BOISE – As Idaho’s newest congressman-elect prepares to head for Washington, D.C., he’s expecting help from national Democrats who’ll want to cement their party’s hold on his seat – but he’s also talking to lots of Republicans.
“Over my lifetime I’ve been a Republican, an independent and a Democrat, and I’m really not very partisan, never have been very partisan,” said Walt Minnick, who in January will become the first Democrat to represent Idaho in Congress in 14 years. “People thought I could be more effective than Bill Sali, and I think that was a perception you’d find among Republicans as well as Democrats.”
He added, “There were enough people who felt that way that, despite the fact Democrats did not do well in Idaho, that I attracted a small majority of the voters.”
Minnick defeated freshman GOP Rep. Bill Sali last week, 51 percent to 49 percent, to win the congressional seat that represents North Idaho. Since the election, he’s been in touch with the three Republicans who make up the rest of Idaho’s congressional delegation – Sen. Mike Crapo already has invited Minnick to attend the delegation’s weekly breakfast meetings during the congressional session – and taken congratulations from Democratic leaders including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
National Democratic leaders will want to help him be successful as a “freshman from a red state,” Minnick said. “I think they’ll be more inclined to be helpful to me than they would be somebody from a safe district. I will use whatever argument I can. … I will give them every opportunity to help, in committee assignments and otherwise, in considering legislation to help me build a record that I can talk to the people of Idaho about in two years.”
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, a Republican, said, “We’re going to be able to work on things together. … I’ve known Walt a long time.”
Otter said he first met Minnick decades ago when Minnick became CEO of Trus Joist Corp., a major Idaho timber products firm, and the two served on a board or two together.
“Walt’s a Blue Dog,” Otter said. “The Blue Dogs are fiscally conservative Democrats,” and Otter said he worked closely with the Blue Dog Caucus back when he served three terms in Congress. Otter said several members of the Blue Dogs contacted him to ask about Minnick, “And I said, ‘Well, I think you’ve got some good prospects there, because I think Walt’s that kind of guy.’ ”
The group endorsed a dozen Democratic challengers this year, including Minnick.
“Philosophically, that’s my home,” Minnick said. “They’re conservative Democrats who believe in limited government and lower taxes. They are skeptical that more government and greater federal spending is the solution to very much – that’s my philosophical bent as well.”
Minnick, who heads to Washington, D.C., for freshman orientation on Sunday, said his first priority is economic recovery legislation. “That is the issue that needs to be dealt with and is most important,” he said. “Until you can get the economy growing again, we don’t have the financial resources or perhaps even the will to deal with other issues, like education or health care, which require money.”
He added, “My secondary focus on that is to do what I can to assure that the federal government doesn’t simply throw money at the problem and waste taxpayer dollars. There’s always a tendency to do that when you’re dealing with a crisis.”
Said Otter, “Walt’s a CEO – I mean, he’s got a CEO style about him. You know, if you think you’re right, get after it and get the job done.”
Otter said he’s already met with Minnick and Minnick’s new chief of staff, Isaac Squyres. “We’ve traded cell phone numbers, and you know that’s pretty serious,” Otter said with a chuckle.
Minnick said he envisions Idaho’s entire delegation working together, drawing on the Republican members’ seniority, contacts and key committee posts as well as his access to the majority party in both Congress and the administration.
Together, he said, they’ll use “whatever access and influence we have to advance things that are good for Idaho. That’s what we’re all elected for, regardless of party.”
As the top Democratic elected official in Idaho come January, Minnick will be the one to make recommendations to the administration on key federal appointments, from the next U.S. Attorney and U.S. Marshal for Idaho to the next regional head of the EPA. But Minnick said he’ll consult with Republicans on that, too.
“These federal appointments are for everybody, and my goal is to get the best, highest-qualified people,” he said. “I want that person to be really qualified, and their party affiliation and that kind of stuff is secondary.”
Minnick said he won’t agree with his GOP colleagues on everything. “But where we do agree, we’ll do what we can for Idaho,” he said.
Said Otter, “I don’t believe it’s in the delegation’s purpose nor my purpose to have any winners or losers in the delegation, so long as Idaho’s winning.”
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