Editor’s note: This is the first in a four-day series profiling the four most prominent candidates for mayor of Meridian in the Nov. 5 election.
Robert Simison, who is running for mayor of Meridian, wasn’t interested in government when he was growing up with his single mother in Pocatello. It was his college fraternity brothers at Whitman College who pushed him to run for a seat in student government.
So he ran for comptroller. He’s always been an analytical, math-minded type, he says. He won that seat, and the next year he ran for student body president. He won that too.
“I had a good knack for understanding how processes work, and how to manage competing interests,” Simison, now 46, said in an interview.
And he caught the politics bug.
At Whitman, a liberal arts college in Walla Walla, Washington, Simison (pronounced SIH-mis-son) also started a Young Republicans Club and got involved in local campaigns. He was asked to represent a regional committee of Republicans at a statewide party convention — but had to tell them he was from Idaho.
And it was to Idaho that Simison returned in 1995 after he graduated. He found a job in Meridian, but about a year out of college, a former fraternity brother who worked with then-Sen. Larry Pressler, a South Dakota Republican, called Simison at his house in Boise and said he ought to move to Washington, D.C.
“I’ve got a place, just come sleep on my couch,” the friend told him.
So he did.
Simison goes to Washington
His friend helped him get a job as an intern for then-Rep. Rick White, a Republican from Washington state. It was Simison’s first job in politics, and he spent most of it answering phone calls from constituents.
That was his foothold into the world of bright young adults drawn by ambition to make a mark in the U.S. capital, the hub of national politics and power. He took a job on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where he assisted committee’s general counsel. He worked on a bill that would have required U.S. stock markets to switch from reporting stocks as fractions to the decimal system. He helped move the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and the 2005 Budget Reconciliation package — a project that once kept him up for 36 hours straight.
Simison learned how policy moved from idea to implementation. “Process is just as important as politics,” he says.
He worked in D.C. for a decade. He married his wife, Jenny — whom he’d met in Pocatello — and had two children. With a family, the couple decided to move back to Idaho. They settled in Meridian, where Jenny’s parents had moved.
Simison figured that he would find a job in the Idaho Legislature. But he saw an ad for a new job in Meridian as the mayor’s executive assistant and decided to apply.
Aide to Mayor Tammy
Simison got the job. In 2007, he began to work for Tammy de Weerd, who was in the third year of her first term.
“I needed someone who had a policy background, which Robert did, and had an understanding of the lawmaking process at the state and federal levels,” De Weerd said. “But also I needed someone who cared about people.”
Meridian was in transition. De Weerd (pronounced de-veerd) was leading the city through intense growth. Beyond city hall, developers were turning soil on hundreds of new houses. Longtime residents were grumbling about the newcomers, as they still do.
Simison’s skills as a mediator were tested when he was sent to settle a dispute over a proposed McDonald’s on Cherry Lane whose neighbors who worried that light and noise from the restaurant would keep them up at night.
“Coming from D.C., we didn’t work on constituent issues,” Simison said. “And you come to the local government level where you’re going out to knock on people’s doors.”
But as he had in student government, Simison weighed the neighbors concerns’ carefully. He proposed changes to the McDonald’s design to satisfy the neighbors’ concerns.
“At the end of the day when it went in, we didn’t hear from the neighbors,” Simison said.
Hoaglun: Ability to listen is strength
Brad Hoaglun, a former City Council member who is running for a seat again this year, said Simison’s strength is his ability to listen. “I’ve seen him build relationships with people and not overreact when people disagree. He does it respectfully,” Hoaglun said.
As Meridian grew, so did its challenges — and Simison’s role. He began to focus less on resolving disputes between neighbors and more on intergovernmental issues.
In 2012, the Legislature pulled funding from rebuilding the Meridian Road interchange, which the city desperately wanted. De Weerd tasked Simison with forming a task force to persuade the state to fund the project.
With an extra push from Gov. Butch Otter, the Idaho Transportation Department eventually funded it.
“That’s one result of his ability to convene a group of people, define a goal and a purpose, and then strategically move to get results,” De Weerd said.
Having worked with De Weerd the last 12 years, Simison says he offers the city a steady transition. While Simison says he would not break significantly with De Weerd’s vision for Meridian, the two are different people.
De Weerd ‘can do,’ Simison ‘more methodical’
De Weerd said Simison has helped to balance her. “He’s more methodical,” she said. “He looks at the steps, and I am more of that ‘Let’s do it!’ attitude.”
De Weerd has proven to be Simison’s biggest ally on the campaign trail. In September, she out a letter — paid for by his campaign — to a number of Meridian residents endorsing Simison. On a Saturday morning door-knocking in September, a few people brought it up.
“I know who you are,” says one man after Simison introduced himself. “I got the mayor’s letter. Love her, love you — you’ve got my vote.”
Not everyone is happy with Mayor Tammy. Her detractors say she has handed too much power to developers. Simison so far has allied himself with them, too. He hosted his campaign kickoff event at the offices of Ball Ventures Ahlquist in the new Ten Mile Crossing development off Interstate 84, greeting supporters like developer and GOP ex-gubernatorial candidate Tommy Ahlquist and David Turnbull of Brighton Corp.
He has also benefited from De Weerd’s political connections as he raises money. Since February, when Simison announced his campaign, he has raised nearly $100,000, collecting $1,000 checks from developers, general construction companies and the mayor herself.
Legislator who beat Simison comments
This isn’t Simison’s first run for elected office. In 2012, he ran for the Idaho House in Meridian’s District 21. During that election he also raised the most money of all the primary candidates — nearly $30,000. But he earned only 39% of the vote in the Republican primary, losing to Steven Harris by 317 votes.
“Voters had more conservative concerns than city concerns,” Harris told the Statesman in an interview. They “weren’t worried about splash pad in downtown Meridian. He’s a city guy, and I was not a city guy.”
Of all of this year’s Meridian mayoral campaigns, Simison’s is perhaps the most coordinated. He rented out a campaign office in downtown Meridian less than a block away from his office at City Hall. He bought an app that allows him to track the houses he has visited while campaigning and to record
how each interaction went. And as the campaign stretches into its final weeks, he’s taking every Friday off from work so he can focus on winning.
He raised nearly $100,000 through Sept. 30, $37,000 more than his nearest challenger, Joe Palmer.
His family’s new weekend hobby is door-knocking. On a Saturday morning in September, Simison was accompanied by Jenny, and his 8-year-old son Ryan. Anytime he’s out campaigning, he’s accompanied by at least one of his three kids.
He estimates he’s knocked on close to a thousand doors.
“I’m ready for this job. I’ve been watching all the responsibilities of the mayor day in and day out,” Simison said. “It’s time for a new challenge in my life.”