Lessons — or warnings — for Boise’s establishment may lurk in Tuesday’s City Council elections.
At first glance, the results aren’t surprising. Incumbent TJ Thomson won. So did Holli Woodings, one of Boise’s best-known Democrats. An open seat went to Lisa Sanchez, who’s never held public office but is a well-known community activist.
Look deeper, though, and you’ll find some unexpected numbers. Sanchez soundly beat Frank Walker, a former Ada County commissioner who was endorsed by Mayor Dave Bieter and whose campaign brought in more money than Sanchez’s.
Then there’s Naomi Johnson, another newcomer. She lost to Thomson, but made the race closer than many observers expected.
Why did this happen? Certainly, hard work is part of the answer. Candidates who work harder generally win, especially in local races. Sanchez and Johnson both knocked on a lot of doors and made a lot of phone calls during their campaigns.
Was there something more? Was Boise’s electorate dissatisfied with City Hall?
Bieter doesn’t think so. The mayor wasn’t on Tuesday’s ballot, but he thinks a measure to re-do a 2015 levy, which the city botched, gave voters a chance at a referendum on his office and City Hall at large. Instead of failing, the levy passed by a greater margin than it did in 2015.
“If you’re upset about something, even if it isn’t this, you might take it out on us,” Bieter said Wednesday.
Sanchez and Johnson said they kept hearing from people who think City Hall isn’t listening to their concerns — anything from traffic to land use to housing. Both candidates put pledges to include inclusion of regular people’s voices at the center of their campaigns.
That’s not unusual. People often feel disconnected from their government, and insurgent candidates say they’ll fix it. They rarely beat establishment candidates.
But in Boise, in 2017, a few issues might have intensified voters’ desire to be heard and steered them toward new blood.
Both Sanchez and Johnson outperformed their city-wide averages in neighborhoods close to the Boise Airport. Both believe that’s because they spoke against a proposal to base a squadron of F-35s at Gowen Field, the Idaho National Guard base that shares the airport’s runways.
The prospect of bringing F-35s to Boise excites the political establishment, which predicts an economic boost, but it alarms others who worry that noise from the warplanes would diminish the quality of life here. Opposition to the F-35 is especially strong in neighborhoods near the airport.
“They were feeling the issue is, ‘We’re not being heard,’ ” Johnson said.
Sanchez will become the first council member to flatly oppose the F-35. Others are in favor of it or say they don’t have enough information to support or oppose it.
“I don’t want to see us give up who we are for money,” Sanchez said. “I recognize that it could be a positive economic impact. But I really think, because we are such an attractive place, other economic opportunities will come and ones that fit better.”
Bieter acknowledged that Sanchez’s and Johnson’s opposition to the F-35 likely strengthened their candidacies in precincts near the airport. He doesn’t think the F-35 turned out to be a political loser across the rest of the city, though. He pointed out that Thomson won after supporting a new mission for Gowen Field, whether it’s an F-35 or something else.
TRUMP, SANDERS AND THE STADIUM
Sanchez thinks a broader issue could be making Boise voters yearn for better communication with City Hall.
A lot of Boiseans have watched with great interest as their city emerged from the Great Recession with a boom of office buildings, hotels, apartment complexes and other projects that reflect prosperity Boise has never exhibited. Now, a developer wants to build a new Downtown stadium that would be used by the Boise Hawks, the local minor-league baseball team; a professional soccer team; youth sports; and a variety of cultural events like concerts, festivals and conventions.
“When you see all this development happening, it’s kind of giving people whiplash,” Sanchez said. “I think that’s where a lot of the anxiety is coming from.”
Johnson opposed the stadium plan. Sanchez reserved judgment, saying she’s worried about its impact on the neighborhood around it, especially low-income people who live there.
Bieter said he doubts the stadium itself cost Walker, who was in favor of it, a seat on the council. He pointed to a series of elections in recent years in which candidates, himself included, who were in favor of a new minor-league baseball stadium won.
Johnson thinks some of the support she received came from echoes of last year’s Bernie Sanders movement and the backlash against President Donald Trump. This was just a city council race, but those national currents showed up, she said.
Despite losing to Thomson, Johnson said she’s not discouraged. In fact, she plans to run for City Council again in 2019, when incumbent seats held by Elaine Clegg, Scot Ludwig and Lauren McLean will be up for election.
“I, at a minimum, got name recognition, but I’m not going anywhere,” Johnson said.