And then there was one.
A single Democrat will serve in the Idaho legislature from north of Boise when organizational sessions start next month. Rep. Paulette Jordan, a member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe from Plummer, was narrowly re-elected to the seat she has held for two years.
All told, the Idaho Legislature now will have 88 Republicans and 17 Democrats; the GOP picked up four more seats on Tuesday night, bumping its supermajority to 84 percent.
“I think we’re lucky to have her there,” said House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, who lost his own re-election bid. “But it will be a lonely ride home on the weekends, that’s for sure.”
Jordan said her victory is bittersweet. “I am still amazed and in shock that we lost a lot of great champions, including my own senator in my own district,” she said Wednesday.
She was referring to Sen. Dan Schmidt, a Democrat representing Moscow. Schmidt and Rusche – both doctors who lost their seats Tuesday – had led the yearslong and so far unsuccessful fight to close Idaho’s health coverage gap, which now leaves 78,000 residents without options to help pay for health care. Schmidt narrowly lost his bid for a fourth term to Republican challenger Dan Foreman.
“He was very pragmatic, very sensible, good, hardworking, an honest man,” Jordan said. “And to see him not return is frustrating to me.”
Jordan, 36, a business consultant, is also the only Native American member of the Idaho Legislature. She’s a former Coeur d’Alene Tribal Council member and the granddaughter of two chiefs.
She’s also long been an active Democrat, holding state and national party positions and serving as the Idaho at-large delegate to the party’s national convention for the last two presidential elections.
“I know it’s going to be a heavy lift,” Jordan said. “We have a lot of work ahead to do and have to get started early.” Plus, she said, “you have that reality that you’re coming back without your team.”
Idaho Democrats, already a small minority in the state Legislature, lost three seats Tuesday in north-central Idaho and one in traditionally Democratic Pocatello.
Rusche, who served as House minority leader for the past eight years, said it’s getting more difficult for Democrats to win in North Idaho.
“The typical Democratic constituency, which has been the woodworkers, the natural resource industry, the unions, etc., they’re either not there or they’re not as potent and powerful,” he said. “And the Democrats that are here get caught in the urban-rural divide. The national Democratic Party and the state party coming out of Boise just is not something that appeals to most of the electorate up here.”
The Idaho Legislature that will convene next month for its organizational session will have a House split of 59 Republicans to 11 Democrats and a Senate split of 29 Republicans to six Democrats.
This is not, however, the lowest Idaho Democrats have fallen in the Legislature. That came in 2001-02, when the number of Democrats in the Idaho House fell to nine and the number in the Senate to just three, prompting lots of jokes about the Senate Democratic caucus holding its meetings in a phone booth.
“How can we continue to fight for balance in the state, with the overwhelming odds?” Jordan asked Wednesday. “It’s been a hard battle, but the challenging part is what we have to look forward to, when you look from the top of the ticket on down.”
Jordan said she finds the answers in her heritage. “When I was talking to my relatives this morning, they said, ‘That’s part of the beauty of our connection to our ancestors. We know that they’re always walking with us, guiding us and helping us in this lifetime.’ ”
She added that the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, ravaged by smallpox as white settlers arrived, once numbered just a few hundred people. Her people “fought through just to continue to exist and thrive.”
“Look at where we are now,” she said, “and the fact that we’re still here – we still have the beauty, the inner identity, our connection to everything, to the land, to the earth itself, to our relatives both tribal and nontribal alike.”
Jordan said her ancestors, including the great Chief Kamiakin, welcomed settlers to the region. “He wanted the greater good for everyone, not just his own but everyone,” she said.
“That’s what drives me,” Jordan said. “We inherit that – it’s still here.”
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