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Dirk, dancing in the rear-view mirror


Gov. Dirk Kempthorne isn't known for an effervescent personality. He's not a back-slapper who fills a room with his larger-than-lifeness.

But anyone watching Kempthorne during his end-of-session news conference, and at subsequent events, has likely noticed that Kempthorne appears about as giddy as it schoolkid on recess these days.

The simple reason is this: He's outta here, folks. The Idaho Legislature has done all the damage they might do to his political resume, and now it's time to start polishing the apple, and start pricing out apartment rentals in Washington, D.C.

Across the country, governors know the post-Legislature drill. It's important to appear gratified yet weary, satisfied but humble. Most importantly, it's essential for governors to show that the real winner was "the people."

If they do this right, they'll get the sort of soaring headlines The Idaho Statesman gave Kempthorne last weekend, wherein the paper announced he "got most of what he wanted."

"It was a tough session," he told reporters in a post-session news conference. "But, you stay with it, and you keep calm."

Certainly he got lots of things: better pay for state workers, some shoring up of the state's Medicaid system, and some tougher laws for sex offenders, meth users and gangs. Yes, it would be irresponsible to say he was completely unsuccessful.

But Kempthorne also got his hand smacked when he reached for the state's cookie jar. Whether it was $50 for every Idahoan to spend on energy bills, $2 million to spend on property around the Simplot mansion, $34 million for parks or hundreds of millions to spend on highways, he just didn't get there. Yes, parks got some cash--about a third of his original request--but they got some ugly tradeoffs as well. There simply isn't a good way to sell the introduction of a gravel mine into Eagle Island State Park, and as The New York Times noted, this will be a stumbling point if any of the U.S. Senate decides to bring it up during his confirmation as President Bush's next Secretary of the Interior.

But where the Legislature spent most of its time in the final weeks, it seemed, were on initiatives essential only to them--property taxes and water recharge, abortion rights and gay marriage. They managed to do lots of things this session, everyone seems to agree, but not all of it came by the guiding hand of Kempthorne. If the Legislature was obsessed with property tax relief, Kempthorne was almost oblivious to it. He gave it a dismissive mention in his State of the State address, then sat back as lawmakers dragged on with the third-longest session in state history so they could tussle over the issue.

"The governor was not a player in property taxes," Boise State University Political Science professor Jim Weatherby said on Idaho Public Television's recent wrap of the session.

Yes, he'll sign the property-tax relief bill, he said in his remarks to the press. But that was all he wanted to say, until prompted further by reporters. "I'm satisfied with the outcome," was as far as he'd go.

Likewise Kempthorne had nothing to say about another bottom-up initiative that came to his desk: a two-year moratorium on coal-fired power plants is now law, thanks to his signature, but did he say a word about it? Nope. Should you expect him to? Nope. Only The Idaho Mountain Express in Ketchum took note of the action, and Kempthorne wasn't asked about it.

You would be wrong to expect triumphant rhetoric from Kempthorne about this matter. Try to imagine Kempthorne the Interior Secretary sitting down to a meeting with the powerful coal power lobby with a rousing we-hate-coal speech under his belt.

This is a tricky time. Kempthorne needs positive press to help fill his Washington-bound sails. So when a brave television reporter finally asked him about his wife's quirky desire to be lieutenant governor after he leaves for Washington, he seemed flummoxed. "Can I talk about that?" he asked his staff. They shrugged, and he attempted a non-answer: He is, he declared, "a tremendous fan" of his wife. 'Nuff said.

In the end, Kempthorne signed some 452 pieces of legislation brought his way by the Idaho Legislature. He signed every bill he got, according to Mike Journee, his press secretary. So much for the "veto fit" of 2005, when Kempthorne slammed his stamp on a series of bills while waiting for more initiatives to go his way. That's the old Kempthorne, who needed no favors and was willing to brook some ill will.

But while the Kempthornes ponder just how much, uh, baggage they'll take to Washington with them, Idahoans may as well gear up to manage another of the gifts bestowed them by the Idaho Legislature.

This fall, Idaho will join several other states in what is likely to be a bitter tussle over the concept of gay marriage, something this state already considers illegal. A ballot initiative will ask voters if anything other than a man-woman marriage is legal and proper under the Idaho Constitution. The ramifications are to civil unions, domestic partnerships, or other arrangements that might allow same-sex couples, as well as non-traditional non-marriages by heterosexual couples.

And as they weather the storm of political mania generated by that, Idahoans might also be considering the face of next year's session. Many key positions in the Statehouse are up for grabs, from the governor's office to several key committee positions, including that of retiring House Speaker Bruce Newcomb.

But what most people seem to think will happen for certain is that Idaho's Legislature may soon start looking more like its changing society. As he made his parting remarks, Newcomb pleaded with lawmakers not to forget the rural areas whose influence is waning. "Do not leave what made this state behind," he said. But that may be wishful thinking. As Idaho becomes more urban -- a shift Democrats are certainly pining for, since their strength lies in cities -- its political power center may also shift to those areas.