget and kind of a big deal here.
MD: And I take it didn’t work out?
RJ: It didn’t work out. I got into the race really, really, really late and what I found out was the money was gone.
MD: Isn’t that a bummer. So, so this is your second campaign then, for office?
RJ: Yes, yes.
MD: Okay, and what are you doing to campaign? It’s good to know you’ve campaigned once before, so your only experience isn’t during Covid, cause I’m sure it’s affecting your campaign. But let’s start with this year, what are you doing to get the word out? How are you attracting voters?
RJ: Sure. Well we started out by – we like to door knock. That’s sort of our thing in Idaho. The Democrats are door knocking folks. And we get around and talk to people. We couldn’t really do that to begin with. And so we went to the phones and we were calling a thousand people a week, sometimes more than that. And that’s a big number, but you’ve got to remember that most of them don’t answer. So we’re talking to – let’s say a couple hundred people a week – asking them their opinions and getting a sense of where they stand and getting to know them a little bit better. We’ve been doing that for several weeks, now about three weeks ago I started doorknocking.
MD: Oh really?
RJ: Yeah I did. Some of the other candidates in other districts had done a little bit of it. Some of the other candidates in other districts had done a little bit of it. They experimented a little. And this is what I do, I have a hat with a little visor that comes down over the front of it. It has an American flag on the front of it so it’s very appropriate. I go up and I press the doorbell and I stand back about ten feet and when they answer the door I say, “Hi, I’m Rick Just, I’m running to be your state senator, do you feel comfortable talking for a couple of minutes at this distance?” And almost all of them say, “Well yeah, sure.”
MD: All right.
RJ: Almost all of them say, “I’m busy.” And I hand them literature. But there’s no one I’ve run into that’s really afraid to talk. Now maybe aren’t answering their door when they see this person standing on their sidewalk with this weird headgear on. That’s possible.
MD: You’re saying you’ve got a face visor.
RJ: Yeah, exactly.
MD: Like one of those plastic shields that riot police wear.
RJ: Yeah, I can wear a mask but I can’t talk with a mask. There’s something about the architecture of my face and my beard that, every time I say a word it pulls the mask down below my nose.
MD: Oh interesting, sure, sure.
RJ: So the visor works a lot better for me in that instance.
MD: Well plus they can see your face, which I assume is a more friendly experience for them.
RJ: It’s really important to see if you’re smiling and all of that.
MD: Yeah absolutely. And so these conversations you’d say they generally – cause I’ve certainly done a lot of door knocking over the years. I know a lot of people are very busy.
RJ: Oh yeah.
MD: And you find out what they’re doing and it’s usually garbage, but whatever. I respect their rights.
MD: Other than the fact that you’re wearing this gear and that maybe one out of so many people says, “Actually I don’t feel terribly comfortable with the whole thing.” Other than that. Once you get past that hurdle, the conversations are pretty standard?
RJ: It is pretty standard. We’re doing what we call persuasion doorknocking right now.
MD: You’re talking to everybody. Republicans, Democrats, Independents? No?
RJ: Well, it can be everybody but usually we don’t go to our base because they’re our base and we’re pretty confident with them. So we’re looking at the unaffiliated voters and some Republicans as well. Our district has 10,000 Republicans registered, 5,000 Democrats but 12,000 unaffiliated. And so that’s where we’re going. And some of the Republicans – Idaho is, I guess a lot of states do this, but Idaho you have to register by party for the primary. So there are a fair number of Democrats that will register as Republican just so they can vote for somebody who’s the least worst guy or gal.
MD: Huh, now, because a Republican usually ends up winning the election in November, so they want to protect against a particularly–
RJ: Oftentime it’s the only choice they have. There are districts where there are no Democrats available. Anyway, that’s not here in our district, so we probably don’t have a lot of those folks here. They do have some choices. But if there’s not a primary opponent against the Democrats, that’s really the only game in town is to register as a Republican.
