Who Wants To Go To Washington?

Idaho's capitol shift may leave some hanging


Gov. Dirk Kempthorne's Senate confirmation hearings this week may not make for riveting television, but in the halls of the State Capitol, you can bet that a TV or two will be tuned to the action.

Kempthorne's staff might not be watching just because they are fans of their boss, or because they wonder whether or not he'll make it through Senate confirmation to become the next Secretary of the Interior. Neither of those are in doubt. More likely, they'll be tuning in because they're wondering what will happen to their jobs when their boss heads to Washington.

Kempthorne has 20 people listed as his staff, for a payroll that totals more than $1.4 milion. But when Capitol observers start guessing how many of them will go to Washington to work under Kempthorne, that number gets much smaller.

Whether that's because he won't need Idaho natives to run a Washington, D.C. office or because the idea of uprooting to Washington for the end of the Bush Administration's tenure isn't tempting to his local staff, it's unlikely that Kempthorne will bring many locals to D.C.

"Certainly, since the day the president announced his choice for the next Secretary of the Interior, people have tried to determine what that means to them and their future," said Brian Whitlock, Kempthorne's chief of staff.

As the longest-serving Kempthorne aide--he was with Kempthorne back when he was mayor of Boise--Whitlock is the name most oft-mentioned by people speculating about Idahoans who might move to Washington with Kempthorne.

Whitlock, however, declined to speculate much.

"Quite frankly, having spent seven-and-a-half years putting in 15 hours a day, I'm kind of thinking a couple of weeks off might be nice," Whitlock said. "In my perfect world, the confirmation goes through, the transition to a new governor is smooth, and I have some time to sit down and figure out what I want to do when I grow up."

Kempthorne's press secretary Mike Journee--whose job is also up in the air--was unavailable for comment.

But while Whitlock ponders a break, Lt. Gov. Jim Risch is looking at resumes. After working in an office with just one full-time staff member, administrative assistant Bibiana Nertney, he'll need to staff up significantly to run the state. How he intends to do so is a well-kept secret.

"Should I become governor, which I anticipate I will, we will very quickly have names available," Risch said. "Until that moment, I'm not going to speculate." Nertney, he said, will stay on board. That's about as far as he'll go.

"I'm not sitting on my hands here," Risch said. "We're going to hit the ground running."

Rumors persist, however, that Risch will have his own staff, and not hire too liberally from Kempthorne's stable.

"Even if it's a short period of time, he may want to have his own team," said John Freemuth, a political science professor at Boise State. "He's got a strategy, for sure."

Which makes it a little tough for Kempthorne's staff, who may now be forced to look to the private sector for work.

"I don't think any of them have anything to worry about," Whitlock said.

The situation was different for aides to former Gov. Cecil Andrus, who in 1977 was named as Interior secretary for President Jimmy Carter. When he went East, he brought along a half-dozen Idaho aides who called themselves "the Idaho Mafia." Chris Carlson of Spokane, Wash., was one of the bunch, working as Andrus's director of the office of public affairs. He and his peers had an easier decision to make then, he said.

"There is a big difference in whether you go back at the beginning of an administration, or whether you uproot your family to join the end of an administration," Carlson said. More to the point, he said, Kempthorne is more likely to want a staff that knows Washington, something he had as a United States senator. "Dirk has a variety of folks that he can draw on," Carlson said. "He's probably got former staffers from his Senate days that are still there."

Also waiting for Kempthorne in Washington is an Interior Department that has been operating without a chief for a month. Outgoing Secretary Gale Norton's last day was March 31.

"There are a bunch of people in place already," Freemuth said. "[Deputy Secretary] Lynn Scarlett runs the department, and she's got a full-time staff."

Of course, also up in the air is whom Risch might name as a lieutenant governor. Although first lady Patricia Kempthorne told the Lewiston Morning Tribune she was interested in the job, Risch would not comment on that position.

"I have thoughts on lieutenant governor, but I'm not sharing them," Risch said.

For now, Risch has carefully tracked the confirmation process. He can explain, step by step, what has to happen for his former political ally to become the official Interior secretary, how long that might take, and what might happen in the interim.

Nobody, including Risch, seems to see much in the way of hurdles for Kempthorne. As a former Senator, Kempthorne is a known quantity in a Congress dominated by his party. Even the top Democratic Senator on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat, is not planning any heavy grilling, his staff said. According to Jude McCartin, Bingaman's spokeswoman, the entire confirmation hearing of Kempthorne takes up only two hours of a daily planner's schedule. Following that hearing, in a couple of weeks, the committee would have to meet again for a formal vote to send Kempthorne's name to the full Senate.

Either way, few people doubt that when the dust settles, Kempthorne will have the Senate's approval and Risch will head across the hall to a new office, and a new title.

Just who they takes with them when they go, however, is a question only they know the answer to.