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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Carl Burke

The Second Man in This Picture

I went looking for a photo of Carl Burke, the great Idaho attorney and the only campaign manager Frank Church ever had, and, of course, couldn’t find one online. He could have been the second man in this photo of the Senator and Bethine.

Burke must be smiling – he usually was – as he maintains his “passion for anonymity” even as a generation of politicos and operatives remember him at his passing as the rarest of rare breeds in Idaho – a Democrat who could help elect Democrats.

Carl Burke, 89, slipped away quietly late last week and most everyone who came of political age since the pivotal Church – Steve Symms race in 1980 probably made scant notice of his death. He deserves more – much more.

Any real student of Idaho political history from the 1950’s until Church’s defeat in 1980 will credit the outgoing Carl Burke with the organizational and management skills that allowed the cerebral Church to win four straight elections to the United States Senate beginning in 1956. These guys – aided by the extreme political savvy of Bethine, the daughter of a former governor, and the now mostly forgotten Verda Barnes, Church’s long-time Administrative Assistant, out worked, out planned and out organized a couple of generations of Idaho Republicans. Only when they came up against a new brand of big-money, big-smear politics with the arrival of the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC) in 1980 did they lose, and even then by about 4,000 votes in a year when Ronald Reagan owned Idaho.

On the very day Carl Burke died, I had occasion to spend a couple of hours looking through the spectacularly well archived Frank Church papers at Boise State University and, big surprise, Burke’s finger prints are all over the Senator’s campaign records. Remarkable in a day when most politicians, or their aides, don’t write letters, Carl Burke carried on a voluminous correspondence with precinct leaders, labor leaders and national political operatives. He was one of the people in the Church operation who saw too it that the mail was answered and the small, personal notes were written to supporters and would-be supporters. It may be considered old school, but the fact that so little of that kind of thing is done today may just speak volumes about why Idaho hasn’t elected a statewide Democrat to major office in more than 20 years. Some principles of a good campaign simply never change.

I’ll remember Carl Burke for many things: his love of a good political story, his remarkable insights into how successful campaigns happen, his kindness and, yes, his ability to never hog the spotlight. There was a name on the ballot and then there were campaign workers. No show horse Carl Burke, a gentleman workhorse of the old school. He deserves a chapter in any political history of Idaho, but he’d be the first to say that’s not how things are supposed to work in politics. The Senator got the ink and the votes, Carl just helped organize it all.

All in all, not a bad legacy for a guy with a passion for politics who knew his place and played his role with remarkable skill for a long, long time.

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