Norm Semanko, recently elected chairman of the Idaho Republican Party, is a meeting man. He loves to go to meetings.
He goes to water meetings as director of the Idaho Water Users Association, spends several evenings a month meeting in Eagle, where he is serving out a term on the Eagle City Council, and now he is touring the state, surprising folks at local GOP meetings.
Like many prominent Idaho Republicans, Semanko started his political career as head of the College Republicans at the University of Idaho. He spent four years working for Sen. Larry Craig in Washington, D.C., in both the House and Senate, and then came back to Idaho in 1992 to finish law school. He ran for Congress in 2006, but lost in the primary.
Semanko grew up in Rathdrum in an apolitical Catholic home. He is sending his only child off to a Jesuit college in the fall to study neuroscience and play golf.
How did you become a Republican?
I turned 18 two weeks before the election in 1984. I had it absolutely in my mind that I was a Ronald Reagan supporter all the way. And then in 1988 when, of course, Reagan was finishing his second term, I was looking at, well, what were the values that Ronald Reagan stood for as a Republican. I tried to identify the candidate that I felt most accurately reflected those same values.
In 1988 I thought it was Jack Kemp and I supported him in the primary and he, of course, didn't win but that's, I guess, my first education into party unity. I supported a guy who didn't win but now we get behind the guy who did win. As College Republican chairman, I remember driving down here with some other members of the U of I College Republicans and going to the Fairgrounds and seeing then-Vice President Bush coming in to visit. And then we chased his plane over to Twin Falls and barged in on him and Sen. McClure and others having dinner at what was then—I think—the Holiday Inn and getting a picture with him. Jim Risch was in that picture. But, anyway, that was a real education in party unity for me.
Why did you like Reagan so much?
He talked about respect for the individual and individual rights. He talked about peace through strength and making sure that our country would be free and strong. I remember being 12, 13, 14 years old and in junior high and high school worrying about nuclear war and whether we were going to have a nuclear war. His respect for the sanctity of life and that every human life is to be valued was important. Those all just happen to be core Republican values.
Do you see any parallels between your political awakening with Reagan and the way Obama has inspired people?
No, I don't see that at all. I see a lot of money being spent to promote the guy. I see media that's behind promoting the guy trying to make him sound like he's the next Messiah. But I don't see the connection with people that Ronald Reagan had. This guy, he's obviously a talented politician, but in terms of being in Ronald Reagan's league, no way, not even close.
What are your plans for the state party?
I want to have good communication and reinvigorate the grassroots of the party and have that relationship between the state officers, the state leaders and the grassroots ... We're going to do more e-mails out to the grassroots membership than we've done in the past.
Grassroots, as in the group called the Idaho Grassroots GOP ... or Ron Paul supporters, who consider themselves grassroots?
I use the term grassroots. I could just as easy use the term rank and file, members of the Republican Party. These are all members of the Republican Party and now's the time—after the primaries, after the convention—where we all rally around our candidates at the state level and certainly at the federal level.
How'd you get into water law?
When I was going to law school at Georgetown ... the big thing in the 1980s, kind of the L.A. Law generation, was the high glam, big money, mergers and acquisitions business law and there certainly was a lot of that at Georgetown Law. People ended up in New York or Chicago but I just liked the natural resource environmental law stuff so I didn't know if I would end up back in North Idaho working in mining or timber or something in the natural resource field. That didn't pan out and I didn't want to be an ambulance chaser or anything else.
Was the state convention in Sandpoint contentious?
We had open, honest, spirited discussion and debate over the different platforms and different rules. Some people say, "Oh that's bad." No, that's good. We're the party of ideas, we're not afraid to say, you know what, Dred Scott was wrong and slavery was wrong and we need to change that basic dynamic. We're not afraid to surface new ideas and if they're good ideas, they come to the top. If they're not they get shot down or they wait for their time ...
One of those new ideas was abolishing the Federal Reserve and returning to the gold standard.
That wasn't a debate that I participated in so I didn't take a position one way or the other. My job as the chairman is to support our platform, so if that's what you're asking, that's a non-debatable position. I support our platform.
Why did you seek the chairmanship?
I didn't make a decision to run for chairman until, like, three days before the convention.
I made no bones about it that I didn't think Rod Beck would have been a good chairman. Rod's smart, he's a good tactician. When I was convinced that Rod was going to beat Kirk [Sullivan], that's when I had to make a decision whether to get in or not.
Was Sullivan's ouster related to primaries?
There was certainly some dissension over the closed-primary, open-primary issue and it's interesting because it wasn't just what you would guess. It was also people that wanted to keep an open primary or were indifferent on the issue feeling like, this issue's been around for a couple years and maybe the chairman could have done more to get it resolved.
Is it resolved now?
I've made no bones about it, I think this issue is crying out for leadership and crying out for everyone to sit down and see if we can come to a negotiated resolution. But if that doesn't happen the lawsuit will continue to move forward. It hasn't been resolved yet, but neither has the Federal Reserve issue.