Nels Mitchell says up front in his campaign against Sen. Jim Risch that he is not a career politician. “In fact, I’m not a politician at all.”
Breaking news: Mitchell is a politician. He’s a career lawyer and there’s no way he could survive in that field without being a politician. So there’s Exhibit A in building a case (beyond a reasonable doubt) that he is, indeed, a politician.
Exhibit B is his campaign manager, Betty Richardson. She has an outstanding reputation as a lawyer and she’s a pretty good politician as well. Richardson was unsuccessful in her run for 1st District Congress against Butch Otter in 2002. But in 36 years covering politics (not all in Idaho), I’m hard pressed to think of any candidate I’ve seen who was better prepared.
Exhibit C is in Mitchell’s actions. As he blasts networks such as FOX News for creating anger and outrage, Mitchell releases a video of MSNBC’s Rachael Maddow – the left wing’s answer to Rush Limbaugh – slamming Risch for suggesting that the national debt is the biggest problem in Idaho. Mitchell says he does not want to match Risch with snide comments. Yet, after a televised debate in Boise, Mitchell nailed Risch for “creating a sideshow,” using “theatrics” and spouting “half-truths” and “shrill insults.”
So, Mitchell is not a choir boy and don’t look for him to star in a remake of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” But he is an intelligent, thoughtful and articulate person and an intriguing candidate. Running against Risch, the ultimate “career politician” presents challenges. It also presents advantages, since there’s no shortage of people who dislike Risch, perhaps the most polarizing figure in Idaho politics. Mitchell says his internal polling shows that Risch has not closed the deal in this election.
So he’d better learn to be a politician quickly if he is to peel off undecided voters. Maybe he could watch a few clips of Huey Long to learn how to rile up a crowd. Mitchell, at 60, acknowledges that he has some rough edges as a politician. After all, he did not mold his life and career to run for the U.S. Senate, as Risch has. About a year and a half ago, Richardson, former Gov. Cecil Andrus and others encouraged him to run and initially he did not take the bait – that is, until Congress shut down the government. “That was the tipping point,” he said.
Another motivator was the feeling that Risch should have an opponent. No other Democrat was interested in challenging a well-funded incumbent. Last year, in an interview with the Idaho Statesman’s editorial board, Risch talked in glowing terms about how much he enjoyed life in Washington and social perks, such as attending events at Ford’s Theater and his wife attending a luncheon hosted by Michelle Obama. I was in the room when he said (as reported by the Statesman’s Dan Popkey), “You know, I really enjoy this job. I really like this job.” Being governor is hard work and can wear a person down. “You can’t do that job permanently. This, you can do ad infinitum.”
Mitchell says that Washington is broken with a system run by lobbyists and career politicians. He says he’d serve one term, which is understandable for a 60-year-old man. Six years in that rat race is enough even for those much younger.
Mitchell says, Democrats share part of the blame for the dysfunction. He’s not impressed with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, or House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. He calls the implementation of President Obama’s health care plan as “an embarrassment,” and views the president’s foreign policy as short-sighted.
He disagrees with Risch about the national debt being the greatest problem facing Idaho. “The biggest problem facing Idaho is the lack of living-wage jobs and our weak economy,” says Mitchell, promoting raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour.
The big challenge is convincing Idaho businesses that raising the minimum wage is a good idea, then getting it passed through Congress. It will take some masterful political skills to make all that happen, so maybe Mitchell should not dwell so much about not being a politician.
He’d be better off talking about why he’s the right man for the job.