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With his district to the right of him and Pelosi to the left, Congressman Walt Minnick has walked a tightrope through his first year in office

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During a visit to Coeur d’Alene last month, Idaho Rep. Walt Minnick was still reveling in a highlight-reel moment from his first year in Congress. Just the day before, he took on the Man.

OK, the Man in this case happened to be from his own party — longtime Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank, Democratic chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. The Man, in a slightly more abstract sense, was also President Barack Obama, who had been pushing hard all fall for new financial regulations to protect consumers from predatory lending practices.

Minnick objected to splitting regulators into two agencies — creating a new one to handle consumer protections — and proposed that the government instead only tweak the existing system.

It was a showdown playing out Dec.

11 on C-SPAN. And there was Minnick — the freshman, an independent-minded Westerner and member of the Blue Dog Coalition, the rare Democrat ever to be elected to Congress from Idaho — gesturing from the podium in a blue blazer and vividly striped tie.

“I don’t often disagree with my committee chair,” Minnick was saying in Coeur d’Alene, “but yesterday I was debating him on the floor of the House!” Minnick’s eyes were still sparkling.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, it was a terribly wonky debate, which thrills a detail-oriented businessman who has a Harvard MBA. “As a businessman, I know about derivatives because we used them,” he says.

Second, it’s an adrenaline rush for a junior member of the caucus to lead an insurrection on the House floor, which is what Minnick was doing by pitching his alternative proposal. It was defeated by five votes and only after Democratic leadership extended the vote until they got what they needed.

The moment on the House floor says a lot about Minnick, a former timber industry executive who has carved out a spot in 2009 as a maverick congressman, and as the atypical freshman with high-level business acumen.

The moment also says a lot about the state of Congress because the windup to Minnick’s floor debate — “How many times, Madam Chair, are we going to create a massive new federal bureaucracy …” — has been replayed by Republicans wanting embarrass Minnick’s own party.

The trim and affable 67-year-old shot onto the political scene in 2008 with a narrow and stunning defeat of one-term incumbent Republican Bill Sali, becoming just the second Democrat elected to Congress from Idaho’s 1st District since 1966. But in his first year, caught between Idaho and the Beltway, Minnick has found the political footing to be tricky.

GOP national leadership has made it a priority to recapture the seat and takes every opportunity to try and tie Minnick to a liberal administration.

Back in Idaho, local Democrats energized by President Obama’s message of hope and change see Minnick as so conservative he may as well be a Republican.

State Republican leaders, meanwhile, make sure to shout, “He voted for Nancy Pelosi!” every chance they get.

And in Congress, Pelosi and others in the Democratic leadership reach for the antacid as Minnick has spent his first year frequently breaking from the party line.

Indeed, he is one of four Democrats to have voted against three big bills — stimulus, cap-and-trade and heath care reform — important to the White House.

And one of those four, Rep. Parker Griffith of Alabama, isn’t even a Democrat any more, having bolted to the Republicans just a few days before Christmas.

Much was made in news coverage that Griffith’s “loyalty rating,” for votes with his party, was 84.5 percent.

Minnick’s is a shade below 68. But Minnick is proud of this. In fact, one of the very first things he tells The Inlander in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C., is: “I was rated by the Washington Post as the most independent member of Congress.”

The fact that Minnick is in the spotlight — closely watched by Democrats and Republicans alike — astonishes people who know his history. Minnick ran for office only once before — as the sacrificial challenger to the powerful Sen. Larry Craig in 1996. The pummeling was so severe that months later, on a restorative backcountry ski trip, he made a friend promise to intervene.

“He said, ‘Hey Rick, if I ever do this again, you need to chase me down and tell me I’m crazy,’” says Rick Johnson, director of the Idaho Conservation League.

What is it like, we wonder, to be in Walt Minnick’s crazy world?

A FRANK ASSESSMENT

The Inlander is a weekly newspaper in a city far from the Corridors of Power, so it was a surprise last month when a caller on the telephone — with no introduction or greeting — barks out, in an accented, gravelly voice: “Bahney Frank!” The abruptness of being on the phone with one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress sent us into a spasm of cartoon panic — “B-dee! B-dee! B-dee! B- doo!” was all we could say.

