People who leave Congress, either by election defeat or retirement, seldom go away entirely. They may return to the careers they had before going to Congress, stay involved with certain issues or causes, or go into lobbying and rake in the big bucks.
Former Congressman Richard Stallings, who served Idaho’s Second District from 1985-92, has gone in a different direction. Until recently, he was working at a grocery store in Island Park – stocking shelves, checking out customers and bagging groceries. It was the kind of work that he did when growing up in Ogden, Utah.
But work of that nature is not easy for a 77-year-old man with some health issues. “I had trouble getting up and down, and I’d bruise myself pretty easily because of the blood-thinners I’m taking.”
But Stallings, who worked only a few months at the store, didn’t take the job to satisfy career goals, or provide intellectual stimulation. “I wanted something to occupy my time … I was lonely.”
Stallings saw much better times when he was elected to Congress in 1984, scoring an upset victory over long-time incumbent George Hansen, and went on to serve three more terms before losing his bid for the Senate in 1990. The last couple of years, especially, have not been so fruitful. His wife, Ranae, died two years ago due to complications from diabetes, and his life has not been the same.
“When you live with someone for 52 years, they are a part of your life,” he said. “I have conflicting thoughts. In my heart, I miss her. In my brain, I know it was for the best. She had diabetes, and it was getting worse. If she had lived, she would be on dialysis, or had other ailments that would curtail her quality of life. So, rationally, it was for the better, but it was still a kick in the gut.”
Stallings also knows, rationally, that feeling depressed, and bagging groceries, was far from what she wanted for him. “She’d tell me, ‘find somebody else and get remarried.’”
He knows that Ranae also would tell him to do something more rewarding with his life – which is a step he is taking. At least a couple of former members of Congress – Lee Hamilton of Indiana and Louis Frey of Florida – have opened institutes for congressional studies at universities in their states. Stallings is hoping to do something similar at Idaho State University, which is in the heart of the Second District he served.
“I’ve talked with administrators about it, and they seem enthusiastic,” he said. “If the university is serious about it, and can offer a budget, I’d go full steam ahead with it. I’m very excited about this possibility.”
Being a former member of Congress, he certainly is uniquely qualified for the task. He also has an academic background, coming from the teaching profession and taking on some courses in his post-congressional life. He has taught courses on Idaho politics at ISU, so it’s not a big stretch for him to work on congressional studies. He spends most of his time living in Ogden, but would move to Pocatello if he heads up a course at ISU.
His class would not be for the politically faint of heart. During Stallings’ time in Congress, he was a Democrat who went against the grain of thinking by the mostly-Republican Idaho delegation. He doesn’t have much good to say about any of Idaho’s congressional representatives today, and ran unsuccessfully against Congressman Mike Simpson three years ago. Stallings views Barack Obama as “one of our great presidents,” and scoffs at the antics of President Trump. Stallings leaves a lot of room for opposing views.
“I would welcome having students challenge me, and I know there would be times when I would challenge myself,” he said.
“Congress is poorly understood by most Americans. People have the notion that those in Congress are buffoons, which is not totally false. But there’s more to it than that,” he said. “Our Founders wanted it to be difficult … they didn’t want Congress to stampede over everything. So, there would logjams built in to make it difficult, but not impossible.”
Stallings doesn’t have all the answers for creating a smoother-running Congress. But with his background, he figures he can do something to stimulate thinking and promote a greater involvement with the process.