Writings and observations

Chick Bilyeu

Chick Bilyeu/Idaho State University

Some descriptive words go negative over time. “Bombastic” – you typically associate that, especially when linked to someone involved in politics, with self-importance, arrogance, self-righteousness, humorlessness . . .

But that’s where you have to be careful, because you could fairly, sort of, describe as “bombastic” the style employed by Charles E. “Chick” Bilyeu, and yet none of those associated descriptors came close to fitting him. His oratory in the state Senate or on the stump often went beyond “hearty,” sometimes approaching full roar. But it wasn’t expression of ego, or affectation, either; it was a carefully crafted device, a tool he used for bringing the particular kind of attention he wanted to the points he was trying to make.

Bilyeu, who turned 90 not long ago, died Tuesday, was one of the beloved figures of Pocatello-area politics, and had been for half a century. A Democrat, he came up in the era when politicians knew which side they were on, and knew who the opposition was, but also knew enough not to turn either into saints or demons. Bilyeu was a politician partly because of interest in public affairs but also because he simply liked people.

It might not have been quite that way. He could have been more defensive or closed in (or less likable); he was an academic (speech and drama at Idaho State University) with background in national television work, who lost a string of races in the 60s, after which wife Diane tried running the state Senate in 1968 and won. She didn’t run in 1970 and he (using many of the same elect-Bilyeu signs) replaced her that year. The following years Republican leaders informed him that, nothing personal, he’d be losing his Senate seat in the upcoming reapportionment, the districts were being re-carved in such a way he’d never survive. But when Bilyeu eventually did lose his Senate seat to a Republican, it happened a couple of decades later, in 1994. His constituents seemed to like him too.

He took politics and his Senate work seriously (many of those years he spent on the budget committee), but what sticks in memory is sheer enjoyment he seemed to take in the people and the work around him. The combination was important, because while Bilyeu was a well-trained orator, he was not one of the Senate’s most frequent speakers; when he set his talents to a subject, serious purpose lay behind it. He was a fine comic speaker when he chose, and capable of evoking the drama of an important situation just as well.

(He was also a speech instructor to a couple of generations of Idaho Democratic politicians, though the style seemed to wear best on Bilyeu himself.)

Back in the 50s, as a young instructor at the Pocatello college, Bilyeu took a liking to one of his young female students, and a romantic relationship ensued. We have some dark phrases to cover that sort of thing nowadays, too. But that’s where you have to pause, again, and remember that we’re talking here about a different world. Chick and Diane Bilyeu soon married and were still married on the day he died, somewhere around a half-century later, the year after she had made her return to the Idaho Senate.

Condolences to the Bilyeu family, and to eastern Idaho’s political world. But the memories will be there in bold, dramatic strokes – Chick saw to that.

Share on Facebook


UPDATE We presumed in the post below, from this morning, that Curtis would resign “before long.” He certainly did: Has already, as of this afternoon.

We’ve seen more than enough of the lurid – almost unbelievably lurid – story of Washington Representative Richard Curtis, R-La Center, which (as one blog commenter wrote) has become strange enough to redefine downward that of Idaho Senator Larry Craig.

There is another matter to consider here, though, and that is the nature of the legislative district Curtis represents, and its political future – because an earthquake like this is going to have repercussions. Curtis personally is not among the most prominent of Washington legislators, and he hasn’t been there especially long – he’s in his second term. Before that, he served on the La Center city council, but that’s the extent of his political record. We’d guess that, unlike Craig, who had invested his whole adult life in politics before scandal hit, Curtis will depart public office before long.

If he does, that would trigger an appointment of a new Republican legislator for the seat. And there’s a line of thought that might end the story. But maybe not.

District 18

District 18

District 18 covers the bulk of Clark County outside of Vancouver proper, which means it takes in Camas and Washougal east of the bigger city, and skips north to take in Ridgefield and the white-hot growth areas around La Center and Battle Ground. (Drive any of the major roads in that area and you’ll see one new subdivision after another, even well outside city limits.) There’s also a piece of rural eastern Cowlitz County, around Kalama, though that’s the small-population piece. This is traditionally rural country which has moved increasing suburban over the last 20 years and now – especially around central Battle Ground but in some other places too – is taking on a more urban tinge.

It is, or has been, a consistently Republican district. But . . .

The senator for this area for more than a decade has been Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, a figure of enough political strength in the area to run a substantial race for the U.S. House in 2002 against Democrat Brian Baird. But not enough to win (he took only 38.3%). Zarelli has won his Senate seat in four elections, but except for 2000 general election (which he won with 58.6%), he has squeaked by, falling short of 54% in 1995, 1996 and 2004. He’s up for re-election next year. Those are not powerhouse numbers for a veteran incumbent under any conditions, and certainly not one running in a reputedly solid Republican district.

Since the current district was configured for 2002, all the House members from 18 have been Republican as well (this area has elected only Republican legislators since pre-1994). But there’s a pattern to consider. In 2002, Republicans Tom Mielke and Ed Orcutt won with 63.5% and 53.2% respectively. In 2004, Curtis won with 56.5% and Orcutt with 59.9%. In 2006, the numbers were Curtis 58.3%, Orcutt 56.5%. As in Zarelli’s case, these (excepting maybe Miekle’s in 2002) are soft numbers, nothing like the routine landslides Republicans can expect most places east of the Cascades.

Part of the reason may be that the area has been growing so fast that political allegiances have been hard to develop – the local political culture probably hasn’t been keeping up. That may also suggest it’s open to new impressions (like those it’s getting now), especially as some of the more concentrated parts of this area move toward a more urban mindset.

Some of the local turbulence may be Democratic, growing out of Representative Brian Baird’s shifts on Iraq. Talk a while back about a possible primary battle for Baird seems to have muted (with recognition of how difficult a successful primary contest would be), but the anger and energy level is there. Curtis already has an opponent for 2008, Democrat VaNessa Duplessie, but we’re hearing about in-party concern about Duplessie’s stands on social issues (notably abortion and home schools). That pent-up developing energy may yield a second Democratic entry, especially if Curtis’ seat comes open, but with all the peculiar vibes still attached to it. The resulting contest could become a fury to watch.

In a district where people are really stunned by what they’re abruptly learning about one of their apparently-staid down-home legislators – and may be shaken into considering their options.

In a district usually written off as uninteresting.

Share on Facebook