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Mat Erpelding

Boise freshman lawmaker on mountains, politics and relationships

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Mat Erpelding was always running. The freshman Democratic legislator--representing Boise's District 19--was a competitive gymnast but acknowledges that it became increasingly dangerous. He says that when he sat around the house at the age of 12, his parents told him to lace up his sneakers to run track.

"I was a pretty high-energy kid," said Erpelding. "And my folks were always looking for a good way to manage my energy."

Erpelding hasn't stopped running since. He hits the pre-dawn streets of Boise most days before heading to the Statehouse to run the marathon that is the Idaho Legislature. He sat still long enough for Boise Weekly to talk to him about running for office, hiking some of North America's most challenging peaks, and negotiating the treacherous wilderness of Idaho politics.

Your degree is in psychology. How did you see that manifesting professionally?

There's something to be said for understanding the human dynamic. I was already in Northern Arizona University with a research assistantship in sensation and perception psychology. Particularly, I was interested in cognitive psychology: how the brain works and how we retain information.

So what happened with that?

I called the university from a mountaintop in Sandpoint, Idaho, to drop out of the program.

What was going on in your mind at the time?

I was working for a bicycle adventure company. I think I rode 3,000 miles that summer, and when you're on a bike that much, you have a lot of time to reflect about where you want to go. I realized I wanted to travel the road of outdoor education. Looking back, I probably could have easily finished off my master's in psychology, but I chose a different path.

But do you look at the Idaho Legislature as a laboratory for a study in psychology?

Human behavior? I sure do. To walk up to somebody who has a completely different ideology or belief system and still be able to enjoy their company requires, I think, a skill. The other piece of that is from a cognitive perspective--there is an interesting trust that you have to develop. If you're not sure where you should place your vote, you turn to those few people.

Is that list evolving or are you pretty sure of that right now?

Oh, it's definitely evolving. I'm only three months into this.

I need to ask you about a recent debate on the House floor involving a nonbinding memorial declaring the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness a "natural resources disaster area."

We were arguing whether Idaho should define a wilderness area as a disaster area due to wildfire problems.

Was it your sense that the measure was a slap in the face to the U.S. Forest Service?

That bill was directed at the wrong agency: the Forest Service. To hold the Forest Service accountable for budget problems is similar to when the Legislature cut $35 million out of the Health and Welfare budget, leading to further cuts in federal funding, and then telling constituents that they needed to go talk to Health and Welfare and hold them accountable.

You sit on the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, so I need to ask you about the Girl Scout cookie tax bill.

There is a page-full of entities that are exempt from sales taxes. And each year, there is a slew of 501(c)3s who want to be added to that list. That doesn't work for me. That's a really weird way of handling tax policy and the Girl Scouts are a good example. It's pretty hard to tell them "no" because of $140,000 when we're talking about giving $141 million away if we repeal personal property tax in Idaho.

How long did you have to think about running for political office?

In addition to my business as a wilderness guide and outdoor educator, I had been teaching a couple of years ago, both at Boise State and the College of Western Idaho. And that's when the Legislature was pushing through the Students Come First initiatives. That's when I decided to get involved politically. I didn't think I would run for office, but I thought that I might help [Former Boise Democratic Rep.] Brian Cronin with his 2012 re-election campaign.

But he decided not to run. Is that when you decided to run for his seat?

I told him, "I'm not running unless you're not running."

Did you like campaigning?

I didn't particularly like campaigning in the primary. In fact, two people I ran against in the Democratic Party were people I absolutely enjoy. It became a battle of who had the biggest and best ground game, but my team was able to knock on 7,000 doors in two months. It's kind of like climbing a mountain. You don't get to base camp and not go for the top of the mountain.

And sooner than later, you'll need to start thinking about running for re-election in 2014.

That's what makes a second session--and that will be next year's legislative session--the most uncomfortable session. This year, I believe every person in this building is working on the best possible policy they can. But when they're concerned about being "primaried" in an election year and they're on the right, they usually move further to the right. That's when you see more conservative or Tea Party-based legislation come through. On the Democratic side, I don't think we have that same consideration. I don't think it benefits me at all to move to the left.

Would I be surprised if you were holding a different political office 10 years from now?

It's funny that you would ask it that way. I'm single, although I wasn't when I started this process.

Did politics cause you to lose a girlfriend?

It did. She's still a great friend. The truth is, campaigning is fairly intensive. One of the conversations we had was her asking me, "Where do you think you'll be in 10 years?" And I said, "I don't know." I couldn't even think about the next few months, let alone 10 years. Let's just say there was a line in the sand there.

So whom do you bounce your life up against? Whom do you trust outside of this building?

I was a full-time instructor at Boise State for a few years, so I have a pretty significant network of friends there. And I have a fairly significant group of friends that I run with. Running is where you can debrief, reflect or vent. I even sometimes run with the husband of [Boise Democratic Rep.] Holli High Woodings. Holli and I ran our legislative campaigns together.

On a scale of one to 10, how much do you love your work in the Legislature?

You know, sometimes I receive an email or letter from a constituent that bad-mouths members of this body. I was even known to do that myself in the past. But once you're in here, you realize that everyone here has a head and a heart. On the ideology front, it's a 10. On the relationship front, sometimes it's a seven.