Remember this name: Rep. Mat Erpelding of Boise.
The 41-year-old assistant House minority leader is going to be around for a long time, and he gives Democrats potentially a bright star for the future. It’s far too early to label him as a serious contender for a high office, such as governor, or the U.S. Senate. But Erpelding is the kind of person that Democrats should be promoting.
He’s young, bright, thoughtful and has sharp communication skills – a package not always found in candidates from either party. Democrats often field a list of political unknowns who magically surface as candidates for the highest offices, such as A.J. Balukoff (governor) and Nels Mitchell (U.S. Senate) in the last election cycle. Then they just as quickly disappear after getting trashed by Republicans in November.
Erpelding is different. He has a political resume, knows how the legislative process works and generally gets along well with Republican leadership. It’s not that he agrees with everything promoted by the GOP side – far from it. But as with his mentor in the House, Minority Leader John Rusche of Lewiston and Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett of Ketchum, Erpelding knows that little gets accomplished through flame-throwing. Republicans have the large majority of the votes, but Erpelding says Democrats have their share of influence.
“While my colleagues in the super-majority like to take credit, the Democrats were the ones pushing back and saying we need to fund programs at appropriate levels,” Erpelding said.
No … this is not a signal that Democrats are on the rise. In this year’s elections, there’s no reason to believe that Republican incumbents are in trouble in congressional races, and it’s unlikely that the Dems will do more than make modest gains in the Legislature. But there should be no question about the Democratic Party’s relevancy – with four of the five Boise-based districts held by Democrats and Mayor Dave Bieter proving to be practically unbeatable. The only Republican district in Boise is 15, and Democrats are making a spirited bid for at least one of those seats – where Steve Berch is taking on GOP Rep. Lynn Luker.
Erpelding, who promotes leadership development in his professional life, is using his skills in the political arena. He recently visited Blaine County for a meeting with fellow Democrats and was in Sandpoint scouting election prospects. He’s seeing some encouraging signs in his travels, especially with the influx of Sen. Bernie Sanders supporters getting more involved in party politics. Erpelding says Democrats throughout Idaho can learn from the party’s success in Boise.
“We have candidates who are working hard, whether we are knocking on thousands of doors, or holding four or five town halls during the session. When we talk about what Boise needs in a globally economic environment, we need Boise State University to be cranking on all cylinders and we need the College of Western Idaho to be working effectively for our economy,” he said.
“As young parents, we need early childhood education and a K-12 system that prepares people for life,” That is the driving force in Boise as far as what keeps us in office.”
The problem for the party is in the rural counties, as Bert Marley, the state party chair, realizes. “Somebody once told me that if Joseph Smith came back and ran as a Democrat, he couldn’t get elected,” Marley said.
Yes, and if Jack the Ripper came back as a Republican, he’d probably win by a landslide. The GOP domination is that strong.
But Erpelding is not willing to write off rural Idaho. Democrats, such as Rusche and retiring Rep. Donna Pence of Gooding, have had success representing small-town communities.
“Well-spoken, smart, hard-working Democrats can win in Idaho. If you look at our history, Democrats have been the movers and shakers in the state, particularly in education and conservation,” Erpelding said. “I would expect Democrats to continue to push to a place where we have an opportunity to be a voice of reason in the Legislature. As we grow in our minority potential, you will see that the most reasonable person in the room will be a Democrat.”
A run for a higher office may be in Erpelding’s future, but his immediate priority is working to build the party’s base.
Being just 41 years old, time is on his side.