Frank, despite delivering a public smackdown of Minnick back in September on the financial reform issue, had good things to say about the Idaho freshman.

“It is unusual for a freshman,” Frank says. “He is more conservative than all but one other member of the [Financial Services Committee] … on the other hand, we think he is a more reasonable member than anybody else who has come from that district.”

Frank, like many others interviewed for this story, seemingly couldn’t help but take a poke at Bill Sali who is painted, by Democrats anyway, as a crazy man.

Minnick, Frank says, “is an unusual first-termer coming in with his age and prior experience. He is a businessman, and he brings a lot to our discussion and we appreciate that. He understands the need for regulation.”

(Minnick did vote for the reform.)

But does Minnick’s independence cause any heartburn?

“First, he is a very respectful guy,” Frank says. “He does not impute bad motives to people he disagrees with and, second, your primary obligation is to represent your district and we appreciate that his district is more conservative.”

Pelosi, responding through an aide via e-mail, had a similar view.

“I always tell our members three things to consider when they are voting: your conscience, your constituents and the Constitution. Congressman Minnick has brought new thinking to Washington. His intellect and integrity has been invaluable to the Congress as he serves as an independent voice for his constituents.”

In truth, Pelosi, and even the White House, has leaned on Minnick pretty hard, says longtime friend Rick Johnson.

“Can you imagine the lobbying pressure he gets? He’s had the president call him. He’s had the chief of staff [Rahm Emmanuel] call him,” Johnson says. “He was being leaned on quite heavily on the last stimulus bill and for his health care vote.”

Minnick himself mentions some blunt conversations with Pelosi as she tries to line up votes. But the speaker, he says, handles his dissent professionally and without rancor.

On his challenge to the financial reform, Minnick notes, “[House Majority Leader] Steny Hoyer spoke against my bill, then he came up and put his arm around me. And Barney and I, after he beat me, shook hands and said, ‘Next time we’ll be together.’ And we will.”

Bonhomie is one thing, but Minnick is also keenly aware of the influence he gains from his unique place in the political spectrum.

“Having a reputation of being independent and not necessarily taking the party position as gospel means people don’t take you for granted,” Minnick says. “And being a Blue Dog is an advantage, too, because most legislation — at least in this Congress — is done just with Democrats. We only rarely do things truly bipartisan. So conservative Democrats are the swing votes, and leadership spends a fair amount of time making sure they can attract enough Blue Dog votes to not lose bills.”

Frank makes this point, too.

He is not so upset with Minnick’s breakaways as he is with the opposition. Citing financial regulatory reforms, Frank says, “The final motion the Republicans offered on the bill would have killed every regulation. They didn’t propose alternate forms … the people making it hard to be bipartisan are Republicans.”

A MIDTERM IN REDDER SHADES OF BLUE

A senior House leadership aide, who asked to speak anonymously in order to be candid, acknowledges there is some arm-twisting of the Blue Dogs.

But, he says, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) knew what it was getting into in the 2006 midterms, when party leaders began seeking conservative Democrats who could win in Republican-dominated districts. Minnick is one of these recruits.

“I think [Minnick] reflects the legislative style and politics of the two recent classes of Democrats elected in 2006 and 2008 — that they ran on the promise they’d put their districts first and be independent,” the aide says.

“When it comes to disagreement, I think that’s a strength of the caucus. They are able to show their constituents ‘I am not a rubber stamp of the party.’ You look at the Republican caucus and it IS a rubber stamp,” he adds.

Marc Johnson, a Boise-based executive with the Gallatin Group public relations firm, wrote a Nov. 9 post on his blog, The Johnson Post, titled A Very Fine Line. Johnson, who served as press secretary and later chief of staff for another breakthrough Idaho Democrat, Gov. Cecil Andrus, muses about the shading of the 1st District: “There are never enough numbers … to elect a Democrat in Idaho …” he writes, estimating the blue party’s base at only 30 to 35 percent of voters.