MD: That’s interesting. So you’re saying 10,000 Republicans, 5,000 Democrats, then there’s 12,000 mystery people, and yet the incumbent only won by six votes out of almost 18,000 cast. So if you’ve got twice as many – I mean, something funny’s going on – either those independents skew Democrat or what you just described might be in large numbers; large numbers of Democrats. But why would there be so many – I mean, how does this district generally go in the presidential election for example?
RJ: Well it has been going Republican.
RJ: But it’s a district in Boise that is starting to be purple. I wouldn’t call it a blue district although two of the three representatives – the two representatives are Democrats. And it’s actually the only district in Boise where there is a Republican that was elected this last time. So. Boise city proper. Idaho is a pretty red state but Boise’s pretty blue.
MD: Okay, so thus the moderate Republican.
RJ: Yeah, yeah exactly.
MD: Not the Michelle Bachman.
RJ: And I attribute the success to these guys and any success I might have on the work that’s gone before. They’ve been out knocking doors for years. I’m not kidding. Years. Steve Birch tried for six years before he got his seat last time out. And I have yet to run into a person out there or on the phone that hasn’t had a visit from Steve Birch. He’s talked to 25,000 folks.
MD: Intrepid. Persistent.
MD: And that’s what it takes it politics and campaigning. I’m excited and encouraged to hear that you’re going physically door to door. Well cause we’ve gotta get out of the house for one thing. I mean, what are we all doing? You can’t just stay in the house forever. And then ten feet with a blast shield down. You should be safe. Everybody should be safe.
RJ: I think so.
MD: You’re showing your face. That’s exciting. Right there, you’re compelling me. If I’m in my house, you’re the most interesting thing that’s happening all day if you show up with a blast shield on and ask if we can chat from ten feet apart. That’s definitely the most interesting thing.
MD: What can we learn about life in America from you going door to door and campaigns being run the way they are and saying, “Ah, this other guy, he’s no good, you’ve gotta vote for Electric Justice!”
RJ: There you go. Well I’ve learned a couple of things from the campaign, certainly. One, well I’ve just known all along is, we need younger people in the campaigns. And it’s hard to do that for a part-time legislature. You’ve either got to be an attorney or retired practically. I mean those are kind of your choices in Idaho as a citizen legislator. And that’s not a good thing, we need younger voices in the legislature. So I’d certainly like to see that. And the other thing is, you have a lot of folks who’d like to be an independent. Boy that would be a hard pull. It really would be tough with what the party has done over the years – I’m sure either party. To identify their base voters and to find out what they care about, who they are, what their family is like, that kind of thing. And be able to contact those voters with some idea of what you’re running into. You just can’t – you’re alone when you’re an independent, unfortunately. Which is too bad. I wouldn’t mind seeing another party out there. Or, you know, some other kind of system where there were more viewpoints than just this what we seem to think is now black and white, or red and blue. I’d like to see other ideas out there, and I think a lot of people would like to see that. But we are very polarized.
MD: Oh absolutely. And I’ve heard a lot of people talking about money in politics, and I’ve heard folks talk about gerrymandering and safe districts pulling people further, and then of course there’s critiques of the media and 24 hour news, but you’re also saying that the infrastructure of the parties over time has led them to basically have a war chest of data on their supporters that, even with real money, an independent third party would then have to start from scratch to compete with that knowledge, institutional knowledge.
RJ: We have a hundred thousand data points in our district. And each data point is, you know, somebody’s name somebody’s phone number, somebody’s address, email address; did they register as a Republican? Did they register as a Democrat? Did they register as unaffiliated? And we’ve talked to them three or four times and we keep track of that. Not in any really detailed way, but if they talked about minimum wage last time, we know that, that that’s something they’re interested in. And we remember that.
MD: Now is that not inevitable that people would find that it’s easier to build power by sharing this data, and if we’re going to share the data then we’ve gotta share maybe an office and maybe our budget and maybe just half of the chamber.
