Dan Popkey: Statehouse is Idaho's kitchen table

The Capitol is where we hash out our differences, celebrate triumphs and mourn losses.

July 4, 2013 

When the Capitol reopened in 2010 after a $120 million renovation, the minimalist food stand operated for decades by sight-impaired vendors was gone.

In its place was a legislative dining room with a vastly larger menu and comfortable seating. But there was a glaring problem: The public was barred.

Before long, lawmakers and the Idaho Capitol Commission realized their error and opened the space, making it another gathering place in our most important building. Now the dining room is shared by lawmakers and the people they serve.

In 2005, then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne marked the building's 100th birthday, saying, "It will always be the center of public life in Idaho."

I've covered the Statehouse since 1987. To me, it's Idaho's kitchen table, where we sustain the profound experiment of self-governance. Unburdened by the metal detectors common in other states and other public places, all six entrances are wide-open to the public.

When Kempthorne overreacted after 9/11, closing Jefferson and State streets and using state troopers to search handbags, citizens objected.

"People are offended," complained Sen. Robbi King. "The Capitol doesn't seem like the people's house; it seems like the politicians' house."

Kempthorne took a bruising in public opinion and relented, restoring the Capitol as a seat of government where citizen-lobbyists can still stake out the bathrooms to buttonhole lawmakers.

It's no exaggeration to say all 1.6 million Idahoans are welcomed, from birthers to occupiers.

For nine days in 1990, thousands protested an anti-abortion bill with candlelight vigils, winding around the entire block and leaving wax stains. When the tea party movement began in 2009, it was across Jefferson Street in Capitol Park. When Occupy Boise encamped, it was across 6th Street, giving activists easy access to legislative hearing rooms.

The sandstone edifice is where governors and first ladies light the state Christmas tree, where yellow ribbons are tied in hopes of servicemen and women returning safely, where jets fly overhead to commemorate milestones, such as the centennial of statehood.

The Capitol was the scene of Boise's millennial celebration on Jan. 1, 2000, an occasion then-Sen. Larry Craig's daughter, Shae, used for a very public wedding.

A few days later, Senate President Pro Tem Jerry Twiggs died after a heart attack on the morning of the Legislature's opening. Kempthorne and legislative leaders postponed the session a week.

"People are going to say this is a waste of a week," said House Speaker Bruce Newcomb. "But I think this was the best way to handle the situation, because nobody's going to be listening."

Said U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, then a state lawmaker, "It's like a death in the family."

The family includes fair-minded statesmen such as former Secretary of State Pete Cenarrusa, who won 16 consecutive elections during his 50 years of service.

It also features odd uncles such as Jack Wayne Chappell, a self-proclaimed cowboy who used a borrowed hat, oilskin coat, spurs, saddle, bridle, chaps, riata and rifle to circle the Capitol on a borrowed Appaloosa mule when he announced his candidacy for governor in 1998. It took my writing an article to shame Chappell into returning the hat and coat to its rightful owner, Wally "Chainsaw" Hitt of Boise.

The Capitol ennobles us by giving an intimate look at those who would lead us. The Cenarrusas become trusted and beloved, the Chappells defeated and largely forgotten.

The 2013 legislative session once again tested the culture of the Capitol, after an armed Meridian man was captured on security video inspecting lawmakers' desks. The Senate and House floors were closed on nights and weekends out of an abundance of caution. But the space reopened before the session ended.

After Occupy Boise, lawmakers banned camping on the Capitol Mall, but a move to restrict the hours of protest and bar amplification was rejected.

Sometimes talk at the kitchen table gets messy, but it's a lovely muddle that preserves our liberties.

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

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