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Newcomb’s out

Bruce Newcomb, who has been speaker of the Idaho House longer than anyone in the state’s history, is headed out: He has announced his retirement.

Bruce Newcomb“Announce” is one of those portentious verbs used a lot in press releases and regularly deleted from mention here at Ridenbaugh Press; but in this case the Newcomb announcement carries the weight. He has been an important figure in Idaho government for nearly all of the 20 years he has been in the Idaho House; he has been in leadership most of that time. Position doesn’t account for it all, though.

A usually affable guy, well-liked personally by many in the statehouse, he has managed to keep the tone in the House lighter, on many occasions, than it might otherwise have been. He seems to have capped, early on, any ambition for higher office than he has had, and to an uncommon degree has been willing to put the interests of others first. (Exhibit one would be his good friend Mike Simpson, who probably would not have been a sucessful speaker and later a member of Congress but for the unglamorous work Newcomb did, as Simpson’s majority leader, for so many years.) If he merits some long-run criticism for making decisions that have blocked useful progress on taxes and some other subject, he also has been extremely useful in other areas, notably water law.

The departure of all that is half of what makes this announcement an announcement. The other half has to do with what’s next.

Who will be the new speaker?

There’s no perfect answer, and it’s been a long time since the dynamics have been tested. Newcomb, who was second in line in leadership, Simpson’s closest ally and highly popular in the caucus, never had a serious challenge when he moved up to take over. Simpson, a previous loser for the job, had strong good will built up in his 1992 run at the job, which made it easy. Before that, for several elections, there was a moderate v. conservative battle in-caucus, which resulted in more ideologically identiable speakerships: moderate Tom Boyd, conservative Tom Stivers, and Ralph Olmstead (at first thought a hard-core conservative, but variable in approach once in office). That dynamic doesn’t seem likely now; the House is too monolithically conservative.

In theory, Majority Leader Lawerence Denney might move up. But there’s something in the speakership dynamic that seems to argue against it; majority leaders often lose the attempt to move up, in part because they often play the role of easy-going party leader as opposed to the more acerbic speaker. (Newcomb was the exception to that rule.) Does Denney have the indpendent, loyal base to become speaker? We’re guessing not, and if he does, he needs to collect it quickly.

If you’re looking for a person who can lead a strong block of conservative votes as a base for election to the top job, which has more often been a winning formula, look first – we speculate – to Assistant Majority Leader Mike Moyle. He got the number three job in leadership largely because he had already emerged as a force among economic conservatives in the House and had to be reckoned with on tax matters.

Other names to watch? Ken Roberts, ambitious, may be interested; like Moyle he’s a reckonable figure on financial and some other matters. Could Bill Deal (a 16-year veteran now) emerge as the anti-Moyle or anti-Roberts? Will the Magic Valley insist on holding the job (as it so often has in recent decades) with someone like Scott Bedke?

Early moves probably are underway as you read this . . .

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