Former state senator says she thought she earned unemployment benefits as a Democrat in GOP-dominated Idaho

dpopkey@idahostatesman.comApril 30, 2013 

Sen. Nicole LeFavour (D-Boise). The Idaho Senate had a full day of business before it adjourned on Thursday, March 29, 2012.

KATHERINE JONES / KJONES@IDAHOST

— Former Sen. Nicole LeFavour's application for a $155 weekly unemployment check has been denied after the state objected to her claim.

The Boise Democrat represented the left-leaning Democratic North and East ends from 2004 to 2012 before leaving the Legislature to challenge GOP Congressman Mike Simpson last year. Simpson won with 65 percent of the vote in November.

LeFavour, 49, said she delayed applying for unemployment benefits while she lived off savings and began work on a memoir about her service as the only openly gay legislator in Idaho history. As her financial situation deteriorated, LeFavour said, friends urged her to see if she was eligible for the 26 weeks of benefits from the part-time legislative job that pays $16,116 annually.

"I just needed it for a short time, things are getting tight," LeFavour said Tuesday. "I mean, I worked there for eight years and a couple people said, "You know, if you're in that circumstance, you should try."

Unemployment claims are confidential under federal law. But after LeFavour said that she had applied, Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill said he — as the administrative officer of the state Senate, LeFavour's former employer — contested the claim, which LeFavour filed April 5.

"My concern was much broader than just this individual claim," said Hill, a Republican from Rexburg. "If she qualified, then what about all the other legislators who got redistricted out or decided not to run or got beat in the primary or general election? Are all of them eligible for unemployment?"

In short, no.

Elected officials in Idaho, including legislators, are ineligible for unemployment insurance. Idaho workers are eligible only if they have been involuntarily laid off, quit for cause or discharged for reasons other than misconduct, said Idaho Department of Labor spokesman Bob Fick.

Told of those standards, LeFavour said she believes she had good cause to quit.

"I mean, honestly, serving as a Democrat in a tiny minority for eight years in that place, I think there’s a finite amount of time that a person can do it and still do it well," LeFavour said. 

Of her voluntary decision to leave a safe seat in the Legislature for a longshot run for Congress, LeFavour said, "If we're serving the people of Idaho and it seems that another position might help us serve them better ... it would make sense that after eight years in the Legislature I would run for higher office."

LeFavour has a bachelor's degree from the University of California at Berkeley and a master's from the University of Montana. For years, she's worked part-time as a summer writing teacher and said she's never made more than $22,000 a year.

She's working on a chapter of the book she hopes will earn an advance payment from a publisher. LeFavour said she was contacted by New York agent Rob Weisbach, who has represented best-selling authors including Jon Stewart, Jerry Seinfeld, Whoopi Goldberg and Ellen DeGeneres.

LeFavour said Weisbach was attracted to a story of bravery, akin to author clients who have written survival stories after living through 9/11 and a California plane crash. "It was kind of odd, I thought, that he would ask me," she said, "but it's been really fun working on the memoir."

Last year, LeFavour and her longtime partner, Carol Growhoski, broke up. LeFavour said she moved out and that the two are trying to sell the North End house, which would provide money for LeFavour to buy another home. "I've been living off what was supposed to be a down payment," she said.

Idaho Democratic Party Chairman Larry Kenck said he understands LeFavour's frustration as an Idaho Democrat. But he said her view that she quit for cause is unwarranted. Kenck, a business agent for 25 years for the Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, said a worker who quits qualifies for unemployment benefits only when he or she faces a hostile, discriminatory or unsafe work environment.

"Serving in the Legislature as a Democrat is difficult, that's why we relish taking on the job and that's why we're working hard as a party to get other legislators elected," Kenck said.

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, served with LeFavour and said he agrees politicians should not receive unemployment payments.

"It's unfortunate that she has some financial issues, but it makes me uncomfortable to think that elected officials, when they were defeated or chose not to run, would have unemployment insurance coverage," Rusche said. "It is difficult being in the minority, but difficult jobs happen all the time."

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

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