Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and State Rep. Luke Malek of Coeur d’Alene come from far different ends of the political spectrum – with McConnell being one of the most powerful figures in Congress and Malek as a two-term legislator who is just getting started.
But according to Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, a longtime friend and colleague of McConnell’s, there are some similarities. Both are interested in governing, even if it means rankling conservatives, as Malek has done on the recent child-support issue and last year’s creation of a state-based health exchange. McConnell has critics who say he sometimes works too closely with President Obama, particularly on immigration.
But Craig, who recently visited with McConnell, says the Senate leader is looking beyond party politics. “Mitch said, ‘My first goal is to make this Senate work – to get the job done -- to get the appropriation bills out and show America that government is working again.’ “And he’s done a pretty good job of that.”
The 33-year-old Malek describes himself as a “staunch” conservative – “one who is willing to break down an issue and not just vote according to the politics of obedience. There’s a certain political movement that is based on obedience. You do as you’re told, or face the consequences.”
Malek says the Idaho Freedom Foundation is a leader of that movement, sparking a war of words on the op-ed pages between Malek and Wayne Hoffman, the executive director of IFF. Hoffman says the only “obedience” comes from Malek’s pandering to the federal government on the insurance exchange, helping bring Obamacare to Idaho. Hoffman also accuses Malek of “grandstanding” on the child-support issue and bowing to the wishes of the federal government.
Malek is far from being a “staunch” conservative in Hoffman’s eyes. And he doesn’t fit the mold of other conservative legislators in the Coeur d’Alene area, such as Rep. Kathy Sims, Sens. Steve Vick and Bob Nonini, and Rep. Vito Barbieri.
“He definitely is not as conservative as the rest of the folks in the north,” said Sims, who represents District 4 along with Malek. “I really wish he was more conservative; he cancels a lot of my votes, and that’s a little bit disheartening.”
The polar opposites win in District 4 because they have separate, but strong, followings. But Sen. Mary Souza’s primary victory last year over longtime Sen. John Goedde suggests conservatives still have an edge in that district – which leaves Malek vulnerable.
Craig doesn’t know Malek, but he has an idea what Malek is dealing with politically.
“When I was in the Legislature, I was not viewed as a conservative,” he said. “I was viewed as very conservative when I went to Congress, even though my principles and philosophies of how government ought to operate were basically the same” he said.
Craig would like to see more emphasis placed on effectiveness.
“I’m always frustrated by those who don’t really believe government ought to govern,” he said. “I wanted to govern in a conservative and limited way, but at the same time, government is critical to the functioning of the country – from the collection of garbage to the safety and security of our homes. There are some in my party who constantly want to tear it down and deny the responsibility of governing. If you work to make government function in today’s environment, you get criticized. Those who are conservative, but believe in governing, often are branded as liberal, or not as obstructive as some would like,” Craig said.
“Maybe that’s where Luke fits in.”
Malek may be an odd duck in the Coeur d’Alene-area delegation, where “no” votes have become fashion statements. But he fits in well with those who do not view government as a mortal enemy, such as House Speaker Scott Bedke of Burley and Sen. Shawn Keough of Sandpoint. Malek says his style also fits well with his constituents, some of whom thanked him for his recent stand on the child-support issue.
He will likely continue to have battles with the Idaho Freedom Foundation when he strays from conservative thinking, but he says it will be under his rules.
“I will not allow them to control the narrative,” Malek said.