House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding of Boise was among the Democrats caught in an awkward position during May’s primary election.
He supported his friend, A.J. Balukoff, for governor four years ago and the two had traveled the state recruiting Democratic candidates for the Legislature. So when Balukoff ran again this year, Erpelding was quick to offer his support.
But Paulette Jordan, bolstered by a strong Democratic turnout, ended up winning the primary race despite not receiving a single endorsement from a Democratic legislator. Now, she has the support of both Balukoff and Erpelding as she runs against Lt. Gov. Brad Little and attempts to become the nation’s first Native American woman governor.
Erpelding says Idahoans shouldn’t read too much into Jordan’s failure to receive endorsements from her former Democratic colleagues. Others either endorsed Balukoff, or stayed neutral during the campaign.
“A lot of us found ourselves in a difficult position. For me, A.J. has my trust and Paulette has my trust,” Erpelding said. “She lines up well with Idaho’s values. A Governor Jordan would ensure the security of our families by advocating for better wages across the state. She would fight for lifelong learning and programs that would promote early childhood education and affordable college tuition.”
Jordan also supports the Medicaid expansion initiative, which could be a pivotal issue in the race.
On education, “She would advocate for fully funding education, so schools don’t have to keep going back to the well and paying disproportionately high property taxes because the state’s not doing its job,” Erpelding said. He added that she also would work to improve teacher pay overall, and especially in rural areas where teachers are hard to find.
Erpelding acknowledges that getting her platform through a Republican-dominated Legislature would be difficult. But, as governor, Jordan would have the bully pulpit and Erpelding thinks she would use it effectively.
But not all Democrats are warm toward Jordan.
“What about the substance? What have you worked on? She tended not to be a great team player,” said former Democratic Rep. John Rusche of Lewiston, who is trying to regain his legislative seat this year. “I’m on record supporting the Democratic nominee. Paulette is the Democratic nominee, and I am the Democratic nominee.“
Critics say she’s often late to meetings, is not engaged in the process and has carried few — if any — bills during her two terms in the Legislature. She also has been slow to pay her caucus dues.
Erpelding dismisses the critics.
“If you were to ask around about me, you’d find detractors as well — those who would say I should be doing this, or that,” he said. “But I’ll tell you this. She ran three times in the most competitive district in the state, winning twice and losing once. When you run in a battleground district, you don’t come out of it with a bunch of money in your bank account. So, it’s not uncommon for people winning by the skin of their teeth to be slow in paying caucus dues. They pay up when they have the resources, and that’s what Paulette did.”
It also didn’t help Jordan, at least in GOP circles, that she defeated GOP Rep. Cindy Agidius — a well-liked figure within the party.
“Republicans weren’t open to giving her a lot of mic time,” Erpelding said. “Was she effective? The larger question is, were Republicans actively trying to harm her ability to do her job, because they wanted to see her lose? My feeling is, yes, they were trying to keep her from having any success.”
Relationships with Republicans, no doubt, will be even more strained if Jordan wins — although she has worked across the aisle on some issues. What’s more important, Erpelding said, she has the ability to win over Idahoans with her agenda.
“Paulette is great on the mic,” Erpelding said. “I toured North Idaho with her on more than one occasion. I’m pretty good on the mic, but I took second fiddle to her.”
Rep. llana Rubel of Boise, the assistant minority leader, says Jordan has demonstrated her ability to connect with Idahoans.
“Paulette is energizing voters around the state like no one we’ve seen in years,” Rubel said. “In particular, you can see the connection she’s making with rural voters with her message of investing in better schools and protecting Idaho’s public lands. Her ability to work across the aisle will make her an effective leader in the state and will help move Idaho forward.”
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Chuck Malloy, a Silver Valley native and longtime Idaho journalist, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at email@example.com.