As if Idaho Democrats needed to be reminded of the shellacking their party endured on Nov. 8, 2016, those Democratic state legislators who survived Election Day were faced with a rude eye opener when they returned to the Idaho Statehouse. Proving the spoils went to the victors, members of the Republican House majority informed their minority counterparts their offices would be moved, so Dems would no longer be sprinkled among Republicans. Democrats were put in the corner, leading more than a few to conclude Republicans no longer want their conversations overheard by minority House members.
"I'm a proud Democrat to the core," said Rep. Mat Erpelding (D-Boise). "But if I was to discount the Republican members of the Legislature—and there are 88 of them now—I'd be doing Idaho a disservice."
A record number of Idaho voters carved up this unequal divide: 710,877 people cast ballots last November—nearly 76 percent of Idaho's 936,529 registered voters. When the political dust had settled, Idaho Democrats had lost four seats to Republicans, three in the House and one in the Senate. Perhaps the most stunning loss was that of six-term House Minority Leader John Rusche (D-Lewiston), which struck at the heart of Statehouse Democrats who had to immediately choose a successor to Rusche and, more important, a new tack in holding back a rising GOP tide.
"It's a lot like being at 17,000 feet on an Alaskan mountain top," said Erpelding who, when he's not traversing the rocky path of politics, leads hikers across some of the planet's most intimidating peaks. "Conditions can be crappy, and people get nervous and even distrustful at that altitude, but that's because they're tired. But that's also a unique opportunity to show people how teamwork can make a difference."
Erpelding has been charged by his Democratic colleagues to be their new guide in his newly elected role of minority leader, stepping into Rusche's shoes.
"I was John Rusche's staffer even before I got elected to the House. I've worked with him as a rank-and-file member of the Legislature and served with him in leadership," said Erpelding. "John has been the first person I called whenever I had a political question. I consider him a mentor."
With Rusche's loss and Republicans capturing another seat in the open race in Lewiston's 6th legislative district, Democrats can only claim one legislator elected from northern Idaho: Rep. Paulette Jordan (D-Plummer). When asked if the losses fed into the cliche of Democrats maintaining a stronghold on the "Great State of Ada," Erpelding was having none of it.
"I take exception to that," he said. "It's a misnomer. Democrats have representation in Pocatello and Blaine County. Even though we may be concentrated in Ada County, I meet Democrats across the state, and I assure you that our message resonates with them."
However, Erpelding is also the first to admit it's time to press the reset button. When asked what Idaho Democrats ought to be doing differently, Erpelding leaned in, took an extended pause and spoke pointedly.
"That's the question we've asked ourselves. Democrats have often, in an effort to govern, compromised before compromise should have been on the table," he said. "Look, Democrats will always champion what is for the betterment of Idaho, and we'll work with the other side when they're reasonable. But if they are unreasonable, then they're going to be taken to task. I think that's different than what we've done over the last several years."
Still, numbers are numbers and when Republicans picked up four seats in the Statehouse, the majority quickly re-sorted committee assignments, leaving Democrats with less representation on key House and Senate committees. For example, Democrats lost two of four seats on the House State Affairs Committee and another seat on the House Revenue and Taxation Committee.
As for any chance of key planks of the Democratic platform—including Medicaid expansion, a minimum wage increase or Add the Words legislation—the cards aren't stacked in their favor.
"But when the odds are against you, you don't ever, ever, ever walk away from the things that you know in your heart are right," Erpelding added. "If we were to shy away from our values, we would be letting down too many people and we will not do that."
As for his own portfolio of proposed legislation in the coming 2017 legislative session, Erpelding is preparing to mount what he says will be a significant challenge to an issue that should draw more than a few sparks—literally.
"Fireworks. That's what you can expect from me," said Erpelding. "It's long past due that we've got to stop the insane practice of selling illegal fireworks in Idaho."
Erpelding was referring to the legal paradox that fireworks deemed illegal in Idaho (rockets, mortars) continue to be sold here, but consumers just have to sign a piece of paper promising not to use them in the Gem State. Law enforcement and firefighters say the practice is a sham, considering how many fires are caused by illegal fireworks.
"Look at that massive Boise Foothills fire we had last June, sparked by illegal fireworks," said Erpelding.
More than 2,500 acres were scorched and one home destroyed as flames lit up the Foothills June 29. Investigators later confirmed an illegal Roman candle was responsible for the blaze.
"I expect to meet some resistance to proposed legislation from the folks who sell the fireworks. They'll probably have a lobbyist," said Erpelding. "But that's politics. Fireworks? Yes, you can expect fireworks in the upcoming session."