A Powerful Minority

Ada contender could tilt county politics


Three-zero. Three-zero. Three-zero. Three-zero.

See the pattern? It's the outcome of Ada County Commission votes that have become familiar, almost predictable.

All in favor, no dissenters. But a once-underdog contender for Ada County's open Commissioner's seat could change those numbers, political patterns and the future landscape of Ada County.

Republican voters ousted longstanding Commissioner Judy Peavey-Derr in what some pundits called a vote of dissent against the whole Commission during last May's primary. That shocker vote installed Steven Kimball--an unknown Republican candidate who did little campaigning and even less fundraising--to the GOP seat. The move also elevated Democrat Paul Woods from underdog party challenger to a formidable force that analysts say could tip the scales in Ada County politics.

"I think we were all thrown for a loop when Judy lost. So a lot of us have had to rethink the (race)," said Brian Cronin, chairman of the Ada County Democratic Party.

Since then, Woods has knocked on doors, canvassed the county with pamphlets and put his citizen opinion on the record at recent Commission meetings. He's also gained surprising bipartisan support, including financial backing from Boise City Councilor (and former Ada County Commissioner) Vern Bisterfeldt.

"Just because you're a Democrat doesn't mean you're dumb," said Bisterfeldt. "He's very conscientious. I don't think he's been affected by politics yet."

Political analysts are now saying it's time to get to know Woods. He could change Ada County.

Woods, who also has the support of former Gov. Cecil Andrus, made his way to Boise from Wisconsin, by way of his career in environmental and civil engineering. But each step of the way took Woods further from a lucrative career as an engineer and closer to the life of a public servant. Foothills lovers may recognize Woods as Boise City's Foothills land acquisition director. And his supporters say his love of the land may be what propels him into office.

"I was out there this morning making sure everything is fine," Woods said of his frequent treks into the Foothills where he's often accompanied by his wife Dawn Blancaflor, a local attorney, and their two dogs.

Five years ago, voters approved a Foothills levy which, in recent years, has added open spaces to the Foothills landscape through the acquisition of formerly private lands. Woods was one of the prime movers who pushed for the levy, which succeeded largely due to a grassroots campaign. Woods' backers say those efforts, and the network of Foothills levy volunteers, allowed him to join the Commissioner's race with an already established group of supporters. And those activists now know how to run an effective campaign.

"The cause has brought a lot of people together but it has kept us together on a lot of different matters," said Lauren McLean, the campaign manager for the Foothills levy effort, who now calls shots for school funding initiative now on the ballot.

Many of the Foothills levy supporters have kept close political ties, and Woods counts some of his colleagues in the effort among his greatest supporters in his run for Commissioner. The question now is whether that reliance upon the grassroots will be enough to push him into office.

"His support is definitely grassroots. I don't think he'll be getting a lot of support from corporate America," said Brian Ellsworth, Boise Planning and Zoning commissioner.

"The grassroots support could help Woods win a seat on the commission, or it could be a bit of a hindrance," said John Freemuth, political analyst and Boise State political science professor.

"A lot of people will be drawn to and support Paul Woods because of his work with the Foothills levy, but it could be played against him," Freemuth said. Some may see Woods' relationships with Foothills conservationists as an alliance with Mayor Dave Bieter. And, Freemuth said, some voters may want a commissioner who works independently of Boise city government.

"The commissioners are more Republican than anything, but there seems to be a lot of rifts between the city and the county," Freemuth said.

"Right now everyone's fighting," Bisterfeldt said. "We've got to bring the governments back together, in harmony, and not be turf protectors." He said in recent years, the public has viewed the Commission as unresponsive.

The two entities often find themselves at odds over open space and park development. And, despite Boise's support for the Foothills levy. the county commission has presided over the growth of planned communities and large subdivision developments that have consumed open space.

"I pick up on a lot of tension," Freemuth said. "Paul Woods may be able to change that. Perhaps they will have fewer of the fights."

Woods could also be the one who dismantles that 3-0 voting pattern.

"This is the kind of thing that would change the dynamic of Ada County [politics]," Freemuth said of Woods. "You could have some 2-1 positions instead of 3-0 positions."

It's that seemingly unrelenting consensus that partly prompted Woods' challengers, Republican Kimball and Independent Sharon Ullman to enter the race.

"I think the consensus is a problem," said Ullman, a former Ada County Commissioner. "Why don't we just have one commissioner?"

That kind of sentiment could explain the ousting of Peavey-Derr in the May primary.

"It's sort of a referendum on the future of Ada County," Freemuth said of the vote.

Peavey-Derr could not be reached for comment on this story. She has previously said she would support Kimball.

Woods campaigns for what he says is missing in county politics: Protection of open space, air and water quality and tackling problems such as traffic, sprawl and drug abuse, all while getting a handle on what he calls out-of-control county spending and property taxes. Woods says that the $17 million the county has proposed for county-wide improvements deserves another look. He likens his approach to county management to his choice in automobiles.

"I drive a '93 Toyota pick-up. My dad--if something wasn't absolutely broke, he didn't buy a new one," Woods said. "Seventeen million dollars is a significant chunk of change. We need to keep our eye on those costs."

But, even if he wins, Woods would still have to work with the two Republicans he would join on the commission, Chairman Rick Yzaguirre and Fred Tillman. Ellsworth noted that Woods tends to bridge city and country interests in his current job, and he might be the new perspective that gets fellow commissioners to cast votes that defy their entrenched ways of voting.

"It's important that we have the vision to see that growth will happen with us rather than to us," Woods said.

Still, Woods never planned to hold public office. "If you look at the three of us left, none of us were expected to win," Woods said. "We didn't get into the race to win. We entered the race because we were passionate about issues."