Wayne Hoffman, president of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, is smiling today.
Obstructing some of the things Hoffman wants to inflict on Idaho’s public schools and higher education system — in addition to some of the damage he’s already caused — is Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston.
Thanks to Johnson, the Senate Education Committee has blocked anti-education bills, such as one that would have undermined public school teacher collective bargaining negotiations.
On the Senate floor, Johnson cast a deciding vote against a bill that would have siphoned some of Idaho’s scarce tax dollars from public into private schools.
No wonder the Idaho Freedom Index has punished Johnson with a mediocre 60 percent rating — as opposed to the 93 percent score former Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger, R-Lewiston, acquired before he resigned under pressure, or the 95 percent approval Rep. Mike Kingsley, R-Lewiston, enjoys.
But Johnson might not be in Boise next winter. If he’s not, his replacement could be more to Hoffman’s liking.
Johnson is running for Lewiston mayor. To get there, he first has to persuade voters to swap the community’s council-manager system for a strong mayor. Then he has to prevail in the mayoral election.
Johnson’s credentials could prove persuasive. Not only was he a well-regarded solid waste manager for the city and a Port of Lewiston commissioner, he has almost six terms in the Senate under his belt — including a stint as the Senate Local and Taxation Committee chairman and a member of the Legislature’s budget committee. Seeing him as a potential mayor could sway people who otherwise might be reluctant to alter their form of government.
What comes next?
Should Johnson leave the Senate early, the role of finding a successor falls to the GOP’s 6th Legislative District Central Committee. Whoever Gov. Brad Little chooses to appoint as a successor, he’s limited to the list of three candidates selected by that group of the GOP’s rank and file.
The base is closer to Hoffman’s philosophy than that of the ordinary Idaho voter. So the governor could be stuck with shifting the state Senate more to Hoffman’s liking.
That didn’t happen earlier this year when Little wound up picking Lori McCann, a traditional pro-education Republican, to replace the disgraced von Englinger. But what a tortured path the central committee took. Initially, the local GOP’s list ranked Glen Baldwin of Culdesac, Leland farmer Robert Blair and Opportunities Unlimited President and CEO Hannah Liedkie as its preference. Only after Republicans got buyer’s remorse over Liedkie being less than a pure conservative and a miscount was discovered did the retired Lewis-Clark State College legal program director make the cut.
Voters would get the final say over who becomes Johnson’s permanent replacement in next year’s primary and general elections. But throw in the confusion that redistricting is likely to bring. Any incumbent — even one who has been appointed to the job — could have the advantage.
Of course, Johnson is under no obligation to surrender his Senate seat even if he becomes mayor. State law allows people to hold both jobs, and there are plenty of examples: Orofino Mayor Paul Decelle served briefly in the House before his death in 1991. Eagle Mayor Jerry Deckard and Jerome Mayor Ralph Peters did double duty in the Legislature.
More recently, Rep. Elfreda Higgins, D-Garden City, split her time with a city council post and Sen. Stan Bastian, R-Eagle, served on the Eagle City Council.
Locally, the late Rep. Thyra Stevenson, R-Lewiston, served out her term on the Lewiston City Council.
For the moment, Johnson isn’t saying what he plans to do.
“I’m running for a position that doesn’t yet exist,” he told the Lewiston Tribune’s Joel Mills last week.
In the age of Zoom, being in two places separated by 270 miles and a time zone is more plausible that it once was.
But holding both jobs would be a conflict of time. Johnson would not merely serve as mayor; he’d be reinventing the job in those early months of 2022 — while he’s distracted with the election-year politics permeating the state Capitol.
He’d also face a conflict of interest. His constituents inside and outside the city limits might have a different view about legislation that affects city tax rates, urban renewal authority and preempts the authority of city officials.
There is an outside-the-box option open to Johnson — he could simply name a substitute to serve in Boise until the session concludes. While that may frustrate Hoffman’s agenda, it unwisely centralizes too much political power in one individual.
There’s the rub: Anyone elected mayor must reside within the city limits. In a community the size of Lewiston, the talent pool is limited. There simply aren’t that many Dan Johnsons available.
A city manager system, on the other hand, opens the community to a nationwide talent search.
All of which makes a compelling argument for the status quo. — M.T.