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The Nurse is Out

Margaret Henbest looks back on 12 years in the Legislature

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The first time Rep. Margaret Henbest ran for public office, she had to decide which political party she belonged to. After some consideration, the Boise Democrat tackled her first campaign and won by seven votes after a ballot recount.

"Election night was something else," the lawmaker from District 16 said recently.

Now, 12 years and six terms later, Henbest is ready to step away from her seat in the Idaho Legislature. She leaves not only as one of the most senior and well-respected members of the House, but also as the reigning authority in all matters dealing with health care, thanks in large part to her day job as a registered nurse.

Dressed stylishly in black, Henbest sipped a triple espresso as she looked back on her legislative career and personal motivations.

"Nursing brings something really unique to that health-care debate," she said. "We don't have a huge financial stake in it compared with other entities. We're not these super-paid professionals, we're not these ... multi-billion-dollar companies."

Henbest has led the charge for health-care reform, using her position on both the House Health and Welfare Committee and as a former member of the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee to guide legislation and funding.

This session alone she has pushed for state review of children's deaths, a redefinition of pharmacists and better access to affordable health insurance for small businesses. Her efforts have met varying degrees of success, but no one argues the value of her knowledge.

"She was the go-to person [for health-care issues]," said Minority Caucus Chair John Rusche, a physician from Lewiston.

Rusche is Henbest's heir-apparent when it comes to medical issues. He, along with Burley Republican Rep. Fred Wood, a physician, and Boise Democrat Rep., Sue Chew, a pharmacist, are now the repository of Legislative medical expertise.

The possibility that a new health-care champion may not emerge has been the hardest part of her decision to leave office.

"You know that, intellectually, voids always get filled and somebody always steps up to move forward good work," Henbest said as she took a break after another day of debating in the House.

Her knowledge won't be missed, said Assistant House Majority Leader Scott Bedke, a Republican from Oakley, "as long as she keeps answering her cell phone."

But Henbest's departure also means the loss of a senior member of the Democratic Party's caucus at a time when the party is trying to gather momentum heading into the November general election.

"It means that others in the caucus will be moving to fill her shoes," said House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet from Ketchum.

But it's Henbest's nonpartisan nature that has earned her the most respect.

"She's respected for her intellect, but also because she listens to both sides of the aisle and tries to accommodate concerns that Republicans bring forth," Jaquet said.

For Henbest, it's a necessary tool.

"If you're in the superminority like I've been for the full 12 years, if you seriously want to get something done, you have to pull so many Republican votes," Henbest said.

"She's sharp," said House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, a Republican from Star. "You can trust her."

Moyle said Henbest's nonpartisan skills aren't common in many other legislators.

"She always did the right thing in those areas by everyone's standards," Bedke said. "[She was] never tainted with any partisanship. That's why she will be so greatly missed."

That's high praise for someone who never set out to be a politician. A California native who attended the Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland, Henbest moved to Boise 22 years ago with her husband, Michael, and their three sons. While teaching at Boise State, Henbest got involved with a group of fellow nurse practitioners working on licensing legislation.

"That was a really galvanizing experience for me because it showed me how much citizens have to have a responsibility to be involved in government," she said.

Henbest entered the Legislature determined to push issues she felt strongly about.

"She's carried an extreme amount of legislation over the years, more than anyone in the caucus," Jaquet said.

While her consensus-building skills have won her many successes over the years, Henbest has also fought her battles.

Beyond the frustration of having the rug pulled out from under a bill after months of work, Henbest said she is often put off by partisan politics. As a member of the minority party, she feels her legislation has been thwarted at times for political gains.

"That's frustrating because it becomes a really self-serving interest or a partisan interest instead of, at the end of the day, what's going to help the state," she said.

Being in the minority has other challenges, namely being passed over for leadership positions despite seniority.

"It's hard to be in there that long and see somebody come in and in two years be placed in a chairmanship or whatever," Henbest said. "But that's just how it works."

Henbest has managed to carve a niche for herself amid what is largely a sea of male faces. Her gender has been both a positive and a negative, she said.

"You have to work harder for it," Henbest said. "You have to prove yourself maybe a little bit more."

Henbest plans to continue working part-time with the Family Advocacy Center and Educational Services office in Boise, where she runs a children's clinic. She also plans to keep fighting to find a solution to the growing problem of health insurance affordability.

She's not sure what form her advocacy will take, whether it's as a mentor for another legislator willing to take up her mantle or with a consumer group.

"I won't be a lobbyist," Henbest said flatly. "You don't have to worry about me doing that."

She's looking forward to watching how Idaho's growing population changes the Legislature in coming years, especially with the changing demographics in the state's urban centers.

"If I were in the Republican Party, I would be worried about that," she said. "The changed demographics require a little more flexibility and kind of a more current response to problems that are arising ... I think it's important to be responsive to that, and they're not."

While she doesn't support the idea of term limits, she would like to see some sort of time limitation on leadership positions in the Legislature.

"There's a need for turnover," she said. "So you can get a fresh voice and a new way of dealing with things."

While the Legislature has slogged on longer than expected, Henbest said she's already feeling a little nostalgic—although it's hard to feel sentimental during the rancorous last days of the session.

"I'm not going to miss that," she said. "Once we get done, I'll just be happy to get done, and I'll start being sad after that."