It was not so long ago that Idahoans sent with their congressional delegation a young Democratic congressmen. In fact, at one time, from 1990 to 1992, Idaho sent two Democratic congressmen to represent them in the United States House of Representatives. That young congressman, forty-five when first elected, was Richard Stallings.
Randy Stapilus, writing for Ridenbaugh Press and no stranger to the career of Congressman Stallings, in addressing the question of whether Congressman-elect Walt Minnick will be a one term congressman, writes:
"...any anticipation Minnick will be a pushover would be misplaced. When Democrat Richard Stallings defeated Republican incumbent George Hansen in 1984 (just after Hansen’s felony convictions), a long line of Idaho Republicans figured he’d be easy pickings in 1986. Stallings went on to win that year decisively, and twice more after that in landslides. Could as easily be that Minnick is in this seat for a spell."Stapilus notes two things that are of high importance in the equation that is keeping a Democratic congressman in office: Stallings was elected under circumstances that may have been the ultimate factor in the 1984 election and Idaho Republicans have the most to lose in situations where their overconfidence misjudges their opponent. To this day, Richard Stallings contends that his narrow victory, fewer than seventy votes the night of the election and fewer than two hundred votes when all was said and done, would not have been possible had his opponent not been afflicted with four felony convictions. After all, Stallings had lost to Hansen in 1982, just as future congressman and fellow Democrat Larry LaRocco had. Stallings' election was about timing.
Last week's election of Walt Minnick in Idaho's 1st Congressional District does offer some similarities to the initial election of Richard Stallings. Idahoans were largely disappointed, if not annoyed, with the antics of Congressman Bill Sali. Sali's voting record has been a study in paradoxes. And there has been no shortage in the ink supply used to expose the extreme personality of Bill Sali. Certainly these factors have fueled a Minnick victory, just as the continuing scheming and deceitful political maneuvers that brought down George Hansen secured a Stallings win.
Keep in mind that the demographics and general political make-up of 1st CD voters is a study in contrasts when compared to the make-up of the 2nd CD.
Nonetheless, the more obvious similarities between Stallings and Minnick may not tell us anything about Minnick's chances of holding onto the congressional seat after a first term. On his site, Adam Graham analyzes the view of Randy Stapilus, the notion of "pulling a Stallings" (a reference I find quite funny), and points out where he feels Stallings was invulnerable:
Richard Stallings was not the most powerful Democrat in Idaho. Democrats were in the middle of dominating the Governorship for 24 years when Stallings arrived. There’s less machinery and less power to help Minnick fend off a challenge. ...As a Pro-Life Democrat, Stallings was invulnerable to traditional Republican attacks on the abortion issue.Graham goes on to point out that Stallings did not win in a Democratic year as Minnick quite obviously has.
Stallings was not invulnerable to the disappointment and irritation of 2nd Congressional District residents. His opposition to President Reagan and the aid to the Contras in Nicaragua spawned many an angry constituent letter. His vote against a congressional pay raise angered voters of every political persuasion. Note that his vote was against giving himself a raise and this vote took place prior to the 1992 constitutional amendment that addressed the timing of pay raises voted on by members of congress.
On the abortion issue, as Adam Graham noted, Stallings' pro-life stance was well-known by Idaho voters. Although, his position was rooted in his religious beliefs over his political beliefs, Stallings was often greeted by "believers" on both side of the argument that found themselves at odds with his position. In fact, Stallings was at times on the wrong side of the issue for party loyalists and the Idaho Democratic Party had to take his position into account when drafting their party platform. His position on abortion did not make him invulnerable to attacks from the left or right. He was often torn between the two sides of this argument, an argument that Randy Stapilus once pointed out as being less significant then than it is now, no better example comes to mind than his defense of Governor Andrus over Idaho House Bill 625. Perhaps the boldest anti-abortion bill to be voted on in any Statehouse at the time, the Idaho House and Senate passed this piece of legislation that was then painstakingly vetoed by Governor Andrus. Voters were outraged by what they perceived to be leftist undertakings in the Governor's office and on the other side of the coin some pro-life voters were concerned with particularly extreme language in the legislation.
No side was satisfied, though both sides were quick on the attack. Congressman Stallings, in a show of party loyalty and an understanding that this law could potentially be challenged clear to the United States Supreme Court, defended the veto of Governor Andrus at a high cost. His office was flooded by correspondence from irate Idaho voters throughout the ordeal.
Minnick will neither encounter the struggles of being a fairly conservative Democrat in Washington, D.C. with a fairly liberal governor in Boise, nor will he find himself at odds with the party in power in Washington, D.C.
Will Walt Minnick "pull a Stallings"? His success as a congressman will have a lot to do with the early successes or failures of the Obama administration, as unequivocal notion recently pointed out, but more than the circumstances in the nation's capital, Minnick's success as well as hope for re-election will come down to what kind of constituent service base he builds.
The Democrats that Idahoans have sent to Washington, D.C. in the past forty years have been Democrats that understood one very necessary component of representing their state--strong constituent support and service (i.e. casework). Following the lead of Frank Church, the only Democratic U.S. Senator to be re-elected in this state, both Congressmen Richard Stallings and Larry LaRocco offered superb constituent service to Idahoans struggling with the red tape of bureaucracy. As average Idahoans and Americans struggle in this time of a poor economy, national disdain for our leadership, and wars in two theaters, the future success or failure of Walt Minnick may have less to do with how he legislates and everything to do with how he and his staff respond to the requests for help from 1st CD residents.
Update: Randy Stapilus has an interview with Walt Minnick posted here. It appears that Walt Minnick is well aware of what he must do as Idaho's next congressman.
(Image credits: Senator Church, Frank Church Papers, image available through Boise State University; Congressman Richard Stallings, Stallings Collection, Idaho State University, and the Pocatello City Council; and, Congressman-elect Walt Minnick, waltforcongress.com.)