Idaho, one of the nation’s most proudly red states, has few places where it’s easy to be a Democratic politician. Of 105 seats in the State Legislature, Republicans hold 80. Statewide, the most prominent exception to Republican strength is District 19, which encompasses downtown Boise and neighborhoods along its northern and eastern sides. The executive directors of both the state’s major parties told New West that the district is Idaho’s most powerful Democratic bastion.
One of the district’s two House seats opened up after Democrat Anne Pasley-Stuart decided to step. Cherie Buckner-Webb is a big favorite to get the job, although her opponent’s no slouch. Jim Morland, a physician who founded and runs a pain center, is a former medical director of the national grocery chain Albertson’s Corporation, for whom he administered an annual budget of about $300 million. Even so, Buckner-Webb, a fifth-generation Idahoan, brings a wealth of administrative skills developed in large local companies and as a small business owner, along with numerous endorsements from groups and businesses, as well as a list of achievements in community activism as long as your arm.
Although it hasn’t emerged as a focus of the race in a district where words like “diversity” and “tolerance” are the norm, Buckner-Webb would be the first African-American elected to state office in Idaho.
Buckner-Webb traces her Idaho lineage to her great-grandparents, who arrived in 1908 when there were roughly 650 people of “African descent” in the state, according to an essay by Mamie Oliver, a professor of social work at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa. By 2000, Oliver wrote, the African-American population had risen to 5,456 among more than a million inhabitants.
“Quite frankly, there were some bumps in the road, but it was home,” Buckner-Webb says simply of growing up in Boise. “There was some notoriety that came with being one of the few.”
She gets excited just talking about the neighborhood. Her speaking voice—as melodious as might be expected from a gospel and jazz singer who’s recorded with the likes of the late, great pianist Gene Harris—rises and accelerates as she ticks off the joys of the North End. “I’ve lived here since I was 5 years old, and I purposefully chose this district to live in—not just for politics, but for what this district offers. The old-fashioned neighborhood thing draws a lot of people across the spectrum, both Republican and Democrat.”
She thinks the district’s liberal pocket developed because Democrats, like most people, seek out others of similar disposition, and also, she says, because Democrats thrive on diversity in socio-economics, ethnicity and other aspects of everyday life. She rhapsodizes about the historical district in this part of Boise, the “ticktack” houses right beside mansions, as well as the community shops.
Lee Flinn, executive director of the bipartisan Conservation Voters for Idaho, points out that legislative districts around Boise have made a “slow and continual shift” in recent years to Democratic representatives. Half the seats in the eight districts of Ada County, which encompasses Boise; the other four districts are fully Republican. The last Republican to occupy a House seat from District 19 was the moderate Katherine “Kitty” Gurnsey, who won 11 elections from 1974 until her retirement in 1996.
Even so, Buckner-Webb is far from ready to identify the district as a harbinger of a potential new direction for politics in Boise or in Idaho.
“One of the things I’ve learned is there’s no single answer,” she says. “The openness, receptivity, the unique ways of interacting that people bring to the table, mean there’s not one way, there are many. A way to work harmoniously—I eat up that part about District 19.”
Morland thinks dissatisfaction with the federal Democratic administration will encourage a big Republican turnout even in a non-presidential election year. “There are 30,000 registered voters in District 19, probably less than half of whom will go to the polls,” he says. “So, if you get a higher preponderance of Republicans voting and a higher preponderance of Democrats staying home, that will favor the Republican candidates regardless of who they are.”
Republican Party executive director, Jonathan Parker, echoes that sentiment. “I believe people are going to be stunned when they see the gains Republicans make on November 2,” he says.
Jim Hansen, the state’s Democratic Party executive director, scoffs at Hansen’s prediction, citing deep cuts in funding to education by the Republican administration of Gov. Butch Otter, who’s favored to keep his job. Education funds in 2011 will decrease by 7.5 percent, or $128 million. Hansen claims that’s why, in District 19, Morland’s campaign mailer plays down his Republican Party membership. “I’ve never seen a tinier elephant on a brochure than his.”
Indeed, the 9-by-6-inch card does not bear the word “Republican” on either side and carries only one elephant logo, which measures 3/16 of square inch. The card’s headline is, “Integrity, Independent, Innovative.” Morland says he thinks the independent swing vote could determine the victor. In education, he believes the goal should be to improve administrative efficiencies, and he has a wait-and-see attitude about whether the cuts will cause student performances to decline.
This year the North End’s Boise High was ranked by Newsweek in the top 2 percent among 27,000 public high schools in the nation. It has made the magazine’s list of top schools seven times. “What’s going on in our school district could serve as a model for school districts across the state,” Morland says. His door-knocking has led him to conclude that it is not education but jobs, or lack of them, that is the district’s biggest concern.
Buckner-Webb’s affront at the education cuts is the battle cry for Democrats statewide. She says if outrage over the cuts is more audible in District 19 than elsewhere in the state, it’s only because of Boise’s “critical mass.”
Whether or not the education funding issue has any effect on Idaho’s elections, Cherie Buckner-Webb looks poised for an interesting career in state politics. A flash of the style that has made her a survivor and achiever appeared in a speech she gave last Martin Luther King Day at the State Capitol. The purpose of the holiday, she said, was “to look back in honor. Like the old song from my tradition says, ‘My soul looks back and wonder, how I got over?’”
She asked the audience, “Can I get an ‘Amen’?” but received only a murmur in reply. “I can’t hear you,” she tried again. “Can I get an ‘Amen’?” The next response wasn’t much better than the first.
“You keep working on it,” she told the crowd. “I’ll move on.”