Ketchum Democrat Michelle Stennett wasn't politically active until marrying her husband, long-time state Sen. Clint Stennett.
But life offered unexpected, and unwelcome, twists. After Clint was diagnosed with brain cancer, Michelle Stennett took the helm.
Since her husband's 2010 death and her appointment to the Idaho Senate, Stennett, 52, has made her own name in the Senate and defined the job as her own, offering a quiet strength and strong voice for the seven Democrats in the Idaho Senate.
It's not the life she expected. Stennett is self-employed, with a farm in Shoshone. She shies away from political games and describes herself as a "no-bull kind of person."
When she and Clint started dating in 1994, she became more politically aware. After they got married, Stennett made more frequent appearances at the Statehouse, remembers former Sen. Joe Stegner.
"She wasn't here all the time, but she was here enough and was a social partner of Clint Stennett's for a number of years," Stegner said. That helped her gain the respect of her husband's colleagues, even before she was appointed.
Clint Stennett served as the Senate Minority Leader from 1999 to 2009, but sat out the 2009 and 2010 sessions as he focused on his health. Michelle Stennett filled in during the 2010 session. When he died in October 2010, Gov. Butch Otter appointed her to serve the remainder of his term.
Since then, she won two subsequent elections for the seat.
"It was an extremely easy transition, given the very difficult emotional loss of an esteemed colleague like Clint," Stegner said.
QUICKLY A LEADER
Stennett took a leadership role almost immediately. Her colleagues elected her minority caucus chair in late 2010, and she became the Senate minority leader in December 2012.
Being the leader of the Senate Democrats in a heavily Republican state comes with its share of frustrations, but Stennett doesn't count victories in vote totals or bills passed.
For her and her Democratic colleagues, wins come in conversations with Republican colleagues - or even scoring a public hearing for a piece of legislation.
Getting a bill passed often requires securing a Republican co-sponsor and taking the back seat. And while she and other Democrats pushed ethics legislation during the 2012 session, those bills went nowhere. But in 2013, Republican House and Senate leaders set up ethics training for all legislators.
That's fine with Stennett, she said. It's not about getting credit; it's about serving constituents and the people of Idaho.
Though only seven Democrats serve in the Senate, Stennett said there are silver linings. Her six Democratic colleagues don't always agree, but it's easier to sit down, speak as a group and come to a consensus when the group is small, she said.
It also can be difficult being a woman in a male-dominated body. Of the 35 members of the Senate, only five are women. Stennett sees advantages to her minority voice.
"I think that there is a very strong, quiet power that a woman in a position of leadership can bring that's different than how men lead," Stennett said.
In the same vein, being quiet or soft-spoken isn't weak, she said. While she aims to be respectful to her Republican colleagues, "you have every right to hold your ground and stand for what you believe is right, just like any other colleague in the room."
Stennett's approachability, dignity and respect earned praise from Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls.
In his office, Davis displays photos of family, committee members, his dead son - and a candid shot of Clint Stennett giving Davis a piece of his mind on the Senate floor.
The discussion was about a bill - Davis can't remember which - but the photo brings back happy memories of working with the long-time Senate minority leader.
"He had a gentleman's way of reminding me that there is a minority party with a different point of view, and that they needed to be treated with the same level of dignity and respect as every other person on that floor. And he was right," Davis said. "Michelle possesses many of those same character traits."
Davis said Stennett has impressed him with her self-assured manner. While she and Clint have similarities, they are different people.
"She is very loyal to her caucus, as was her husband," Davis said. "She has no problem rising to her feet and speaking in opposition. She has no problem in committee expressing a different point of view. There's a difference between being civil and being milquetoast, and she is not milquetoast."
Former House Speaker Bruce Newcomb was close friends with Clint Stennett, and encouraged him to propose to Michelle.
"I said, 'Clint ... you need to ask that lady to marry you, because you're never going to do any better than that'," he said.
Almost 20 years later, Newcomb stands by that assessment.
"I am just really proud of Michelle, because I think she's done a superb job," he said.