MD: I mean – certainly I think about this a lot. How did we end up with this rigid two-party structure that seems to be eating our society. And not even just eating our politics, like eating our whole society. It’s eating everything.
RJ: Yes it is right now. It surprised me. I ran – well the ACHD commissioner – I ran as, as, well we were all independents, it’s non-partisan. And so I didn’t have those tools. And I wasn’t smart enough to get a campaign manager at that time. And so I was kind of in the woods. I was way behind. But I came into this and this was kind of a turn-key operation for me because Jim had a manager in place, he had an office in place, he had a little bit of money from the last campaign. All of that was great. Then I get into it and I find out that every precinct has a precinct campaign. The district has someone in charge of the district itself. The county has a structure, the state has a structure. And they’re all helping you.
MD: Yeah. And they’ve all been doing it probably for years and years and know how to do it, and are training successors when necessary. Yeah, that’s incredible institutional knowledge. Which, when I was working – I’ve done some campaigns for parties, in particular the Democrats – and you know you get plugged into that, it’s really intense. They really have their stuff together there in a way that I certainly could imagine that if I wanted to do an independent bid I’d have to build all that from scratch – forget about it. It would be symbolic at best.
RJ: Even the volunteer structure. Yes we had – I’m guessing two dozen volunteers assembling yard signs. That’s all they were doing was assembling yard signs for the three candidates. And they got it all done and in a couple of weeks they’re going to go out in pick-ups and put those puppies in the ground because we’ve got the list of everywhere they need to put them. All of that is pretty hard to beat when you’re just putting your toe in.
MD: Gosh, it must feel pretty cool to be the candidate in that situation.
RJ: It is.
MD: And you walk in and everything’s got your name on it and 25 people you’ve never seen before just put the thing together.
RJ: That’s absolutely right. I am so impressed with that and I know that it’s not so much all about me, it’s about getting that other seat, that blue seat, in the legislature. We’re under no illusion that any time soon Idaho’s going to be a Democratic state. We get that. We just want to have enough seats in there so that once in a while they have to listen to us.
MD: Now why young people. You said the first thing you’ve learned is that we need to have more young people in charge and a counterpoint to that would be, Have you met a young person? They don’t know anything. They think they know everything. They’re undereducated and overconfident and why not a lawyer? Why not a retired person who’s got all this great life experience? What has it been that’s led you to conclude that we should have more youth involved?
RJ: Well they have different experiences. We all do of course, and this is a citizen legislature. And we need to have someone in the legislature that’s maybe having a hard time making rent, for instance. And maybe the minimum wage, maybe they’re working two or three jobs. “How could they possibly serve in the legislature?” But that’s kind of my point. We’re not getting that viewpoint. And I’m not necessarily saying that if you’re 20 you should be a senator. There are probably some great 20 year olds out there that are Rhodes Scholars and would be great.
MD: There probably are, sure.
RJ: But I’m thinking more of the 30, 35 and 40. It’s still hard for those folks to do it. And we’d like to hear what their point of view is. We’d like to hear what a lineman for the county, what’s their point of view? What do they run into that we don’t know about in the legislature?
MD: That’s interesting. So a lot of institutionally structured roadblocks to progress is what I’m hearing about, which is very interesting, not necessarily shocking to hear, because I look around I see a broke – I mean, I really see a broken society. Or a breaking society. And I’m fearful, I’ve got a couple kids, I don’t know what America’s going to look like 30 years from now. I can’t quite picture anything coherent, it’s very, very foggy. It could – and really six months from now it could be quite different.
RJ: Yes, we just don’t know.
MD: No, which is kind of exciting. But mostly pretty crappy. All right, listen, Rick Just, thanks so much for taking the time out of your campaign to talk to me and best of luck to you on November 3.
RJ: Thank you Matt, I really appreciate the time!