Norm Semanko has spent the past few years running in high-profile political circles.
State Republican Party chairman since 2008, he presided over the GOP’s sweep of statewide and congressional races last November. Semanko doubled as general counsel for the Republican National Committee until March.
And yet, on Monday, Semanko told the Statesman editorial board that he would be more than happy to expend his political energy on reworking Eagle’s sign ordinance, or rolling back city fees, or negotiating with neighboring Garden City on Greenbelt bicycle access.
“This is not a partisan deal,” Semanko said of his run for mayor. “This is about our local community.”
Yes, it was indeed a different Semanko who held court with the editorial board. I’ve used this space to criticize Semanko some in the past — most recently when he indulged in craven partisan opportunism after this summer’s failed redistricting effort.
That’s all in the past, says Semanko, should Eagle voters promote him from City Council on Nov. 8. He says he would step down as state GOP chairman — but not because he believes the position constitutes a conflict of interest with a nonpartisan mayor’s job. It is, instead a function of time, and stepping away from the travel and demands of the GOP post.
Semanko would hardly be the first Idaho politico to leave the red-vs.-blue battlefield for the (nominally) nonpartisan world of municipal politics. For example, Dave Bieter left the Idaho House, where he represented Boise’s North End as a Democratic lawmaker, when he was elected mayor in 2003. It’s part of the political reality.
Here’s another element of the reality. Semanko — like Bieter before him — would take to the mayor’s office all the contacts and the baggage accumulated from his partisan political work.
Semanko gives himself credit for helping the city negotiate a cheaper contract on law enforcement with Ada County. Sheriff Gary Raney is a fellow Republican, and I don’t doubt that this helped break the ice. But these things cut both ways. Even in a conservative state and community such as Eagle, Semanko’s no-prisoners party-line paper trail will probably turn some people off.
It’s a point incumbent Mayor Jim Reynolds made, subtly, in a separate interview with the editorial board later that day. Reynolds said Semanko has done a good job on the council, before endeavoring to set the hook. “He postures a little bit,” said Reynolds. “That’s kind of how he is.”
For his part, Semanko takes a swipe or two at Reynolds. Defending the city’s decision to hold the line on the 2011-12 budget, forgoing the 3 percent increase allowed under state law, Semanko questions whether Reynolds is as committed to holding the line on spending. The mayor votes only to break council ties, so Reynolds had no vote on the hold-the-line budget — and he stopped short of calling the move a mistake. “I think it was politically a good thing to do.”
And yet, when it comes to the future of their once burgeoning community, the two sound eerily similar. Said Reynolds: “You’re either growing or you’re dying.” Said Semanko: “If you’re not growing, you’re dying.”
Like so many elections, it comes down to how the candidates position themselves. Appointed in October 2010, and running for office for the first time in his life, Reynolds pledges he will take a business approach to decisions — in contrast to Semanko’s political and lawyerly view of the issues. Semanko says he has tried to maintain his independence in his three years on the council, and would govern the same way as mayor.
“This is my comfort zone,” Semanko said, sounding not at all like a political party heavy.
It will be interesting to see where Eagle voters find their comfort zone.