Sen. Fred Martin of Boise belongs to an exclusive club.
He is the only Republican senator living in the Boise city limits, which is surprising considering Idaho’s status as one of the reddest of the red states.
So while Idaho is decidedly Republican, Boise is ruled by Democrats. Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, a former Democratic legislator, has been in office since 2003. More recently, Brian Cronin – another former Democratic legislator – easily won election to the Boise School Board. The only areas where Democrats may have a stronger foothold are Districts 26 (which includes the Sun Valley area) and 29 (Bannock County).
It didn’t used to be that way. “Twenty years ago, there were three elected legislative Democrats in Ada County; six years ago there were six and now there are 12,” Martin said.
Granted, there are more legislative districts in Ada County than in years past. But there’s no question that Democrats have made some impressive gains over the years, and especially in Boise. Nine seats in three Boise districts (16, 17 and 18) all were held by Republicans years ago. Now, all seats are held by Democrats. District 17, once considered a “swing” district, has no Republicans challenging the Democratic incumbents.
The legislative makeup in Boise has significant implications statewide – and they can be viewed positively or negatively, depending on your political outlook. Democrats, working with moderate Republicans, help turn back calls for the repeal of Obamacare and secure the vote for an Idaho-operated state health exchange. The coalition keeps alive concepts such as Common Core education standards and opens the possibility for Medicare expansion, which has been endorsed by the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry. Democrats help keep the pressure on more funding for education and draw greater attention to a sagging economy and low wages.
If those nine legislative seats in Boise were held by conservative Republicans, Rep. Scott Bedke of Oakley probably would not be the speaker of the House and Gov. Butch Otter would be without his best (if not his only) ally in House leadership.
All that’s standing in the way of Boise being wall-to-wall with Democrats is District 15, but that could change in November. Democrat Steve Berch, making his third run for the Legislature, has the best shot at winning one of the two House seats. He is mounting an aggressive door-to-door campaign against Rep. Lynn Luker.
“It’s very humbling and gratifying knocking on doors and talking with people,” Berch said. “Nowhere – and I mean nowhere – on the list of priorities is making sure that a baker doesn’t have to bake a cake for a gay couple.”
Berch is taking a dig at Luker’s controversial religious freedom bills, which either can vault him to re-election or cost him his legislative career. Luker is betting that a turn to the right will help him with the influx of Republicans that came to District 15 after redistricting.
A lot of eyes are on District 15, because it is on the water’s edge. Idaho gets more conservative heading to the west and south. Two Democrats (Berch and Betty Richardson, who ran against Martin) came close two years ago.
Republicans, even in their heyday in Boise, were far more moderate than their counterparts in rural areas. Boise sent to the Legislature people such as Sheila Sorensen, Kitty Gurnsey, Ruby Stone and Chuck Pomeroy. In District 15, Max Black and John Andreason – two moderate Republicans – held onto their seats for two decades.
Martin is consistent with the profile of Boise Republicans who served for so many years. Luker, who boasts about being near the top of the Idaho Freedom Foundation index, does not fit the mold. Mark Patterson, a firebrand conservative who defeated Berch two years ago and resigned before finishing one term, took advantage of the district’s new Republican voters. He was replaced by Pat McDonald, who is politically closer to Martin.
Republicans are a long way from becoming a minority party even if Democrats manage to capture all seats in District 15. But holding all 12 seats in Boise would provide the Dems with significant numbers while turning up the volume on the party’s message.
“Idaho is last in the nation in average wages,” says Berch. “We’re first in the nation in percentage of minimum wage. We’re now ranked below Alabama and Mississippi in education investment. … Electing the same people does not work.”