Editor’s note: This is the third in a four-day series profiling the four most prominent candidates for Boise mayor in the Nov. 5 election.
Rebecca Arnold, the Ada County Highway District Commission president running for mayor of Boise, grew up poor in a small town near the Ohio River west of Paducah, Kentucky.
How poor? Arnold’s family bathed in a long galvanized tub placed in the back yard and heated by sunlight. Her mom would run Arnold and her four siblings through the same bathwater.
She was 13 before her family got indoor plumbing, around 1970. Before she was old enough to go to school, she remembers standing on a foot stool, washing dishes with water pumped from a well outside into the kitchen.
“Some people considered us white trash because we were very poor,” Arnold said in an interview. “We didn’t have a lot, and education was not something that was valued, especially for girls, so that was a challenge.”
Despite her humble beginnings, Arnold graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky. She later earned a master’s degree in business administration from Murray State and a law degree from the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, Missouri.
During her final year of law school, Arnold and her husband, Tom, an anesthetist, learned they were going to be parents. Tom had a good job in St. Louis, and Arnold had already accepted a job “with one of those big downtown law firms.” They had planned to stay there several years, save some money and move west.
“I couldn’t fathom trying to raise a child in St. Louis and working for a downtown law firm where I’d be gone for so many hours a day, easily 10 to 12 hours,” Arnold said. “So we changed our plans and started looking for somewhere else to go.”
Arnolds move to Boise
Tom Arnold had a friend who knew there was an opening for an anesthetist in Boise and encouraged him to apply. He flew out in March 1987, spent five days.
“When he came back he said ‘Well, if they offer me the job, I think that’s where we ought to go,’” recalled Arnold, now 62. “So our son was born May 4, I graduated from law school on May 15 and we loaded everything into a Ryder truck on May 30.”
She arrived in Boise on June 2, 1987, with a 4-week-old baby. And although Arnold had been to Stanley and had floated the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, she had never been to Boise.
“And I did not know a single person here,” she said. “Still, it was one of the best decisions ever. You just can’t ask for anything better than a safe, friendly community. People here were so warm and embracing.”
Arnold took a year off to raise her son and then looked for an attorney position. She spent six years with Givens Pursley & Hunter and nine years as a corporate attorney with Albertsons.
She later spent more than eight years operating her own law practice and working part-time selling real estate, primarily for family and friends, and conducting personal real estate investments. Since 2012, she has worked for W.H. Moore Co., a commercial real estate developer in Meridian.
“Rebecca Arnold would be as fine of a mayor as you could possibly hope for,” said Winston Moore, the company’s owner.
“She has good common sense, she’s stable, she’s level-headed, she’s a clear thinker and she’s totally objective,” Moore said. “She walks around a problem and looks at it from 360 degrees.”
He said she listens carefully to both sides and asks questions before making a decision, much as CEOs of major companies do.
Arnold, a Republican, has been elected commissioner four times and has spent 15 years on the board. The highway district, which maintains 2,400 miles of roads in Ada County, has 305 employees and an annual budget of $125 million.
The Boise-ACHD feud
The city and the Ada County Highway District have had a bitter relationship that goes back years. Mayor David Bieter has long fought — without success — for the city to take over jurisdiction over its roads. He also wants the city to control the property tax dollars Boise residents pay to build and maintain its streets.
Ada County voters created the district in 1972 to improve roads throughout the county. Before the highway district was formed, individual cities and the county took care of their roads and streets. ACHD controls all roads and bridges in the county except state highways.
Bieter once called the highway district a “failed model.” While attending a national mayors’ conference in 2014, he told the Statesman he was the only mayor attending the conference “who does not have control of his or her streets.”
The mayor was also critical of the highway district’s response to Snowmageddon, the heavy snowfall that paralyzed city streets in early 2017. The highway district prioritized snow removal so that major roads and school routes were cleared first. Neighborhoods were left untouched until residents complained.
The highway district bought an additional 11 plows in time for the following winter, and residential streets were added to the highway district’s priority list.
Arnold said the relationship between the city and the highway district would be “greatly improved,” if she’s elected mayor.
“I understand the function of the highway district,” Arnold said. “I understand the statutory authority, and I respect the will of the citizens when it was created.”
Bieter, she said, doesn’t respect residents’ wishes in establishing the district.
