Thomas Jefferson said a long time ago that government works best when it is closest to the people.
Apparently, the redistricting commission — with judicial blessing — lost that memo when it drew the District 7 legislative lines for Shoshone County earlier this decade.
The powers that be managed to turn the Silver Valley into Idaho’s version of Siberia, and there’s nothing that anybody can do about it — except raise hell the next time redistricting comes up.
Here’s the message to Shoshone County: Thomas Jefferson? Bah! Humbug!
The closest legislator representing Shoshone County is Sen. Carl Crabtree, who lives in Grangeville. Rep. Priscilla Giddings is from White Bird and Rep. Paul Shepherd lives in Riggins. The trio might as well be from Nebraska as far as Shoshone County is concerned.
“I can say, inarguably, that we in Shoshone County do not feel we have representation,” said Wallace Mayor Dick Vester. “I’ve been mayor for eight years, and I’ve never had one call, or email, in my office from our representatives.”
The issue strikes close to home for me, because I was born and raised in the Silver Valley. My best boyhood friend in Osburn was the late Larry Watson, who worked many years for the county and later served as a state representative. Mayors in the valley were not asking “Who’s he?” at the mention of his name.
Much has changed in this old mining district over the years. But one thing that hasn’t is the quality of the people. There never has been a shortage of political wisdom, and good common sense, in Shoshone County. The people deserve much better than what the commission and the courts gave them.
It hasn’t always been this way. Over the years, the Silver Valley was well represented by the likes of Watson, Marti Calabretta and the late Mary Lou Shepherd — all of whom were conservative-minded Democrats. Former Sen. Joyce Broadsword, a Republican from Sandpoint, provided able representation just a few years ago.
Silver Valley officials have nothing against the three representatives in District 7 — only the far-away distance they live from Shoshone County.
“I’ve been doing this job for a long time, and I know better than to criticize others in public office,” says Kellogg Mayor Mac Pooler. “But even phone calls would help. We don’t hear from these people.”
Crabtree says it’s not easy from his end. In Grangeville, a trip to a grocery or hardware store could take a couple of hours — depending on who he happens to run into. He says that’s part of what he likes about serving in a citizen’s legislature. He cannot form similar relationships with constituents in the Silver Valley.
“We don’t have travel expenses, so it comes out of our campaigns, or out of our pockets,” Crabtree said. “Taking a trip there burns two days.”
Having at least one representative from the Silver Valley would be nice, but elections in District 7 are won in Idaho County, not Shoshone.
“People in Idaho County are pretty protective of their position,” said John Cantamessa, a former Shoshone County Commissioner who ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate in 2012.
Former Rep. Shannon McMillan of Silverton, who served from 2012-16, stayed in office largely because she blended well politically with Paul Shepherd and former Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, two conservative stalwarts. But she was not viewed as an active representative for her home county.
Wallace School Supt. Bob Ranells says he’s no fan of the legislative district lines. But he and his counterparts, Woody Woodford of Kellogg and Leslie Wells of Mullan, have made the best of a bad situation. The superintendents also have moral support from Sen. Bob Nonini of Coeur d’Alene, a Wallace High School graduate. They have weekly conference calls with Nonini during the legislative session and regular contact with Crabtree, Shepherd and Giddings.
“We didn’t want to wait for them to initiate contact, so we went to them. We knew we needed to build relationships with whomever serves in those positions in the Legislature,” Ranells said. “The relationship-building is so critical to what we do in education.”
Give Ranells and his fellow superintendents an “A” for making the best of a sorry situation. But the redistricting plan, which was supposed to provide “equal representation” for all Idahoans, gets a big fat “F.”
It’s a joke on the Silver Valley, but nobody there is laughing.
Chuck Malloy, a long-time Idaho journalist, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org