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Dave Bieter

“When I first decided to run for mayor, I knew that if I didn’t want it more than the air that I breathe, I shouldn’t do it.”

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Kevin Bacon has nothing on Frank Church. Playing a parlor game of Six Degrees of Frank Church, we learn that the late Idaho U.S. senator, Vice President Joe Biden and Boise Mayor Dave Bieter have a lot more in common than most people would realize.

Church and Bieter were both born in Boise and attended the same Boise elementary school: St. Joseph's Catholic School.

Church and Biden were both chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Though Church was Biden's elder by 18 years, they were Senate colleagues from 1973 through 1980.

And though Biden is Bieter's elder by 17 years, they were both standout high-school football players: Biden in his home state of Delaware and Bieter at Boise's Bishop Kelly High School.

But perhaps the trio's strongest bond--second only to their allegiance to the Democratic Party--is public service, particularly in the blood sport of politics.

It seems fitting that Biden and Bieter will be honored Sunday, Feb. 17, with the second annual Frank and Bethine Church Awards for Public Service. The award presentation will also celebrate Church's widow Bethine on the occasion of her 90th birthday.

In anticipation of the honor, Boise Weekly sat down with Bieter to talk about Biden, Church and his lifelong ambition to be his city's chief executive.

How far back do your public service aspirations go?

I think it's a well-known fact that I wanted to be a fullback for the Green Bay Packers. That was the real deal.

That's a different type of public service.

I guess so. I was pretty young when I was first interested in being the mayor of Boise. In fact, my wife reminds me that on our first date, she said, "Oh, I might move somewhere else some day." And I said, "Well, I'm going to run for mayor some day so I'm not going to be moving." So when the time came for me to ask her if there was any way I could run, she had remembered what I first told her.

How old were you then?

Not too young. Maybe 29 or 30.

How young were you when you first wanted to be mayor?

Probably in high school. I didn't map it out or anything like that, but my dad was pretty politically active.

Was your dad an acquaintance of Frank Church at the time?

You bet. He was a big fan of Frank Church. My dad worked on his campaigns, and I remember Frank coming to the Basque picnics with us.

Where does your desire for public service come from? Is it in your DNA?

I have to think about that for a moment. I guess it was just part of my family. It's not as if anyone sat me down and said I needed to pursue political office. It just kind of came with the territory.

From both your mother and father?

My mom wasn't the biggest fan of politics. In fact, she would have to tell my dad to stop talking about politics on more than one occasion. But my dad was pretty political. He used to say that he would run for the Idaho Legislature when he retired, but we never believed him. And he absolute did mean it because he ran and won right away.

Would you agree that public service, and politics in particular, is not the most natural career path in the world?

I would argue that you ought not to think of it as a career. It's a vocation. It might work out to be a career for some people [Bieter knocked on the wood of his City Hall office conference table] but you can't really think of it as a career.

Do you believe that vocation needs to be buried deep inside you to gird you from personal or professional setbacks?

I do think there's a mutant gene, at least for those who pursue elected office. In my own case, when I first decided to run for mayor, I knew that if I didn't want it more than the air that I breathe, I shouldn't do it. There are just too many uncomfortable parts.

Like what?

Running for office and especially fundraising. That's the widow maker. It's awful and it doesn't get better. But I eventually found that I could do it and I wanted to hold office bad enough. Campaigning is the closest thing to athletics I've ever known.

Have you gotten to know Bethine Church well over the years.

When I first ran for mayor, I called her up to ask for a campaign contribution. And she said, "Let's just see how you do." Let's say that she was not immediately on the bandwagon. She wanted to listen to what I had to say, and then she became very supportive. If she was going to invest, she said she wanted someone to work very hard. And after that, she was a big supporter. I remember her telling me early on, "You've got to keep smiling. Don't furrow your brow." It's hugely good advice.

Other than being born in Boise and attending the same school, what do you have in common with Frank Church?

The enjoyment of public service. I love this. I don't know how long I'll be doing this or what's in the future, but it's a great fortune to do something you really love.

Do you every think of your legacy?

My legacy is my daughter. That's the big legacy. I really don't think people remember even four mayors back.

I think they remember more than that.

Believe me, I've road-tested this theory and I think it's rare for people to associate the times with a mayor or council. Things are either good or not so good. I think it's overstated to talk about your legacy.

Do you acknowledge how much the city has changed in the last 10 years?

Sure. I'll go into one of the library branches and sit there and watch. I put on a baseball cap and a pair of glasses.

I don't think that disguise would work too well.

It mostly does. A pair of sweats. You would be surprised.

Let's talk about Vice President Biden. He was last in Boise for the Special Olympics Winter Games in 2009.

I was standing on the tarmac at the airport with [Secretary of State] Ben Ysursa, [Attorney General] Lawrence Wasden, [Lt. Gov.] Brad Little and Gov. [C.L. "Butch"] Otter. Ben Ysursa turned to me and said, "You're not going to tell the vice president that you're the only Democrat here, are you?" I said, "Are you kidding? Of course I'm going to tell him."

I remember the vice president gave you a big hug.

There haven't been too many times to be in that position. It was such a kick. If there's anybody else who enjoys public office more than Joe Biden, I don't know who that is. He's the happiest warrior there is.

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