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Same Old Song

Republicans keep stronghold in legislature

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Some things change in Idaho.

Jon Stravers got a free beer for a change. The folks at Hyde Park's Parrilla thought they'd reward their civic-minded patrons by offering a free pint to anyone 21 years of age or older who could present an "I voted" sticker on election night.

The stickers piled up, Stravers sipped his brew and the election numbers poured through a television set over Parrilla's bar. Stravers, a dweller in what some call "The People's Republic of District 19," realized that at least some of his votes backed the losers in the race of 2004.

Some things never change in Idaho, Jon.

For starters, Idaho voters overwhelmingly went for Bush. And they filled the Statehouse with elephants--again.

"Republicans have reason to cheer and feel secure," says James Weatherby, political analyst and political science professor at Boise State University.

Plenty of Democrats, Nader dreamers and independent thinkers held their heads low coast to coast after what some called a too-close-for-comfort Presidential race. Disappointment was the word of the week for some while others simply credited the Bush victory to a platform that focused on terrorists, God, guns and gays.

Courting the religious reaped big rewards. The media reported the popular vote at around 51 percent for Bush and 48 percent for Kerry just hours, not weeks after election night. Hanging chads didn't keep Bush down and neither did Idaho.

Jon Howard, Idaho coordinator for the Nader campaign, says the national numbers still show "half the country's pissed off," but the majority of folks in almost every Idaho precinct demonstrated their approval of Bush at the polls. More than 408,400 Idaho popular votes and every electoral vote went to the Bush/Cheney ticket, according to unofficial numbers from the Secretary of State. Kerry/Edwards earned just over 180,800 Idaho popular votes.

God and country seemed to go hand in hand this election season, and courting the religious vote wasn't that bad of a political move, Weatherby says. Christian groups typically lean toward Bush.

But Weatherby, pundits and politicos credit the state Republican stronghold--at least partly--to some hard work, an independent streak and a lot of habit.

"There were no massive surprises," says publisher and political analyst, Randy Stapilus.

Fifty-some volunteers rallied at Idaho's GOP office on election night and brought in the tail end of a campaign that Idaho Republican Party Executive Director Garry Lough called, "energized with a dedicated youth backing." Teens practically made the Republican office their after-school hangout; more volunteers combed the streets on election day; still others waved signs during rush-hour traffic along Front Street.

"It was about getting out the vote," Lough says. "If it meant driving people to the polls, we were prepared to do it."

Republicans expected a tight Ada County race but what some call habit, tradition or an eye for the R kept the state's most urban county mostly Republican.

"We had some strong candidates," Lough says.

And Republicans ended election night with some pretty good parties.

Plates, leftovers, serving dishes, your typical party debris still covered the table in the Sali's breakfast nook days after election night. Rep. Bill Sali (R-Kuna) and his fellow Republicans had a lot to celebrate. The party still controls the House and Senate, which might partly explain why the Sali family planned to spend the post-election days dismantling Sali election signs for storage. Those signs might just add color to Kuna's street corners again and again. Sali has sat in the Idaho legislature since the state's centennial and has seen plenty of election outcomes that for some seem like déjà vu.

And that déjà vu might translate into legislative déjà vu.

"What you've seen in the last few sessions is about what you'll get," Stapilus says.

This session, expect the numerous business-as-usual bills that typically pass through the legislature, some debate over a state budget with ever growing demands, and the sales tax increase that's set to expire. Lawmakers might or might not vote to keep it on the books, but several said they would like to sunset the tax increase.

"Either they're going to have to make cuts," Stapilus says. "Or they're going to have to be creative."

And how much of Democrats' two cents can end up in this potentially creative budget?

The historically conservative legislature may become even more conservative this time around, Stapilus says. And for those few token Democrats, "It's going to be difficult for them to push elements of their agenda through."

Idaho Democrats used words like "common ground" and "collaboration" last week. Some just talked about a heavy bout of post-election depression.

"We lost a few seats but I don't think we should hang our heads in shame," says Brian Cronin, an Ada County Democrats chair.

Democrats are celebrating some wins but for every gain, a Democratic seat went to the GOP. Republicans gained a handful of House and Senate seats while Democrats claimed victory on two formerly Republican Senate positions and a House seat, according to unofficial counts at press time. According to the Secretary of State's office, the Board of Canvassers has until Nov. 17 to finalize the ballot count. Libertarian, Independent and other third-party candidates earned a meager percentage of Idaho votes. At press time, many of the write-in ballots had not been counted.

"That's indicative of their attitude," Gwen Sanchirico, Green Party organizer, says of the slow write-in count. She says if you're not a Democrat or a Republican in Idaho, you're basically ignored.

Green Party members and Ralph Nader supporters spent much of the election season trying to collect enough signatures to get their candidates on the ballot. Those efforts fell short of organizers' goals, which partly explains the Republican-heavy legislative ballot.

Many House and Senate seats in Districts one through 34 went uncontested on the ballot. Most of those positions went to Republicans. But for Sanchirico, who bases her votes on values and issues, a D and an R look pretty much the same.

"I see two parties that are identical and fight for corporate interests over the interests of the people they are supposed to be representing," she says.

Democrats often run as moderates and as Sanchirico says, they tend to not go out on a limb to discuss the tough issues or take, for example, a stand against the Patriot Act.

"The Democratic Party might as well call themselves the bland and inoffensive party because that's what they're going for," she says.

Weatherby says a moderate platform likely helped Democrat Kate Kelly win District 18. But reports sometimes painted Representative-elect, Nicole LeFavour (D-Boise), as the history-making lesbian candidate who writes poetry. LeFavour's winning campaign noted her 14 years of effort to build better schools, improve access to health care, protect the environment and improve Idaho's economy.

Cronin says Idaho Democrats don't always get their message out to the public and that's why some people may not know what Democrats are all about.

"We're losing the war of words and we're losing the rhetoric and spin," Cronin says. "We get painted as the party that's going to take away your guns."

Sanchirico noted a host of similarities between Republican and Democratic platforms and Sali says whether you've got an R or D behind your name you've got to work with colleagues on the other side of the aisle in Idaho's citizen legislature. That's what Sali plans to do, he says, pointing to numerous non-partisan alliances in recent years and legislation that had the backing of both parties.

"I figured out a long time ago that if you work down there long enough, you'll work on bills with just about everyone in the place," he says. "The public thinks we hunker down and the Republicans throw bombs at the Democrats and the Democrats throw bombs at Republicans."

Sali says the legislative debate usually falls along the lines of compromise. He sees the 2005 session as no different.

But Sali's will to compromise comes on the heels of closed caucuses that are still fresh in voters' minds and before Democrats who know they're up for a challenge.

Kelly spent some time as a top administrator with the Department of Environmental Quality. That means she knows all about finding that compromise between the seemingly diverging interests of landowners, business, local government, federal agencies, "it really ran the gamut," she says. And it means she's prepared for the legislature.

"I don't think it would be any tougher than working on environmental issues," she says.

Jon Stravers just hopes someone represents his interests in environmental protection, affordable heath care and issues some associate with economic and social justice.

If that doesn't happen, Stravers says he's happy he at least got a free beer out of the deal.

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