Minnick treads on shifting, tricky ground, Johnson postulates, and casts risky votes, including one during the health care reform debate. On that issue, Minnick first voted against the Stupak Amendment that would cut federal funding for abortion, then voted against the reform package itself.

In that one session Minnick may have alienated Independents and Republicans who are pro-life at the same time he was alienating his district’s minority Democrats who are pro-reform.

RE-ELECTION HANDI-CAPPING

Johnson says Minnick’s defeat of Sali followed the classic formula for a Democratic breakthrough. “You only get a shot when Republicans give you an opening,” he says.

Sali was seen as a polarizing figure who alienated his own base. Despite this, Minnick only beat Sali by just over a percentage point. By contrast, John McCain tore up the 1st District with more than 61 percent of the vote.

So the first question that comes to mind is: If Sali doesn’t run (he has yet to decide), does Minnick still win against a more palatable Republican? So far two candidates — Vaughn Ward, an Iraq War veteran, and state Rep. Raul Labrador — have entered the GOP primary.

But the real skinny is that as many as seven potential challengers were courted by the National Republican Congressional Committee and declined.

One staffer, speaking on the condition his name was withheld, says one potential challenger after another declined “because Walt is a fund-raising machine. Since the last campaign ended, he has raised well over $1 million and is raising $250,000 to $300,000 every quarter.”

The Idaho Statesman’s political reporter, Dan Popkey, mentions several of the same names as the anonymous staffer.

“None of the big guns the Republicans could have arrayed against Minnick chose to run. State treasurer Ron Crane declined. Attorney General Lawrence Wasden took a pass. So you are left with bench strength,” Popkey says.

Jonathan Parker, executive director of the Idaho GOP, says he is unaware of which Republicans may have declined to take Minnick on, but does confirm Minnick’s chops as a fundraiser.

“If you put a finger on any one thing from that election is that Bill [Sali] couldn’t keep up with Minnick and the amount of money being spent,” Parker says. “He is a successful businessman who has deep ties to the business community in Idaho. He was able to self-finance to the tune of about $700,000.”

Sali, by contrast, came into the race carrying $300,000 in debt from the 2006 campaign, which was financed by the Club For Growth, Parker says. The political action committee, he adds, focuses on boosting Republicans into office, not keeping them there, so Sali, in addition to his debt, lost a significant chunk of financial support.

“I think [Minnick] can definitely be re-elected,” Popkey says. “He’s an incumbent and he’s on the Congressional Committee and he will have no trouble raising money.”

The anonymous senior leadership aide in D.C. says Minnick is in line for help from the DCCC. “We have been taking this election very seriously. We’ve been planning for a year.”

The Republican strategy will be clear, Parker says. “His first vote in Congress was for Nancy Pelosi [to be speaker]. He is a member of a party that is very unpopular in Idaho right now.”

Really? Hammering on a vote that was just a formality? What about health care reform, financial reforms, the budget?

“Minnick’s most important vote is his vote for Pelosi. I think people can connect the dots that to get rid of Pelosi it starts here in Idaho,” Parker says.

“I think [Minnick] is in a really strong position,” the senior leadership aide says. “It’s not going to be a referendum on the Obama agenda. It will be local, about who is best able to represent the district’s interests. He’s got instances to point to where he voted against the party and put the interests of the district first. I think that will be compelling.”

A SATURDAY WITH WALT

In the run-up to Christmas, Minnick spent a gloomy, cold Saturday in North Idaho. Sarah Palin had been in Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint two days earlier on her book tour and she had the big bus, the entourage and the sound bites.

Minnick was low-key. He rode shotgun in an aide’s subcompact car in a circuit that took him to a private event to help a friend in Coeur d’Alene. Then he talked to a political science class at North Idaho College (Sali spoke to the class in 2008) and met the Junior Marines who were collecting Toys for Tots at the Post Falls Wal-mart. The giant store was packed with shoppers, none of whom appeared to recognize their congressman.

Finally, Minnick made a trip to the headquarters of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe in Plummer, speaking with the tribe’s legislative aide, Helo Hancock.

