Ilana Rubel 

Poverty, politics and priorities

There are Type A personalities, workaholics and overachievers. And then, there's Ilana Rubel.

The Harvard Law school graduate is a partner in the Boise office of Silicon Valley-based Fenwick & West LLP; she likes to teach the U.S. Constitution at her children's Boise school; and now she's an Idaho legislator--one of only 13 Democrats and 22 women in the Idaho House.

"I got the phone call from Gov. [C.L. "Butch"] Otter on Jan. 3," said Rubel. "He said, 'I've heard good things about you,' and it was time to get to work."

Indeed there's plenty of work to do for Rubel, whom Otter chose to fill the Boise District 18 seat in the Idaho House vacated by Janie Ward-Engelking, who days earlier was picked to join the Idaho Senate, filling the seat vacated by former Sen. Branden Durst.

"It was lightning-fast," Rubel said.

That appears to be just fine for the 41-year-old wife and mother of four, who talks about politics and government with a focused and, yes, lightning-fast passion.

Talk to me about your roots.

I'm the only daughter of a single mother, who did what she could to put food on the table. We had no money; no, we had less than no money. We were very, very poor, which helped me to qualify for every type of financial aid imaginable, which ironically helped me attend some top schools. So I went to Georgetown University on a full scholarship.

Were you interested in politics at the time?

I've been passionate about politics since I was a very young girl. My grandmother Charlotte was a lobbyist for the League of Women Voters and some of my earliest memories were of spending time with her going door-to-door at state capitols.

What did you choose to study at Georgetown?

Everything. I was so excited for the opportunity to go to such a great school that I had double majors in English and American Government, plus minors in history, philosophy, theology and even pre-med. I petitioned the dean to [allow me to] take more classes than were normally allowed.

And I understand you had a pretty impressive professor at Harvard Law.

Elizabeth Warren [current senior U.S. Senator from Massachusetts]. The best teacher I ever had.

Have you had any communication with her over the years?

Funny you should mention that; her chief of staff just called to congratulate me and get my address because Sen. Warren wanted to send me a letter. Yes, we've stayed in touch and she has written recommendation letters for me over the years. When she decided to run for the U.S. Senate in 2012, I went to the Democratic [National] Convention in Charlotte and we had brunch together.

How did you get to Boise?

I worked for a top law firm in Chicago for a few years, and that's where I met my husband. Actually, let me correct that: We met in law school but re-met in Chicago. We got married in 1999, and in 2000, he was recruited to work for Micron here in Boise.

What is your specialty at Fenwick & West?

I joined the firm at the height of the technology bubble and I've been with them for 13-and-a-half years. It's an amazing firm with some of the smartest people around. I do a lot of intellectual property litigation for Micron, HP, Keynetics and a number of Silicon Valley clients. My husband is no longer with Micron. He does technology licensing now.

Have you had to put a lot of your legal work on pause because of your responsibilities at the Legislature?

I don't sleep many nights. I'm usually working 'til about 2 in the morning. I probably sleep three or four hours a night.

Did you ever ask yourself why you're a Democrat?

I came from a very difficult background: a single-parent family in extreme poverty. I wore clothes from the Salvation Army; we ate rice and beans and lived in a dumpy house in the slums. But I went to the best schools you could imagine and I had access to health care and the basics to live out my potential. That's a path that needs to be kept open for everybody.

But, with a few exceptions, I think a Republican could tell me a similar story.

But I don't think that would play out in the politics they advocate. They might say that they want people to get ahead, but you have to ask, "What are the policies that they're pushing?" We have to invest in our children, and certainly make certain that poor, smart kids can get the best possible education.

What do Idaho schools and, more specifically, teachers need that they don't currently have?

For one, they need more pay. They're being asked to do more with less and that's unfair and wrong and it really risks our ability to recruit quality talent.

Has Gov. Otter recommended enough money for teachers?

Nooooo; not by half. There needs to be a far, far better investment.

Is increasing teacher salaries worth raising taxes?

I don't think that's the choice we're facing.

So where does the money come from?

There are plenty of talks about more unnecessary tax breaks for the wealthy--somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 million; then there's the Internet sales tax that we're not collecting; and look at Idaho's decision to reject Medicaid expansion funds--that's at least $50 million that could go into government coffers.

But the word on the street is that the governor and Republican leadership have no desire to consider Medicaid expansion this year.

That's unfortunate and politically driven by incumbents' concern of being challenged within their own party in the primary.

So what can you do about any of that?

I'm not sure, considering the 19 percent Democratic minority presence in the Idaho Legislature, but we sure can be vocal.

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