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Left of the Legislature

An urban elephant woos donkey Idaho

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If it walks, swims and quacks like a Democrat, it might actually be an urban Republican.

At least that's the idea behind Kevin McGowan's campaign. The energetic Republican businessman is competing with Democrat Brian Cronin for a House seat in Boise's famously left-leaning District 19, which encompasses the North and East ends and downtown Boise. Rep. Nicole LeFavour is leaving the seat to run for the State Senate.

The two men have more in common than just geography. Both were born back East and have Ivy-League educations. Both are in their mid-30s. Both support a local option tax, renewable sources of energy and local business development.

At a recent debate sponsored by the Boise Young Professionals, an organization of which both McGowan and Cronin are members, moderator and Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey began by pointing out that one purpose of the debate would be to find out where the two candidates actually differ.

A few key differences did emerge. Cronin is pro-choice; McGowan is not. And McGowan fully supports nuclear energy. "We have the expertise within our state to really create a lot of jobs if we make Idaho the capital of nuclear energy," McGowan said. "Obviously you have to solve the waste issue, but I think the technology exists ... to process the waste and deal with it properly."

Cronin disagrees that the waste issue has been solved, and said that the technology is still too expensive to implement, citing the case of Warren Buffet, who earlier this year yanked his support from a Payette County nuclear energy project.

"Until those two questions are solved, I don't see any reason to pursue this when we could be and should be pursuing renewable energy sources," Cronin said.

But perhaps the biggest difference between the two comes down to philosophy.

"I grew up believing in the two-party system," Cronin said. "In many ways, that's part of the system of checks and balances that helps keep everybody honest. Right now, given the severe imbalance that we have, we lack accountability, we lack transparency and in many cases, we lack competence."

He says he's running, in part, to restore that party balance to something closer to 50-50, as opposed to the 80 percent majority currently enjoyed by Republican legislators.

McGowan, too, acknowledges the power of party. In fact, it's the cornerstone of his argument as to why he's needed in 19, a district that hasn't elected a Republican since 1994, when Kitty Gurnsey was elected for the last of her 11 terms. Gurnsey is now McGowan's campaign treasurer.

"When a liberal Democrat goes to talk to a rural Republican, they feel much less likely to want to talk to that individual than they would want to talk to me," McGowan said. "They might say, 'Oh, he's a moderate Republican, but at least there are some similarities.' There are cultural chasms in between a liberal Democrat and a rural Republican. I already have much better relationships with some of those rural legislators than Brian ever could hope to."

It's an argument that several Boise Republicans are making this year as they try to take back seats that Boise Democrats have won in recent years. In the same breath that McGowan stresses deep party differences, he also tells voters to forget about them.

"We just don't get anything accomplished on the urban side of things if we put it in the prism of partisan politics," he said. He does draw a line between urban and rural issues and the legislators who advocate for them, saying that if elected, he'll be the first urban legislator he's ever seen who will "actually go out and do [his] best to understand rural initiatives."

Cronin counters that McGowan's argument just doesn't make sense—it would be like him trying to out-conservative Bill Sali.

"Does anyone honestly believe that I'll be able to take those issues, that are antithetical to my own party, take them to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, and convince them that they ought to change their mind on those issues?" he asked. "It'll never, ever happen. It's the same thing with the Idaho Legislature. It's the same dynamic."

Boise State political science professor Gary Moncrief said that the candidates' arguments aren't new. In 2006, he said, Democrats swept much of Boise by knocking out a lot of moderate Republicans.

"The conventional wisdom became: Boise actually just lost influence in the Legislature. It's that argument, kind of, coming back around again," he said.

Moncrief said McGowan's argument is very practical because in the short term, minority parties really don't have much power. But Cronin's approach, he said, reflected long-term thinking.

"If you vote for change, then in the short term you lose power. But in the long term, the only way you change the system is by the minority party picking up seats ... and eventually becoming the majority party," Moncrief said.

Though Cronin and McGowan have known each other for years through their community involvement, their mutual amity may have suffered a blow through this campaign.

"I guess it's fair to say that we were friendly prior to this," Cronin acknowledges.

"We're still friends on Facebook," quipped McGowan.