I shouldn’t let the year end without following up on a column from one year ago last week, intended then as a bit of advice and also as a cautionary note.
My column probably had nothing to do with it, but the two newly-elected Idaho officials I wrote about – Secretary of State Lawrence Denney and Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra – have turned out better than a lot of people, including me, were expecting.
Both had given good reasons for low expectations.
Denney was a former speaker of the House whose track record was so widely criticized that House Republicans did what no majority caucus had done to a speaker in generations: Booted him from the office. A lot of Republicans in official positions, including the last SecState, Ben Ysursa, signed up with one of the other primary contestants. Concerns were that, in this office where careful record-keeping and down-the-middle fairness were essential (and had been observed for a very long time), Denney would staff up with political hacks and turn the office sharply partisan.
None of that has happened.
Denney has not been a notably controversial figure in 2015, and his office appears to be running on track. He took some flack for his handling of a bill that passed in the legislature, was rejected by Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter but appeared to have missed the veto deadline. Denney sided with Otter; the Supreme Court ruled the other way, but the case was intricate, and Denney adhered to the court’s decision. His handling of this may not have been perfect, but was reasonable. His bigger test will come in the upcoming election season, but year one set a positive tone.
Ybarra was an unusual case of an out-of-nowhere candidate, with little visible organized support, winning first the primary and then the general, surprising a lot of people both times. While she had sound professional background as an educator, she had little to none in the world of education administration, state finance and politics, and ran a campaign that seemed out of touch with almost everyone. The job of a state superintendent is not teaching in a classroom; it has to do with managing budgets, mucking around in the arcane world of education policy, crafting and shepherding legislation and effectively working with a range of interest groups. The Idaho school superintendent doesn’t have a lot of power. Mostly, that person has clout to the extent it can be projected with persuasion, alliances and analysis. Ybarra showed little of that capability in the campaign.
Once in office, though, she began to do that. In the last year, a superintendent’s office formerly highly ideological has moved into working smoothly and professionally with educators and others around the state, taking a lead in solving a string of inherited problems (school broadband, a really tough nut, maybe most notable) and finding more broadly acceptable policy choices.
Why did they do so much better than expected?
A year ago, I made five suggestions. First, keep most of the existing staff in place so the office keeps running. Second, spend plenty of time in the office to get a feel for how it operates. Third, collect a group of people with expertise in the area from outside and set them up as an informal sounding board. The last two applied most strongly to Ybarra: reach out to the constituencies concerned with your office, and reach out to the public on any policy directions you’re planning.
But both of them seem to have done these things, to one degree or another. Both seem to have taken the work of their offices seriously and not used them as personal or ideological soapboxes.
Sometimes, now and again, what you elect turns out better than you expect.