Editor’s note: This is the second in a four-day series profiling the four most prominent candidates for Boise mayor in the Nov. 5 election.
In the late 1980s or early 1990s, on his first date with a woman named Julia, David Bieter told her he would like to run for mayor one day.
Almost a decade later, they got married. Bieter forgot what he said. Five years after that, he called her from his office in the state legislature. It was February 2003, and Mayor Brent Coles had just resigned after the state attorney general filed corruption charges against him.
Carolyn Terteling-Payne was sworn in as interim mayor but said she wouldn’t seek a four-year term that fall. The seat was open. Bieter told his wife he wanted to run for the job.
“She said, ‘Well, you said that years ago,’” he said in an interview. “She remembered it! I really didn’t.”
He had been preparing for a while. Bieter, now 59, grew up in Boise and left only to go to college, earning a bachelor’s degree in international studies from Minnesota’s University of St. Thomas and a law degree from the University of Idaho.
He worked as an attorney for cities and counties around the state, including with the Ada County Prosecutor’s Office, before opening his own firm focused on municipal law.
In January 1999, his parents, Pat and Eloise Bieter, died in a head-on crash on icy Idaho 55 north of Horseshoe Bend. Pat was a beloved educator and a Democratic state legislator representing the North End’s District 19. Eloise, the daughter of Basque immigrants, was active in Boise’s Basque community. She inspired her husband’s love of the culture — a love that led to the foundation of Boise State University’s Basque Studies and study-abroad programs.
Shortly after their deaths, Ada County Democrats put forth three potential people to take Pat’s seat: horticulturist Jerry Carter, environmental coordinator Rick Mallory and attorney David Bieter. Gov. Dirk Kempthorne chose Bieter.
He finished the term his father had just won the previous November. He then had to win it himself — and did, twice. In 2000, he captured 9,607 votes of more than 14,000 cast, besting his closest opponent by more than 5,600 votes. Two years later, he beat a Libertarian opponent by more than 10,000 votes and took 85.6% of the vote.
Then Coles misused public money, got caught, resigned. The stage was set. Bieter called his wife.
“By that time, when it was opened in that way,” he said, “It wasn’t such a crazy idea.”
Bieter’s Boise Beginnings
The man who, seeking his fifth term, is now Boise’s longest-serving mayor was born on Nov. 1, 1959, at Saint Alphonsus Hospital.
His first memories of Boise, he says, are of visiting the Carnegie Public Library a few blocks from his home in the early 1960s. The library, a grocery store, his school and a park were all within walking distance of his family’s house on 8th Street.
Bieter is the middle child of five. He was scrappy, his brother John said, with a determination to always do what he believed was correct. He liked to talk politics even when he was young, digging deeper than his siblings in a lot of ways.
“He was deeply involved in debates and issues,” John Bieter said. “We were all politically interested as kids, but he was exponentially so.”
Bieter played basketball and football at Bishop Kelly High School. Tim Brennan, a former teammate who is now Bishop Kelly’s head football coach, said he knew Bieter would be successful in life.
“He was the kind of teammate you wanted — a very good football player, one who is physical and tough and still caring,” Brennan said.
Bieter graduated from Bishop Kelly High School in 1978. In his time in high school, he won the presidency of the student body his senior year, a spot on the homecoming court and the nickname “Buck” from a coach.
John Bieter said the teenage Dave liked to talk politics. Once, Dave went from his job at a car wash on State Street to a city council hearing on a now-forgotten ordinance. Bieter spoke to the council still in uniform, with his name plastered on his shirt.
“It points to this deep conviction he’s always had,” John said. “It was always important to him to be a part of this city. He’s always had a desire to participate in it.”
His Basque heritage also helped to shape his politics.
His mother, Eloise, born Eloise Garmendia, didn’t speak English until she was in first grade, Bieter said. Like many children of immigrants, she would translate for her parents while they learned English. She taught her children to speak the Basque language, which may make Bieter the only Basque-speaking mayor in the country.
What he learned about how his mother worked to assimilate into the community through Basque events and participation in Boise Music Week in the 1950s helps shape his stance on immigration and refugees in the city today, he said.
