Young political guns in Boise already polished

Two Democrats make their names known with work on a pair of highly visible campaigns.

sberg@idahostatesman.comJanuary 25, 2014 

Shelby Scott and Tom Hamilton watch election results

Shelby Scott and Tom Hamilton, campaign managers for the city’s Yes! Yes! bond measures, watch the first election results roll in at the Basque Center last November. They're with Will Wheelan, left, from The Nature Conservancy.

KATHERINE JONES — kjones@idahostatesman.com Buy Photo

Whatever else they might be, Shelby Scott and Tom Hamilton aren’t afraid of a challenge.

They’ve campaigned against an undefeated seven-term congressman and the people who control the area’s Auditorium District. They helped convince a majority of Boise voters that raising their own taxes was a good idea.

Whether they won or lost, Boise’s political class paid attention.

“If I choose to run for another office someday, I hope they’re both still around,” said Jim Walker, a career firefighter who hired Scott and Hamilton to run his May 2013 campaign for a seat on the Greater Boise Auditorium District board of directors.

Walker won that election easily. Going into Election Day, he said, the team had analyzed turnout and likely voter numbers so thoroughly that the outcome wasn’t in doubt.

“For as young as they are, it was surprising how well they carried themselves, how professionally, and how well-managed my campaign was,” Walker said.

BIG WIN, NARROW LOSS

Last year’s Auditorium District election announced the arrival of Scott, 23, and Hamilton, then 29, on Boise’s political scene. Two of their candidates — Walker and Steve Berch — beat incumbents to win seats on the board. Walker is now board chairman.

Rob Perez was one of those incumbents. He lost to Berch by 291 votes. Perez said he was surprised he came as close as he did, considering the fundraising and organization behind his opponents’ campaign. He said tools such as robocalls in favor of Berch and Walker outmatched what he could muster.

“Those are expensive and it takes orchestrating,” Perez said. “There was an energy and a commitment, both in terms of resources and all of that, that was certainly beyond what effort I put forth.”

A few months after the Auditorium District victory, the Scott-Hamilton team turned its attention to the Yes! Yes! for Boise campaign, pushing a pair of bond measures that Mayor Dave Bieter proposed. Their bar for victory was high: Two-thirds of Boise voters had to cast ballots in favor of raising property taxes.

Both measures failed, but barely. Sixty-four percent of voters said yes to a bond that would have authorized up to $17 million in debt for fire station upgrades and a new fire training facility. Sixty-one percent were in favor of borrowing up to $15.5 million for open space purchases and new and improved parks.

“I think if they had been given a couple more weeks on the bond election, they would have come through on that as well,” Walker said.

DEFYING STEREOTYPES

Scott and Hamilton are both Democrats, but they don’t really fit the liberal stereotype.

Hamilton hates debt. His family had no money, but he wanted to go to college. So he waited tables to pay for it out of his pocket.

“Sometimes, even then, I had to take semesters off to be able to afford it,” Hamilton said. “But coming from the kind of neighborhood I was raised in and watching my mother go through life saddled with debt scared the heck out of me about debt, so I was really afraid to take out loans.”

Scott doesn’t care to be lumped in with the larger Democratic Party machine.

“I call myself an Idaho Democrat because I believe in local government and strong communities. But everyone’s an Idaho Democrat for different reasons,” she said. “We have to remind people that Idaho Democrats aren’t national Democrats. We believe in values that maybe don’t particularly line up with the national Democratic Party.”

THE BRONCO EFFECT

Scott grew up in the Las Vegas area. Her first experience in politics was a mock presidential election in 2000. She was in fifth grade and she tried to convince her friends to vote for Al Gore.

It was January 2007 when she first became interested in Boise. The reason: the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, when the Boise State Broncos upset traditional football powerhouse Oklahoma.

Her dad, a police officer, gave the city a thumbs-up because of its low crime rate.

In her senior year at Boise State, Scott became — and remains — a national committeewoman for Idaho Young Democrats.

Though Hamilton’s political ideology is similar to Scott’s, he’s cut from a different cloth. A University of Nevada graduate, he didn’t even pay attention in 2010 when his alma mater handed Boise State’s football team one of its most stinging defeats: an overtime loss to the Colin Kaepernick-led Wolf Pack that broke up an undefeated season and dreams of a national championship.

Hamilton said he was probably at a political rally that night.

“Since I became politically conscious, I’ve always leaned toward the Democratic side of politics,” he said. “Which is not to say that I’m as partisan as they come. I consider myself, overall, pragmatic.

“And I just want to see effective policy, and I often feel like Republicans just offer tax cuts as a solution to everything. And I often feel like our complex problems require more complex solutions.”

Shortly after graduating from college, Hamilton moved to Boise. A friend was working on former state Sen. Nicole LeFavour’s campaign against Republican Congressman Mike Simpson and wanted some help. That three-month gig ended with Simpson winning almost twice as many votes as LeFavour.

“I had planned to go back to Reno, but I kind of fell in love with this city,” he said.

DIVISION OF LABOR

Scott and Hamilton insist that there is no alpha in their political partnership. They said they’ve consulted each other on all major decisions in their campaigns and would be happy to work together in the future.

One thing they share is a love of local, as opposed to national, elections.

“I kind of like the smaller one because people’s voices are just so much louder in these smaller elections,” Scott said. “And yet, with (the Auditorium District) and these bonds, there’s so much at stake.”

The division of labor between Scott and Hamilton works something like this: Scott manages all aspects of the campaign, from handling candidates to coordinating volunteers making phone calls. Hamilton works the numbers, trying to figure out who’s likely to vote and what needs to be done to win. He also coordinates volunteers who knock on voters’ doors.

WHAT’S NEXT

These days, Scott works as chief of staff for the Idaho House of Representatives Democrats and helps coordinate the Treefort Music Fest.

After the November election, Hamilton took some time off through the holidays. He said he’s started drafting a field plan for a statewide campaign. He wouldn’t say which campaign because he’s not sure he’ll end up working on it.

Neither has any plans to leave Boise.

Bieter, also a Democrat, agreed with Walker in hoping that Scott and Hamilton stick around. Boise’s mayor called them community “assets.”

“They’re really talented young people that we like to see here in Boise,” Bieter said. “They’re bright, they’re dedicated, and I think they have real bright futures.”

Sven Berg: 377-6275

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