North Idaho, a one-time stronghold for Democrats in the Legislature, is down to one. And it appears to be a pretty good one in freshman Sen. David Nelson of Moscow.
Some of my friends from back home tell me that Moscow is not really North Idaho, since its location is closer to central Idaho. OK … you can’t throw a rock from Moscow and hit the Canadian border, nor see Russia from the front porch steps. But my definition of North Idaho is anything north of the University of Idaho, and I’ll throw in Lewiston for good measure.
No matter, there isn’t a Democratic legislator in the whole blooming region — except for Nelson, who grew up in a Republican family. And at one time, North Idaho was swarmed with Dems in the Legislature.
What happened? My theory is that the Tribune’s Marty Trillhaase’s left-leaning editorials motivated all the right-leaning Republicans in the area and drove away the Democrats. Apparently, a few of Trillhaase’s biting editorials hit home with Nelson.
If Nelson has his way, he won’t be the lone Democrat for long. Of course, he’ll be making his usual post-session rounds in District 5 to talk about transportation and other issues. He’s also open for doing some recruiting of Democratic candidates in the interest of party balance.
“When there’s a big issue, our votes are not enough,” he said. “We don’t have many levers to pull in the process. I’ve come to the realization that there are three parties in Idaho — Democrats, Republicans and (Idaho) Freedom Foundation folks.”
Democrats take up only a small slice of that political pie. They are plenty vocal with their disagreements with Republicans on issues such Medicaid expansion “sideboards” and toughening up voter initiative laws. But they are easily steamrolled by the heavy Republican majority.
The key for changing the dynamics, Nelson says, is finding good candidates — those who have high degrees of respect in their communities. In the meantime, he wants to show that Democrats can do good things while working in the minority.
One thing Nelson accomplished is that he reminds no one of his bombastic predecessor, Dan Foreman. That, alone, is a welcome relief to Democrats as well as at least a few Republicans.
Foreman was sincere with his thoughts and strong with his convictions, but he didn’t care much about building influence or long-term job security. He was going to say what was on his mind and leave his future in the hands of voters. Foreman’s colorful and short career started with an abortion bill that, believe it or not, was too radical even for pro-life-minded Republicans.
The 58-year-old Nelson has used a more traditional approach for freshmen, and one that generally serves Democrats.
“As a Democrat, you don’t get anything done without building relationships. That takes time,” he said. “I’m trying to be a problem solver, modeling after my dad (Jay Nelson was a county commissioner in the 1980s). He was a quiet guy who could bring people together in a non-threatening and non-partisan way to solve problems for the county.”
The politics is far more partisan in the Statehouse.
Nelson sponsored a couple of non-controversial bills — one aimed at curbing opioid overdose and another that clarified codes relating to e-bikes. Other than that, most of his time was spent finding common ground with his fellow senators on a variety of issues — especially on transportation. His leading campaign issues were support for education and Medicaid expansion, and he did not waver.
Overall, Nelson had a solid start. But he knows there will be better days if he has a few more Democratic allies.
“We are not going to succeed as Democrats if we are viewed as a coastal-urban party,” Nelson said. “We have to get back to our roots — supporting workers’ rights, good jobs, healthy communities and education.”
All the Democrats need to do is find someone with the political firepower of Cecil Andrus to carry those fundamental platforms to the voters.
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Chuck Malloy, a longtime Idaho journalist and Silver Valley native, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.