Editor's note: This week, Idaho newspapers are telling the stories of people working behind the scenes to make a difference in Idaho health care, nonprofits, government and economic development. Today: Jade Riley, the most powerful person at Boise City Hall you've never heard of.
Jade Riley might know more about Boise city government than anyone else.
Any meeting he’s in, he’s probably the most informed person in the room, the person who knows all the details of an initiative or dispute. And he knows how they fit together into a single picture.
Riley, Mayor Dave Bieter’s 41-year-old chief of staff, is not well-known to the public, though. He’s not a front man. He doesn’t blow his own horn. In fact, he declined repeated requests for interviews by the Idaho Statesman for a story — this story — profiling him. The city of Boise’s public-facing website doesn’t appear to list his contact information.
Luckily, plenty of others were happy to talk about him. Here’s a look at Riley through the perspective of nine people who know him professionally and personally:
“Jade is truly one of the smartest people I’ve ever known.” — City Councilwoman Maryanne Jordan
That’s high praise coming from Boise’s longest-tenured City Council member, someone who’s encountered a few smart people in her career. It’s also pretty common praise for Riley.
When people who know Riley talk about him, intelligence is one of the first things that comes up.
“Wicked smart” was the first thing out of developer Tommy Ahlquist’s mouth when the Statesman asked.
“He’s extremely bright,” City Councilman Scot Ludwig said. “I don’t know what he’s making, but it’s not enough.”
For the record, Riley’s annual salary is $147,555 — about $30,000 more than his boss makes.
“He goes out of his way to find out all of the particulars on a certain subject or whatever he’s working on.” – Jack Riley, Jade Riley’s father
Jack Riley knows about being prepared. He worked for the city of Richfield, Jade Riley’s tiny hometown just west of Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, from 1980 to 2013. For many of those years, Jack Riley managed the city’s various departments, responsibilities similar to Jade Riley’s in Boise.
Jade Riley’s dedication was evident from the time he was a child, Jack Riley said. Former Idaho Congressman Richard Stallings confirmed that. When Jade Riley was in high school, he went to Washington, D.C., to work as a page for Stallings.
Stallings said Riley soaked up information like a sponge and applied it.
“On a couple of occasions he had better knowledge of some things going on in Central Idaho than my staff did,” Stallings said.
In Boise, the mayor is also the city manager and oversees Boise government departments. As right hand to Mayor Bieter, Riley has to know the minutiae of all the complicated things that come across the mayor’s desk. That means he has to speak budget jargon, analyze the costs and benefits of new expenditures and understand the reasons people locked in disputes came to their positions.
“Every time you’re with him, he is more prepared and knows more about anything than anybody,” Ahlquist said. “And it makes it easy to listen to him and follow advice and suggestions he has.”
“He doesn’t come in sort of anchored to a position. He’s gathering data and information that helps frame what his thought or position might be.” — Tim Breuer, executive director, Land Trust of the Treasure Valley.
Breuer told a story from a few years back about how Suez, the local water company, wanted to build a pump house on land in the Boise Foothills that’s set aside for recreation and open space.
Conservationists didn’t want a new building with no conservation use marring the Foothills.
Riley stepped in and helped find an alternative that both sides found tolerable, Breuer said.
“It seemed like he genuinely kind of understood it and then worked toward finding a solution that helped solve the problem and made sure conservation land remained free of a pump house,” Breuer said.
“He gets all aspects of it. ... If you showed up and you said, ‘Look, I want to build a baseball stadium.’ He’s going to go, ‘OK, here’s what you’re going to need.’ ” — David Wali, local real estate deal-maker and hotelier
Economic development has always been Riley’s central focus, Wali said. In itself, that’s not very special. Lots of people at City Hall constantly look for ways to attract more business to Boise and increase its supply of jobs.
Riley has a somewhat unusual perspective, though. He understands that economic development isn’t just a department inside the city, but a goal that involves every department, from police and fire to parks and land-use planning, Wali said.
Adam Park, who’s known Riley since 2002 and worked as Bieter’s spokesman from 2008 to 2014, agreed.
