Living alone, away from his family for the fifth month in a row, holed up in a trailer borrowed from his parents in a cheap, rain-soaked RV park, Todd Mielke is having the time of his life.
After all, the Republican state representative from Spokane feels perfectly suited to his job as chairman of the House GOP caucus.
Just 30 years old and with the pink ears and eager face of a kid just in from a romp in the yard, it’s easy to underestimate the lawmaker’s commando abilities.
Charged with leading House Republicans to victory as campaign director for the caucus in 1993, Mielke helped target 30 House seats in 1994 and capture every one.
Now, as caucus chairman, his political smarts work overtime as top strategist, father confessor and lion tamer mediating in-house disputes. He must keep the 61 Republicans from shredding into factions or losing blood in unwinnable wars.
More and more, Mielke is the guy the GOP sends out to plant the flag whenever there’s a legislative hill that has to be taken.
Tenacious but disarming, Mielke’s skill at the negotiating table is turning heads this session.
“He’s the utility infielder,” said Sen. James West, R-Spokane. “It’s ‘Send in the Milk Man; he delivers.”’
While others bog down in details or become paralyzed by their loyalty to pet principles, Mielke cuts deals with alacrity.
“Nothing is so sacred to him that he can’t negotiate the weaves and turns to get there,” West said. “I’m not sure it makes him a good advocate for one position. But it’s good for the end game.”
House Speaker Clyde Ballard, R-East Wenatchee, said he turns to Mielke often when the legislative works gum up. “He has just a great ability to look at a situation and give you a good sense of it. He’s one of the people you send out to find common ground. He loves the whole process.”
Mielke said he negotiates from three key principles: “Never show them what you value, because then you may have to give up too much to get it. Don’t be afraid to walk away. And give everyone something to win on.”
It works: “Todd is the consummate political tactician,” said Rep. Phil Dyer, R-Issaquah, chairman of the House Health Care Committee, who worked with Mielke to repeal the 1993 health care reform law.
“He’s very amiable, disarmingly so, and clear-thinking,” Dyer said.
“He’ll sit there, cool and calm, and make mental notes while he listens, then come back and rebut your argument point by point, without ever having taken a pen to put notes on paper.
“He shows people where the water is, leads them up to it, reminds them that they are thirsty. And I don’t know that I’ve ever seen him get flustered.
“We have a joke about it in caucus. The only way you can tell when he gets wound up is the ears turn red. The left one is the first to go.”
The state budget negotiations now entering their fifth week in Olympia pose one of Mielke’s biggest tests.
Largely unknown in Olympia and lost in the GOP minority his first two terms in the House, Mielke has blossomed this year, given a chance to lead the GOP majority, even earning praise across the aisle.
“They seem to be holding their members together, and that’s a credit to him,” said Sen. Sid Snyder, D-Long Beach, head of the Senate Democratic Caucus.
The question is whether more than a dozen House members committed to spending no more than $17.3 billion in the state biennial budget can be brought to compromise.
That, after all, is what pragmatic politics is all about. And where Mielke excels, some say.
“He’s a very practical politician,” said Duane Sommers, chairman of the Spokane County Republican Party.
But some dismiss Mielke as a mere political operative, more interested in deal-making and partisan politics than sweating details of public policy.
“He just seemed like a young person trying to make a name for himself to me,” said Shirley Rector of Spokane, a Democrat who lost her House seat to Mielke in 1990.
“He basically would do anything necessary to win, but is really more interested in the game of politics than good public policy.”
Rep. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said Mielke’s cheery, affable ways are misleading.
“What’s always amazed me about Todd is he’s so congenial as a person, yet he’s the ultimate political person, and extremely partisan in the way he operates.
“Some people come here and they are policy-oriented or district-oriented. Todd is oriented toward battle. He’s always thinking two years ahead to the next election.”
Sen. Kevin Quigley, D-Lake Stevens, chairman of the Senate Health and Long-Term Care Committee, was on the losing end with Mielke in health reform negotiations this session.
“He learned the jargon, but mainly he was just into being a player. You could tell he was proud of it,” Quigley said.
Knowing what works politically, not just what makes pretty policy is what matters most, some said.
“It makes no sense whatsoever to put together something the public doesn’t want,” said Stan Shore of Polis Political Services, the Olympia consulting firm Mielke worked with to recruit candidates during the 1994 campaign. “Todd understands that.”
His background and innate political sense made him the perfect guy to articulate the GOP message and recruit candidates to deliver it in 1994, Shore said.
Mielke is “exactly the profile of the young, middle-income, middle-class American,” Shore said. “He’s like some demographic experiment.”
Born and raised in Spokane, Mielke is married and the father of a 3-year-old child. He’s part-owner with his father, a retired police officer, of a small family excavating company.
His views typified what average voters thought in 1994, Shore said. “He thinks businesses ought to be able to make money without undue regulation or taxation by government or apology. And he thinks government should mostly stay out of the way so people can take care of themselves.”
Without an opponent in his own race until the very last minute, Mielke was free to criss-cross the state last summer, recruiting candidates and raising money.
Mielke is credited with rebuilding the caucus campaign machine. The operation in 1993 was in disarray, out of cash, and under a cloud following a Public Disclosure Commission investigation that found caucus staff illegally campaigned on the public dime.
The work came naturally to him. Mielke has been running for office or scoping out races since he was a teenage class president raising money for the prom.
Mielke cut his teeth on state politics working as a high school intern for West in the House, then as a legislative assistant for four years while West was in the Senate.
After two unsuccessful bids for Spokane City Council, including one as a teenager, Mielke first won office in 1990 in an upset against Rector, a race he was so heavily favored to lose his own caucus didn’t back him.
“No one gave him a chance of winning that election,” West said. “It was all shoe leather and standing on street corners and waving, going door to door. Everybody wrote him off and he won it by hard work.”
Kate McCaslin, Mielke’s political consultant, said nonetheless, Mielke made it clear even during the campaign he had an even higher priority: Tonia Bendickson.
“After the primary, he got married. We were having hissy fits. We told him, ‘You can’t do that. You are in the middle of a campaign.’ But it shows you where his priorities are.”
Now in his third term in the House, Mielke grows wistful talking about his daughter Ciara and his wife, a morning anchor at KXLY and amateur race car driver. He says one of his goals is spending more time with his family.
Term limits may give him the chance: he’ll be forced out of the House after one more term. And after that?
He dismisses talk of running for governor, saying “Plenty of people are running for that,” or state insurance commissioner, because “It just doesn’t interest me.”
He talks about maybe working fulltime at his excavating business, or something that earns more than his $25,900 a year legislator’s salary.
Then there’s U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt’s seat, which, if Nethercutt retires after three terms as promised, will come open in the year 2000.
“Now that,” Mielke said, lighting up like a lamp, “That would be a lot of fun.”