The private event, at the home of Kootenai County Democratic Party chair Thom George, was a fundraiser for Coeur d’Alene city Councilman Mike Kennedy. Minnick agreed to be the lure to attract the money.

Kennedy last fall won reelection to the City Council by five votes. His opponent, instead of seeking a recount, filed suit to challenge the entire municipal election, and now everyone was hiring lawyers — hence the need for funds.

Roughly 30 people came to the George’s house and packed into the living room as Minnick and Kennedy moved near the Christmas tree.

Minnick stood with one arm folded and the other gesturing — a posture reminiscent of Ed Sullivan. And his jokes were about as funny.

“Mike was my campaign manager when I ran for the Senate in 1996 … I gotta tell ya, his five-vote margin was a lot better than what Mike got for me against Larry Craig!” Minnick deadpans.

The living room erupts in laughter. Minnick was slaughtered by the powerful Craig.

“Mike and I got to know each other well, and I did actually do him a real favor that year,” Minnick continues, building to another punch line. “He doesn’t regard all of the things I had him do as being to his advantage, but I did keep him so busy that it was the only time in the last 15 years he didn’t have another child.”

More shrieks of laughter.

Kennedy is famous for his large family. He and his wife have seven children.

As the dutiful lure, Minnick made a few more jokes, took a few questions about health care reform and other hot topics and, before he was tugged away to his next appointment, dropped a $100 bill into the Kennedy kitty.

TREE STUMPS OR MAVERICKS?

Mari Meehan, who attended the fundraiser, is an independent who was attracted to the Democratic ticket by Barack Obama in 2008, voting for the new president and Minnick, too.

She had also grown weary of the increasingly polarizing posturing among Republicans.

“Bill Sali was an embarrassment to us. But in this state, as my husband likes to say, you can run a tree stump as a Republican and get it elected,” Meehan says.

“When Minnick was leaving, I introduced myself to him and told him I was one of those dreaded Independents and — for the moment — supported him.”

Meehan embodies the tricky ground Minnick must walk to re-election.

“I was a very strong Obama supporter during the campaign but have since been very disappointed,” she says on the one hand. But on the other, Meehan says, “Right now I think [Minnick] is one of the better representatives Idaho has had in Congress in a long time. He has experience in the real world and he thinks for himself — he’s not a rubber stamp.”

There is plenty of grousing among Democrats, however, that Minnick might as well be stamped Republican because of his votes against the administration.

“I have a lot of friends who ask me. ‘What is this guy’s story? Why is he so terrible?’” says Rick Johnson of the Idaho Conservation League.

“If there are any Idaho Democrats nostalgic for the days of Bill Sali or Helen Chenoweth, they should have their heads examined if they stay home next fall, because that’s exactly what they’ll get,” says Bruce Reed.

Reed, a Coeur d’Alene native, was domestic policy advisor in the Clinton White House and presently works with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council and is pals with Rahm Emmanuel.

“Walt is a complete maverick. He is fiercely independent — which is what he told voters he would be,” Reed says. “He has a very good case to make that he did what he said he would do.”

A RED FISH IN BLUE WATERS

Frustrated Democrats are right about one thing: Minnick would make a lovely moderate Republican advocating fiscal conservatism and limited government.

Except that those kinds of Republicans don’t exist any more, Bruce Reed and others say.

Minnick grew up in a sturdy Republican family on a wheat farm near Walla Walla. His mother was a power in the county Republican leadership.

Minnick is the only freshman in Congress who can say he once worked in the Nixon White House. After graduating from Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School, Minnick was recruited by John Erlichman in the early 1970s to join the Nixon administration.

If there are any Idaho Democrats nostalgic for the days of Bill Sali or Helen Chenoweth, they should have their heads examined if they stay home next fall, because that’s exactly what they’ll get.”

Minnick was assigned to the Office of Management and Budget and help craft the language that created the Drug Enforcement Agency.

But when Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox to try and cover up the Watergate scandal, Minnick resigned. And as his party tilted further to the right and became more rigidly ideological, Minnick switched his affiliation, people who know him say.

