BOISE – The race is on for the Idaho Senate’s top leadership post, now that Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs, has decided not to seek another term as pro-tem.
“It’s been a wonderful experience for me to serve as the pro-tem for 10 years, the longest term in Idaho’s history,” said Geddes, an environmental engineer who’s starting his ninth term in the Senate.
His decision has kicked off a shakeup in the Senate’s GOP leadership. As soon as Geddes made his move, two senators – Senate Majority Caucus Chairman Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, and Senate Local Government & Taxation Committee Chairman Brent Hill, R-Rexburg – announced they’d seek the post.
Hill is close to Geddes; Fulcher is the leader of a growing conservative wing among Senate Republicans that’s more aligned with House GOP conservatives than the more moderate line typically taken by the Senate. Other candidates could step up as well.
Leadership elections will take place during the organizational session of the Idaho Legislature, which is set for this Wednesday and Thursday. “I would guess that there are others that will probably consider running,” Geddes said. “I haven’t given ’em very much time to gear up a campaign. I didn’t necessarily do that on purpose, but I’m not sure that we need months and months in advance to campaign over leadership.”
Asked why he decided to step down, Geddes first joked, “My gosh, I’ve been there for so long, people are getting tired of it.” He added, “I don’t know that anybody was going to challenge me, but it’s always good to leave kind of before you have to face that challenge.”
During his time in the top leadership post, Geddes has made a series of changes – including a key change in committee hearing schedules – that diluted the impact of seniority and allowed all senators to have more of a role in the body’s decision-making.
“I think what I’ve tried to do is change a little bit of the dynamic and the mentality and the structure of the Senate,” Geddes said. “I’ve worked hard to empower all of the senators to be able to represent their districts and represent themselves.”
Gone are the days when a few key senators served in leadership, held down committee chairmanships and also occupied coveted spots on the joint budget committee, a time when, a few decades ago, the lineup of powerful senators was referred to as “Sirloin Row.” Said Geddes, “My objective was to kind of put sirloin in every row. I think we have that now.”
He said when he first started in the Senate in 1995, seniority was such a big factor that he wasn’t able to get but a single committee assignment, education. “A new senator would come in and they were told to sit in their seat and if they wanted to say something not to, that their job was to learn at the feet of the older senators,” he said. “We don’t have that luxury any more, because people are a little bit angry at the political process anyway. … When those people are elected, they’re elected to represent a district. Those districts all have a need for a senator who is capable and credible and has access to the process.”
He said he figures those changes are part of what kept him in the highly-sought top leadership post for so long. Plus, his schedule changes mostly freed up Friday afternoons from committee hearings – a popular move for senators who often faced a many-hours drive home each Friday night in winter weather.
As for what’s next for Geddes, he said, “I really don’t have seniority on any committee. And so if you look at the seniority process, I’m probably not in line for a chairmanship. I will have a very nice office in the basement, because all of the basement offices are very nice. I hope to contribute. I hope to be a senator who enjoys the responsibility and the benefits of serving, and doing a good job.”
Fulcher seeks move up
Fulcher, a commercial real estate broker who is starting his fourth term in the Senate, would create a ripple effect if he won the top post, because he currently holds the No. 4 position in the majority leadership as Senate majority caucus chair.
Fulcher notified fellow senators last week that he was running for Senate president pro-tem, but he didn’t return calls from reporters.
Hill: ‘Need to carry on’
Hill, a sixth-term senator, said, “Obviously, Bob’s done a great job. I think the atmosphere that he has helped create there, the culture, I think is something that we need to have carry on.”
Hill cited his business experience as a qualification for the post. “I have been president and CEO of a multimillion-dollar CPA firm with six offices in two states for 25 years, so I know how to run a successful organization, and I understand the challenges that you have to deal with,” he said.
He also pointed to his Senate experience, including four years service on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee and four years as a committee chairman. “I understand the roles and responsibilities that state senators face, not from some lofty tower but from down in the trenches with them,” he said. “I think I can provide some help and some support.”
With a tough session looming for Idaho this year, Hill said what the state needs from its Senate is “trust and leadership.”
He said, “We need to look at the problems that we’re facing economically, as well as just our overall structure, our tax structure and things like that, and we need to tackle things head-on and try to do what we can to improve the environment we have here in the state for jobs and for businesses coming in.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean tax incentives, he said. “It means a lot of things,” including “proper education so people moving here feel good about the schools their kids are going to, it means higher education to help provide the workforce for these businesses. … I think we’ve got just a lot of potential in the state and I think we’ve got some good leaders, and if we work together … I just think we can accomplish more for the people of Idaho.”
Democrats plan ‘consensus’
For the Senate Democratic caucus – the minority caucus has just seven members, a number that didn’t change in the November election – Assistant Minority Leader Elliot Werk said there won’t be formal leadership elections, though Minority Leader Kate Kelly, D-Boise, has stepped down and left the state for a new job in Seattle.
“We’re going to simply sit down, have a discussion in the caucus and decide what works best,” Werk said. “In a caucus our size it’s not about seniority, who’s done this or that … it’s usually just about how we want to operate. We’ll sit down on Dec. 1 and kind of talk among each other and see if we can come to some consensus.”