BOISE – Freshman Idaho Sen. Jim Risch is the 13th-wealthiest member of Congress and is richer than the late Ted Kennedy, Sen. John McCain or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, according to a new analysis by Roll Call newspaper.
Roll Call, in its annual analysis of the “50 Richest Members of Congress,” pegged Risch’s minimum net worth, based on required financial disclosures, at $19.29 million. That’s far more than the reported wealth of any of the other senators or representatives from Idaho and Washington, none of whom made the “50 Richest” list.
Risch didn’t dispute the report but declined to comment on it Wednesday. “He and his staff don’t comment on his personal finances,” said spokesman Kyle Hines. “He fills out the forms, as you know, and the numbers kind of lie where they lie. … He filled out the forms correctly and accurately.”
Risch is well-known in Idaho as a self-made millionaire who built a fortune as one of the state’s most successful trial lawyers while also building a political career as a longtime state senator from Boise. He used hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money to bankroll his first run for statewide office, when he defeated then-Lt. Gov. Jack Riggs of Coeur d’Alene in the GOP primary in 2002.
Risch went on to serve briefly as Idaho’s governor, succeeding Gov. Dirk Kempthorne when he became secretary of the Interior; won re-election as lieutenant governor; and then won election to the U.S. Senate seat formerly held by Sen. Larry Craig.
Still, longtime Idaho political observers who have followed Risch’s career said his ranking was unexpectedly high. “I’m really surprised,” said Jim Weatherby, political scientist emeritus at Boise State University. “Jim Risch does not come off as a man of that kind of wealth, which I guess is to his credit.”
Added Weatherby, “I’m sure it makes it a lot easier to live in Washington, D.C., and maintain the two homes, which has been a struggle, I think, for a lot of members of Congress.”
Weatherby also noted that extreme wealth can sometimes be an advantage for a politician. Kennedy, for example, was known for supplementing top staff members’ salaries out of his own pocket to keep key people, including future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.
Roll Call analyzed the financial disclosure information filed by every member of the House and Senate to put together its “50 Richest” list and found that Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., remains the wealthiest member of Congress, largely because of the wealth of his wife, Teresa Heinz, the heiress to the Heinz ketchup fortune.
The analysis also found that, for the most part, the rich didn’t get richer – the net worth of the wealthiest members of Congress has suffered significantly due to the economic downturn.
Risch’s wealth was reported mainly in Idaho real estate holdings, including 284 acres of Idaho farm and ranch investment properties. His minimum net worth for 2008 dropped by $1 million from his report as a candidate in 2007, but others lost more.
When Roll Call did the same analysis a year ago, Kennedy ranked ninth and McCain 13th; now, they’ve slipped to 18th and 21st.
Other members of Congress who ranked higher than Risch in the latest Roll Call wealth analysis included Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who ranked second; Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., fourth; and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., fifth.