Mat Erpelding, the new Idaho House Democratic minority leader, is under no illusion about how he came to the role.
“This position now is an accident — it was not a plan,” he said, pausing before adding: “I think it’s an exciting accident.”
He certainly knows a little about excitement. The Denver native, now 42, first to came Idaho in 1993 to run track for Idaho State University in Pocatello. Two years in, he got involved in rock-climbing and mountaineering, and he took to it immediately. Among his mountaineering feats are five trips to Alaska’s Denali, the highest peak in North America, with four successful summits.
“I got good very quickly at climbing,” he said. “And I probably was, in addition to having a knack for it, a risk-taker. As I’ve gotten older, I’m still willing to do a lot in the mountains, but I think I’m much more cognizant of the consequences of my actions in the mountains.”
And his so-called accident? Erpelding, now starting his third term in the Legislature, became minority leader after Lewiston Rep. John Rusche’s loss in November. He leads a diminished group of House Democrats, who lost two other members besides Rusche. They are now outnumbered by Republicans 59-11.
Erpelding, who represents District 19 in Boise’s North End, saw the coming defeat for the Democrats last fall when he went to Lewiston to campaign with Rusche.
“I was very concerned that he was in trouble just by the response of the people,” he said this week in the minority leader’s Capitol office, just off the House floor. “And I also at that point became very concerned that Donald Trump was going to win, not just Idaho but the whole thing. These were folks who had a history of supporting Democratic ideas — wages, our economy — and they seemed frustrated with the entire process.”
Erpelding said he thought he might one day serve as minority leader, but “I had hoped it had been under different circumstances.”
Outside the Legislature, Erpelding owns and runs a mountain guide service. With a master’s degree in organizational learning and behavior, he also teaches at Boise State University and travels around the country for a firm that helps companies groom people for leadership. He’s had to adjust his professional life to accommodate his political one, working more or less as an independent contractor. A conversation with the Statesman touched on many political, social and personal topics.
On Idaho Democrats
“These are difficult circumstances for Idaho Democrats. And I also know that my caucus has concerns about me. That’s reasonable and I totally respect that. I am a different leader from John (Rusche). I come from a different generation. There are a lot of members of the caucus who were in politics before I even got to college….
“For me, the most important thing is that our caucus stays united, and that we do everything we can to ensure that really rock-solid Democrats (in rural parts of the state) have a voice that’s heard and that our urban caucus fully recognizes that we need to be supportive of both causes. The survival of rural Idaho is essential to the quality of life of Boise.”
On his leadership approach
“I would say I am more comfortable with conflict than Rep. Rusche was. He was an incredible person for using his knowledge as a medical doctor to reach across at a time when we really needed a person with that type of knowledge. During the health care debates, nobody could have done a better job.
“Times have changed. We’ve gotten a little smaller and our needs now are focused on how we can be an active participant in the process, and how can we support where possible. How do we push back on ridiculous policies that would be defined any other place in the world as radical and extremist? How are we effective as a voice of opposition?”
Erpelding mentions possible legislation from new Republican Sen. Dan Foreman of Moscow, who wants to classify abortion as first-degree murder.
“I think it’s imperative for us to drag that type of radical extremist views into the public light and point out that the other side, a lot of them actually agree with ideas like that, and that’s a problem. We are not in a place where we should or will let stuff like that slip by.”
“By the nature of the (House Speaker Scott) Bedke rule, which is a majority of the majority caucus has to vote for something before it will come to the floor, what you have is a naturally radicalized caucus. So even if there were moderates that might represent the majority, they would be more likely to move to the right (than) move to the middle.”
On Democratic bills
“Certainly that which is bipartisan will get through — it’s amazing what you can get done if nobody cares who gets credit, and there are a lot of bills that the Democrats’ fingerprints will be all over. But if it’s a purely Democratic ideal like something important and critical to our districts, like (raising) the minimum wage or Add the Words (civil rights legislation for the LGBTQ community), it is very hard to see a path forward given the number of votes that we have. But we are going to represent our districts and the 300,000 Idahoans that support us.”
On losing his son
In November 2015, Erpelding and his wife, Elizabeth Perryman, were preparing for the birth of a son, Owen, who died days before his due date. The loss was devastating and the two were very public about what happened.
“It was the most terrible thing that I think can happen to any parent — any loss of a child, whether it be right at birth or as an adult, I can now understand how it crushes parents.
“I believe that as political figures we have a very public profile whether we recognize it not. So there were thousands that knew that Elizabeth and I were expecting. Because we know that people were following that … it was in our interest to also let people know it hadn’t worked out and we had lost our son. ...
“But the other thing is there is a life piece to everything we do in this (legislative) body. I think when you make the choice to go into public office, you expose yourself on every level, and it is important that people understand that right, left, Republican, Democrat, urban, rural, that we live a human life just like everybody does.”
The couple spent a month last summer hiking in and around the Alps in France, Italy and Switzerland.
“We spent every single day together hiking, walking. That was what put us on a path to be able to really start to heal, because we were able to start to talk about Owen, how broken we were and what we needed to do to be a good couple to one another through that process.”
On how he and Democrats will build their numbers
“Since I’ve been elected, I’ve spent a lot of time traveling the state, hosting forums, meetings and discussing policy with other folks in other districts. We have a responsibility to ensure that they have a voice, that they see a path forward, and also that they see that there is a future, that we are not going to allow our party to become so ideologically rigid that there’s no room for diversity of thought. … As one of the leaders of the Democratic Party, I will push back on my own party members who believe in a purity test of any kind. We need to have an acceptance approach….
“The position that I have right now is a real opportunity to grow the caucus, to ensure that more Democrats are elected, and to protect and support communities that are currently not being represented well. My three ideas are to build relationships across the state, continue to be the most reasonable person in the room as an elected official, and to advocate for and do everything I can to support candidates moving forward.”
On whether Idaho is moving to the right
“In-migration to Idaho tends to be an older population fleeing another state, and so from an in-migration perspective it does appear to be becoming even more conservative. The interesting thing is the Idahoans that have been here for generations tend to be the moderates and tend to continue to find themselves being squeezed.”
On responding to a more conservative electorate
“I actually think that if we can get our workforce up to speed so that companies look around and say, ‘Oh, there’s a real workforce there,’ and we start to stall the out-migration of Gen X and millennials, then we can stop this movement to the right (or) hold more middle ground where conversations that involve young families resonate with Idahoans.
“But when many of the folk that are moving to Idaho maybe don’t have families anymore, have already raised their kids, and are looking for place where they are less tied to the infrastructure and the health of the state, their vote patterns will be different. We need to keep those young people in this state.”