The political science professor at Boise State can delve into details about the inner workings of legislatures in all 50 states at the drop of a hat or refer you to one of his three books on the subject. A fourth book is due out early next year.
The 61-year-old has spent more than half his life teaching at Boise State, and he's still excited about the ever-changing world of politics.
Moncrief took time out from teaching to chat with BW about the resurgence of political interest in Idaho and why Texas is weird.
What got you interested in politics?
I was always a history buff, and I think it kind of just flowed from that. Of course, when I was in school as an undergraduate, it was a time of pretty amazing turmoil in American politics, with the war and urban riots, the civil-rights movement. The year I graduated college—it was 40 years ago—was the year both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were killed. I grew up in a generation that was pretty well-attuned politically
What's the focus of your work?
I'm actually a comparative state politics person. Most of my work is looking at why things work this way in one state opposed to another state, and my specific work is in legislature.
Is that the basis of your new book?
This one's actually more like a text book version. It's looking at all 50 state legislatures and how they differ. And they differ a lot, much more than other institutions at the state level. Every state's got one governor, but every state legislature is very different. It's a focus on that variation in those legislatures and how they operate. Not very exciting to most people, but it is to me.
What makes it interesting?
A California state senator represents 800,000 people; that's twice the population of Wyoming. The Wyoming governor has fewer constituents than one California state senator. For me, it's fascinating because they're so different from one state to another, but they're all charged with doing the same thing, making laws and overseeing the government.
How does Idaho compare?
There are some states like Idaho where the legislature only meets for two to three times out of the year. People that can serve in that kind of legislature, who can afford to serve in that kind of legislature, both in terms of finances and time, [are] a lot different than somebody in California who gets paid $150,000 and it's a full-time job. In Idaho, they pay $15,000. That really narrows down the range of who can do this.
Are many states like that?
It's about 15, and as you'd expect, they're all the rural states. Idaho is under a lot of pressure these day to kind of move a little bit more toward the other states just because the population is growing, the districts are getting bigger, the tension between urban and rural [is growing].
What's your take on the last legislative session?
Well, you've got a House that's much more conservative than the Senate. Not that the Senate is not conservative, it is. It's the difference between being conservative and being really conservative.
One of the things that I think is frustrating, especially to people in the valley here, which is the urban-oriented area, is that all the people in leadership in the House are of agricultural backgrounds.
That's, again, exactly how it worked out in Colorado for awhile and some other states. As an area grows, the rural areas still maintain the control for awhile, and then that slowly starts to shift.
Is there still a good ol' boys club?
I think it's actually more that way now than it was a few years ago.
Nationally today, about 30 percent of all Democratic state legislators are women. About 15 percent of all Republican state legislators are women. And that gap is growing, every election it's growing. If you go back 15 years, the proportion that was from each party was about the same, What's happened is the portion of women in the Democratic Party keeps going up, and the proportion of women in the Republican Party as legislators is actually declining, and it's happening in Idaho. If you look at the Democratic legislators in Idaho, there are 26—19 in the House and seven in the Senate—over half of them are women. It's probably the largest proportion of any state legislative party in the country that's female. If you look at the Republicans, it's less than 15 percent.
What is the Obama factor in Idaho?
It's certainly happening with my students. There's more enthusiasm and interest among my students right now than I've seen, maybe ever. Certainly more so than in the last 20 years, and a lot of that is Obama support. I have a lot of students who are really, really excited and enthusiastic about Obama. Obviously, when you get 15,000 people in Boise to a caucus, that says something.
Do you see parallels between politics today and the '60s?
Absolutely. The hope and the optimism in 1968 with some of the Democratic candidates was palpable. And a lot of that ended up getting dashed between the Chicago convention in 1968 and Nixon. There was a period there where a lot of the people who were of my generation, who were very optimistic and very active, became disillusioned.
I'm hoping that doesn't happen again because you've got the potential, finally, after many years for a group of young people to be really actively involved. In terms of whether they stay involved or not, I think it has less to do with whether Obama wins or not than it does just with the way that it plays out.
Is there one legislature that stands out from the rest?
Texas is just bizarre. On so many levels. The main reason is their constitution stipulates that they can only be paid $7,500 a year, but basically it's a full-time legislature. So they've got all these sort of back door ways to try to get them paid. It's a very odd legislature. First of all, it's such a huge state, the political culture is so different from one part of that state to another. A few years ago, the Democrats actually left the state and hid in Oklahoma to avoid a redistricting issue. That's actually a fairly common tactic in Texas, it isn't the first time it's happened. It's a very strange legislature in Texas.