Outgoing Idaho Speaker Lawerence Denney is not a man to wear emotion on his sleeve.
But reflecting on the ceremony where he reluctantly passed the gavel he held for six years to newly-elected Speaker Scott Bedke, he fought back tears.
Denney and I spoke Friday, after the House formalized his new post as Resources & Conservation Committee chairman and completed a two-day organizational session.
Denney held it together through the formal, unanimous House vote for Bedke on Thursday, his swearing-in of the new speaker, his choosing a seat on the floor just to the left of the spot designated for the speaker by the door.
But Denney nearly joined his wife, Donna, in tears when House Minority Leader John Rusche rose to salute him Thursday.
“I’d like to take this opportunity to offer my respects and thanks to the former speaker,” said Rusche, D-Lewiston, prompting a 30-second standing ovation.
“Donna was good until Rusche stood up and did his thing,” said Denney. “And what a class act. I mean, I appreciated him. He almost got me, too.”
The day-old memory drew back Denney’s veil of stolidity, his eyes moist, mouth quivering.
But Denney, R-Midvale, said the chairmanship is a welcome balm. He never led a committee in his first 16 years in the Legislature, instead climbing the leadership ladder to become the seventh speaker elected to three terms since statehood. Only his predecessor, Bruce Newcomb, served longer.
“I’m happy with it,” said Denney. “I’m sure that I’ll have a lot of opportunity to meet a lot of resource-interested people in the next month and we’ll see what’s on their minds.”
Denney’s already planning a joint House-Senate hearing to discuss model legislation passed in Utah last year, the Utah Transfer of Public Lands Act.
The bill’s author, GOP Rep. Ken Ivory, spoke to the Idaho Freedom Foundation at its legislative preview Friday. A lawyer and president of the American Lands Council, Ivory says the acts of Congress admitting western states didn’t surrender claim to what have largely remained federal lands.
“These lands are ours, transfer them to us, they were held in trust for the states,” said Denney, summarizing Ivory’s case.
Denney said lawmakers in Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico are contemplating legislation. “It’s kind of sweeping the West,” he said.
Denney will return to the Revenue & Taxation Committee, where he served before becoming speaker. He’s puzzled by his assignment to the Transportation Committee, however; he didn’t ask for the spot. “I gotta see what that’s about.”
I suggested that Bedke, R-Oakley, may have wanted to be sure Denney was fully occupied. “That may be the problem with that!” he said, laughing.
Denney, 64, said he has no plans to leave the Legislature, as Rep. Bill Deal did after Denney defeated him in the race to follow Newcomb six years ago. Deal became director of the Department of Insurance, where he’s advocated for a state-run health insurance exchange, a move strongly opposed by Denney.
“My health is good and everything,” Denney said. “I think I will do the term, anyway.”
As for running in 2014, he said, “I may, I may not. I may really enjoy myself. There’s kind of sense of relief because I don’t have to be the guy out there in front.”
Denney then returned to cleaning out his corner office on the Capitol’s third floor, where he had a bird’s-eye view of last year’s Occupy Boise encampment.
As a committee chairman, he gets a private office and a secretary, rather than the cubicle and pool secretary he’d have otherwise. Denney can hang the walls of his new basement digs with the animal skins that decorated his speaker’s quarters.
When I and another reporter trailed by his office Friday, Denney seemed almost chipper, calling out, “Merry Christmas!”
Merry Christmas to you, Mr. Speaker.
Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics