Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders played a big role — for opposite reasons — in pushing progressives to run for city offices across Idaho this year, leaders of the state’s Democratic Party say.
Sanders’ candidacy for president last year inspired a lot of liberals in Idaho, Democrats say. Some of them were serious enough to register as candidates in city elections from Pocatello to Sandpoint.
And though many never warmed to Sanders’ opponent in the 2016 primary, Hillary Clinton, progressives side with mainstream Democrats in loathing Trump.
“This is the first election cycle available to people who are newly engaged and not just wanting to sit back on the sidelines and watch things that have happened,” said Sen. Maryanne Jordan, a Boise city councilwoman who also represents the Boise Bench as a Democrat.
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The Sanders-Trump phenomenon augments a strategy Idaho Democrats have pursued in recent years. As losses for governor and other statewide offices mount, Democrats have intensified their focus on local races, where they believe they can win.
City council elections in Idaho are nonpartisan, so voters ostensibly don’t pick candidates based on nationwide platforms. That gives Democrats here an edge they don’t have in most races, said Rep. Mat Erpelding, Idaho's House minority leader and one of Idaho’s most prominent Democrats.
“In nonpartisan races, when we’re not saddled with the ‘D,’ when we are able to run on our values, we have tremendous success in elections,” he said.
Despite the ‘nonpartisan’ label, broader Democratic and Republican ideologies often cast a shadow over city elections. Some county parties host forums and endorse candidates. City elections bring out candidates who are active within the parties.
Idaho Democrats’ emphasis on local elections “has as much to do with de-nationalizing elections as anything else,” said Dean Ferguson, the former executive director of the state party who now has the same job in Wyoming.
“There have been county commission races across the state where a really good Democratic candidate lost because the Republican ran against Nancy Pelosi,” Ferguson said. “And that’s ridiculous, but it does happen.”
2016 was a disaster for Democrats. They gained a few seats in Congress but not enough to control either chamber. More importantly, they lost the White House.
In Idaho, Democrats lost four seats in the Legislature.
Will the party’s attention to local races reverse that trend? In large part, the answer depends on whether it’s successful at putting Democrats in local seats.
“Where the rubber meets the road is the cities and counties,” Erpelding said. “And where we can have the most impact in terms of policy is at the cities and counties. Our struggles at the state level, they’ll continue to be there.”
The central initiative in the Democrats’ strategy is regular candidate training. The state party puts on these events about twice a year, media and digital director Shelby Scott said.
The goal is to teach candidates how to campaign, effectively communicate their messages and talk to voters. The party also covers the more mundane aspects of running for office, such as filing paperwork and raising money, Scott said.
The most important lesson, she said, is to work hard and talk to as many people as possible. Local elections in small cities are a good place to learn that (Boise’s multiple small legislative districts being an exception across most of the state).
But campaign tactics are just one consideration. The main reason Democrats should run for local office is to build experience and trust among their constituencies, Erpelding said.
“Over time, building an incredibly strong bench of value-oriented leaders who are elected and re-elected year after year will trickle up,” he said. “In Idaho, we value people we know. We value people who have done things for our communities and made a difference in our community.”
But how much time?
“Another 10 years before I see a difference,” Erpelding said. “Having strong, values-based candidates who are doing a great job in their communities and develop reputations in their communities — that takes time.”
‘PEOPLE WHO ARE OUTRAGED AND WANT TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT’
It’s not surprising to see Democrats running for office in Boise. The party dominates City Hall and legislative districts inside city limits.
But progressives, whether they identify as Democrats or not, are running for city elections this year all over the state, Scott and Ferguson said. They pointed to races in Caldwell, the Magic Valley, Sandpoint, Pocatello and Valley County as examples.
Efforts to contact candidates in several of those races were unsuccessful.
Naomi Johnson, a Democrat running for Boise City Council, said something similar is happening across the country.
“In at least my personal Facebook feed, I constantly see people who are outraged and who want to do something about it,” said Johnson, one of Idaho’s delegates last year to the Democratic National Convention.
And in a lot of conversations with progressive candidates running for local office, she said, a theme emerges: Why aren’t elected leaders listening to their constituents?
“I believe it’s a progressive value to have representation that looks like your actual population that you serve,” Johnson said. “Regardless of how differently we all see how involved the community members’ voices are in the council decisions, I think we would all agree that, at some level, we are supposed to represent those voices to the best that we can with the knowledge that we have.”
Newcomers to city councils will find it’s hard work and not very glamorous. Staying engaged during four-hour public hearings is just the beginning. The job requires a lot of reading and talking to constituents. The pay, if any, isn’t great.
But that cauldron prepares people for higher office in ways that other training can’t, said Jordan, who’s leaving her spot on the Boise City Council after her term ends in January but will keep her seat in the Idaho Senate.
“Any time you participate in politics, it grooms you for future things,” she said. “I think that people who participate at a local level on boards and commissions, and get engaged in their cities — that helps to groom them to run for a council seat. You serve on a council, and you begin to see the impacts of statewide policy-making, and you might consider the Legislature.”
Furthermore, Jordan said, grandstanding and polarizing ideology doesn’t fly at City Hall like it does in the Statehouse or Congress. City council members have no choice but to work with each other, she said.
“And if you don’t, literally, police can be impacted, fire can be impacted, toilets can stop flushing — all these really basic things,” Jordan said. “So you don’t have the luxury of fighting over politics... It’s probably the best form of government because it makes people do that.”
Erpelding said the lessons of local governance carry over into higher office. Legislators who’ve served on city councils, county commissions and other elected boards are more open to working with people whose broader politics differ from their own. He referenced peers with backgrounds serving on highway districts or as a mayor.
Even though they’re a minority, Erpelding said, Democrats can use that understanding of cooperation to then increase their leverage in the Legislature. In recent years, Democrats have worked with competing Republican factions to advance bills aimed at strengthening sign language certification requirements; bringing data centers to Idaho; and giving people with terminal diseases the right to try experimental treatment. Not all of these bills became law, but they showed that Democrats are not to be disregarded, Erpelding said.
“We are relevant because the Republican party is split into two parties,” he said. “And there are times when the Democrats side with the hard right against a crony-capitalism bill. And there are times when we side with the moderates to make sure people with disabilities have the services they need.”