Dan Popkey: Tom Luna takes one for the team

The withdrawal by the state superintendent of public instruction gives the GOP a chance to shed the ‘Students Come First’ albatross.

dpopkey@idahostatesman.comJanuary 28, 2014 

Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna talks with the media GOP headquarters Tuesday Nov. 6, 2012 at the Riverside Hotel in Garden City, Idaho.

CHRIS BUTLER — cbutler@idahostatesman.com Buy Photo

Though Tom Luna had plenty of partners in passing the ill-fated Students Come First reforms in 2011 — including Gov. Butch Otter — he’s the one whose brand suffered badly as voters rejected the package in 2012.

With polls showing Luna remained damaged goods, he gracefully exited Monday after months of saying he planned to run for a third term as super-intendent.

Luna’s news conference came with less than three hours notice and caught plenty of people by surprise.

Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, one of Luna’s closest allies, said he had “a little hint” on Friday and then got the news from Luna in a Sunday night phone call.

“I knew he was weighing his options and taking into consideration not only what’s right for him and his family, but what’s best for the future of education in the state,” Goedde said.

Luna told reporters his decision frees him to press the Legislature to adopt reforms recommended by a bipartisan task force without the baggage of a campaign.

Fair point. But it also frees the GOP to find a successor with a better chance of defeating Democrat Jana Jones, who lost a 51 percent to 49 percent race to Luna in 2006.

Democratic Chairman Larry Kenck had predicted Luna would drag down the entire GOP ticket, and Jones wanted a rematch with the author of the “Luna Laws.”

Jones failed to mask her disappointment Monday, writing on Facebook, “While this is good news for Idaho’s kids, I fear his ideas and policies returning in the form of another candidate. Whoever it is, we can’t let it happen.”

The early signals suggest that the other candidate will be former Sen. Melinda Smyser, a former teacher, school counselor, longtime member of the Parma School Board and as stalwart a Republican as you can find in any corner of Idaho.

“I’ll see who gets in, but she’s a candidate that brings a lot to the table,” said House Education Committee Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle. “There are very few candidates that could equal her credentials.”

Two Republicans have announced in recent weeks: Randy Jensen, a principal in American Falls, and John Eynon, a music teacher in Cottonwood.

Neither can touch Smyser’s street cred among loyal Republicans who will decide the May 20 primary: Republican of the Year, Outstanding Republican Woman, Outstanding Precinct Person, Outstanding District Chair, presidential elector and lifetime NRA member. Currently, she chairs the Canyon County GOP.

Her husband, Skip, also a former senator, is a top-tier lobbyist who co-hosted a campaign school for about 50 GOP incumbents Jan. 10. Melinda Smyser would have no trouble raising oodles of money in short order. Her husband’s client list is another gravy boat.

But Skip Smyser’s client list also presents conflicts: Education Networks of America, Idaho Business for Education, Microsoft and Think Through Learning Inc. Some decoupling would likely be necessary if Melinda Smyser were to run for the top education job in the state.

She’d also have to quit her job as a regional director for U.S. Sen. Jim Risch. The Hatch Act prohibits federal employees from running for partisan office.

When I reached Smyser, she was polite but firm about not discussing a possible campaign. “I just wish you wouldn’t say anything,” she said. “And I’ve been very careful about not saying anything to anybody for a long time.”

One signal that establishment GOP support may already be coalescing around Smyser is several possible challengers who might have changed their minds with news of Luna’s withdrawal Monday didn’t.

Those include three who said they would not seek the job: DeMordaunt, Sen. Steve Thayn of Emmett and New Plymouth School Superintendent Ryan Kerby. Two others — Luna’s Chief Deputy Superintendent Roger Quarles and former Rep. Steve Smylie of Boise — held the door ajar, but barely.

Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, and Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, were among many GOP lawmakers who attended Luna’s announcement to support a friend.

A few hours later, both sang praise for Smyser.

“I think a lot of Melinda Smyser,” said Hill. “She’s a smart woman, she’s capable, she’s conservative, she’s interested in education.”

Bedke interrupted to complete the list: “And she’s a teacher and counselor.”

That doesn’t guarantee Smyser will run or that the race won’t attract more hopefuls.

But with an election in 16 weeks, her advantages are considerable.

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

Idaho Statesman is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service