Courage isn’t something you think of when you’re talking about politicians. Indeed, if politicians are just supposed to be mouthpieces of their constituents, what courage is called for?
But some of our problems demand a greater perspective than a single constituency. There can be little incentive for a politician to take a broader view. Just keep the district happy and toe the party line seems to be their marching orders. Indeed, nowadays, most proposed solutions seem to gather support depending on your side of the aisle. Breaking rank may be political suicide.
So, when an elected representative does just that, voices dispute with his partisan colleagues, it gets noticed. And depending on the position taken, and the conviction of the speaker, it is judged foolish, petulant, disloyal, but rarely courageous.
I judge Idaho Representative Mike Simpson courageous.
He has proposed breaching the lower four Snake River dams in an attempt to restore a signature and endangered Idaho species: native salmon.
His proposal attempts to address the concerns of all parties. The port jobs in Lewiston and Clarkston, and further downriver will need support. The cheap transport costs area farmers have gotten will need support. Hydropower users will need support. He has a long and comprehensive list of the affected parties and how they need to be addressed. It is a very detailed proposal.
But judging from the immediate backlash from many of his fellow Republicans and conservative voices he’s catching a lot of heat. It takes some courage to get yelled at. And he knew he would. Despite that certitude, he has spent three years meeting with the affected players and crafting a solution. He stuck with his vision.
It’s not easy getting a controversial subject in front of a reluctant audience. I know from experience. And, indeed, my attempts to do such got me unelected. And this stance may do this for Representative Simpson. But what better use of public office than to take a principled public stand? That’s what I call courage.
I have been reading the criticisms of Simpson and his proposal. They run the gamut from partisan dismissive insults, to “hey, he’s not guaranteeing it will work”. The line of critics is long and predictable, from the Idaho Governor’s office down to the Farm Bureau, with many Republican legislators in the middle of the line. Most critics acknowledge that what has been done ($19B spent for “salmon recovery”) has not moved the needle.
Some argue that hatchery stocks are just fine. Others point to native harvests, or ocean conditions as excuses to not take this action. But if any critic wants to be honest, they need to answer this question: does the survival of Native Idaho Salmon matter to you? I hear clearly that it does to Representative Simpson. I respect a clear, principled public statement.
We elect people to represent us, not lead us. I always cringed when someone referred to me as a “leader”. I just wanted to work on problems.
But we have lots of problems that most of us don’t want to do the work to solve. And many of the problems in this crowded, complicated world require more than a change in a single person’s behavior.
I heard a man speak about the loss of Idaho salmon at our church some twenty years ago. Reed Burkholder held no elected office, but he sure wanted the runs of native salmon back. He proposed breaching the lower four Snake Dams back then. That’s about when I started seeing bumper stickers: “Save our Dams”. I asked local representative what they thought of the dwindling salmon runs. It seemed the Democratic candidates bemoaned the loss but couldn’t voice any solutions. The Republican candidates dismissed the problem and voiced support of the vital interests of their constituents: Palouse wheat farmers who needed cheap grain transport. The lines were drawn back then.
It takes courage to step across a line. Mike Simpson has courage.