“Mayor Bieter has made it no secret of the fact he wants to control ACHD,” Arnold said. “And that’s not what the citizens wanted. He’s very negative about ACHD in the press and that shows disrespect for other elected officials. It’s not as if ACDH is some evil creature that sprang up and wrestled control of the streets away from the cities.”
If elected, Arnold said she would encourage the city and the highway district to hold more joint meetings so that issues and concerns could be discussed.
“The manner of speaking with the agency, the whole attitude and dialogue would be different,” she said.
As a leader, Arnold says she likes to get things done.
A June 2017 crash on Interstate 84 at the Cloverdale Road overpass killed four people and caused a fire that destroyed the overpass. Arnold said the highway district was told it could take two to three years to replace the overpass.
The district and the Idaho Transportation Department got together and got a new, wider road, with sidewalks and bike lanes, over the freeway open within a year.
“We were able to collaborate and figure out how to get it done in a third of the time it normally would have taken,” she said. “That’s what I want to bring to the mayor’s office.”
‘Her behavior puzzled me’
Arnold has detractors.
Rae Brooks, who lives in the West End neighborhood, said she found Arnold inconsistent at an ACHD meeting she attended in August. Commissioners heard two neighborhood issues that night, one involving a traffic diverter in the Boise Highlands and the other regarding a request to undo a reduction in lanes on 27th Street.
Brooks said Arnold dismissed concerns from people who didn’t live near East Braemere Drive during discussion about a road diversion meant to increase safety for pedestrians and bicyclists. But on the 27th Street issue, Arnold was sympathetic to patients of a chiropractor — none of whom lived in the neighborhood — who had a clinic on the street and complained that traffic frequently backs up and makes the road unsafe.
Brooks said the road has become safer since the 0.7-mile stretch between State Street and Fairview Avenue was reconfigured in 2014 from two lanes in each direction to one, with an added center turn lane. The reconfiguration also added bike lanes.
“Her behavior puzzled me because it wasn’t consistent,” Brooks said in a telephone interview.
Arnold lost to Samuel Hoagland in a nonpartisan 2014 election for a district judgeship. One issue in that race was a dispute between the Arnolds and the city of Stanley over a 5-acre property they own there. The Arnolds sued several times while trying to develop the property, costing the city of 68 people tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees.
Arnold spent nearly a dozen years on the board of the Idaho Association of Highway Districts, which represents 62 highway districts in Idaho. She also serves on the board of the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho, or COMPASS — the regional transportation agency. Bieter also sits on that board.
Arnold has volunteered with nine other groups, including the Idaho Volunteer Lawyers Program for court-appointed special advocates assisting abused and neglected children.
“Acting as the attorney for the guardian ad litem in child protection cases, those were tough. They’re heart-wrenching,” she said.
She also volunteered for groups from the Idaho Child Abuse Coalition and the Kare For Kids Project to the Ada County Boys and Girls Club and the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.
In past years, Arnold did a lot of river rafting and kayaking.
“Now it seems like the only thing I have much time for now is gardening,” she said. “I love homegrown tomatoes, which are so different from anything you can get in the store. I love heirloom tomatoes.
Proposed library ‘grandiose monument’
Arnold said she was dismayed last month when the Idaho Statesman published drawings of what the new Boise library might look like inside. The drawings were provided to city officials in May 2018 but it took a public records request from a Statesman reporter to get them released to the public.
“I found it interesting that someone did a public records request to get the interior design,” Arnold said. “The city had those designs since May of 2018. So why wasn’t that released to the public sooner?”
Arnold said she is concerned about the proposed library, which Bieter placed on hold in August when a new cost estimate placed its cost at $104 million. Arnold said she isn’t sure the city needs a brand-new library.
“I think we have to take a hard look at the current building and whether or not it is a building that could be revamped and expanded,” she said. “If not, then I’m OK with building another library. But it needs to be scaled down.”
Arnold says she is disappointed in how the project has been handled.
“I don’t want some grandiose monument to somebody’s ego,” she said. “I want something that serves the needs we have.”
Moore said he believes Arnold could follow in the tradition of former Mayor Dirk Kempthorne, who was elected in 1985 and served seven years before being elected a U.S. senator and, later, governor.
“It’s difficult to say anybody is ever the best, but there would be nobody better than her should she become elected mayor of Boise,” Moore said.