Bryan Smith’s local connections could make - or break - his bid for Congress

(Idaho Falls) Post RegisterFebruary 10, 2014 

In this July 16 photo, Idaho Falls lawyer Bryan Smith talks about his plan to run against eight-term incumbent Mike Simpson for Idaho’s 2nd Congressional District seat.

PAT SUTPHIN — (Idaho Falls) Post Register

Attorney Bryan Smith’s first taste of the power of local politics came six years ago, 500 miles northwest of Idaho Falls.

It was that trip to Sandpoint for the 2008 GOP state convention, Smith said, that got him thinking about becoming involved in politics. Smith hopes to oust eight-term Congressman Mike Simpson in the May Republican primary.

“I really felt an affinity in their values,” Smith said. “They were fiscally conservative; they were socially conservative. To watch all these good people from the four corners of Idaho gather, it really moved me.”

But it was his forays into Bonneville County politics, including his involvement in the Bonneville County Central Committee, that helped him set his sights on Washington, D.C.

In Smith’s eyes, being tied to right of right wing conservatism is exactly where he wants to be. But to others, including Idaho political analyst David Adler, Smith’s “ultra right wing” views (backed by staunch Republican groups such as the Club For Growth) may stymie Smith’s ability to find ties with voters outside of the central committee itself.

Disgruntled taxpayer

Smith jumped into city politics in 2012 the way many voters choose to get involved: as a disgruntled taxpayer. Although a Bonneville County resident, Smith owns office space in downtown Idaho Falls. He said he grew tired of City Council members weighing the option of imposing tax increases during a recession of historic proportions.

“I listened to them say they couldn’t find any money,” he said. “They weren’t even looking.”

Smith was one of several outspoken taxpayers who who went before the council to ask city leaders to find other ways to make ends meet. It was then, he said, that he saw the effects of government on those living on fixed incomes. In the face of public opposition, council members at the last minute backed away from a proposal to raise property taxes by $1.1 million.

“When I saw a widow stand up before the City Council and say, ‘$50 a year may not seem like a lot to you to raise somebody’s taxes … but I don’t have it,’” Smith said. “That’s what motivated me.”

“… There is an enormous corollary in watching the City Council say, ‘We just need more money, we couldn’t find it any other way’ and what you see happening on a national stage. The City Council decided to not raise taxes and they were able to still accomplish everything they wanted to by looking at their budget.”

Questioning a contract

Smith also began to make public records requests pertaining to the city’s contract with former City Attorney Dale Storer. Smith, a lawyer who took a sabbatical from his practice to run for Congress, said he was flabbergasted when he saw the amount the city was paying Storer even though Storer, who maintained a private practice.

Through a series of records request, Smith helped uncover a series of billing discrepancies between Storer’s firm and the city. Billing errors of more than $53,000 were found to have occurred from 1993 to 2012. During that time, Storer’s law firm underbilled the city by more than $28,700 and overcharged the municipality by $24,672.60.

A five-month, $5,000 investigation into those discrepancies cleared Storer of any criminal wrongdoing in February 2013. Special Prosecutor Jay Rosenthal — chief deputy prosecutor in Boise County — headed the investigation.

“The incorrect billings were very infrequent,” Rosenthal said at the time. “They were without any pattern and clearly we have determined … it was due to some error or oversight through miscommunication with staff.”

Storer resigned in September 2012.

“I am very familiar with Dale Storer’s contract because I’m a lawyer,” Smith said. “It was a sweetheart deal. I said if you want to start looking for a place to cut some money, you can start by looking at his contract.”

Representing the Central Committee

In many ways, Smith represents the tea party viewpoint espoused by some members of the Bonneville County Central Committee, said Adler, director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University. Smith was elected Central Committee vice chairman in May 2012.

Those local Republicans cannot accept that Simpson, on rare occasions, has deviated from that hard-right-wing line, Adler said.

Smith has used Simpson’s votes on the 2008 Wall Street bailout and the $1.1 trillion omnibus bill detailing budget appropriations to show Simpson’s values no longer align with the 2nd Congressional District. Simpson was the only member of Idaho’s congressional delegation to vote for the omnibus bill, which will ensure federal government funding until Sept. 30.

“(Smith’s) candidacy is really borne of ideological stridency that reflects the views and values of the Bonneville committee,” Adler said. “This is a test. This is a test of the ability of some leaders in the Bonneville County committee to prevail over the candidacy and incumbency of a leader like Mike Simpson, who has been admired and respected even by those that have disagreed with his political views.”

Branding his opponent

Smith’s campaign has tried to brand Simpson as someone who is out of step with Idaho Republicans, referring to the congressman as a “liberal” in nearly every news release it’s issued.

“Once again Mike Simpson is the left flank of the Idaho congressional delegation,” Smith said after Simpson voted for the omnibus bill.

But Smith will have to answer some questions of his own, Adler said, from voters who wonder how Smith would maintain economic stability in a district that’s home to Idaho National Laboratory, which relies heavily on federal funding.

“You can only go so far in terms of saying you are going to be a principled conservative,” Adler said. “It’s where the rubber meets the road in politics. Where votes are taken, that determines the success of an officeholder.”

This is not the first time Simpson has faced candidates like Smith, said Simpson Campaign Manager Brody Aston after Smith announced his candidacy.

“In fact, he was challenged by a nearly identical candidate in each of the past two primaries,” Aston said. “Mike takes every race seriously and is certainly taking this one seriously.”

If Smith is unsuccessful in his primary challenge of Simpson, that would raise questions to the future viability of the Bonneville County Central Committee — especially in a closed Republican primary, Adler said.

“If you challenge the incumbent and the incumbent wins, then you’ve lost your influence,” Adler said. “You’ve lost your credibility.”

Remembering Sandpoint

But Smith isn’t worried about that. If he ever loses sight of his end goal, he said, he only has to remember the enthusiasm he saw in the Republican Party in Sandpoint six years ago.

“I went up there and I saw the grassroots people of Idaho take control of their destiny,” Smith said. “They had some leaders there that were moderate Republicans and the grassroots Republicans voted them out.”

Smith said he’s hopeful voters in the 2nd Congressional District will see his candidacy as an opportunity to do the same.

“There was an overwhelming spirit there, some of concern, but they were excited about the Republican Party reflecting the views of people of Idaho,” he said.

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