When this summer Idaho’s Department of Education brought on board a new legislative liaison, the choice was someone highly unusual: An outsider.
Maybe that has to do with the recent outsider status of the person who did the hiring. But it’s different enough, and the prospects for change in Idaho’s school policies partly as a result, that it shouldn’t pass without notice.
If you hang around the Idaho Statehouse, and nearby buildings, long enough, you find that job titles often change faster than the people do.
If you’re a journalist covering state government, you may wind up in your next career move working, most often as a press spokesman, for one of the people you used to cover. You can find examples in the governor’s and attorney general’s offices, among other places.
And if you’re a legislator or legislative staffer, there’s plenty of precedent for going to work in a lobbying or similar legislative-related role afterward. The list of registered lobbyists includes a lot of people who know the legislature, it’s people and byways, because they’ve worked there in other capacities.
This isn’t especially horrible. It has the advantage of building institutional memory in the larger community around state government. But it does become incestuous. And a very subtle kind of bias starts to develop, involving people who have been on the inside, and those who haven’t, who in turn may find themselves disadvantaged when legislative season comes around.
When Sherri Ybarra, who was elected superintendent of public instruction in 2014, arrived as a surprise winner and definitely a political outsider, she initially made the kind of choice for legislative liaison that many others in a similar position would have made. She appointed Tim Corder, a former state senator, who had lost a recent primary seeking re-election, but had built some good will around the Statehouse during his time there.
Corder stayed only a little more than a year. A bit more established in place by then, Ybarra decided to move in a different direction to replace him.
Early in her term, Ybarra obtained planning help from a national association of her counterparts (the Council of Chief State School Officers), and it sent to Idaho one of its analysts, a former teacher and policy specialist named Duncan Robb. As the Idaho Ed News reported, “something clicked.”
It quoted Robb as saying, “When I would take a visit I’d make jokes and comments about how much I like it here. . . . I think they knew I would be interested, and they let me know when the position was open.”
Robb isn’t steeped in the people and ways of the Idaho Legislature, but he does bring an unusually broad background for working in a state education department. He grew up in California, and earned a master’s in public policy at Johns Hopkins University at Baltimore. He has taught math in big-city schools in Houston and worked with state-level education policy makers around the country.
The sometimes arcane approach to effective lobbying, which the already-insider group brings with it, is one area where he may still have a learning cure. Assuming he masters that, the payoff – in bringing an unusually broad background and expertise to bear on working with the Idaho Legislature – could be large.