When Fred Cornforth sat down across the table from me at a downtown Boise coffee shop in December, he immediately looked away, and tears filled his eyes.
I had no idea that just three days earlier, he had received a death sentence.
But our conversation took a decidedly different turn when Cornforth told me he had just been diagnosed with glioblastoma, an incurable brain tumor, the kind that had taken the lives of Sen. John McCain and Beau Biden. He had months, maybe a year to live.
Over the course of our conversation on that chilly Friday morning in December, he broke up several times. It struck me that he choked up not out of self-pity but out of regret that he wouldn’t be around to complete his mission of seeing a better future for Idaho.
“Two years ago, I said, I’m just going to dedicate 10 years of my life to trying to improve the world, and Idaho especially,” Cornforth told me by phone more recently. “So that part is the part that’s painful. The last two years I’ve been so turned toward wanting to really help improve Idaho in so many areas and to know now….” his voice trailing off.
Cornforth, 62, has had three surgeries and has had 7-8% of his brain removed. He gets an MRI every three months and has gone through radiation, which was supposed to slow the spread and extend his life, but two more tumors showed up right in the area of the radiation.
Today, he says he has only about 6-9 months to live.
“I have no idea why three years ago I got this burden to help change Idaho,” he said via video last week, his voice quavering and his eyes filling with tears. “I have no idea where it came from. I had no idea that I’d find out one day that I’d have just months to live. And I keep planting seeds as much as I can.”
The seeds that he’s planting are solutions to Idaho’s needs – solutions that he says no one is talking about nearly enough.
LAST CHAPTER OF A GOOD LIFE
Cornforth gave a speech in February at the annual Frank and Bethine Church Democratic Party gala. During his speech, he became emotional in acknowledging that his time to make a difference in Idaho politics is being cut short.
“For 25 years, I built my business, and I saw things changing in politics, and I didn’t get involved quick enough,” he said.
He had envisioned this to be his next and perhaps greatest chapter of what has already been a full and fulfilling life. Three or four good lives, really.
Cornforth, fifth-generation Idahoan on his mother’s side, fourth generation on his father’s side, was born in Idaho and lived in 22 places in Oregon, Washington, California and Montana before he graduated from high school.
He earned a bachelor’s degree from Idaho State University, where he was president of the College Republicans. He went on to work on the campaign of Republican Gov. Phil Batt. But he soon turned away from the Republican Party.
He went on to earn another bachelor’s degree from Walla Walla University and then a Master of Theology degree from Andrews University in Michigan.
Cornforth became a pastor with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and those roots as a pastor are still evident today. He talks about his goal of “converting” 15-17% of Republicans to the Democratic Party to change the dialogue, reach compromises and achieve better results.
His work as a pastor led him to the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the church, where he helped build and expand churches all over the world.
Cornforth also became a public speaker and wrote five books, some best-selling, with titles such as “Knowing: An Agnostic’s Journey on the Way to Spiritual Clarity.”
His work building churches led him to begin a highly successful 25-year career developing affordable housing all over the country. In 1994, Cornforth founded the nonprofit Community Development Inc., which has developed more than 100 affordable housing projects across the nation, including dozens in Idaho. By his estimate, his company has built $1.5 billion worth of developments in 20 states. Philanthropically, he’s helped to build 40 orphanages.
Cornforth said his work across the country brought him to rural areas in Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.
Cornforth said what he saw happening in other states — and what wasn’t happening in Idaho — spurred him to get more involved in Idaho politics.
In March 2021, Cornforth was selected chairman of the Idaho Democratic Party.
Cornforth acknowledges it’s a tough slog for Democrats in Idaho.
He said he knows many business leaders — both urban and rural — who are “closeted” Democrats but are registered Republican just to keep doing business in Idaho.
“And I can’t get them to come out of the closet,” he said. “And they’re struggling, just like Republican business owners. I would say there’s a significant percentage of business owners that can’t hire enough staff and especially staff that are educated, qualified, trained, certified.”
Improving public education is a high priority, Cornforth said, as is getting more kids to go on to higher education to help Idaho businesses that desperately need qualified, educated workers.
In addition to public education, Cornforth said the most important issues facing Idaho are the shortages of doctors, nurses and dentists, rural hospitals that are closing, near closing or unable to expand, lack of internet access in rural areas, deteriorating roads and bridges and the shift of the property tax burden onto homeowners.
“I just kept seeing the issues that were being missed and still are being missed by guys that claim to be Republicans in Idaho, that I was seeing Democrats and moderate Republicans addressing in all these other states where I was active,” Cornforth said. “Rural areas across the country and in Idaho, in particular, have been forgotten.”
Instead, the Idaho Legislature treats voters to an annual onslaught of culture war bills addressing things like transgender rights, non-existent critical race theory and criminalizing librarians over great works of literature.
When asked about the primary election results, he’s more disgusted by the lack of conversation about the real issues Idaho is facing and the inordinate attention given to the personalities and political infighting within the Idaho Republican Party.
“You get somebody like (Lt. Gov. Janice) McGeachin and Brad Little fighting with each other and that becomes what everybody talks about,” he said. “It’s just intriguing to me how far off we are in a state that is 30 years behind and is ignoring what the true needs are today, health care-wise, education-wise, business-wise, infrastructure-wise.”
Cornforth is phasing out of his business and working on transition plans. In between doctors’ visits, he’s traveling with his wife, Jill, and spending time with his children and their families.
He remains just as passionate about the need for change, and his passion is a combination of optimism and frustration: optimism about Idaho’s tremendous potential and frustration that Idaho’s potential is being squandered.
“There’s so many good things happening in our state, and anything I can do that keeps just planting seeds and then help water them,” he said. “As I look at my life, I really hoped that I could be around for another 25 years and help in whatever way I could. However long I can fight and live, I still walk around with this hope and drive and passion to just do whatever I can to help encourage other people to do something, and I’m going to keep doing that as long as I can.”
Written by SCOTT MCINTOSH | Idaho Press