“He once said to me his biggest challenge about becoming a Democrat was telling his mother,” Johnson says. “He is a centrist person, and he was looking to find where those centrist views are.”

Idaho wasn’t always so red, says Mary Lou Reed, Bruce Reed’s mother and a former Democratic state legislator.

“When I was in the Legislature, we were tied, 21-21, in the Senate in 1990,” she says. “By 1996 I think we were down to three Democrats in the Idaho Senate.”

Reed didn’t meet Minnick through politics so much as through environmentalism. She was helping to form the Idaho Conservation League and met Minnick, “who was a strong conservationist” despite being CEO of one of the state’s premier timber firms, Trus Joist Corp.

“He was someone who, when he was running Trus Joist, could say ‘We really shouldn’t be cutting trees in the forests of the Northwest. Fiber grows best in the South.’ This was not a position anybody else was taking,” says Reed. “He was very clear-eyed. He does not look through a narrow lens.”

Johnson says Minnick appears to have found a new beginning in Idaho after he quit the Nixon White House.

“Back in ’96, I hosted a fundraising event for Walt in my back yard,” Johnson says. It was during the campaign against Larry Craig. “He started into his stump speech, which I had heard several times, and — let me just say — he is not exactly a Williams Jennings Bryan when he starts to speak.

“But then he paused, and he looked around. And instead he started talking about what Idaho means to him.

“He talked about catching his first steelhead. He talked about his fi rst hike in the mountains. He talked about being on the Middle Fork of the Salmon 35 times. It was so genuine … I still think it is the best speech he ever gave.”

YOU (TUBE) TALKING TO ME?

Back on July 27, Minnick may have wished for some of that natural eloquence. A blogger, Mike Stark of the Huffington Post, was staking out the Capitol that day on the “birther” beat. He was intercepting elected officials to ask if they thought Obama is qualified to serve as president.

Most, including Eastern Washington’s Cathy McMorris Rodgers, offered some quick comment before breaking away. Mc- Morris Rogers quickened her pace up the Capitol steps, for instance. Others pulled out cell phones or dodged into waiting cars.

At 1:46 into the four-and-a half minute video comes Minnick, although most people miss it the first time around because he’s never identified. Wearing a gray suit, striding quickly and angling away from Stark, Minnick breaks into a run.

This is like candy for the Huffington Post. Suddenly, the Chariots of Fire theme sounds as Stark, formerly in the Marines, strides alongside Minnick saying things like, “Is this as fast as you can go?” and “You look like you are in pretty good shape … for an older guy.”

Apparently that one stings.

For the first time in the video, Minnick speaks. “I don’t appreciate guys like you. You are the scum of the Earth,” he says, elbows rocking and suit coat flapping as he runs along a D.C. sidewalk.

The surreal encounter with Stark aside, Minnick conducted himself well in his first year, people in both D.C. and Idaho say.

Even his rebellion on financial reform may come back. Pundits and other observers tracking the bill say the House’s close vote on creating the new Consumer Financial Protection Agency is a good indicator that it will fail in the Senate and thus come back for re-tooling.

This puts Minnick in a sweet spot, they predict.

“I think it’s likely that my approach — or something like it — might come to pass,” Minnick says. He disputes criticism that his “council of regulators” would gut meaningful reform and is cover for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which spent more than $2 million to lobby for a similar approach.

“The model for a new agency has considerable political appeal, but as a businessman I wanted stronger, more uniform regulation,” he says. It’s a mistake to bifurcate regulation of financial institutions — one agency to monitor fi nancial prudence and the other to watchdog consumer issues — because “there is almost no regulation that doesn’t have some impact on both the profi tability of the bank and how it treats its customers. You are putting two regulatory agencies in confl ict,” he says.

Health care reform is also coming back, and Minnick insists he’s not decided how to vote on it. His biggest priority, he says, is controlling costs and not adding to the deficit.

Maybe that makes no sense as a position staked out by a Democrat.

But then, “Running as a Democrat for Congress in Idaho is never a logical act,” his friend Rick Johnson says.

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