There is a benefit of sorts in this year’s legislative session becoming, as it will this coming week, the longest in Idaho history: There can be no mistaking what it is and what it’s about.
Every additional week has added more material for the argument that this is Idaho’s worst session ever.
A new cluster of hot recent developments came when Lewiston Representative Aaron von Ehlinger, accused by multiple women of sexual harassment, was recommended for suspension (expulsion in practical effect), after considering extensive evidence. Off from the side came sniper fire from other legislators, doxxing and revealing the name of the key whistleblower, and decrying the accusation as nothing more than a “liberal smear job.” Imagine: A liberal smear job carried out by the Idaho legislature ...
The legislators who have turned this year’s session into such a mess, of a kind once comprising only a small minority, now have numbers sufficient to drive the direction of the session (and extend its length). The trend line is moving toward ever more of the same as time goes on.
What can be done? As a matter of law, the options are recall and election.
Recall - legislators can be recalled by the voters, and it has happened a few times in Idaho history - may be seized on by some Idahoans. Strong arguments for recall probably could be developed in many cases (in Idaho there’s no real requirement that there even be one), and the needed number of petition signatures to force an election might be obtainable in quite a few places, with enough effort.
But would it accomplish much? Replacements for ousted legislators would come from a list of nominees provided by local party central committees (those covering the local legislative district), and the names likely to be selected by most of them probably would not be improvements on the incumbents.
The main benefit of recall attempts could be the organization forced by petition signature requirements. Lists of names, after all, are critical to effective political organization.
Which brings us to the main street of changing a legislature: Regular elections, primary and general. For the Idaho legislature, that won’t happen for another year, but the advantage would lie in the amount of organizing time available.
The hammer could come this way: Develop a long list of targeted legislators - enough to change the direction of the chambers, which would mean quite a few - and then go after them in both the primary and general elections. Key to this would be the warning that any incumbents who survive the primary will be targeted again, by all the same people and more of them, in the general election.
This is not an easy task, of course.
The big question is: What do the voters of Idaho really want? As I suggested a couple of weeks ago, this is an open question. Idaho’s voters have for many years returned overwhelming and increasingly conservative candidates - off the edge into whatever Idaho’s legislature now is - in one election after another. But is that what they really want? How informed are they about what the legislature is doing?
If a legislature like the one Idaho has now is what most Idaho voters really do want, then that’s that: You’d have a hard time changing that many minds. In that case, what you see at the legislature really is who and what Idaho’s people are all about. And while I know of plenty of individual Idahoans who dislike it, when it comes to the overall Idaho voting population, I’m aware of no conclusive evidence that the legislature’s direction is unpopular.
But the evidence of popularity is less than conclusive too.
That would leave the critics in the position of campaigning and organizing, and listening carefully to people out there. (Are the ideologues at the legislature doing that?) This may not sound like a powerful plan of attack, but in fact it can be. Fred Cornforth, the new chair of the Idaho Democratic Party, said his approach to building his party “really has to do with just sitting down and talking to people. Listening to them and asking questions.” That’s a useful thing to do.
In the end, it may be the only way to change the legislature. It requires a lot of work over a long stretch of time. If the legislature’s critics are serious about making a change, they have to get started right away, meaning: Even before this session adjourns. Whenever that is.