CHUCK MALLOY: Nonini plans to keep tire shops, shoe stores busy

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For political candidates, few things are more daunting than launching a statewide campaign — especially if they are running for an office that hardly touches the hearts and souls of everyday Idahoans.

Such is the case for those six Republicans running for lieutenant governor in next year’s primary election. A recent poll by Dan Jones & Associates shows “Don’t Know,” as the run-away leader at 59 percent. I imagine that “Don’t Care” would win in a landslide.

A lieutenant governor’s race is one that only political junkies could love. It’s a part-time job, and all that’s required is presiding over the Senate during the legislative session and serving as governor when the real boss is out of town. From there, a lieutenant governor could be doing anything from leading international trade missions to finding somebody at the statehouse to play checkers — depending on what the governor allows. Yes, a lieutenant governor is just a heartbeat away from holding the state’s highest office, but voters typically don’t take the time to think about that.

It would make sense for a gubernatorial nominee to select his/her lieutenant governor as a running mate, but Idaho’s Constitution dictates otherwise.

The five candidates I’ve interviewed — former state GOP chairman Steve Yates, Sen. Marv Hagedorn, Rep. Kelly Packer, Sen. Bob Nonini and former Rep. Janice McGeachin are good people with sound reasons for seeking the office. The difficulty that all face is building name recognition.

Nonini, a 14-year legislator from Coeur d’Alene and the most recent entry in the race, is going the old-school route. He plans to wear out a lot of tires and shoes, which generally is what his opponents are doing. He has made his rounds in Eastern Idaho, the Magic Valley, Canyon County and the Treasure Valley — saying “howdy” to as many key people as he could find.

Primary elections in Idaho tend to favor the most conservative candidates, which could give Nonini an edge. The potential downside is that he came out early in support of Lt. Gov. Brad Little for governor, who is no hero to the right-wing movement in the state. But Nonini’s conservative credentials are beyond reproach. He consistently ranks on top of the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s scorecard and he gets similar favorable ratings from the National Rifle Association and anti-abortion groups.

“We all can say we are pro-life, pro-gun, pro-small business and anti-big government,” said Nonini. “But I’ve been doing this for a long time — longer than Wayne Hoffman has been with the Idaho Freedom Foundation.”

Nonini considers himself passionate about education, although he took a lot of criticism for his controversial stands during his time as chairman of the House Education Committee — being a regular punching bag for the Lewiston Tribune’s Jim Fisher. Nonini continues to think that “money is not the answer” to all problems in education. But he generally supports the direction for public schools — which includes the career ladder and increasing pay for new teachers. He’s also an advocate for STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), and serves on the governor’s higher education task force. Nonini says he maintains regular contact with superintendents in his district and from the Silver Valley, where he was born and raised.

“Superintendents are the people who live and breathe public education 24/7,” Nonini said. “Education is the most important thing we do as legislators, because that’s where our future lies.”

He’d like to use the lieutenant governor’s office as a platform for promoting education. But it wouldn’t be in the same bombastic fashion he used during his time in the House. Back in the day, Nonini was no candidate for congeniality awards. He often lashed out at those who had more moderate views, such as Sen. Shawn Keough and former Sen. Dean Cameron — key figures on the Legislature’s budget committee.

Nonini has had some reflective moments along the way, notably four years ago when he had a heart infection and multiple strokes. And as with “Scrooge,” Nonini came out of his experience with a friendlier disposition and sincere apologies to those he offended.

“I got a second chance in life,” said the 63-year-old Nonini. “I wanted to be a better legislator and a better person.”

In that respect, Nonini already has won, regardless of the outcome in next year’s primary election.

• • •

Chuck Malloy, a Silver Valley native and longtime Idaho journalist, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly and an editorial writer with the Idaho Press-Tribune.

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