Graham Paterson is no political newbie, having done campaign work for Dirk Kempthorne, Steve Symms, Helen Chenoweth-Hage and Brent Coles.
But asked to offer his take on the House Republican leadership team, the normally glib Paterson slowed down to pick his way through the field of rhetorical cowpies. The silence was awkward, and Paterson tried to break the tension. “I can hear the clock ticking.”
Ultimately, the best Paterson could offer was a general statement that leadership — executive and legislative, in both parties — has done a good job navigating an “extremely stressful” economic environment. As an outsider, running for an open seat, he said he considered it hard to judge leadership further.
And that’s how it went generally, when we asked House Republican candidates about the race they don’t want to discuss.
Republicans who get elected to the House will cast their first tough votes weeks before the 2013 Legislature convenes. On Dec. 6, lawmakers will gather at the Statehouse for the start of the “organizational session,” to elect their floor leaders and jockey for committee assignments.
The behind-the-scenes elections are well under way. Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke of Oakley is actively gunning for the speaker’s post — even if it necessitates a challenge to Lawerence Denney of Midvale, who has held the top spot for six rocky years.
There’s also an open race for House majority caucus chairman. Ken Roberts has defected to the $87,156-a-year safe haven of the State Tax Commission — months after winning a GOP primary, even though Denney and Majority Leader Mike Moyle contributed to a political action committee that supported one of Roberts’ challengers.
Denney has made himself vulnerable through a series of decisions that seem aimed at protecting allies and punishing insurgents. He deposed two moderate committee chairs, Transportation Committee chairman Leon Smith and Agricultural Affairs Committee chairman Tom Trail. After filing an ethics complaint against Phil Hart, the Legislature’s habitual tax dodger and timber moocher, Eric Anderson found himself on the outs in his quest for a vice chairman’s post. After publicly seeking to fire redistricting commissioner Dolores Crow — a popular Nampa Republican who had served 24 years in the House — Denney took the unusual step of apologizing to the caucus.
Yet many House Republicans honored the caucus cone of silence. Six-year Rep. Brent Crane of Nampa, for example, offered no hints into his insights, except to say that he is running for Bedke’s old spot.
Rare was the unguarded moment of candor that serves no political objective. When we asked Rep. Darrell Bolz of Caldwell whether he was comfortable with leadership, his answer was telling: “Yes and no.” The 12-year veteran and Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee vice chairman explained that he has a good relationship with GOP leadership, but said communication with membership has been lacking.
Uh, yes. Firing two committee chairs — then leaving them to hear the word through the Statehouse press corps — could qualify as a lapse in communication.
But alas, Bolz’s remarks were an oasis of honesty in a desert of doublespeak. Political junkies are left to read the tea leaves: the campaign finance reports.
Unopposed in the Nov. 6 election, Bedke has become something of a one-man ATM for House Republicans. He has contributed to 31 candidates’ campaigns between May 28 and Sept. 30 (and counting the GOP primary season, he has contributed money to 43 House Republican nominees statewide).
Of course, politicians often try to help an ally win a close election — and Paterson, one of Bedke’s benefactors, is facing
Boise Democrat Hy Kloc in an open race in District 16, a possible swing district in West Boise and Garden City. But Bedke is also giving some money to Republicans who are unopposed or facing only token opposition, and are almost sure to have a vote in December’s leadership race.
Perhaps because he is facing a Democratic challenger, Denney has laid low since the primary, contributing to just one House candidate, Daniel Santiago, a Ron Paul Republican looking to unseat John Rusche of Lewiston, the Democrats’ minority leader.
Despite this funding disparity, leadership races are notoriously tough to handicap. That may be especially true in this case, since the differences between Denney and Bedke have less to do with philosophy than they do with temperament.
Surely, there is a good story to be told about the jockeying for leadership. Not surprisingly, House Republicans aren’t lining up to tell the tale.