Idaho’s junior senator, James Risch, finally appears to be stepping up to fulfilling the responsibilities of the high office he holds. Even Republicans expressed surprise and disappointment when a couple winters back Risch told the Idaho Statesman what an easy job being a senator was compared to being a governor.
Whether intentional or not, Risch came across as one coasting along enjoying the perks of the office (such as tickets to the Kennedy Center) and not doing much work because it wouldn’t do any good given how partisan and polarized the environment within the Beltway is.
One suspects the senator soon became bored and started sinking his teeth into the job and his committee assignments. Like most of the few professed Democrats in Idaho, I’m hardly a fan of Risch. That doesn’t mean I don’t acknowledge his political skills, intelligence, charm when he wants to display it, and sheer energy.
I first met Risch in 1975 when he was in his first term as a state senator. A mutual friend, then State Senator Kerm Kiebert, a Democrat from Bonner County, had us both, along with our wives, out to dinner. It was clear Risch was an ambitious state senator. Even more clear was his better half, Vicki, was a true co-partner.
Despite his reputation for partisanship, Risch and Kiebert remain good friends to this day. Risch served in the State Senate for 20 years and quickly rose to leadership, serving at different times as majority leader and president pro tempore. Even some Republican colleagues felt power went to his head and he developed a reputation as somewhat of a bully. One had to think twice before crossing him.
There were few tears shed when he was upset in a re-election bid in 1988 by Mike Burkett. Risch is resilient though. During the hiatus in his political career he won a major law suit for which he was handsomely rewarded and he and Vicki worked hard at operating their successful ranch and several businesses they own.
Today, they are one of the wealthier couples in the Senate but one should not begrudge them their wealth. They earned it, they did not inherit it. It would have been nice when Risch was governor if he had acknowledged up front his gambit of switching a decrease in property taxes for a 1 percent increase in the sales tax was going to modestly benefit him (about $5,000), but no law required disclosure.
Risch is a true survivor and while his politics are far too conservative, he reflects what a majority of Idaho voters want.
In recent weeks two things indicate he is no longer coasting, if he ever was. Last week, for the umpteenth time CNN’s veteran political analyst, Wolf Blitzer, interviewed Risch on Iran. Risch sits on the Foreign Relations committee and the Intelligence committee.
Risch was measured in what he said. Twice he side-stepped when Blitzer tried to bait him into harshly criticizing President Obama’s handling of Iranian issues. Blitzer was trying to get Risch to speculate on why the Iranians had released the ten American sailors they were holding.
Risch pointed out the obvious: the nuclear agreement was about to become effective and Iran could use the $100 billion that was due them with the lifting of sanctions and taking down a couple notches their nuclear program. One also suspects Risch had been briefed on the imminent “prisoner swap.” Whatever, he handled it adroitly.
Risch should also be given kudos for his thoughtful approach to possible legislation on the proposed land swap between Western Pacific Timber and the Forest Service in the upper Lochsa. Consolidating the checkerboard sections and privately managing them makes sense to many, but a sizable number in Idaho county believes favorite recreation areas will then be closed to public use.
Despite promises by the company to place it all in conservation easements that would assure public access many don’t trust the company. Just before Thanskgiving Risch held a well attended meeting in Grangeville where he quietly listened to all sides.
Folks should recall that Risch’s first love is forestry. Its what brought him to Idaho originally and before getting his law degree at the University of Idaho he received his BS in Forestry. He applied this background skillfully when as governor he negotiated a well-received roadless area management agreement with the federal government.
My bet is that when the smoke clears there will be Lochsa legislation which will be fair, balanced and well received. Again¸ I’ll give Risch his due. He can be very good when he wants to be.