The Interior Shake-up 

Is the Statehouse in endgame or far from it?

Campaign fever swept the Idaho Statehouse this week and is likely to transform the remainder of the session. Whether it ends next week, as some wishful thinkers posit, or drags on into April, as some pessimistic observers insist, will depend largely on just how eager lawmakers are to get out of the Capitol and get on the campaign trail, and whether or not the governor's office--whoever sits there--will let them go.

From a huffy Brandi Swindell to a happy Jim Risch, politics in the Capitol got plenty emotional in the last seven days. Even as momentous debates were brewing on property taxes and water rights, most eyes were on electoral transitions. The dam broke when Gov. Dirk Kempthorne got his wish: a tap on the shoulder from President Bush, asking him to fill the cramped shoes of departing Interior Secretary Gale Norton.

Up until that announcement late Wednesday, all eyes and ears had been on the bizarre confrontation between Swindell, the pro-life activist and former City Council candidate, and House Speaker Bruce Newcomb. The details will only be known to that odd couple, but the basic facts are this: Swindell is gunning for more pro-life legislation to pass the Legislature, aided by Rep. Bill Sali. But when she tried to put pressure on Newcomb, a good-humored Republican, he lost his patience.

Call it a rookie move. If you're looking to affect someone's actions in the Legislature, it's unwise to slam them in the morning and meet them in the afternoon, as Swindell tried to do. Or call it politics: Swindell would surely like to see Sali get the party's nod to run for Congress in District One, against a host of more moderate candidates. A little hyping of his signature legislation, a parental-consent abortion bill, might be useful. Either way, Newcomb said, she and Sali blew it. "I have a lot of experience with people using this place for campaign issues, and that's what this smacks of to me."

Sali, he said, has had plenty of time to get his act together and get bills passed, but he's frittered it away.

"Bill Sali has historically waited until the absolute last minute," Newcomb said. "He wordsmiths things to death." Not exactly a ringing endorsement for a Congressional hopeful.

Swindell was still hotly pacing the marble in the Capital when Kempthorne's announcement came from Washington. And while there was a good crowd for his teleconference, the real rubberneckers came out to see Lt. Gov. Jim Risch the next day. Risch surprised everyone by saying he wasn't going to change a thing about his election plan: He'd happily move into Kempthorne's seat if and when it comes available, but he'll still run for lieutenant governor, a first in Idaho politics.

His decision inspired some 11th-hour shuffling by Democratics, though. Former Congressman Larry LaRocco slid his filing to run for lieutenant governor into the Secretary of State's office just a half-hour before the deadline.

"I've been thinking about how I could get back into politics," LaRocco said that evening. "It just seemed like this was the time to get involved."

His filing surprised Democrats, including their candidate for governor, Jerry Brady. He'd been supportive of Dan Romero's candidacy for lieutenant governor, and in fact encouraged Romero to run. Now he has a bigger name hoping to be his second-in-command.

"It came as a complete shock to me," Brady said. "I feel badly for Dan." Still, he acknowledged, the LaRocco name is likely to help a Democratic ticket.

Future candidates might do well to consider the bill introduced by Senate Pro Tem Robert Geddes. The Soda Springs Republican is pushing SB 1448, which could change the way future electoral maps are drawn in a growing Idaho. The way redistricting typically works, every 10 years when new census data emerges, a commission gathers to shift districts to reflect growing areas. But Geddes' bill would all but freeze the districts as is, and bar increased membership on the commission by any county, no matter how populous.

Geddes has called it a "fine-tuning" of the state's reapportionment law, but Democrats in growing Ada County see it as a shot across the bow of urban centers with growing populations that trend Democratic. The bill is now working its way toward the Senate floor.

As to adjournment, the Kempthorne-Risch shakeup threw a big wrench into what had been seen as a possible exit from the statehouse this month. With Risch ascendant, many Senators may now see themselves as potential lieutenant-governor candidates, and jockeying for that could make a messy lawmaking process messier.

Just how things finish up, with a battle or a fizzle, ultimately depends on Kempthorne's confirmation in the U.S. Senate. Election-year fervor has gripped the nation's capital as surely as it has Idaho's. Senators from both parties are likely to see Kempthorne's presence in their hearing room as a chance to buff their resumes, whether for or against the smooth gentleman from Idaho. While this won't hold him back him from ultimate confirmation--his party has a hold on the U.S. Senate, after all--it could slow him down.

Consider that it took the Senate eight months to confirm Norton's deputy, Lynn Scarlett, in 2005. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke was named in late October, but not confirmed by the Senate until the very end of January. This means that while Kempthorne will be plenty busy hopping through pre-confirmation hoops, he'll be distracted from the Statehouse, which is no longer critical to his political legacy.

His staff, who didn't know about their boss's appointment until they saw it on television, might similarly be distracted as the rug is about to be pulled out from under them. Few if any of them will be necessary to assist Kempthorne prepare for confirmation, which is strictly a White House show. What now for them?

The resume polishing is now underway on all floors of the house, and attentions are on the campaign trail, not necessarily the business of the state, making an orderly departure from the Capitol less likely with each day.

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