“Jade is just this incredible doer,” Park said. “He has this brain that can bring in all of the many, many, many pieces of information about the city, about each department and where each one is going, and process that and manage each piece of it so that it works together, fits together and creates this better future for Boise.”
Despite knowing all of the details of a given initiative or issue, Riley never loses sight of what it all means, said Jordan, who’s been on the City Council for Riley’s entire tenure in the mayor’s office.
“He’s very mindful of who our customers are,” Jordan said. “He thinks very comprehensively. And that doesn’t include just numbers and strategies. It also includes human beings, and that’s a pretty rare combination these days.”
“He was not looking for limelight. He did not try to get his name in the paper. When you’re in a congressional office, there’s always an urge to see your name in print. That just was not his case.” — Congressman Stallings
Several of the people who talked to the Statesman about Riley agreed he’s a private person — a conclusion that fits with his refusal to be interviewed for his own story. His family says Riley’s private nature extends to his personal life.
Jordan said Riley’s reticence is an asset to the city.
“His aversion to any attention — to anything but the work — is what makes him so good at what he does,” Jordan said.
“It was devastating for him. ... I think he felt he let everybody down, including the City Council, the mayor, the people, his family — everybody.” — Jack Riley
In April 2007 — Friday the 13th, no less — Riley went through what must have been the most difficult moment of his professional life. He was arrested for drunken driving.
The next day, Bieter suspended him for two weeks without pay.
“Jade is a valued staff member, but any incident of this nature is serious,” Bieter said in a statement at the time. “I have the utmost confidence in Jade’s abilities, and he clearly recognizes the need for stern discipline.”
Riley was on his way home from dinner, where he’d had a few drinks, his father, Jack Riley, said.
“It wasn’t intentional. He wasn’t out partying,” Jack Riley said. Nevertheless, “he was heartbroken.”
“He’s very loyal. He’s extremely loyal to his family. He would do anything for our kids.” — Brooke Seidl, Jade Riley’s wife.
Seidl said she has two children from a previous marriage. Both are teenagers now.
As long as she and Riley have been together, Seidl said, he’s been a steadying influence on the children’s lives.
Riley’s devotion is also evident with his parents, brother and extended family, especially in his hometown, Seidl said.
“You go to Richfield and everyone is related to Jade somehow,” she said.
“He’s got a really intense and funny and snarky sense of humor that he lets fly when you’re alone with him that he doesn’t always let out in public.” — Adam Park, former spokesman for Mayor Dave Bieter
Park used to keep a file of “Jade-isms” — dozens of figures of speech that Riley either invented or were characteristic of his way of expressing himself. Park said he could tell when somebody at the city had been talking to Riley because they’d pick up a Jade-ism or two.
“Piece” is a good example. Riley uses the word often to refer to things like a funding mechanism or a component of a broader initiative. The expression has spread through City Hall, and today department heads and staffers use it regularly.
Seidl corroborated Park’s assessment of her husband’s sense of humor. She also said he’s most at home in nature. Stanley “is his absolute happy place,” she said.
Jack Riley said his son would never leave Stanley if he could make a living there.
“I could see him at some point working as a congressional or Senate staffer, because he was the kind of guy that you could rely on and count on, and he would deliver.” — Stallings
Riley has been involved in politics since he was 12 years old, Seidl said. Besides being a page in Congress, he was an intern in the White House toward the end of President Bill Clinton’s second term. After a stint with the Bureau of Land Management, he headed the Idaho Democratic Party in the early 2000s — when he was still in his 20s.
Stallings has followed Riley’s career. He said he’s surprised someone holding higher office hasn’t lured Riley away from Bieter.
David Wali said Riley might be in the right spot.
“Some people are in jobs of necessity versus jobs of passion,” Wali said. “I think he’s in that sweet spot of being in a job that he truly enjoys.”
Unsung Idahoans who change their communities
Idaho newspapers are telling the stories of people working behind the scenes to make a difference in Idaho health care, nonprofits, government and economic development.