“My second great passion was theater,” Park said. “I seriously considered going to New York and trying to make it as an actor; it was very, very close, but in the end I chose law. And I knew that I wanted to go into politics.” Tony hung up his ‘single shingle’ six months after graduating from Law School at the University of Idaho. “I practiced all kinds of litigation during that time, including criminal in the early years. “ Asked if his interest in the performing arts contributed to a skill in trial work, he said yes, but finds trial work the more stressful of the two since there is no set script in front of a jury. “I like trying cases,” he continues. “There can be a lot of stress, trying to represent your client in a matter that is of utmost importance to their lives. You prepare, but there is no way to predict what might come up in the courtroom, no way; anything can happen. You have to think fast.”
The move into politics came naturally, despite the fact that Park was a Democrat in a strongly Republican State. “Kind of strange to be a Democrat in Idaho and to want to be a politician,” he says. “But that was the goal. I wanted to make a difference.”Tony was determined to keep trying, even when his early local races ended a few hundred votes short of victory. He admits that at times it felt like running at a brick wall. The election of 1970 marked an historic turning point for Democrats in the state. Tony Park won his bid for Attorney General and his friend, Cecil Andrus, became the first Democratic Governor since the 1940s, ending 24 years of Republican dominance.
Asked what it takes to be successful in the political arena, Tony answers with a laugh. “Well, we all have some ego involved. If anyone in politics tries to tell you they don’t have a strong ego, they are lying. That is not a bad thing–it means you have some confidence, a belief in yourself, and a
willingness to put your ideas out there and not be easily crushed by obstacles,” he pauses. “Then you have to be able to listen, even when you don’t agree, and to be willing to look for solutions.”
Today Park practices at the law offices of Thomas, Williams, and Park, is semi-retired and working in mediation and arbitration. His interest is
contagious as he describes the mediation process. “I’d say 90% of the time, mediation is successful, “ he says. “The two sides sit together briefly and then we work in separate conference rooms. As mediator, I move between the two parties, listening, negotiating, trying to find a settlement that leaves both parties unsatisfied.” Park laughs and shakes his head. “Basically we are taught as attorneys that settlement is always preferable to going to trial, but a good settlement, the right outcome, basically requires each party to give up a portion of what they wanted. A fair outcome leaves everyone dissatisfied to some extent. But at the end of the day I feel that I got something done. There is a sense of closure that you don’t always get in other areas of the law, so the work is very satisfying.”
Park is still passionate about Idaho politics. Currently acting as Campaign Chair for Buckner-Webb in the legislative race in District 19, he says, “I’m happy to do it, honored to do it—I think a lot of Cherie and the work she’s done. I knew her father, Buck through sports at the YMCA. I look forward to seeing what she’ll do in office.” Asked how things have changed since his campaign days, Park responds, “Political life is more contentious today on the National level than it used to be; you get people saying outrageous things, but Idaho politics stays pretty much the same.” Democratic candidates always face an uphill battle in Idaho and it can be difficult to find consensus, but Park knows from experience that success is possible.
Wide-ranging interests reflect a life of curiosity and examination. Theater, especially Musical Theater is still fascinating to Park. Books have always been important in his family and he usually has several going at once, enjoying police procedurals and mysteries, history, political analysis and biographies. Currently, The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama by New Yorker editor David Remnick occupies the place by his bedside. Another favorite is The Best and the Brightest (1972), an account by journalist David Halberstam of the origins of the Vietnam War.
When asked about his belief system and inspirations, Park’s thoughts immediately return to his parents. “My mother was a huge influence. She was a very ethical person, a lovely woman. It was important to her that we learn to do the right thing and she made us think about ethical questions when we were very young. I remember once, I had an ongoing squabble with a girl down the street. We were probably nine, at that age when you don’t think about whether kids are boys or girls. I really wanted to punch that girl, who confronted me on our front porch. I had to stand there, with Mom behind me, while the girl yelled and taunted me for 15 minutes, and hold my temper and just take it. Boys don’t hit
girls–my mother wanted me to learn that. So, that really stuck with me, the importance of doing the right thing and having self control.”
Other heroes include F.D.R. and Harry Truman. “And then the Kennedys were idols and role models. I was a Robert Kennedy delegate at the Chicago Convention in ’68. Of course I was never able to cast my vote for Bobby Kennedy,” he pauses. ‘That was a tragedy. Those were terrible losses.” Idaho has had its share of greatness. Park admires the courage of Frank Church in standing against the Vietnam War, despite the political cost and refers to Andrus as an exemplary politician, “Probably the best of our day; it was a great thing to watch Andrus at work.”
Democrats in Idaho today have a hard road, according to Park. “If you are a young Democrat looking to go into politics now—my advice would be ‘move to Oregon!’ ” Park laughed. When asked what his advice would be to young people today looking towards a career in public service, Park became serious. “When human rights or civil liberties are involved one has to speak out. There is no choice.” Park went on to give an example, “I admire Obama’s response to the question of a Muslim learning center near Ground Zero–constitutionally there is no question that they have the right to build it. One can question whether it is a good choice or a diplomatic placement, but the constitutional right to freedom of religion is
our birthright, and cannot be hedged because of personal discomfort or anger.”
According to Tony Park when looking toward a life in politics, “The lodestar must be to always do the right thing, no matter the cost. Follow your gut, and do the right thing.”