Legislative leadership races: Will baggage weigh down Denney and Davis?

Next week’s GOP legislative leadership races may hinge on, well, leadership.

That’s fitting, since there aren’t deep philosophical distinctions between the candidates. And the absence of ideological differences makes the races even tougher to handicap.

The House speaker’s race is a referendum on Lawerence Denney’s six error-filled years at the helm. His kid-gloves treatment of ethics-optional Phil Hart. His heavy-handed dumping of two committee chairs who were too independent (read: moderate) for his liking. His bungled attempt to fire former state Rep. Dolores Crow from a state redistricting commission.

Even though the challenge is coming from another member of the leadership team, Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, make no mistake. Denney owns his record, and next week he’ll have to run on it.
While it’s been well-known for months that Bedke was positioning to challenge Denney, a quieter Senate leadership race has only recently taken shape.

Sen. Dean Mortimer will challenge Majority Leader and fellow Idaho Falls Republican Bart Davis. Mortimer jumped in after Assistant Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Boise, abandoned the run and opted to stay put.

The seeds of this race may well have been sown on Jan. 11, when Senate Republicans voted to keep John McGee of Caldwell in leadership — six months after he pleaded guilty to a DUI, and less than two months before he resigned in the wake of a sexual harassment complaint.

On Jan. 20, and before the sexual harassment issue came to light, nine senators took the unusual step of peeling back the caucus curtain, saying they voted to dump McGee. Mortimer and Winder were among the senators who went public.

As Winder told Dan Popkey of the Statesman this week, the McGee fiasco may come back to haunt Davis. “There was some concern Sen. Davis hadn’t been as forceful as he could have been to avert some of the problems.”

Davis has served a decade as majority leader, and the McGee episode certainly wasn’t his finest hour. Then again, Mortimer and his colleagues had their chance to boot McGee, and were outvoted. Can, and will, they blame Davis for how this all unfolded?

Leadership races are tough to handicap, because lawmakers often have very personal reasons for the way they vote. Friendship and loyalty. Financial support from past elections. The promise of a coveted committee assignments. In that mix, it’s certainly possible that some lawmakers will vote to replace Denney or Davis over bad P.R., the likes of which reflect poorly on all caucus members.

The only thing more foolhardy than predicting a leadership vote may be to endorse in one. Our editorial board did that in 2006, when we recommended then-Rep. Bill Deal, a more moderate and urban lawmaker from Nampa, over Denney.
The winning House leaders were none too happy with that endorsement — although, in retrospect, I think we got it right.

For what it’s worth, I agree with an editorial from The Times-News in Twin Falls, which said Bedke, one of their local lawmakers, represents a “welcome change” from Denney. The speaker has done plenty to earn a no-confidence vote from his caucus. (On the Senate side, I’m not sure I’d say the same about Davis.)

But when the votes are cast next week, I’ll predict this much: Lawmakers aren’t going to vote based on the say-so from an editorial board or a pundit.

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If Winder could not seal a deal on beating Davis, I don't see how Mortimer can. He voted for the horrible Abortion bill along with Winder, and the House dumped the thing-even Tom Loertscher wouldn't touch it. Mortimer has not authored any significant legislation. His main duty has been to carry appropriation bills, in both the House and the Senate. Sen. Mortimer is sore because he won't get the Chairmanship of the Education Committee. By the way, Chairmanships in the Senate are determined by seniority, not awarded as plums to the faithful supporters. As far as leadership on the McGee mess, who's to say it was Sen. Davis's decision as to how to handle it, as opposed to the Pro-Tem's opinion? The Pro-Tem holds the strong hand there. Sen. Winder has an ax to grind, and he's grinding it on Sen. Davis, because he really wanted that job.