Clash at the top

Gov. Brad Little and Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin exchange executive orders in mask mandate showdown

By Lyndsie Kiebert
Reader Staff

Idaho has seen no shortage of news at the intersection of politics and the pandemic, between endless critiques of the state’s coronavirus response to numerous COVID-related bills introduced during the 2021 session. 

The state’s news continued in that same vein during the last week of May, as Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin issued an executive order May 27 outlawing mask mandates across the state — an action immediately overturned by another executive order the next day by Gov. Brad Little, who returned from an out-of-state trip.

In Idaho, the lieutenant governor serves as acting governor until the holder of that office returns to state soil.

Gov. Brad Little.

McGeachin’s order, which lasted about 24 hours, made it illegal for the state or its “political subdivisions” — including schools, public health boards, counties and cities — to require anyone to wear a mask. Masks mandates were still allowed in health care and long-term care facilities under the order.

Little was not made aware of the order until after it was signed. In a May 28 statement addressed to “my fellow Idahoans,” Little shared his distaste for McGeachin’s actions and reiterated his support for local control over such decisions, stating that the order ran “contrary to a basic conservative principle — the government closest to the people governs best.”

“The action that took place while I was traveling this week is not gubernatorial,” Little said. “The action that took place was an irresponsible, self-serving political stunt.”

McGeachin has already announced her candidacy for Idaho governor in the 2022 election, which would pit her against Little in the May 2022 Republican primary, should he seek another term. Little has not yet made an official announcement as to whether he will run.

“Taking the earliest opportunity to act solitarily on a highly politicized, polarizing issue without conferring with local jurisdictions, legislators, and the sitting Governor is, simply put, an abuse of power,” Little continued in his May 28 release. “This kind of over-the-top executive action amounts to tyranny — something we all oppose.”

In a June 1 interview with Little regarding the back-and-forth executive orders, Idaho Capital Sun reporter Clark Corbin asked the governor to characterize his relationship with the lieutenant governor, to which he replied: “It’s not as cordial as I wish it was … Civil, but maybe not cordial.”

“It’s no secret it’s going to be a little tougher going forward,” he added, briefly noting that the executive order hullabaloo could affect his travel decisions in the future.

The Idaho Capital Sun also reported that on a previous occasion that Little left Idahor, McGeachin “presided over a rally of the Real 3%ers of Idaho militia group on the Statehouse steps while she was acting governor.”

“She then administered an oath to the group’s members to defend the Constitution,” the report continued.

Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin.

McGeachin made another appearance at the Statehouse steps following the reversal of her order, addressing a crowd of mask mandate protestors on June 1. According to Idaho Education News, she used the occasion to respond to the governor’s May 28 remarks.

“I also wanted to offer some advice to our governor,” McGeachin said. “That choking out and poisoning tens of thousands of innocent children is not governing.”

It appears that the debate over good governing is far from over, especially with a possible Little v. McGeachin primary in the works next year. Little shared his two cents on leadership in his May 28 announcement that he’d be returning Idaho law to what it was before McGeachin’s order.

“Let me offer some advice as Idaho’s duly elected Governor — governing in a silo is NOT governing,” Little said. “I am always reluctant to engage in political ploys, especially when I have been steadfast in meeting the simultaneous goals of protecting both lives and livelihoods.

“I do not like petty politics,” he continued. “I do not like political stunts over the rule of law. However, the significant consequences of the Lt. Governor’s flimsy executive order require me to clean up a mess.”

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