The effort by House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, and Idaho Republican Chairman Norm Semanko to remove their appointees to the redistricting commission for an alleged lack of partisan fealty backfired, says Republican Commissioner Sheila Olsen.
“The adversity that we had bound us together even more so,” Olsen told the City Club of Boise as the six redistricting commissioners received the Dottie and Ed Stimpson Award for Civic Engagement at a reception Wednesday night.
Olsen and other commissioners offered a frank post-mortem during the award ceremony at the Esther Simplot Performing Arts Academy, which included a standing ovation honoring GOP Commissioners Dolores Crow and Randy Hansen, the targets of Denney and Semanko.
In January, Denney and Semanko tried to fire Commission Co-Chairwoman Crow, of Nampa, and Hansen, of Twin Falls. Both Crow and Hansen are former GOP lawmakers. The Denney-Semanko gambit was rebuffed by Republican Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and the Idaho Supreme Court.
The commission then swiftly approved a plan redrawing Idaho’s 35 legislative districts to reflect population growth, after the Supreme Court rejected their first plan because it split too many counties. The second plan, now in place, will stand through the 2020 election, barring a subsequent legal challenge.
Democratic Co-Chairman Ron Beitelspacher of Grangeville prompted the ovation for Crow and Hansen as he reflected on the attack on their party loyalty.
“You can’t give what they had given in their lives to the Republican Party…and not feel shaken a little bit by a challenge that threatens and demeans who they are inside,” Beitelspacher said. “And they stood up with an incredible amount of integrity. They are great Americans.”
Olsen, of Idaho Falls, is among the state’s most respected GOP activists, having held leadership posts in the campaigns of Gov. Butch Otter, Sen. Mike Crapo, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna and many others. Her late husband, Dennis, was Idaho GOP Chairman from 1977-85.
Olsen recounted a meeting with Republicans on the first commission, which fractured in the summer of 2011 along partisan lines and failed to meet its deadline to write a plan last September. Olsen said she met with the former commissioners the night before the second commission convened.
“I realized the atmosphere and cantankerous things that were going on,” Olsen said. “I woke up at four in the morning and wondered what I’d gotten myself into.”
Olsen said she waited until 7 a.m. to call Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, for counsel. Olsen was appointed by Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, but Hill was in Turkey, prompting the call to the Senate's No. 2 leader.
Recalling her conversation with Davis, Olsen said, “I said, ‘I’m in this. What do I do?’ You know what he said? He said, ‘Let Sheila be Sheila.’ So, that’s the kind of support that I had.”
Olsen also spoke of an early map-drawing session with Democratic Commissioner Shauneen Grange of Boise, who was working on Ada County, one of the few places where Democrats are competitive with the GOP.
“I realized what she was doing, paying no attention to the political dynamics,” Olsen said. “And I complimented her for not being partisan.
“And this is what she said, ‘It’s easy to be non-partisan when you’re following the law.’ And truly, that’s what we did,” Olsen continued. “None of us are changing our party or any of that. But what a concept: We followed the law.”
Said Crow: “We only did what we were asked to do and what we’d sworn we would do.”
Beitelspacher credited the late-Senate President Pro Tem Jerry Twiggs of Blackfoot, former House Speaker and now-Congressman Mike Simpson and former Democratic Rep. Jim Hansen of Boise for convincing the Legislature to amend the Idaho Constitution in 1994 to create an evenly balanced commission — three Democrats and three Republicans — to redraw political maps every 10 years to reflect population shifts documented by the census.
Democratic Commissioner Elmer Martinez, a former lawmaker from Pocatello, offered a nod to the foundational work of the first commission, which held 14 public hearings across the state and drew maps that assisted the second group.
Martinez noted that the first commission's Democratic Co-Chairman, Allen Andersen of Pocatello, died in November of a heart attack at age 67, about two months after the first commission was disbanded.
"Who can say what level of stress and work contributed to that?" Martinez said. "But I just want to honor the work the past commission did, especially Allen Andersen."
Martinez noted that he has a 14-year-old son, and expressed hope that his generation and other Idahoans will find a model in the bipartisan success of the commission.
“I think it’s important that people have faith in our government,” Martinez said. “I think that in some small way that people who paid attention, such as your group, and all the people out there in the state recognize that people can work together. The processes of government can work if people make the effort.”
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