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Eye on Boise: Little-known North Idaho Democrat steps forward in 1st CD race

Idaho’s state Capitol, where the House and Senate Education committees convened a rare summer meeting last week to examine state schools Superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s plan for complying with the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. (Betsy Z. Russell)
Idaho’s state Capitol, where the House and Senate Education committees convened a rare summer meeting last week to examine state schools Superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s plan for complying with the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. (Betsy Z. Russell)

So, who is that little-known Democrat who filed back in March to run for Idaho’s 1st District congressional seat? After many weeks of trying to reach him, I received a call from Michael William Smith of Post Falls last week, and he filled me in.

He’s a veteran of both the Army and the Marines who served for 14 years, including deployments to Qatar, Iraq and Afghanistan. He moved from southern California to North Idaho just a year and a half ago. This is his first-ever run for political office.

A lifelong Democrat, Smith says he’s always been concerned about politics. “All of my friends would get sick of how much I would talk about politics,” he said. “Our most recent 2016 elections have proven that you don’t have to have a career in politics in order to serve.”

Smith said his family and friends – the 38-year-old is married with two sons – said he should put his words into action. “So I agreed with them and took it as a calling, that I’m not only more apt to serve, but also have a duty to try to represent the people’s interests,” he said.

Since moving to Post Falls, he’s gone to meetings of the “Indivisible” group that opposes President Donald Trump, and he’s been inspired. “It makes me hopeful that what I want to do is what most of the people would like to see happen in their governments,” he said.

Smith said he’s not convinced that Idaho is as heavily Republican as most people think, despite the GOP controlling the vast majority of elective offices.

“Considering that 40 percent of the people don’t vote if they’re not inspired to,” he said, “I think that it is just a lack of candidates that could represent them that is causing it to appear as though we are a heavily Republican area.”

Smith describes his politics as “pretty progressive,” and lists his top issues as the economy, livable wages, protecting public lands and the environment, renewable energy and working to get a single-payer health system.

Smith worked in technical support for Time Warner Cable before quitting this year to focus on his political run. He’s a 1997 graduate of Garden Grove High School. “Right now I’m running this campaign full-time,” he said. “I’m doing nothing but studying what’s going on and learning what I will need to do.”

So far, he’s the only Democrat to file for what will be an open seat in Congress. Two Republicans, former Idaho Lt. Gov. and Attorney General David Leroy and former state Sen. Russ Fulcher of Meridian, are already campaigning; and two others, state Rep. Luke Malek of Coeur d’Alene and Layne Bangerter, who was director of the Trump presidential campaign in Idaho, are considering the race.

Labrador: ‘I can walk and chew gum’

Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador, the new chair of a House subcommittee on immigration, told reporters last week that he hopes to “fix the broken immigration system” between now and the end of his current two-year term, after which he’s running for governor rather than seeking re-election.

“I actually think it’s the perfect time,” Labrador said. “This is what I came to Congress to work on, is to modernize and fix the broken immigration system. This is a golden opportunity for me to do this while I’m also running for governor. I can walk and chew gum, I think I’ve shown that, at the same time.”

Labrador said, “We can bring the immigration system into the 21st century … have a system that puts Americans first and looks at the needs of the United States, not the needs of people that are here illegally.”

Labrador, an immigration attorney, is sponsoring two bills, an immigration enforcement crackdown bill dubbed the Davis-Oliver Act, and a bill to limit refugee resettlement. Both have cleared the House Judiciary Committee on party-line votes.

He said the two measures are major reforms to the current immigration system.

“We need to modernize the immigration system,” he said, make sure local law enforcement can work with the system, and “make sure we vet refugees and other immigrants coming to the United States carefully.”

Asked whether that was the extent of his proposed reforms to immigration, Labrador said no.

“We have right now five bills that deal with interior enforcement,” he said. “We are then going to move on to working on the guest worker program, and especially the H2A (visa) that deals with our farmers.” That could include expanding that program, which currently doesn’t cover year-round workers like those employed by Idaho dairies, to allow foreign dairy workers to fall under it and work in the United States for up to three years, if they return to their home country for a month a year, he said.

“We’re also going to deal with visa entry, e-verify,” he said. “We have a pretty big, broad agenda of all the things we’re going to do to modernize this immigration system.”

He said his proposed expansion of the H2A visa program, which still is in draft form, likely wouldn’t allow dairy workers who are already in the country illegally to apply.

Labrador said another reason he thinks the time is ripe for immigration reform is that “you get past this cycle, this next 18 months or so, then you get into the silly season, where you’re talking about re-election of a president and things like that.”

Ybarra, lawmakers at odds over plan

The Idaho House and Senate Education committees held a rare summer meeting last week at the state Capitol. The top item of concern was the state’s plan to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

Idaho faces a Sept. 18 deadline for submitting its compliance plan to the federal government for school accountability and for spending $83 million in federal education funds.

Both Senate Education Chairman Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, and House Education Chair Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree, said they wanted the committee members to help them provide input on the proposed plan. The meeting came a day after the state Board of Education convened a summit meeting with prominent education groups in Idaho after they complained in a letter to the board and Gov. Butch Otter that they felt “disrespected” after being excluded from developing the state plan.

State schools Superintendent Sherri Ybarra told the lawmakers the plan reflects lots of public and stakeholder input. “This was not done in a vacuum,” she said. “This is a collaborative plan that’s taken quite a few months to put together. They have traveled over the state, my team, held several listening tours.” She said, “We welcome your input.”

But a major point of contention quickly surfaced that also came up a day earlier at the state board’s summit meeting: The long-term goals for student achievement within every sub-group outlined in the plan were deemed extremely unrealistic by stakeholder groups, lawmakers and others, and are being revised.

Duncan Robb, Ybarra’s chief policy adviser, said there was agreement to revise those long-term goals, which initially contemplated decreasing the percentage of students who aren’t 100 percent proficient in reading and math by 50 percent over six years – and applying that same percentage decrease to every sub-group, including students with disabilities, English language learners, and more.

State Rep. Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth, a retired school district superintendent, pointed out that on reading and language arts proficiency for the base year of 2016, currently 15 percent of students with disabilities are proficient.

“You’re going to try to get them all the way to 57 percent in six years? That’s really aggressive,” he said. “Then on English learners, we only have 6.9 percent of them proficient right now, and try to get clear to 53.5 percent – that’s probably clearly impossible.”

“What we don’t want to do is put schools in a situation where they almost certainly know they’re not going to make it, and so you kind of dismiss the whole thing,” Kerby said.

So state officials and stakeholders are now focusing on instead increasing the proficiency percentages in each sub-group by 3 percentage points each year. That means the 6.9 percent proficiency number would rise to 27 percent over six years, Kerby said, which schools “would feel is an achievable goal.”

Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, said the goals appear to be “very ambitious across the board, specifically for English language learners and special-ed populations.”

Robb told her that’s why they’re now being revised. “We’re going to be doing a lot of work at the department over the next couple of weeks to model that out and see what that looks like, because that’s very valid feedback,” he said.

Additional meetings between state education officials and stakeholders are planned over the next month.


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