State Politics

Kitty Gurnsey, longtime moderate legislator from Boise’s North End, dies

Kitty Gurnsey loved the spotlight, her daughter, Kris Gurnsey Johnson, recalled Tuesday.

“She was a force, that’s for sure,” said Johnson, whose mother represented the North and East ends of Boise in the Idaho Legislature for 22 years. Kitty Gurnsey died at her home early Monday at age 87.

Sadly, her final years were marked by the old-age heartbreak of a vanishing memory, Johnson said.

“It’s nice to have people help me start to remember who she was,” she said, amid writing her mother’s obituary for Boise State University, which maintains a digital archive of her papers.

“Her speeches are hilarious and Boise State has just digitized them,” Johnson said. “She was extremely frugal and extremely dedicated, a moderate Republican in a time of less conflict than there is now.”

“She wouldn’t have called herself a feminist, but she certainly was all about empowering women and trying to make sure that things were fair for both men and women.”

Gurnsey was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1974 and won election 10 more times before she retired in 1996. She made her mark in the Legislature as co-chair of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, the state budget-writing committee. She was appointed to JFAC in 1976 and became co-chair in 1980, holding that position for 16 years.

“In her role as budget co-chairwoman, she brought a flair for numbers and an institutional memory that outlasted three governors and five speakers,” the Idaho Statesman wrote in 1996, describing her as “the most powerful woman in state government.” At the time, House Speaker Mike Simpson, now one of Idaho’s two U.S. representatives in Congress, said: “She runs the state budget like it’s her own checkbook.”

Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome and current JFAC co-chair, spoke to Melissa Davlin of Idaho Reports on Tuesday about being appointed to the committee when Gurnsey was co-chair.

“I was so wet behind the ears when I was appointed in my sophomore year to JFAC. Just did not know what to expect,” Bell said. “And she appeared to know everything, and I was just amazed.”

“And she stretched me. It stretched me because I decided at that time if I was going to spend my time in there, I was going to know what she knew.”

Kathleen W. Gurnsey was born on June 23, 1927, in Donnelly, the third of six children born to Robert G. Wallace and Thelma Halferty Wallace. Known from an early age as “Kitty,” she grew up on a ranch and graduated from McCall-Donnelly High School, where she was class valedictorian. She attended Kinman Business University in Spokane.

Gurnsey made her first run for the state House of Representatives in 1974, beating an incumbent legislator for the Republican nomination from her district.

“Practically all legislation is connected to the family ... and I believe more women should seek public office and participate in the governmental process,” she wrote in the Statesman.

Elected in November, she became just one of nine female legislators in Idaho. Her grandfathers, Robert Halferty and Frank Wallace, preceded her in the Legislature.

During her 22 years in office, she established a reputation as an independent legislator, typically described as a moderate. She openly identified with JFAC’s “Republicrat” coalition, moderate Republicans and Democrats who resisted severe budget cuts in the early 1980s.

According to her official biography in the Boise State archives, she sponsored legislation that established a state-supported kindergarten program in 1976, opposed the One-Percent initiative in 1978, championed public funding of the state women’s commission, and opposed the antiabortion bill (HB 625) of 1990.

She faced primary challenges from an outspoken conservative in 1982 and a right-to-life activist in 1990, and was attacked as a “Democrat in Republican clothing” by a conservative Republican state senator in 1994. She also faced vigorous Democratic opposition, particularly toward the end of her legislative career. Amid changing political demographics, she was the last Republican to hold the North End district seat

She lost her traditional support from the Idaho Education Association in the late 1980s because of her votes for leaner education appropriations. While she characterized herself as a strong supporter of public education, she maintained that the people “have to realize I am chairman of the Appropriations Committee and I am dedicated to balancing the budget.” In 1992 she told the Statesman that her votes in JFAC had become more conservative because of her long legislative experience and increasing willingness to challenge state agency funding requests. During her last campaign in 1994, the Statesman, in an editorial endorsement, described her as a “fiscal conservative but a strong supporter of education.” She won re-election that last time with 51 percent of the vote.

Family, civic life

She met Vern L. Gurnsey, a forester with the Boise Payette Lumber Company, in 1949 while working as a secretary for the U.S. Forest Service in McCall. They married the following year and moved to Boise, where her husband eventually became a vice president of Boise Cascade Corporation. They had three children, and Gurnsey was active on behalf of a number of civic and charitable causes, including the PTA, Red Cross, YMCA, Fundsy and St. Luke’s Hospital Auxiliary. While raising her family, Gurnsey took college classes, eventually graduating from Boise State University with a degree in business administration in 1976.

Gurnsey was an active member of the National Conference of State Legislatures, the National Order of Women Legislators, and the Pacific Northwest Legislative Leadership Forum. In 1982 she was appointed by U.S. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger to the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS) and served a three-year term. Service on that committee took her to military posts and conferences across the country.

In 1995, she received the Legislator of the Year award from the National Republican Legislators Association, one of only 12 legislators in the nation so honored that year. She received the Distinguished Community Service award from the Boise Area Chamber of Commerce in 1996, an honorary membership from the Idaho Public Employees Association in 1995, the Distinguished Alumni award from Boise State University in 1991 and BSU’s Silver Medallion in 1996. She had served as a trustee of the BSU Foundation since 1978.

A mid-summer memorial service at First Presbyterian Church in Boise is being planned. Summers Memorial Home in Boise is handling arrangements.

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