“It’s one of the things we’ve made efforts to repeat,” Bieter said. “How do we get immigrants and refugees assimilated? I think through the arts and through those kind of events, it helps to do that. … Her experience especially gives us a pretty optimistic view of how a welcoming city ought to be.”
He matches his yard signs and campaign materials to the red, green and white of the flag of the Basque Country, an autonomous region in Spain.
Bieter’s win in 2003 was a long shot. He was outspent by his two Republican opponents in a city that for a long time had been considered a lock for conservatives. He struck a chord with voters who didn’t trust City Hall at the time by promising a more ethical city government.
He won with more than 50 percent of the total vote, avoiding the run-off vote still required in city code for any election where no mayoral candidate gets the majority.
“I remember that first election night,” John said. “The loss of our parents was a blow to the whole family. We were all so shell-shocked. Then four years later, he won. It was a great moment for him, and it was a great moment for our family.”
Bieter created an ethics commission for the city, one that still exists, and held open office hours on Saturdays. Oversight consumed his first term, he would later tell the Statesman, as he was primarily focused on sorting out what the city government was and could be after the scandal.
He won re-election in 2007, 2011 and 2015, allowing him to work on the issues most important to him.
Bieter has sought to make Boise “the most livable city in the country.” As mayor, he worked to improve access to open space through levies to protect the foothills. (Under his predecessor and current challenger, Brent Coles, voters in 2001 passed a $10 million Foothills levy; in 2015, voters passed a $10 million open space levy. Bieter supported both, even holding a fundraiser for the Foothills levy.)
His administration opened branch libraries. More parks were created. Crime fell. The city established itself as a “Welcoming City.”
But growth in the city and surrounding areas have made problems that were once small much bigger. Traffic has gotten worse at the same time housing prices have soared beyond many residents’ reach. Public transit remains skeletal. Taxes are rising.
People are discontent on the proposed library and stadium projects to the point that more than 5,000 Boise voters signed a petition to get those multimillion dollar projects on the November ballot. Instead of a yes-or-no vote on the projects, the measures instead call for a separate citywide election before millions are spent on a library or stadium.
Judy Peavey-Derr, who has held several elected offices including time with the Greater Boise Auditorium District and as an Ada County commissioner, ran against Bieter in 2015. She won 8,716 votes to Bieter’s 22,722. She credits his continued emphasis on open space, but her problem with the mayor now, as it was when she ran against him, is that she doesn’t think he listens to constituents.
“We’ve told him time and time again what our problems are,” Peavey-Derr said in a phone interview. “He wants to spend, but we’re not so sure. We’ve told him that and it feels like there’s no response.”
She points to the library project in particular, where Bieter said the city could pay more than $50 million in cash. That money would be better used, she said, to support branch libraries, to add emergency personnel or saved in a way that could allow the city to lower taxes.
To Bieter, accusations he isn’t listening are misguided at best. Just because he doesn’t agree or wouldn’t go about something the same way doesn’t mean he’s not listening, Bieter said.
“There are so many ways that I interact with the community,” he said. He listed everything from the Saturday office hours he still holds today to meetings with the students on boards and commissions for the city. “You can always do better and look for ways to interact. But I mean, you see me around. I interact constantly.”
Bieter has locked down endorsements from half the members of the City Council, several state legislators and the Boise Fire Fighter’s union.
“He’s a personable, passionate individual,” TJ Thomson, a City Council member who has held campaign parties for Bieter. “He’s literally the most personable elected official I’ve had the chance to work with.”
‘I really, really like being mayor’
Bieter’s Boise is admittedly different than what his 14-year-old daughter, Josephine, is growing up in. The city’s population is three times the size of what it was when he was her age. All around Boise are more businesses, buildings, cars, people.
He feels that Boise is at a contentious time politically, and he’d like to steer it to calmer waters.
The city is still safe and clean, he points out. There have been “some really bad cycles” in Boise’s history, but he said his daughter is living through a “vibrant” time.
Public art is all around. The police department, he says, has a generally good relationship with residents, something important to get right. Boise is authentic and historic and kind, he says.
“The biggest thrill of this job is to go to a park, to a library, to an event and watch people enjoy it,” Bieter said.
“I really, really like being mayor.”