With a little redecorating, a promise of openness and a new assistant, House Speaker Scott Bedke has transformed a 13-by-23 space into the Capitol's most productive venue.
The speaker's outer office has always played a vital gatekeeper's role. But after winning a close race for speaker in December, Bedke lowered the gate and started playing host, inviting lawmakers, lobbyists, agency heads, reporters and ordinary citizens to join him in his Statehouse salon.
"This room is inviting, it puts people at ease," said Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Idaho Falls, sitting in one of three armchairs reserved for guests. "People feel comfortable coming here to get things done. It's a change of culture."
Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, also added a love seat, filled dishes with M&Ms and smoked almonds, and made a habit of retreating into his inner office only when necessary. The hallway door also is kept open wide - a change in practice.
Consequently, folks stop to say good morning and good night, plan dinners, sign get-well and condolence cards, talk about kids, grandkids and pets, search for missing colleagues, and, most importantly, jawbone legislation.
Last week, Bedke chatted with Idaho Parks and Recreation Director Nancy Merrill about House Bill 279, which amends the law on the registration of boats, snowmobiles and off-road vehicles. Merrill said the bill doesn't accomplish what proponents want - earmarking more money for trails and less for administrative costs.
Merrill reported her arguments hadn't persuaded the House Transportation Committee.
"They still grabbed the bit in their teeth and ran," Bedke said, advising Merrill to make her case in the Senate.
Earlier this month, after an hourlong joint meeting with Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill and the Idaho Press Club, Bedke put out the welcome mat. "If you have any other questions, don't hesitate to stop by the office - my office at least - and I'll try to clarify some of these things," he said.
Hill, R-Rexburg, is easily accessible but has a small waiting area. He joked about Bedke's new brand of openness. "I'll reiterate that: Don't hesitate to stop by his office!"
Two weeks after taking over as speaker, Bedke met with the woman he wanted as his assistant, MaryLou Molitor, who spent 16 years as the Business Committee secretary. Former Rep. Max Black, R-Boise, who retired last year after 12 years as chairman, recommended her.
"MaryLou always came in a half-hour early," Black recalled. "When I'd get there the room would be full of people. She just created a welcoming atmosphere."
'MY FIRST CHOICE'
Molitor, 63, raised four children and worked as a teacher, editor and administrative assistant before coming to the Legislature in 1996. She has a bachelor's in secondary education, a master's in theological studies and played a leading role in restoring Our Lady of Tears Catholic Church in Silver City.
But she barely knew Bedke, whom she found standoffish. She liked her job downstairs and was wary of the post's long hours. For the interview, she brought her husband, Bill, a certified financial planner. Bedke brought his wife, Sarah.
"I told him I was terrified," Molitor recalled, and asked Bedke, "Isn't there somebody else you can hire?"
"Yes, but you're my first choice," replied Bedke, who agreed to assign some responsibilities to others.
Early in the session, Bedke sat in the plum-colored camelback love seat next to Molitor's desk, looking at a room filled with two representatives, a senator and three lobbyists in deep conversation.
"See this?" Bedke asked her. "We've accomplished what we set out to do."
Molitor's daughter, Teresa, is a lobbyist for urban renewal agencies, an anti-wind energy group, a canal company and RAI Services, formerly Reynolds Tobacco. She's also an amateur decorator and offered to help rearrange the office, lending paintings, books and a lamp, searching for surplus House furniture and shopping for a new rug.
"You can design a room to encourage people to sit in it," said Teresa Molitor. "If things are too formal, people don't feel comfortable."
The new rug cost $199 at Home Fabrics; it's 5-by-8, machine-made in Turkey and its base color black. "It defines the sitting area," Teresa Molitor said. "Black grounds people."
"This is like the speaker's living room," said MaryLou Molitor.
Well, Bedke's and his assistant's. Molitor added plants and her tongue-in-cheek "MaryLou's Rules of Procedure" sign from the Business Committee: "State your business. Avoid eye contact. Leave quietly ... and no one will get hurt." On a cabinet sits her letter-carrier father's homemade "We're-All-Nuts-Here!" desk ornament, featuring eight varieties of nuts with googly eyes (the peanut is one-eyed, no eye patch.)
Molitor's sense of humor is near the surface. To a visitor lingering next to a withered flowering plant, she deadpans, "That was fine this morning."
Knowing she has the boss' confidence, Molitor protects his time by making lower-level decisions. Last week, an almost frantic Sen. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, reported that Bedke assigned two Senate resolutions to the wrong House committee. Molitor determined that the measures were indeed misdirected and resolved the problem.
When Bedke emerged from a private meeting, she spared him the details: "Consider yourself told that we're fixing the problem."
House Education Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, R-Star, gives Molitor credit for implementing Bedke's vision. "It's because of her personality. We have a lot of good staff, but MaryLou has a wonderful, cheery, upbeat personality. It's a lot of fun."
BIG WIGS, BIG IDEAS
Molitor is a whiz with names, but imperfect. When Gov. Butch Otter's chief of staff, David Hensley, came to ask that Bedke phone him, she hadn't yet met him. "I'd be happy to do that if you'll tell me who you are," she said.
Top officials frequent the salon. In recent days, visitors included Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, who eats enough M&Ms that he refills the jars; Transportation Director Brian Ness, with a job candidate in tow; and Otter's budget chief Jani Revier, who was searching for Parks Director Merrill.
Bedke treats less well-known visitors with equal due. Twenty minutes before debate began on the biggest issue of the year - Otter's health exchange bill - nine students from East Minico Middle School stopped by. "Get me some pins," Bedke said, sending them away with Idaho-shaped keepsakes.
After the fur flew on the health exchange, Rep. Mark Patterson, R-Boise, was waiting to see Bedke when Rep. Pete Nielsen, R-Mountain Home, stopped by. They discussed the merits of .22-caliber vs. .38-caliber ammo for target shooting. When Nielsen spoke of hunting pheasants and rabbits, Patterson said his "Animal Planet"-loving 9-year-old daughter wouldn't tolerate such behavior. "If I came home with Bambi in the back of the truck, it'd be bad news."
The speaker, meanwhile, was engaged in shuttle diplomacy with legislative leaders in Nevada, Utah and Wyoming, attempting to unify the four states in a plan to avoid listing the sage grouse as an endangered species. "It's going to follow the model we've used for wolves," said Bedke, who was to meet Saturday in Salt Lake City with lawmakers from the four states.
House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said the new gathering place reflects real change. "It's a manifestation of a different style and a good spot to bump ideas off each other."
The man Bedke deposed, former Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, isn't surprised by the coffee-klatsch atmosphere. "That's a difference in personality," Denney said, adding that Bedke has treated him well. "If I felt like I'd been unfairly treated, I might complain about it."
Denney complimented Bedke's work presiding over seven hours of debate on the health exchange. "All that time I was thinking, 'God, I'm glad he's up there.'"
Another former speaker, Bruce Newcomb, who served a record eight years, was in Bedke's office last week pitching a bill backed by his current employer, Boise State.
"I just think Scott's doing a grand job," said Newcomb, a longtime friend.
Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics