John Rusche, Idaho’s top House Democrat, in Election Day rematch

Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston
Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston kjones@idahostatesman.com

How to be effective in a political monoculture is a major theme in the battle for Idaho’s 6th Legislative District House B seat.

House Minority Leader John Rusche, a six-term incumbent, is being challenged by Republican businessman Mike Kingsley in a repeat of the tight 2014 election contest that Rusche won by 48 votes.

Rusche, 65, said his knowledge and experience as a physician and insurance company executive, combined with the legislative relationships he’s developed over the past 12 years, make him the most effective candidate for the job.

“I’ve learned how to be influential, without being in charge,” he said. “I have a record of accomplishments I’ll hold up against any Republican legislator.”

Kingsley, 56, said he’ll be a stronger voice for District 6 because, as a member of the majority party, he can get through doors that are closed to Rusche.

“I’ll be a bee inside the hive, and I’ll be a busy bee,” he said. “I think I’m the guy to do this.”

The district represents Nez Perce and Lewis counties.

Kingsley has been self-employed his entire life, owning and operating a variety of businesses. Although his father was a staunch Democrat, he became a Republican after seeing the improvements that President Ronald Reagan made to military pay and defense spending.

“Being in business also made me more conservative,” he said. “I think I can bring some business sense to the Statehouse.”

His primary goal, however, is to encourage lawmakers to increase funding for substance abuse treatment. Having had his own struggles with alcohol in the past, he sees this as an investment in saving lives.

“It saves so much money and changes so many lives — and it’s not that expensive to do,” Kingsley said. “I’m going to go down there and bang heads together on this. I get goose bumps talking about it. I’m fired up. This is the reason I decided to run for office.”

It’s also an area where being inside the majority caucus room could pay dividends.

“I’m not your typical Republican,” Kingsley said. “I have a social view. I’m going to bring a whole different perspective on this to the Legislature.”

He also wants to focus on education and improving Idaho’s economy. For example, he fully supports the ongoing investment in the career ladder teacher pay plan, and would like to see greater strides made with career-technical education. He also supports giving school vouchers or tax credits to parents, to help them pay for private or religious schools.

On the economic front, he wants to protect businesses from overtaxation and overregulation.

“We need to encourage growth and increase, not just jobs, but great jobs,” Kingsley said.

Rusche, who has served as House minority leader since 2008, agrees that Idaho’s low-wage economy is one of the biggest challenges facing the Legislature. However, he notes that it “takes more than just tax cuts” to make improvements.

“It takes education and workforce training and infrastructure development,” he said. Consequently, sending one more conservative Republican down to Boise to vote for more tax cuts “isn’t what the district needs.”

Rusche initially ran for the Legislature because he saw the effect public policy had on his patients’ lives. He has championed a multitude of health care-related issues during his time in office, including measures limiting the use of physical restraints on mentally ill patients, improving efforts to track and reduce the abuse of prescription narcotics, and establishing an advisory council to coordinate telemedicine procedures throughout the state.

“He continually brings forward good bills to improve health care in Idaho,” Sen. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, said during a 2015 committee hearing. “I appreciate his efforts. It’s obvious that good ideas aren’t partisan.”

Having a diversity of viewpoints in the Legislature — as well as leaders who can pull a common goal out of the mix — makes it a more effective institution, Rusche said. It’s a path to good governance, as opposed to ideological purity.

That’s really the basis of his campaign, he said.

“When I worked at Regence, I would hire the best people I could find, who had the communication skills and creativity to do the job,” Rusche said. “Government — and voters — should do the same thing. I’ve proven I have the intellect, skills and experience to make progress.”

What does the minority leader do?

The head of the majority party gets elected speaker and, in Idaho, majority Republicans have elected Scott Bedke, an Oakley rancher. The No. 2 Republican is the majority leader; the majority also elects an assistant majority leader and a caucus chairman. The majority party, through the speaker, has final say on committee appointments and chairmen, on which bills get heard and to which committees bills are assigned.

The head of the minority Democrats in the House is the minority leader, and since 2008 that has been John Rusche. The minority leader speaks for legislators from the party and represents his members in negotiations with the majority. House Democrats also have an assistant minority leader and a minority caucus chair. The Democratic leaders help determine committee appointments for minority party members.

The minority leader also serves on the Legislative Council, which oversees the management and staff of the Legislature.