For an object lesson in doing more with less, look to Democrats in the Idaho Legislature this year.
Outnumbered better than 4-1 in both the Senate and House and down another four seats after last November’s elections, the 17 Democrats in the Legislature, all but five of them from Boise, punched above their weight this session, their impact abetted by strategy, circumstance and the “exciting accident” of new leadership.
Democrats were more unified and focused this session. In the House, despite the leadership change, they worked with the GOP majority leadership while also exploiting dissension and rebellion within the Republican ranks to their advantage. That fracture allowed Democrats to pick when to side with Republican moderates or with the far-right conservatives who feuded with GOP leaders all session.
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With their numbers, Democrats could have played the victim card, but didn’t. With no hope of getting Republicans to move on options for expanding Medicaid to help the 78,000 Idahoans without health care coverage, or of getting their own bill introduced, they kept a spotlight on the topic. They introduced floor amendments to another health care bill so a debate on Medicaid expansion at least could be had. When the Republican chairman of the House Environment committee refused to hold a hearing on climate change, the Democrats set up their own. Organized and hosted by Boise Democrat Rep. Ilana Rubel, it was the biggest public hearing — on any topic — of the session.
“I don’t believe in the victimization of legislators,” said Rep. Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, who took over as House minority leader after Lewiston Rep. John Rusche’s November loss. “If we’re not forcing ourselves into the conversation, then we’re not going to be in the conversation.”
Erpelding won credit from Republicans for a laudable rookie season.
“For his first term as a new minority leader, Erpelding did a good job leading his troops,” said Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, the assistant House majority leader.
Where did the Democrats have impact?
▪ Groundbreaking new regulations for oil and gas exploration and mining might have died in House committee without the support of Democrats, whose concerns for the environment lined up with the property rights advocacy of conservatives to move the legislation to the floor for amendments.
▪ The Attorney General’s Office budget might have embarrassingly failed in the House, at least initially, without Democratic support.
▪ Similarly, the House would have killed legislation to help disabled Idahoans better afford items such as wheelchair ramps without Democratic support.
▪ Most significant this session, the six Senate Democrats joined 14 Republicans to reject amended income tax cuts on the Senate floor and instead push through the grocery tax repeal that went on to win House and Senate approval and now sits on the governor’s desk — facing a possible veto.
Not always united
The Democrats went their own ways on the other major legislative action this year, a $320 million roads bill, nearly half of which will be spent repairing Interstate 84 in Canyon County. Five of 11 Democrats in the House, and four of six in the Senate, voted against it.
One of the Democratic No votes, Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett of Ketchum, said in party’s post-session briefing that the bill “does little to help communities outside of Ada and Canyon counties and puts us, our children, and our grandchildren in debt to the federal government for the foreseeable future.”
On transportation, Erpelding said, Democrats “voted their districts and their regions.” Erpelding backed the bill.
Outsized session accomplishments aside, Democrats are at their lowest numbers in 16 years, with more than two-thirds of their caucus representing Boise and almost no strength in rural areas. Even as national Republicans are riven by their own internal differences and the early chaos of Trump administration, the national Democratic party continues to do state Democrats no favors. Its more urban agenda and more liberal policies and leaders don’t resonate in mostly rural, conservative Idaho.
In recognition of that, Erpelding this week pushed the catchphrase that state Democrats “represent the moderate middle that Idaho needs and wants.” Not everyone is buying it, least of all Republicans.
“It’s not a more moderate group,” Crane said. “Philosophically, they’ve probably moved to the left a little bit more.”