Steve Berch has spent more money losing almost $100,000 in the last two Idaho elections than most winners. Now he's picked a relatively well-known opponent he aims to define as a religious bigot in West Boise's closely contested District 15.
Rather than run again for House Seat B, which he lost by a 6 percent margin to Republican Mark Patterson in 2012, Berch has filed for Seat A. That's because it's held by four-term GOP Rep. Lynn Luker, a voluble and respected lawyer whose religious freedom bills were among the most controversial measures this session.
Berch says Luker, chairman of the House Ethics Committee, "pursues a narrow, personal legislative agenda" and "dreams up solutions for problems that don't exist while ignoring the real needs and opportunities for West Boise."
Luker withdrew House Bill 427 last month, though it had cleared the House State Affairs Committee, after a hearing drew 500 people, mostly foes. The bill was aimed at permitting businesses to discriminate against gays - Luker cited examples of refusing to bake wedding cakes and take wedding photos for same-sex couples - based on religious beliefs.
Luker was preparing amendments when House Speaker Scott Bedke suggested a "thoughtful pause." Luker soon withdrew the bill as a similar measure in Arizona drew boycott threats. Idaho GOP Gov. Butch Otter congratulated Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer for vetoing that state's bill but declined to say what he would have done had Luker's bill reached his desk.
Stung by opponents, Luker said HB 427 was "misinterpreted as a sword for discrimination." He vowed to rework the bill for 2015: "I respect the concerns that I heard and therefore want to find the right language to balance those concerns."
Luker's companion measure, House Bill 426, didn't get a hearing after the Idaho attorney general said it likely was unconstitutional. HB 426 would have barred the state from denying, suspending or revoking any occupational license or registration if a professional had denied service to a person based on religion.
Berch seeks to use Luker's notoriety and coins a phrase reminiscent of the Luna Laws. He's branding HB 426 and 427 the "Luker Laws," though unlike the 2011 school reforms championed by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna and overturned by voters, neither became law.
"Mr. Luker made his priorities clear," Berch said in a statement announcing his candidacy. "His sponsorship of discriminatory, job-killing bills in the 2014 session ... would create a 'freedom to discriminate' against those who do not share a business owner's personal beliefs. This is the same type of legislation also introduced in Arizona this year that is damaging that state's reputation and hurting its economy."
Luker replied that Berch's statement "perpetuates misinformation and mischaracterization about the religious freedom bills that I sponsored earlier in the session. It also reflects a philosophy by Mr. Berch of desiring increasing government control over our lives. ..."
Berch, who moved to Idaho in 1981 to work for Hewlett-Packard, was elected to the board of the Greater Boise Auditorium District in May. Despite a dogged style that has included thousands of door-to-door stops, Berch's two legislative campaigns have been costly and fallen short.
In 2010, he lost to GOP Rep. Reed DeMordaunt. Despite spending almost $53,000, Berch got just 32 percent of the vote. After redistricting put Berch in a district friendlier to Democrats, he spent $46,000 in 2012 and got 47 percent of the vote against Patterson.
After 13 months in office, Patterson resigned in January after news that he had twice been charged with rape and had pleaded guilty to assault with intent to commit rape in 1974. Republican Patrick McDonald was appointed in his place.
Instead of running against Rep. McDonald, the less experienced guy, Berch chose Luker. Luker defeated Democrat Richard Keller with 59 percent of the vote in 2012.
Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics