I wouldn’t call it a chip on his shoulder, but there’s something there, a persona poised to engage and fight when the pushback comes. And that’s inevitable when you are the leader of the minority House Democrats in the Republican-dominated Idaho Legislature.
Rep. Mat Erpelding’s smile and friendly countenance don’t always betray that feisty trait, but if you don’t anticipate it the first couple of times, you’ll be ready for it on the third go-round. Don’t underestimate this youthful-looking lawmaker.
A Democratic colleague, Rep. Hy Kloc of Boise, said this of Erpelding’s first year: “When you look up ‘Idaho Democrat’ in the dictionary, you see Mat Erpelding.” Young, intelligent, polished — “he gets along with everyone here in the House,” Kloc said. “I think he represents the best we have to offer.”
Republican House Speaker Scott Bedke, leader of the opposition party, got to know Erpelding well during the session. Bedke said Erpelding has some things to learn but “handles being in the minority better than I would.”
“He’s smart, likable, capable,” said Bedke. “We would welcome him into the Republican Party.”
After the defeat of his predecessor, Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, in November, Erpelding — now serving in only his third House term, and who had earlier served on the minority staff and as assistant minority leader last year — knew he was in line for the leadership post.
Excerpts from my interview after Erpelding navigated his first year of legislative leadership:
Q: Did you have doubts?
I am 42. There has not been a minority leader this young going back 20 years. There were some colleagues on board and some nervous about my style. I push really hard.
Q: So, what is your style?
Slightly more aggressive than Rep. Rusche. I am concerted and directed. ... What are we doing as a caucus and why are we doing it? There are times we need to hang together — and times we need to hold one another accountable for actions, and that might make some people uncomfortable.
Q: What did you learn this year?
Your effectiveness as minority leaders is not only being able to hold your team together, but being able to walk into the other team’s locker room and have people say hello to you and want to talk to you. I think I excelled at that ... maintaining high-quality relationships on the other side, including the majority leader (Mike Moyle) and the speaker (Bedke), and that hasn’t always been by being nice. It has been by inserting myself. Making sure that they knew I was there and that I was a formidable member of the leadership team.
Q: One of your mantras is that being in the minority party doesn’t mean being a victim. So what was your approach?
You don’t get to the summit of a mountain (Erpelding is a professional outdoor guide) by letting the environment dictate everything to you, or fear of something coming. If there’s no storm right now, then move up and get to a place where you can weather a potential storm. But don’t sit and wait because of fear of something coming. ... It is a fact that majority leadership will tell us ‘no,’ and we have two ways of dealing with that: We can cry about it or we can figure out how to get them to tell us ‘yes.’
Q: What is a takeaway from this leadership experience?
When you just represent your own district, it’s easy to make decisions because you’re representing District 19. ... When you step into the minority leader role you represent Democrats all over the state.
Q: During your final press conference you cited legislation you were pleased about. Do you wish you had some do-overs?
There was a really bad bill on general orders and I had attached the human rights act ... Add the Words. I wanted a vote on the floor, even if it was through the amendments process. I wanted people to vote on something that actually impacts people’s lives and especially people in District 19. ... So I tacked it on there and I think I pulled the amendment too soon. Politics is sometimes like a high-speed game of chicken.
Q: You just made it through your first year in leadership, arguably a statewide position. Any thoughts about running in a statewide race?
I think that most politicians who would say they are just going to go and do one thing are not being honest. You don’t get into this if you don’t like competition. And if you don’t like competition, and you get into it, you don’t stick around very long.