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Rep. Elaine Smith

Education, compromise and the honor of getting low marks from the Idaho Freedom Foundation


Rep. Elaine Smith (D-Pocatello) is accustomed to being in the political minority: she is one of only 19 women and 16 Democrats in the Idaho House. However, her political advocacy, particularly for education, usually puts her squarely in the mainstream of popular opinion.

"Wherever I go—door-to-door, meetings of different organizations—that's the one thing I hear about from nearly everyone: education," said Smith.

The eastern Idaho Democrat usually finds herself at or near the bottom of the Idaho Freedom Foundation's so-called "Freedom Index," which tags Idaho lawmakers by how conservative they're voting records might be. For the record, she considers that a badge of honor.

You're an Idaho native. Where did you spend your formative years?

My mother died when I was quite young and my father worked on the railroad, so my older sister and her husband raised me. For six years, we lived in King Hill [Elmore County] and then we moved to Meridian. Ultimately, I went to Idaho State University, where I got a degree in secondary education with an emphasis on history.

Where you met your soon-to-be husband.

Rich and I will be married for 48 years this June. He was drafted in the Vietnam War era. Eventually, we returned to Pocatello where we had a recreation vehicle dealership for 16 years and we ended up having three children.

Talk to me about your life in and around education.

I worked in the Pocatello-Chubbuck School District office for 25 years, beginning in 1985.

We heard quite a bit about that school district last December when a lunch lady at a middle school claimed she was fired for giving a hot lunch to a student who couldn't pay for the meal. That story went national.

International. Our newspaper in Pocatello even had comments from as far away as England.

What was the end result of that?

[The lunch lady] ended up not taking an offer to come back to work. They offered her a job at the district's central kitchen, but she said no.

For the record, does any child in that school district go hungry if they don't have money for lunch?

If they've exceeded an $11 debt limit for not paying, then they're given a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich, milk and cookie. They absolutely receive something, and the parents are notified. No child ever goes away without any food.

Tell me about your political roots.

I got involved in a number of organizations in high school, college and beyond. I represented the school district for the chamber of commerce, the United Way and many other organizations. In 2001, then-Rep. Roger Chase was elected to be mayor of Pocatello and I was on the short-list of replacements. Gov. [Dirk] Kempthorne chose me and I started in January 2002. This is my 15th year in the House but my eighth term.

Being a Democrat in the Idaho House, you're certainly in the super-minority and that means plenty of committee assignments.

I'm assigned to State Affairs, Business and the Environment, Energy and Technology committees.

Being in State Affairs, more often than not, you're in the middle of some wide-ranging debates.

Add the Words, gambling, guns, liquor laws. It's the "everything-else" committee.

Let's talk about that Idaho Freedom Foundation ranking.

The way I look at it, the lower you score, the more independent you are with your thinking.

What's the biggest difference between the Idaho House today and when you first walked into the Statehouse in 2002?

There was much more compromise back then, and it was only 10 years ago. There simply aren't as many mainstream Republicans any more. The one thing I've learned though is that legislators are sincere about their beliefs. You just have to figure out a way to work together to further Idaho, to improve the economy, to grow the middle class.