New GOP chairman has his work cut out

TUESDAY, JULY 22, 2008

Uniting party factions a priority for Semanko

BOISE – When Norm Semanko was a Lakeland High School grad applying to the University of Idaho, he got a perfect score on the math portion of the ACT – but it was politics that interested him.

Now 41, he’s the newly elected chairman of the Idaho Republican Party, a dominant state political party that’s also fractured by libertarian Ron Paul supporters, values-driven religious voters, backers of legalizing marijuana, supporters of a return to the gold standard and office-holding moderates.

Semanko, a conservative, handily defeated moderate former party Chairman Kirk Sullivan.

Now the Boise lawyer and water-users association head has a huge volunteer job ahead of him: Unite the party and hold onto the GOP’s big edge in November.

“He certainly has to bring the factions of the party together in a concerted effort if he’s going to win in the fall,” said former Gov. Phil Batt, who was state Republican Party chairman in the early 1990s. “It’s a very large and diverse organization, and you can’t win just with part of ’em.”

Said Steve Shaw, a political scientist at Northwest Nazarene University: “How would you like to be balancing Ron Paul supporters on the one hand and religious right on the other? Maybe his nickname ought to be Solomon Semanko – he’s going to need it, I think. He’s got a challenging job.”

Semanko, whose politics were formed by the Ronald Reagan Republicanism of the 1980s, says he learned early on about the importance of party unity. A Jack Kemp supporter in the 1988 GOP presidential primary, he saw his candidate lose, then saw the presumptive nominee – George H.W. Bush – come to Idaho for several appearances that spring.

“George Bush was going to be our candidate,” Semanko said. So he joined forces with a group of college Republicans and followed Bush around, getting a chance to shake the future president’s hand and even barging into a dinner where the young party activists posed for a group photo with Bush.

Semanko interned for then-Congressman Larry Craig in college and headed to Washington, D.C., the day after he graduated from the University of Idaho to work for the Republican National Committee. He made calls from a basement phone bank and researched Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, digging up information about furloughed felon Willie Horton.

He then went to work as a legislative assistant for Craig and attended law school at night before returning to Idaho to work in Craig’s Lewiston office and finish his law degree at UI.

Semanko gravitated toward natural resources law and joined a Twin Falls water law firm, and appeared before the Idaho Supreme Court and Snake River Basin Adjudication court. While in Twin Falls, he met his wife, Svetlana, a political refugee who’d left the former Soviet Union with her young daughter and was a beautician at the mall. She cut his hair for six months, and in 1994 the two were married and Semanko adopted then-4-year-old Alexandra. He proudly watched his wife take the oath as a U.S. citizen two years later.

Semanko was recruited to be executive director of the Idaho Water Users Association, a powerful irrigators group, when the organization’s longtime head stepped down, and he moved to Boise in 2000. In that position, he runs the organization, lobbies the Legislature, intervenes in water-related court cases and rule- making, and serves as the group’s general counsel.

In 2006 he ran for Congress at the urging of backers including Craig’s wife, Suzanne, but finished fifth in a six-way primary. Still, Semanko considered the run, against a range of candidates from moderate state Sen. Sheila Sorensen, R-Boise, to conservative winner Bill Sali, a successful effort.

“We had a tremendous campaign organization throughout the whole district,” he said. “It gave me a chance to go home to Kootenai County a lot. When it was over, I had an equally good relationship with Sheila Sorensen and Bill Sali.”

Shaw said, “Semanko has got a reputation for being conservative, but being a gentleman and being a diplomat of sorts, and he’s going to need all those skills and then some in running this party at this time.”

Semanko, a state oratory champion at Rathdrum’s Lakeland High, noted his work on the Nez Perce water settlement, which took years of negotiations. He thinks dialogue also could hold the solution to the split in the Idaho GOP over whether to close the party’s primary elections to all but registered Republicans, a position pushed by Beck and the party’s central committee but narrowly repudiated in a vote at the party convention.

The party, prodded by supporters of former Senate leader Rod Beck, has filed a federal lawsuit against the state to close the primary.

“Sometimes you have to advance the ball forward on the litigation track before you can get to meaningful settlement discussions,” Semanko said. “In the Nez Perce agreement we litigated and negotiated at the same time – sometimes that’s the way it works.”

Batt said Semanko’s job is made more difficult because Democrats are energized in Idaho, with strong support for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. “I haven’t seen as much vigor within the Democrat party for a long time,” he said.

Shaw said many Republicans “aren’t too excited” about U.S. Sen. John McCain as the Republican presidential nominee. “It could be a difficult year for Republicans.”

Blake Hall, longtime GOP national committeeman and a former state party chairman in the 1980s, said Semanko is fortunate the party is in sound financial shape, but he’ll still need to focus on fundraising, organization, voter identification and turnout. “Having held the position,” Hall said, “it is a thankless job that requires a huge amount of time and effort.”

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