Writings and observations

Interview: Minnick looking ahead

Walt Minnick

Walt Minnick

There is no lack of Idaho voters who would enthusiastically agree with the quote attributed to Washington conservative Grover Norquist, that he wanted to shrink government “to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” That’s just the kind of approach – you can check it in the rhetoric – that so many Idaho Republicans have been running with, to great electoral success, for so many years.

The measure of Walt Minnick‘s success – as the first Idaho Democrat to win congressional seat in 16 years – may be the degree to which he blunts the force of that attitude. Not so much by rhetoric, as by virtue of example.

“In terms of constituent service and instilling an ability to represent people in the district that are dealing with our government, I’m going to do everything I can to be the best there is,” he said in an interview this morning. Which may sound like a normal statement of good intentions from a newly-elected, except that in this case there may be more to it.

To put a point on it . . . All members of Congress do constituent service and run field offices and staffs; the Republican incumbent Minnick defeated, Bill Sali, did. And, “I certainly share the philosophy that a smaller government, a less intrusive government, is in everyone’s best interest,” he said. However – and this is where Idaho Republicans less often go: “You deal with the government as you find it. I don’t think describing it in pejorative terms is likely to induce cooperation. We will work the system we find as effectively as possible.” And, “I’ve always [found] in my experience, if you treat people well,” those people will tend to be more helpful. “If people want to help you in the dept of transportation or the Social Security Administration, they will work late they will go talk to their bosses, they’ll try to find interpretation of rules that allow them to tell you yes. It’s no different from a corporate or other organization, or local government organization.”

Minnick gives you the sense that this is how he’ll approach a lot of the job: Cooperation whenever possible, use of relationships (he knows personally people on the Obama transition crew, for example) and much less often any sharp edges. (You can imagine without much stretch that he and Representative Mike Simpson, who has devoted a lot of effort to building relationships all over the House, may find expansive grounds for cooperation.) Given the opportunity to take a shot at Sali or other Republicans, he declined (somewhat like Barack Obama since election day). In terms of personality and approach, Minnick probably will be hard for the opposition to demonize.

There is a more partisan aspect to Minnick’s win: He is about to become the de facto head of the Idaho Democratic party, as the top-ranking elected Democrat in the state, the highest-ranking since January 1995. And that will be a challenge, because his election was one of the few bright spots for Idaho Democrats last week; put his race to the side, and Democrats overall lost ground in Idaho. “It was a difficult night for Democrats,” he said. “There was more disappointment than applause.”

Minnick offered two factors for his win. First, “I was able to honestly convince a lot of people, regardless of their party, that I would be a more effective problem solver . . . A lot of people were fed up with Washington and fed up with gridlock and excessive partisanship, and saw in me a person more likely to be effective.” And second, “We ran a pretty professional campaign … strategically and tactically, at every level, we ran a campaign that was thoroughly professional, adequately staffed, and we were able to properly fund it.”

Our take is that, while Minnick’s campaign certainly was as solid as he describes it, that probably was the lesser factor. Idaho has had 24 congressional contests since the last year before this (1992) when a Democrat won one, and that Democrat was back on the ballot (for the Senate) this year and worked exceptionally hard. Not all but some of those Democratic campaigns over the years have been well-run; Minnick’s was one of the best, but others felt like winning-caliber campaigns too.

The other factor feels more directly applicable, because Sali very much conveyed the feel of a partisan warrior, and Minnick very much didn’t: Their personal styles and their messages reinforced in a really resonant way. That seemed all the more true the more people were exposed to both of them, as especially in Ada County, where both candidates lived and focused much of the campaign. In Ada, Minnick outran other Democrats generally (Obama included) and picked up most of his district-wide vote margin.

This has some pertinence to the future, to 2010. Already last week, some Republicans had started circling, figuring that Minnick won only because Sali had his own political weaknesses (some of them within his own parties). But they sounded exactly like the Republicans in 1984 circling the newly-elected Democratic congressman in the 2nd district, Richard Stallings, who had just narrowly defeated a Republican newly convicted of four felonies. Stallings, they figured, was a one-termer.

He wasn’t – went on to three strong re-elect wins – in large part because he paid close attention to constituent service, hired his staff carefully and got along with people. Constituents picked up on the point that he and his staff did solid work, and kept them in office to do it, party label notwithstanding.

A lot, in other words, like Walt Minnick sounds as if he is positioning himself to do.

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