Four years ago, Sen. Bob Nonini of Coeur d’Alene didn’t have kind words for Sen. Shawn Keough of Sandpoint, and was doing his part to secure her election defeat.
Today, he’s working for her re-election in one of the most closely-watched primary battles in the state.
Four years ago, a different issue was at the forefront for Nonini. He was adamantly opposed to anything related to Obamacare, and especially the creation of a statewide insurance exchange. So he was boldly going after Keough and others who supported the exchange.
“It was a heck of a mistake on my part, because they were very nice people,” Nonini said.
Nonini hasn’t changed his political stripes. By any rating, whether it’s the American Conservative Union or the Idaho Freedom Foundation, he is one of the most conservative people in the Legislature. But he also realizes, “You’ve got to work with other people to get things done.”
A member of the Education Committee, Nonini has been a leader in the effort to promote STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). He’s not looking for more call-center jobs that pay $13 an hour; he wants high-tech jobs that pay hourly scales of $50 or more.
“Education is changing, and we need to provide what employers want,” Nonini says.
Keough, who co-chairs the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, has been a major ally with Nonini on that issue. But his support for Keough goes beyond that one issue. From a regional aspect, he says, people should appreciate having someone from North Idaho on the budget committee.
“We’ve had chairmen from North Idaho in the past, but now we have a chairman who is in the most influential position in the Legislature,” Nonini says. “Why would we risk losing that? We would gain nothing, and we would lose so much influence and clout.”
Wayne Hoffman, director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, calls the “clout” issue a false narrative. “The truth is, there are people from all over the state with key positions of power.”
As an old North Idaho boy, I’ve heard the frustrations of people who felt steamrolled by politicians from the south. To add insult, redistricting geniuses have lumped Shoshone County (where I grew up) with Clearwater, Idaho, and Bonner Counties.
So, yes, having someone from North Idaho in a high position is a big deal – especially since all Republican leaders in both chambers are from the south. In Keough’s position on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, North Idaho has the strongest possible voice in how state funds are distributed.
Hoffman acknowledges that she holds a key position, but says her efforts are misguided. “She, in particular, could have worked to hold down spending, but she didn’t. She could have pushed for tax relief. She didn’t.”
In other words, she’s too liberal – a claim that Nonini dismisses. “I hear complaints that I’m too conservative.” he says.
But in governing, it’s not about labels, Nonini says. “It’s about what’s good for Idaho, and that’s what I see in Sen. Keough. She has keen knowledge of the state budget and makes sure that the process is fair. In addition, she has vast knowledge of the natural resource issue, particularly in relationship to the timber industry.”
The question that will be answered in the primary is whether Keough’s vision fits with District 1, which has two conservative freshmen representatives in Heather Scott of Blanchard and Sage Dixon of Ponderay. If Priest River businessman Glenn Rohrer is elected to replace Keough, the transformation will be complete. District 1 will have, arguably, the most conservative delegation in the state.
Rohrer brings to the campaign a strong resume of military and community service. He promises to fight to reduce state taxes and fees, while protecting states’ rights and individual freedoms.
“I will work toward having our lands returned to us by the federal government so our state can gain equal footing with other states already in possession of their previously held federal lands,” he states on his website. “Basically, every piece of legislation must have its roots within the Constitution.”
As Keough sees it, “Yes, people want a conservative government. But people also want good schools, good roads, access to health care and other services that the public demands.”
District 1 voters have an interesting choice. The contrast between the two candidates could not be more profound.