A speaker ouster?

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Challenges to incumbent leaders in the Idaho Legislature are not rare. Successful challenges are.

The last top-level ouster (there have been a few others for lower-level leadership spots) goes back 30 years to 1982, when then-Senate Majority Leader Jim Risch defeated president pro tem Reed Budge in a contest very much underground until near the end. Risch (the current U.S. Senator) was a master at caucus politics; six years earlier, he defeated future U.S. Senator Larry Craig for majority leader.

But we may see another ouster when the closed-door voting occurs in Boise on December 5.

Contests for open seats are more the rule than not; usually, there’s no individual person in a party caucus that so obviously stands out as to preclude anyone else from giving it a shot. Not a lot is really required to enter a race for leadership – no paper filing, no fundraising, no public campaigning.

The public doesn’t have much to do with these choices, and public campaigns for them would be difficult because they usually amount, mostly, to matters not of philosophy or floor votes but of personality and style. They are partly popularity contests in part, but also relate to how the person handles the job and the public perception of them – of a House speaker of Senate president pro tem is the public face of the chamber.

Idaho has a serious legislative leadership contest this year, for the most powerful single legislative position, speaker of the House. After the 2006 retirement of veteran Bruce Newcomb, the then-assistant majority leader, Lawerence Denney, took over. He was then the assistant majority leader, and the (incomplete) shorthand description of the contest was that he was the conservative defeating the more moderate Bill Deal of Nampa, who now is the state director of the Department of Insurance. In that case, philosophical differences may have been a factor in the voting process. (You can never be totally sure, since the choosing is done by secret ballot.)

This year, Denney is being challenged by the current assistant majority leader, Scott Bedke of Oakley. Bedke seems to be the betting pick to win. Denney has run up a string of bad headlines over the years, and maybe more pointedly there appears to be some dissatisfaction in the ranks. Bedke is said to be broadly popular by comparison, and said also to be campaigning hard. He also has been donating freely to campaign warchests for a number of House members, a fact remembered when time comes to ask for a leadership vote. Denney has made either few or no campaign contributions to other caucus members.

Denney and Bedke haven’t often been on opposing sides of substantive issues; the House will not likely be much different in voting patterns either way. It may differ when it comes to such matters as handling ethical issues, deciding on committee assignments (a centrally key job for the speaker), managing appointments and overt politics. (Denney came under fire for trying to fire an appointee to the state redistricting commission).

If Bedke succeeds, he will be the first person to oust a sitting House speaker in many decades. In the more than five decades that Republicans have continuously controlled the chamber, every House speaker departed that job either to retire from the legislature or pursue another office. (That second category includes U.S. Representative Mike Simpson and former Secretary of State Pete Cenarrusa.) It may be an indication, light as it is, that Idaho politics isn’t totally unchangeable.

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