Rep. Helen Chenoweth is having more fun in her second term in Congress than she did in her first, even though the Idaho Republican seems no less prone to chronic outspokenness and political missteps.
Now, instead of being just a freshman from a small state with little clout, Chenoweth is a second-termer and chairman of a subcommittee of the House Resources Committee.
Although being chairman of a new subcommittee isn’t exactly a leadership job, it does allow Chenoweth to command attention on issues important to the state.
She has used the position to stage a couple of “information” hearings. And last week, she took Democratic Rep. Maurice Hinchey of New York and Republican Rep. Bob Schaffer of Colorado, both members of her Forests and Forest Health Subcommittee, on a backcountry tour that included jet-boating through Hells Canyon.
The pace has changed in the second straight Congress under Republican control after four decades of Democratic dominance, Chenoweth said.
“My first term, we were more taken up with the ‘Contract With America’ and trying to learn how to govern as a party. That was quite a challenge. We didn’t know how to govern,” she said.
But with a re-election behind her, “I’m able to get more done” now.
Chenoweth also might be feeling relaxed because she’s in far better shape politically than two years ago.
After a lot of adverse publicity in her first months in office in 1995, a bevy of potential candidates was talking about running against her in 1996.
But in the end, only Nampa’s Dr. William Levinger filed in the Republican primary against her. She easily swamped the political unknown, although Levinger got nearly 32 percent of the vote despite being hospitalized for weeks because of much-publicized mental problems. That bloc of apparent dissatisfaction led to speculation the freshman lawmaker was vulnerable.
But Chenoweth spent a record amount of money on the race and edged Democrat Dan Williams in the general election despite a huge labor-financed media campaign against her.
Her off-the-cuff remarks still keep her in hot water - her latest comments being widely perceived as disparaging to minorities.
But so far, there’s no Democrat in sight for next year’s campaign, which Chenoweth has said would be her last under the three-term limitation she imposed on herself in 1994.
North Idaho businessman Tony Paquin is considering running for the GOP nomination in next May’s primary but would be a decided underdog.
Chenoweth also appears to have mended whatever problems she had with House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
He canceled a January 1996 fund-raiser after Chenoweth voted against him on a budget matter, but he later relented and came to Boise late in Chenoweth’s campaign against Williams.
Chenoweth says she has been promised a trip to Idaho by Gingrich and other House leaders, presumably to go over the same forest industry problems she took up with Hinchey and Schaffer.
“I’m going to take it slow and easy and do solid work,” she said, planning to use the field trip information in collaborating with Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, on his forest health bill.
Chenoweth has been less strident in her Idaho appearances in recent months, but that hasn’t been the case everywhere.
At a forest hearing in Kalispell, Mont., earlier in May, environmentalists and forest workers complained that Chenoweth seemed to be badgering them.
The lawmaker said she just asked questions that forest managers didn’t seem to want to answer.
“Having congressmen ask hard questions is nothing new at all,” she said. “They didn’t want to answer that, … so I kept asking the question in different ways.”
Meanwhile, the only potential opponent on the horizon, Paquin, continues touching base with interests critical to primary victories - church groups, Republican Party groups and elected officials - as he tries to determine his level of support.
“We will be making a decision within a few weeks,” he said, probably by the middle of June.