Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a four-day series profiling the four most prominent candidates for Boise mayor in the Nov. 5 election.
Boise City Council President Lauren McLean’s resume may make it appear she has been planning a run for a higher office for quite a while.
She managed the successful campaign to pass the 2001 Foothills levy. She has spent eight years on the Boise City Council, including two as its president. She earned a master’s degree in public affairs from Boise State University. She runs a philanthropy consulting business. She belongs to the same Democratic political leadership network as Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend mayor turned presidential candidate.
But she really didn’t plan to run for mayor this year.
“I’ve had many people over the years tell me that it was time to step up and run, and I’ve always said to them, ‘I’m not ready,’” McLean said in an interview.
She spent much of the spring conducting “listening sessions” with city residents as she planned to run again for her seat on the council. She said she started hearing the same stories over and over — people who were hurt by the rapidly increasing cost of housing or who wanted more openness from their leaders.
“That really opened my mind to the idea I could run” for mayor, McLean, 44, said. “I didn’t know what to expect … but they got me thinking that our city is at a crossroads, and while it could have been someone else, we need accessible leadership that’s going to boldly lead into the biggest issues of the day.”
From Boston to Boise
Lauren Stein was born in Boston but grew up primarily in Houston. In high school, her family moved to Cazenovia, a village in central New York State. It was hard to move from Houston, where she was one of 1,200 people in her freshman class at a language magnet school, to a town of about 3,000 people.
She went from living close enough to walk to school to living so far outside the village that she had to take a bus each day. The adjustment was difficult, she said, but she met Scott McLean, who would become her husband, at a Halloween party to celebrate her 16th birthday a few months later.
“It turned out pretty well, actually,” she said, laughing.
Her senior year, she was voted “Most Likely to be President,” although Scott McLean says she said at the time that it would be “a shame for our country” if she were to become the first woman president because that would mean it would have taken too long.
At the University of Notre Dame, she majored in French and the university’s Program of Liberal Studies, focused on “great books.” She was active in the university’s Center for Social Concerns, a seminar-based program that focuses on “poverty, injustice and oppression.”
In college, she attended a talk by Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, a Republican. What he had to say about people and politics in the west fascinated her — the idea of communities, the openness of working on big problems, the politics of place — and she went up to him afterward. She had earned a fellowship through her school to work in public policy, and she told him she wanted to use it to work with him.
He told her to write him a letter. She did, and his office offered her a policy fellowship focused on environmental issues, which she now says she knew little about.
“I was like, ‘I’m not going to play,’” McLean said. “Then a little while later, I think it was his chief of staff calls and asks me when I’m arriving, because they’re trying to set up my lodging account.”
In Helena, she did research on salmon recovery and went into rural communities to help the Montana Consensus Council, a state board, build consensus on issues surrounding natural resources.
She married her high school sweetheart shortly after graduation. After her experience in Montana, the newlyweds wanted to return to the West, and they sought jobs in the area after Scott graduated.
They planned to move to Seattle, but in 1998, Scott McLean interviewed with Boise’s Micron Technology Inc. They flew to Boise together, and she was awed when she saw the landscape from the plane. She went around the city with a real estate agent, but she was determined to visit the Foothills.
“I ran through them, and there was just something about that,” McLean said. “I just had to be here. I totally had to be here. Thank goodness Scott got a job.”
They rented an apartment along the Greenbelt for a few months before moving into a house at the corner of 18th and Hazel streets. They’ve lived in the North End ever since.
She worked for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which helps supports Democratic candidates around the state, and at Boise State University’s now-defunct Environmental Finance Center before taking on the Foothills levy as its campaign manager.
She struggled to win support from real estate professionals more interested in development than protecting the land. The property tax levy passed with nearly 60% of the vote.
She later created two businesses that focused on philanthropy, something she says was a natural progression. One is a philanthropy consulting business that she maintains today but doesn’t have time to work on while she campaigns. The other is the Idaho Investors Network, which fosters philanthropic giving to organizations that work on issues the donors care about. McLean spent 10 years as managing director of the network before stepping back in July to let a new leader take over.
Origins in Boise politics
McLean served on the Boise Parks Commission, appointed by then-mayor and now mayoral contender Brent Coles, and the Planning and Zoning Commission, appointed by Mayor David Bieter.
In December 2010, Bieter chose McLean from more than 50 candidates to replace Vern Bisterfeldt on the Boise City Council after Bisterfeldt was elected to the Ada County Commission. She was sworn in in January 2011 and won her seat in an uncontested election that November. She won another term in 2015, again unopposed.
On the council, she has again focused on environmental issues. She recently helped to spearhead led the City Council’s vote in April to commit to 100% clean electricity use in all homes and businesses by 2035, a goal she hopes to meet instead by 2030 if elected.
Scott McLean said he and their two children, Madeleine and Aiden, “made the decision” that McLean should run long before she did.
“We all really think she’ll do wonderful things as mayor,” he said.
She has challenged the very man who appointed her to the council, and that has caused hard feelings. Bieter, who is seeking a fifth term, has called McLean’s decision “disappointing.”
McLean said she knew it would be uncomfortable — she sits next to Bieter at council meetings — but “sometimes you need to be a little uncomfortable to get things done and make real change.”
One key question is what change she would make. At two candidate forums in September, Bieter and McLean gave similar answers to questions about conservation and labor issues. They agreed on the need to move to clean energy, disagreeing on how fast the shift needs to happen.
Robert West, Bieter’s campaign manager, said McLean has flipped her stances on the proposed new main library and the city’s legal fight to preserve its power to ticket people for sleeping in public places.
“There are some hard choices moving forward, on housing, on climate change, on a lot of issues,” West said by phone. “If she can’t stand by her decisions, how will she make important decisions in the future?”
McLean’s supporters don’t see that as such a bad thing. Sam Sandmire, a supporter who has knocked on doors for McLean, said McLean is “open to fresh ideas in light of new information.”
“She has a completely different tone and attitude” than Bieter, said Sandmire, who has voted for Bieter in the past. “It’s an openness and a willingness to learn. It’s also that not all of Boise is thriving, and we need a mayor who doesn’t take that fact as criticism but as an opportunity to make a change.”
Could Boise have its first full-term female mayor?
If she wins, McLean will be the first regularly elected female mayor of Boise. She would follow Carolyn Terteling-Payne, who was appointed mayor in 2003 after Brent Coles resigned from the job the day the state attorney general filed two corruption charges against him. Terteling-Payne opted not to run for a full term.
McLean said she hasn’t had a bad experience while knocking on doors, but she has had her experience of remarks based on her gender.
“I’ll hear, ‘Oh, that’s so ambitious. What’s your motivation?” McLean said. “There are gendered words that can be used even by people you wouldn’t expect to hear them from. I haven’t had an egregious experiences at doors, but you hear those things as all women do.”
McLean says she’s more than qualified. In running this campaign, she said, she hopes she can empower more women to run for office or to just get involved in their communities.
At a recent campaign event mobilizing volunteers to encourage friends and family to register to vote, the majority of volunteers were women, including some who brought their children.
“I see this campaign as being for moms, for women and girls,” McLean said. “Being a working mom is hard, especially when you have a passion to impact your community. To me, the most important thing a leader can do, be it in elected office or in any role, is to do all she can to build a new generation of leaders.”