BOISE – Politics in Idaho and across the nation are getting more divisive and dominated by the extremes on both sides – even though that doesn’t represent most people’s views, a new group declared Monday.
“With this hard-edged division between reds and blues, rights and lefts, there’s no discussion of the common ties,” said former state Sen. Laird Noh, R-Kimberly.
Said former Sen. Marguerite McLaughlin, D-Orofino: “Politics doesn’t just belong to the political system. It belongs to all of us.”
The two former senators joined political scientist Keith Allred on Monday to announce formation of The Common Interest, a group that already has 400 members and will attempt to bring together Idaho citizens of all political persuasions, research their views on issues, share their opinions with lawmakers and then hold lawmakers accountable for responding.
“Like a lot of people, I was extremely frustrated watching the domination of special interests in our political process and the domination of the extremes on the left and right,” said Allred, a former professor at Columbia and Harvard universities who this year is serving as the Frank Church Distinguished Professor of Public Policy at Boise State University.
“It turns out the ‘culture war’ is a total myth,” Allred said. “While the political elite was getting more polarized over the last 20 years, it turns out the voters are getting more and more moderate – so there’s a disconnect.”
The new organization will try to reconnect voters. It’s charging no membership fee but is asking all prospective members to commit to voting in both the primary and general elections and giving an hour of their time to research an issue.
Based on polling of a random sample of its 400 members thus far, the group identified three top issues for this year’s legislative session: closed committee meetings, K-12 education funding and telephone deregulation.
The group will assign its members to research the issues, and then they’ll vote on their position. If there’s a 60 percent majority, the group will take that position.
Noh said he has no problem with closed committee meetings coming up as the group’s No. 1 issue – even though he presided over closed committee meetings himself as the chairman of the Senate Resources Committee.
“I think it’s just fine,” Noh said. “This isn’t a group of ex-legislators. This is what the people selected. Overall, I think it’s a good choice – the top four are all good choices.”
The issue that came in fourth among the membership was “state employees working for companies they had regulated.” That ethical issue, which has been controversial in recent years, could join the issue list if there are enough members to research it, Allred said.
The group is using its Web site, www.thecommoninterest.org, to communicate with its members and air its issues. Once it has taken positions, Allred said it plans to develop a legislative scorecard showing how lawmakers vote on those issues, and whether they agreed with the group’s positions.
Allred, a fifth-generation Idahoan from Twin Falls, is an expert in negotiation and conflict resolution. He said he launched the organization Nov. 19, and already has attracted hundreds of members. Additional people can sign up through March 7 to be included in examining this year’s legislative issues. “The more the better – we welcome Democrats, Republicans, Independents,” he said.
He said the commitment to vote in primary elections is key, as Idaho’s primary election turnout is often below 20 percent. “Research is quite compelling that it is those who are on the hard left or hard right who turn out,” he said, and that then leads to over-representation for more extreme candidates in the general election as well.
McLaughlin, who served two terms in the state House and nine in the Senate, said that in the four years since she’s been out of office, she’s become increasingly concerned that Idaho politics are focusing on divisive, hot-button questions rather than issues that really affect everyone in the state.
“As I read the newspaper the last four years, I became very agitated and discouraged with what is happening,” she said.
Said Noh, “There is no other agenda than to try to create an opportunity for citizens to have their voices heard in the councils of government.”
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