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Idaho’s only black legislator, Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb: ‘I’m a zealot for equity’

UPDATED: Fri., Oct. 20, 2017, 11:35 a.m.

Cherie Buckner-Webb isn’t just Idaho’s only African-American state legislator – she’s the first and only.

When she goes to events in other states, “I say I live in Boise, Idaho, and I don’t know who’s more alarmed – black folks or white folks,” the senator, a Democratic, said with a laugh. “It doesn’t bother me, but it’s my goal to change it.”

Buckner-Webb also is a noted jazz singer, a highly successful businesswoman with a sterling resume, and a fifth-generation Idahoan. Her great-grandfather founded and built St. Paul Baptist Church, the building that now houses the Idaho Black History Museum, “and his father helped him to build it,” she said.

“I believe in possibilities,” she said. “I feel like I’m a warrior woman – I’m a zealot for equity. I’m ready to go to war.”

Buckner-Webb will present the dinner keynote speech today at the “Engaging with Communities for Justice” conference, sponsored by Gonzaga University’s Institute for Hate Studies.

The banquet reception, at the Hemmingson Center, runs 5-7 p.m. and includes dinner and a performance by the Gonzaga Women’s Chorus. Buckner-Webb will sing with the chorus, performing a gospel piece, “Order My Steps.”

“It’s one of my favorites,” she said; it’s also a song she’s previously recorded.

Buckner-Webb’s address is entitled “With Liberty and Justice for All,” and is presented by the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations.

Idaho Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, calls Buckner-Webb “amazing,” saying, “Aside from being an incredibly sensitive, open person, she is one of the single funniest people that I know – she has a terrific sense of humor.”

“We all bring different experiences together,” Stennett said. “She makes me look at so many different things from an angle that I haven’t thought of.”

Longtime Idaho Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, who was recently appointed as U.S. Attorney for Idaho, calls Buckner-Webb “thoughtful, amiable, solution-oriented, collaborative, principled – she’s a great human being.” He said, “I hope my point of view is presented as effectively as hers has always been, and listened to as well as I tried to listen to her counsel.”

Buckner-Webb’s journey hasn’t been easy.

“I remember vividly when somebody burned a cross in our front yard,” she said. She was a first-grader, living in the same North Boise neighborhood where she lives now.

“We were having dinner, and no one was allowed to leave the dinner table,” Buckner-Webb recalled. But her mother got up from the table, looked, and stunned, announced that there was a fire at the neighbor’s house.

“Dad got up, and said, ‘No, it’s in our front yard,’ ” Buckner-Webb said.

“I was too little – I was thinking, a cross, church,” she said. “I didn’t know it was a big deal.”

But her mother, Dorothy, did, and the staunch activist had her husband put out the fire, wrap the cross in burlap bags and put it on the front porch, where everyone could see it.

“She was fearless,” Buckner-Webb said of her mother, an early activist who spoke out for civil rights and broke down barriers everywhere she went.

With her mother as inspiration, Buckner-Webb said, activism was “ingrained in me.”

“It was not about do good and let people pat me on the back,” she said. “I don’t know if I’ve got an eye for injustice – I just see it quickly.”

Buckner-Webb’s dad went to school with Idaho Sen. Frank Church. “I remember Sen. Church being in our little humble house,” she said, a house that was often filled with lively discussions and an array of diverse guests.

Buckner-Webb remembers, as a teen, participating in Idaho’s first civil rights rally on the state Capitol steps, after then-Gov. Don Samuelson had refused to lower the flag to half-staff to mark the assassination death of Martin Luther King Jr. “There was a lot of fear,” she said, including rumors that anyone who participated in the rally would be targeted.

She picketed. She spoke out. And she defied accepted norms, including an unwritten rule that only seniors could run for student body offices at Boise High. She ran for treasurer as a junior. “Of course I won,” she said with a smile.

“Our pastor at church was really an activist too,” she said.

Buckner-Webb married and left Idaho for a couple of years, then divorced and returned, working full time as a singer. Even then, in the 1970s, people started asking her to run for office.

She went on to work for 20 years at Boise Cascade Corp. and more than six years at Hewlett-Packard Corp., traveling widely and serving as HP’s culture and diversity global program manager.

“Treating people with dignity and respect and paying them equally – that’s a good business practice,” Buckner-Webb said.

She recalls when she was working in timber and wood products for Boise Cascade and she toured a plant in Council, Idaho, where the manager was describing each step in the process, and then clammed up – explaining, with some embarrassment, that the log was then placed into a piece of equipment called a “nigger” to be turned.

“He said, ‘We’ve always called it a ‘nigger’ in our industry,’” she said. “I said, ‘We will be calling it a log-turner.’ ”

Buckner-Webb also operates Sojourner Coaching, which she calls “work that I was called to do,” and has worked in organizational design and cross-cultural competencies for the Yarbrough Group, a national consulting firm. She holds degrees in social work and business. She serves on an array of boards and commissions, and has won numerous awards.

In the Legislature, she’s sponsored as-yet unsuccessful legislation to add anti-discrimination protections for gays and transgender people and crusaded for education improvements. She serves in Senate leadership as assistant minority leader; she’s in her third Senate term and previously served a term in the House.

Buckner-Webb, 65, said she wishes the Idaho Legislature could be more diverse, not just ethnically or racially but also by age, to better reflect everyone in the state. “The world has changed so much,” she said.

She described going back to school classrooms as a state lawmaker, and finding that there no longer was just a teacher standing up talking to a class. “It blew my hair back,” she said. “It’s very experiential, it’s noisy, it’s self-directed more. We have to know that. And then you go into a high school class, and my God, these guys are doing miraculous stuff that we never thought about at that age.”

Buckner-Webb said there are “a lot of factions” in the Idaho Legislature today, but she believes lawmakers can make progress for the state. “I think the way it happens is it’s relationships, one on one,” she said. “At least we should give ear to each other.”

And she remains on the lookout for ways to improve equity in her state. “You can’t just pull yourself up by your bootstraps – some people don’t have boots,” she said. “You have to be vigorous about liberty – it falls away.”


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