What a way to start a session.
It’s only the first week, but Idaho lawmakers already look and act as if it’s the last week of March and Capitol cabin fever is in full blush. The cause of their ailment? An uncomfortably public meltdown in the Republican House caucus over conduct unbecoming a lawmaker.
Actually, make that lawmakers plural, and conduct unbecoming a high schooler — with no offense meant to students. House leaders took actions they hoped would quell the uproar and allow the body to get down to the people’s business. But it looks more like the trouble is just starting, and that the internecine Republican conflict that has marred the start of the 2017 session might persist.
The new Legislature met briefly in early December to reorganize for the coming session. That’s where lawmakers get their marching orders, including committee assignments. In the House, those assignments are ultimately the strict purview of the Speaker.
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Enter Rep. Heather Scott of extreme North Idaho – and yes, “extreme” in this sense covers ideology as well as geography. Now starting her second term, Scott entered office in 2015 as a tea party activist with far-right populist positions across the policy spectrum. But her roster of bogeymen (and women) includes her Republican colleagues. Within the Capitol, what other lawmakers see as her paranoid disruptive crusade against established norms, Scott sees as a principled stand against cronyism and opaque government.
They want to make an example of me.
Heather Scott to radio host Nate Shelman
At the Dec. 1 session, Scott ran into a sympathetic colleague, Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, who had just been named to chair the House Agricultural Committee. Upon hearing the news, Scott remarked in an outburst that women in the Legislature rise to chair committees and other leadership posts only if they “spread their legs.”
The comment was made to Boyle, in front of other lawmakers. And though it effectively maligned Boyle and the five other women who chair committees in the House and Senate, Scott was talking specifically about Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa.
Perry is starting her fourth term and is highly regarded by House leaders. In 2015 Speaker Scott Bedke tapped her to chair the House Ways & Means committee — mostly a prestige appointment to oversee the Speaker’s vehicle for fast-tracking or killing bills. The chair is seen as a faithful and trusted lieutenant, a likely up-and-comer.
AFFAIR SPARKED THIS AFFAIR
Over the summer, Perry had a fall from grace: After a published report, she was forced to disclose an earlier extramarital affair with a Senate colleague, Republican Jim Guthrie of Inkom.
House and Senate leaders quickly conducted a review to see if any official misconduct had been committed, such as misuse of public funds. The review cleared Perry. But adultery remains classified in Idaho criminal code as a felony. So the question lingered whether the House Ethics Committee, when it reconvened in the new session, might receive a formal complaint against Perry from a colleague.
Perry suffered not at all in her re-election, coasting to wins with more than 70 percent in the the primary and general votes. In the reorganization, she was named to chair the House Local Government Committee — a lesser House committee, but hardly a demotion.
That’s apparently what set Scott off.
‘PARANOID AND AGGRESSIVE BEHAVIOR’
Perry herself added to the gathering storm with a dramatic letter to the speaker where she essentially questioned Scott’s state of mind, saying she made colleagues fearful with her “paranoid and aggressive behavior.” Perry wrote that Scott, suspecting spying by House leadership, had at one time damaged the Capitol “looking for the ‘bugs’ she believed were installed” in a ceiling smoke detector. (Scott later denied this.)
Perry described a climate of fear in the Capitol, noting in comments to Betsy Russell of the Spokesman-Review that Scott “carries a gun.” Perry, who owns a gun store, does also. Many Idaho legislators do.
Boyle, who also carries a weapon, received a phone threat Thursday that Scott’s supporters might seek to “take her out,” prompting a police escort for part of the day.
Ironically, all this fear and loathing went down Thursday amid a first-ever training session for legislators led by State Police about how to respond to a possible active-shooter attack.
STRIPPED OF COMMITTEES, RIPS THE ‘ESTABLISHMENT’
As punishment for her remarks, Bedke had stripped Scott of her three committee assignments Thursday morning on the House floor. Scott took to her Facebook page to respond, blasting the media and Republican “establishment” for concocting a furor to derail and distract from her newly-formed “Growing Freedom for Idaho” crusade.
Scott has angered other lawmakers with disparaging comments in public settings. Rep. Stephen Hartgen, a Twin Falls Republican, told the Times-News that Scott and an ally, Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, criticized him and his district colleagues in a public meeting in his district last summer.
Scott is deeply wary of the press. She communicates by posting directly to social media and with reporters only in writing. As word of her Dec. 1 outburst came to light with legislators’ return last week, and the possibility she would be sanctioned for it, she ducked reporters and declined comment. Colleagues reported that she’d denying making the remark.
Without her public comment, it was hard to know exactly what point Scott had been trying to make.
‘PROBABLY’ A MARTYR?
On Friday, Scott broke her silence to the media in a 90-minute appearance on Nate Shelman’s radio show on 670 KBOI. She went directly after Perry, saying without fully connecting dots that the Nampa lawmaker got “promoted” with a chairmanship despite her affair. Her overall point: Perry goes along and gets rewarded, despite her missteps. Scott calls out institutional cronyism and gets punished.
“They want to make an example of me,” she told Shelman.
She acknowledged making the remark to Boyle. She called Bedke a “top-down micromanager” and called out other misdeeds by lawmakers, including the drunk-driving arrests of Gov. Butch Otter (in 1992, when he was a legislator) and Sen. Mike Crapo.
“Are you a martyr?” Shelman asked her.
“Probably,” she responded. “We all are at times.”
ETHICS COMPLAINTS AHEAD? MAYBE MORE THAN ONE
Scott, admonished last week to apologize and be contrite, ended the week instead by turning up the volume. There’s likely be an additional response from colleagues outraged by her behavior.
At the same time, Scott allies and sympathizers see the punishment as a chilling attempt to enforce party loyalty via House rules, effectively silencing the voice of Scott’s 40,000 North Idaho constituents. Much of the work of the Legislature is done in committees. Scott, for now, has a vote, and a voice, only on the floor of the House.
It’s possible that Scott’s actions will result in a formal complaint against her to House Ethics Committee. As far as ethics complaints go, it could be race: Perry could still face a complaint for her affair, and Nate might face one for secretly recording a private meeting last May with Senate Pro Tem Brent Hill.
Given the out-in-the-open enmity between Scott and Perry, and the potential political repercussions, it’s easy to see Perry’s letter to the speaker as a pre-emptive first strike. But it won’t be the last salvo.