Former Idaho Gov. Phil Batt, champion of civil rights, dies at 96

Gov. Brad Little’s office announced Batt’s death Saturday morning, saying he died “peacefully at home” on his birthday

By: - March 6, 2023 11:30 am
Former Idaho Govs. Phil Batt and Cecil Andrus

Former Idaho Govs. Phil Batt (left) and Cecil Andrus. (Frankie Barnhill/Boise State Public Radio)

This story was originally published by Boise State Public Radio.

Former Republican Gov. Phil Batt, widely viewed as one of the driving legislative forces behind Idaho’s human rights laws and a respected onion farmer, has died at 96.

Gov. Brad Little’s office announced Batt’s death Saturday morning, saying he died “peacefully at home” on his birthday.

“Governor Phil Batt was the epitome of a public servant, having served as Governor, Lt. Governor, and Senator. His legacy is distinguished by his unrelenting human rights leadership, determined fiscal conservatism, and enduring love of Idaho,” Little said in a statement.

Batt’s moral compass when it came to human rights developed early. Born in Wilder, he said it was his mother who instilled those values into him.

Rod Gramer, who published a book about Batt’s life called “Lucky: The Wit and Wisdom of Governor Phil Batt,” read this passage at an event sponsored by the Idaho State Historical Society last year.

“She believed in everybody getting treated equally, not unequal. Be aware that people had certain rights of their own and that we didn’t just trample on them,” Batt told Gramer.

Former Gov. Phil Batt pays his respects to another former governor, Cecil Andrus, as he lied in state at the Idaho Capitol in 2017. (James Dawson/Boise State Public Radio)

One of the most publicized examples of this came before he entered politics.

He resigned his membership from the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks after his local lodge denied membership to his friend, who was Japanese American .The organization didn’t repeal its whites-only policy until 1973.

“That showed, to me, not only what he did as a political leader for human rights, but in his own personal life he kind of walked the talk,” Gramer said in an interview with Boise State Public Radio on Saturday.

Phil Batt’s political life

After one term in the Idaho House in the mid ’60s, he served as a state senator for the next 10 years where he established the state’s human rights commission.

That advocacy extended to the LGBTQ community when Add The Words unsuccessfully tried for years in the 2010s to include sexual orientation and gender identity in the state’s anti-discrimination law.

He also championed a law requiring farmers to cover their Hispanic workforce under Idaho’s workers compensation program, something Gramer said he lost friendships over.

U.S. Senator Jim Risch was just beginning his political career in the Idaho Senate during Batt’s while still practicing law.

At the Idaho State Historical Society event last year, he told the audience how his pager would, at times, bug more senior members of the Senate. Once, Risch said Batt paged him, but another call rang at his desk first.

“And he said, ‘Hello, you big turd.’ It was not me,” said Risch. “It was the chairwoman of the Republican women from Wilder, Idaho.”

A lover of animals, Batt had several pets throughout his life, including a chatty bird he fittingly named Birdy, who stayed in his office while serving as senate pro tem.

“He had about 30 good words,” Batt told Gramer. “He could say, ‘Cecil is silly,’ every time I asked him to.”

Cecil, of course, refers to another of Idaho’s former governors, Democrat Cecil Andrus.

Batt ducked in and out of politics at times. He lost his first bid for governor in 1982 against incumbent Democrat John Evans under who he served as lieutenant governor.

When he did get the job in 1994, he quickly minted a deal with the feds to ensure the removal and cleanup of nuclear waste at the Idaho National Laboratory – a priority of both his and Andrus.

Batt celebrated that deal and a strong win over an initiative to repeal the agreement during his State of the State Address in 1997.

“We will tolerate no deviation. We’re ahead of schedule now and we must never fall behind. …We have forced this country to focus on the need for a clear policy for nuclear waste disposal.”

Journalists, observers and friends also are quick to point out Batt’s sense of humor. He kicked off that 1997 address this way.

“This is a pretty long speech and I hope you don’t go to sleep, but not nearly as long as it would’ve been had I followed the [Idaho Statesman’s] advice. A couple of days ago, they had a whole list of things for me,” Batt said.

He also had a quick temper, according to many. Former Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, who was then a U.S. Senator, said he would get a talking to on many Monday mornings.

Lindy High worked as a policy advisor in Batt’s office. She said she only caught his ire a few times.

But High recalls one time a group of angry people gathered in the lobby of the governor’s office, claiming they would put Batt under citizen’s arrest.

“He stood in front of one of the guys and said, ‘Well, what are you going to do with me?’ And they were so surprised. Nobody said anything, and so he said, ‘Well, I’ve got a lot of work to do,’ and he just went back in his office and shut the door,” she said.

Batt would come under fire for his frugal fiscal approach sometimes – cutting government jobs numbering in the hundreds or holding back budget growth in state agencies.

Still, High said he was privately generous.

“He would frequently send personal checks to people who wrote to the governor’s office and say to them, ‘This is not a loan. This is a gift to you. Don’t tell anybody.’”

Batt decided one term as governor was enough as he approached 70 years old.

“Because he thought he’d be too old by then,” said High. “All government jobs are difficult and he simply thought it was time for him to retire.”

He still made light of his decision during his final State of the State Address in 1998.

“I was only foolin’, of course, about not running again. But now that the media has reported it and others have made plans, I guess I’ll have to stick with it.”

Politics wasn’t his only passion. Batt loved playing jazz clarinet with local bands and retired jazz giants like Gene Harris and Lionel Hampton alike.

He even composed what became Idaho’s state poem, remembering the 91 men who died during the Sunshine Mine Disaster in Kellogg in 1972, an excerpt of which is below.

We waited in spirit at the mouth of the pit

Ached in unison at the news of the dead

Joined the jubilation at the rescue of the living

Marveled at the poise of the tiny community.

And we became strong

The flux of the widows’ tears welded

Your strength into our bodies.

And we were all Idahoans

And we were all miners

And we were all proud.

The governor’s office ordered flags to be lowered to half-staff until Batt’s internment, which hasn’t yet been announced.

The former governor will also lie in state at the Idaho Capitol, with details forthcoming.

Follow James Dawson on Twitter @RadioDawson for more local news.

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James Dawson
James Dawson

James Dawson covers politics and a bit of everything else for Boise State Public Radio. Outside of public meetings, you can find him fly fishing, making cool things out of leather or watching the Seattle Mariners' latest rebuilding season.