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Luke Malek navigates Republican politics, Kootenai County-style

Coeur d’Alene attorney Luke Malek arrives at the courthouse to review files pertaining to an upcoming case on Sept. 9. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Coeur d’Alene attorney Luke Malek arrives at the courthouse to review files pertaining to an upcoming case on Sept. 9. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Luke Malek is a young lawyer, a North Idaho resident since the second grade with deep ties in the community, and the son of two local physicians. A Republican, he worked for former Sen. Larry Craig and Sen. Mike Crapo, and was recruited by former Gov. Jim Risch to be the state’s first governor’s representative to North Idaho. He comes from a religious family; his brothers are Matthew, Marc and John.

Elected to the state Legislature in 2012, he quickly became a popular and well-respected lawmaker. But he barely squeaked through the GOP primary last year against an unknown newcomer. Welcome to GOP politics in heavily Republican, but still much-divided, Kootenai County.

When Malek spoke at a town hall sponsored by the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee meeting early in his first term, the crowd was hostile. He had led a group of freshmen lawmakers who demanded changes in legislation in return for supporting a state insurance exchange under the Affordable Care Act, rather than refusing and forcing Idaho into a federal exchange. John Cross, Region 1 chairman for the Idaho Republican Party and a supporter of Malek’s initial election, shouted, “ ‘I’ve supported you in the past, but I can never support you again,’ ” Malek recalled. “He had his finger pointed at me.”

Cross confirmed the story. “Some issues are of super importance and do matter, and matter enough that you might change your opinion about a candidate,” he said.

Others in the crowd called Malek “worthless” or “just a Democrat” every time he spoke. Toward the back of the room was Malek’s grandmother, a deeply conservative Republican raised in Wyoming who took umbrage at what she was hearing around her. She turned around to the woman behind her and declared, “He’s probably more conservative than you are,” Barbara Rousseau, now 82, recalled. “She didn’t know Luke.”

It was the start of a fractious relationship between the 33-year-old lawmaker and a core faction of his party, which happens to control the local party apparatus.

Kootenai County Sheriff Ben Wolfinger, a lifelong Republican and former city councilman who backs Malek, called it “comical” that anyone would question Malek’s GOP pedigree. “He’s got a pretty long history of being a staunch Republican,” Wolfinger said.

Idahoans identify as independents

Cross stayed true to his promise and backed Toby Schindelbeck, a little-known recent arrival from California, over Malek in the 2014 GOP primary. Surprisingly, Schindelbeck came within 180 votes of defeating Malek. But the numbers are even more surprising: Just 3,322 people cast ballots in that primary race, in a legislative district with more than 44,000 residents and nearly 22,500 registered voters.

It was Idaho’s second closed Republican primary election for the Legislature, when only those who registered as Republicans could participate. Previously, Idahoans hadn’t had to register by party, and many take pleasure in calling themselves independents. The month of the primary election, nearly 14,000 of the district’s registered voters were registered as “unaffiliated” with any party – meaning they couldn’t vote in the GOP race. Only 6,407 had registered as Republicans.

Cross, a retired Southern California police officer who arrived in Coeur d’Alene in 1997, said he backed the closed primary and believes party members should be the ones selecting their nominees. Currently, every partisan elected officeholder in the county is a Republican and the county’s election results have shown much higher GOP support than its voter registration figures.

“I frankly don’t know why they do not want to affiliate with the party, if they’re going to vote that way in the end,” Cross said. “I mean, what are we hiding from?”

Jasper LiCalzi, a professor of political economy at the College of Idaho, said, “Idahoans, you’ll have somebody who votes Republican all the time but will tell you ‘I’m an independent.’ And the same thing with Democrats, too.”

He said in heavily GOP-dominated Idaho – where every statewide elected office and 80 percent of the seats in the Legislature are held by Republicans – “the problem is not enough people who identify, really, by their voting record as Republicans register as Republicans.”

That leaves a small group making the call in the primary, with little competition in Idaho’s general elections. After beating Schindelbeck in the primary, Malek was unopposed in the November 2014 general election and received more than 8,700 votes.

Schindelbeck said he moved to North Idaho thinking he’d “be around like-minded people, conservatives.” But, he said, “Come to find out, you can’t really get elected in Kootenai County unless you’re a Republican. Come to find out, what the liberal Democrats would do is run as Republicans.” Schindelbeck said Malek “talked to all the right people, said all the right things, then he got into office and spearheaded the Obamacare-Ottercare legislation. … It was offensive to me that he was campaigning as a conservative, but legislating as a liberal.”

Cross notes that Malek doesn’t score well on the “Freedom Index” published by the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a conservative, free-market lobbying group that rates legislation and scores state lawmakers. This year, Malek’s Freedom Index score was minus-32. The top-ranked House member was outspoken conservative freshman Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, who made waves this summer for posing with a Confederate battle flag at a local parade.

“He just hasn’t followed along the conservative Republican line,” Cross said.

The ‘politics of obedience’

In addition to the insurance exchange legislation, Malek has championed funding for a mental health crisis center in Kootenai County, which passed overwhelmingly despite opposition from several local GOP lawmakers and will open this year. It was strongly supported by law enforcement and the local business community.

And he fought hard against a move to kill child-support enforcement legislation this year after the Freedom Foundation came out against it. The bill had passed the Senate unanimously, but after it stalled in a House committee on the final day of the session, Gov. Butch Otter had to call lawmakers back for a special session in May to pass a new version and keep the state’s child-support enforcement system functioning.

“You actually saw people change their vote in committee just because they got an email” from the Freedom Foundation, Malek said. He said it highlighted what he calls the “politics of obedience,” saying, “It flies in the face of how people want to be independent. It’s counter to the entire area up here.”

Malek, who serves on the Legislature’s key joint budget committee, sponsored the crisis center funding bill.

“He’s a heck of a legislator,” LiCalzi said. “For someone who hasn’t been there very long, he’s very influential. … He knows the issues, and people respect him.”

Malek has cast conservative party-line votes, too. He voted with the all-GOP majority in 2014 to allow holders of enhanced permits to carry concealed weapons on Idaho public college campuses. He also joined the all-GOP majority to back criminal penalties for surreptitious videotaping of agricultural operations; the law was subsequently found unconstitutional by a federal court. He backed legislation this year that passed on a party-line vote to impose strict restrictions on medication-induced abortions.

Malek’s wife, Tara, said, “I can’t say that it’s not uncomfortable to watch people rip into him. But we’ve had a lot of conversations about it, and he felt like it was the right thing to do. The day he starts making decisions on what kind of criticism he gets is the day he needs to step out of politics.”

Kootenai County Prosecutor Barry McHugh, for whom Malek worked as an intern and then a deputy prosecutor, said, “He was a really good prosecutor – he’s very aggressive and hardworking, and I really enjoyed having him in the office.” McHugh added, “Luke is very conservative, and I think he does a great job for Kootenai County.”

Malek said he’s continued speaking at local town meetings – lots of them, even after that stormy one early in his first term.

“There were a lot of angry people. I got chewed out quite a bit by different folks,” he recalled. “There were people determined, thinking we could’ve overturned Obamacare.” But Malek said he believes strongly that that wouldn’t have been the outcome of rejecting the exchange bill.

He said, “I make myself available, and there’s no group that I won’t talk to, even if I don’t seem aligned with them. They still deserve access to their representatives.”

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