Idaho businessman and school board member Anthony Joseph “A.J.” Balukoff announced Tuesday he’s running as a Democrat for governor, saying he wants to focus on education, the economy and ending “one-party rule” in a state dominated for decades by Republicans.
Balukoff kicked off his campaign at a Boise elementary school near his home. More than 20 of his children and grandchildren stood behind him, holding handmade signs including one that read “Grandpa for Governor.”
So far, he has no rival Democrat in May’s primary.
If he wins, he’ll face the victor in the Republican primary that now features Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and state Sen. Russ Fulcher of Meridian come the general election next November.
Balukoff is the Boise School Board chairman, an accountant and businessman who co-owns Boise’s Grove Hotel and the CenturyLink Arena. The 67-year-old said he plans to spend the next 11 months trying to convince Idaho voters to elect a minority Democrat as chief executive, something that hasn’t happened since former Gov. Cecil Andrus last won in 1990.
“I’m running for governor because I believe Idaho can do better,” Balukoff told more than 50 supporters, including Andrus, at Hillcrest Elementary School.
“No doubt, it is a difficult prospect, because we’ve had 20 years of one-party rule in this state,” said Balukoff. “I have a sense that the people of Idaho are ready for a change.”
Jayson Ronk, campaign manager for Otter’s as-yet officially undeclared bid for a third term, said the Republican governor is focusing on his current job, not the campaigns of potential challengers.
Fulcher congratulated Balukoff’s entry into the race, and said he’s looking forward to debating policy differences, specifically on health care.
“He represents the party that authored Obamacare,” Fulcher said in a statement.
Balukoff said he and his siblings are the first descendants of his Bulgarian immigrant grandfather to graduate from college. His father had an eighth-grade education and realized over his lifetime that stopping there was a barrier to success, Balukoff said.
“They encouraged us to get as much as we could,” he said. “That education has opened many doors of opportunity for us, and in large measure has contributed to our success. I want that kind of opportunity available to every Idaho child.”
Balukoff acknowledged that Democrats traditionally have faced stiff odds in statewide races, where they haven’t won since capturing the public schools chief job in 2002.
Since 2006, all seven statewide elected officials have hailed from the GOP. In the last gubernatorial election in 2010, Otter won nearly 60 percent of the vote to less than 33 percent for Democratic challenger Keith Allred.
Balukoff is hoping his 16 years on the Boise School Board and his business credentials — he’s also a partner in the Idaho Steelheads hockey franchise in Boise — win him serious consideration in a state where Republicans hold more than 80 percent of legislative seats.
“If there’s anybody who could help stand up for education funding in Idaho, it’s A.J.,” said state Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise. “He’d certainly be a governor for education — and the economy.”
Balukoff said he’s already gotten, at minimum, the moral support of Republicans in his neighborhood as well as others who attend his ward in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
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