We pride ourselves, as Idahoans, on having a citizen Legislature and in having many elected municipal offices that are considered part-time. And, indeed, it is a great thing that there are various chances to serve our republic at the local and state levels.
Unfortunately, we are approaching a crossroads in the way we are represented. When I talk to people about running for office, many wonderful, qualified and thoughtful people express dismay at the thought of making that effort.
However, it’s not because they aren’t willing to work hard or because they don’t want to make a positive difference in our great state. Instead, the main reasons I get have to do with some of the very challenges that come with the way our system is set up:
Who can afford to take three months off their job in the winter to go to Boise?
What percentage of citizens in a place like Idaho Falls — where nearly half of residents qualify as asset-limited, income-constrained, employed — can afford to spend thousands of dollars running for office?
Who wants to go through the ugliness that has infected our local politics in recent years?
Anyone who wants to run for office, specifically state Legislature, has to be prepared to put in a great deal of time and money — and they might not even be able to keep their current job. Much depends on whether your employer will let you take time off to run for office, and then, if you win, serve. The stipend state legislators receive isn’t enough for most citizens to be able to afford to not have another job.
Unfortunately, the timing of the session makes it difficult for teachers and many others to serve in the Legislature. While it’s been done, and done successfully, those success stories are few and far between, and there’s usually some other factor involved, like a working spouse or some other support or source of income, to help.
On top of that, any candidate can expect to be attacked ruthlessly, sometimes with outright lies and true malice. We’ve seen it in non-partisan races, like the most recent Idaho Falls mayoral race. It takes a strong stomach and a thick skin to walk into that, knowing that you will be attacked, lied about and that your family will have to be dragged along with you.
Running for office and serving at the city or state level is a privilege, and it’s one that’s out of reach for many of our citizens. It wouldn’t be so bad if our state legislators actually represented us, rather than largely representing their own interests and gaslighting the voters.
As citizens, we all need to take a step back and ask ourselves how we got here and what we can do to make positive change. I don’t have the answer by myself, but working together as Idahoans, I think we can find it