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Many Ways To Shine Politics Just One Community Activity For 26-Year Cda Councilman

Sun., Nov. 26, 1995

He’s not quite a contradiction.

But consider this combination in one man: custodian, school bus driver, umpire, referee, populist, conservative, champion of businessmen, advocate for the working class, grandfather, father.

For nearly three decades, Ron Edinger also has been a Coeur d’Alene city councilman - by far the senior dean of local politics.

Edinger, 59, is known for once skirting the law, pulling out a post-hole digger and putting up a stop sign after his fellow council members refused a neighborhood’s request for traffic control. He also gained fame after he tussled with the driver of a speeding car that dared blast past his daughter’s house on Fifth Street.

But Edinger’s autobiography would record no grievous errors, save inadvertently voting against his mother’s wishes.

He is impossible to characterize. Or silence. And equally impossible not to like.

He has to speak his peace, says Paula Austin, one of three daughters. “He doesn’t care if no one agrees with him.”

Yet, “he still visits, and has coffee with the people who disagree with him,” Austin says.

Adds brother Jim, “If I’m making $100,000 a year or if I’m making $10,000 a year, he listens to me.”

Then there is Edinger, the grandfather, who’s waiting for Austin’s son to walk to his house after school every day, where he fixes the 9-year-old a snack. And none of his grandchildren would join in extracurricular activities if Edinger wasn’t willing to chauffeur them for their working parents, Austin says.

He also calls each of his daughters and his brothers every morning to make sure they are well.

Edinger entered politics in the 1960s after helping his cousin campaign for county prosecutor. A longtime umpire, “I figured if I could take abuse from ball players, I could take it from the public.”

Does politics produce a tougher crowd? “I think it’s about 50-50,” he says. “I’ve been a lonely voice many times. I lose and we go from there.”

Edinger was elected to the council in 1968 and became mayor in 1974. He lost his bid for re-election to the mayor’s job over his firing of striking firefighters. That was the worst moment in his career, he says, but he believes he did the right thing.

He rebounded, two years later returning to the council with more votes than any other candidate.

That a working man like Edinger has had such a lengthy political career seems the ideal of democracy - and unusual, as politics increasingly is dominated by white collar professionals and social gadflies. Part of his secret is small-town simplicity.

Drive bus, umpire ball games and soon children are telling their parents to vote for “my school bus driver.” Spend enough years at it and the kid you carted to school and critiqued at home plate grows up to vote for you.

A transplant from Los Angeles four days after he graduated from high school, Edinger delivered magazines for the Idaho News Agency for 25 years. Then he started driving a bus for the Coeur d’Alene School District.

About eight years ago, the kids he bused to school inquired about the collection of yard signs they passed each day. They were worried when they found out some of them belonged to Edinger’s competitors.

“A few days later a little boy came up to me and told me, ‘See, all of the other signs are gone. … We hid them,”’ Edinger says.

There is no pigeonhole for his political style. Edinger has voted for a ban on skimpy bathing suits, and against a ban on billboards. He raised a little hell when the city wanted to buy a computer for the mayor.

“Isn’t there somebody else out there - some staff person - that needs a computer?” he asked.

Or, as local attorney, Democratic Party leader and former City Councilman Bob Brown puts it: “I don’t think Ron has a consistent political philosophy. He weighs each individual issue separately.”

Many people who vote for Edinger don’t know where he stands on the issues, Brown says. They simply respect him and “can’t see Coeur d’Alene without him on the council.”

Brown’s favorite memory of Edinger dates to when the city required residents to hook up to the sewer system. A woman wanted an exemption. Her husband couldn’t dig the ditch because he had lost an arm and they couldn’t afford to hire someone.

The council knew it had to insist everybody follow the mandate or face a flood of “my grandmother died” style pleas for a break. Edinger still fought for her and after the meeting “Ron was still outraged we were going to make this woman put in a sewer,” Brown says.

That sort of attitude prompted him to fetch a stop sign from the street department and put it up on East Pinegrove Drive - the same neighborhood where the kids had weeded out his competitors’ campaign signs. The citizens were frustrated by speeding cars and continuous rebuffs from City Hall.

“This was a minor infraction,” he explained. “I felt people in that neighborhood had to have some satisfaction.

“I will never do it again - my wife was very upset at the notoriety I got.” The sign was removed a few days later.

He’s also had to answer to his mother for his political actions. As mayor, Edinger cast the tie-breaking vote on the name for a new city park. Edinger picked Independence Point because he mistakenly thought that was what his mother wanted.

The next morning his mother called to ask why he’d made the wrong decision. “If my mother had lobbied me a little harder the night before, it might be Heritage Point.”

Edinger’s wife, Nancy, helps make it possible for him to be a custodian at Sorensen Elementary, referee basketball and serve on the council. “I don’t think she gets a lot of the attention she deserves,” Austin says. “She’s definitely a lot of what makes him tick.”

Umpiring and refereeing has earned Edinger, his twin brother, Dick, and his younger brother, Jim, both respect and some ribbing. During one tournament they were fondly called the “Three Blind Mice.”

Edinger is rated as fair, but “he doesn’t take any guff,” says Steve Anthony, who grew up playing ball in Coeur d’Alene and now is city recreation director.

Take the time Fire Chief Frank Sexton’s son was playing in a game Edinger was umpiring. Edinger was tiring of Sexton’s sideline comments.

So Edinger told Sexton to stop or he’d end the game, brother Jim Edinger remembers. “He bellered out again. Ron said, ‘That’s it,’ and called the game.”

Edinger has logged 26 years on the council and just won re-election for another four. When that’s up, his wife has told him it’s time to retire.

Others in his family will be grateful. “I don’t like to read the negative things about him, even the little jabs,” says daughter Austin. “I think, how can anybody get mad at him - he’s so compassionate.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos

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