In 1986, Idaho politics was not frozen in ice as it is today. It was fluid, and no better case for that could be made than Tom Boyd’s election that year to the speakership of the Idaho House.
It was still the Reagan Era in Idaho, but late Reagan Era, and the results of the 1986 election were all over the place. Democrat Cecil Andrus was returned to the governorship, but just barely, and Republicans did well among the rest of the statewide offices. Republicans won a serious U.S. Senate race, but not by a lot, and a Democrat won in the 2nd district U.S. House seat. The election was a true mixed bag: The overall tilt was Republican, but nothing and no one could be taken for granted.
Especially the party thought to be dominant in Idaho, the Republicans. As majority Republican legislators prepared that year to choose their leaders, they had some decisions to make, especially in the House.
There, the speaker for the previous two terms had been Tom Stivers, a conservative with some rough edges – the kind of guy who often generated what we now call “viral” quotes and anecdotes, like the time he replied to an Idaho teacher planning to leave the state over complaints about state funding and treatment of teachers, with the single word: “Goodbye!”
Stivers had been buoyed to some extent by the 1984 Ronald Reagan landslide but he opted out in 1986, possibly sensing a shift in moods. Many of the Republican legislators of the incoming 1986 group sensed that change too, not any massive shift to the left but some dissatisfaction with what voters were seeing and hearing from the legislature. And – this part was important – many of them felt a need to respond to that.
Candidates emerged to replace Stivers, all with an easy-going style that contrasted with the outgoing speaker. The two main vote getters were Robert Geddes of Preston, who as assistant majority leader had been a part of Stivers’ leadership team, and Tom Boyd of Genesee, who was considered more moderate, part of a group calling itself the Steelheads, centrists who in the Idaho House could readily compare themselves to the fish that swims upstream.
The contest was a near-tie, and a break from the norm in the Idaho House where the more conservative candidate typically wins the race. Boyd emerged as speaker, and was re-elected twice to the post. Along the way he would turn back a challenge from now-U.S. Representative Mike Simpson.
Tom Boyd, who died July 28, was not a hard-charging politico, and never considered a run for higher office; he was a friendly, sociable, low-key farmer whose run for speaker surprised many people who knew him then, as uncharacteristically ambitious. He proved well up to the job, developing an unexpected toughness but also changing the face of the Idaho House.
He changed it in the direction most of his fellow legislators had wanted, as more open and welcoming to larger groups of people. He by no means shut out conservatives in key House spots; Geddes for one got a key seat on the budget committee (which he later would co-chair), but he expanded the dialogue in a number of ways.
Tom was missed when he left the legislature and will be missed now, as will be the kind of politics he thrived in.