The once-in-generation leadership of Shawn Keough

The once-in-generation leadership of Shawn Keough
Caleb Walsh illustration

For the first time in over 20 years, the Idaho Legislature met earlier this year without Sen. Shawn Keough. Keough is the longest-serving female state senator in Idaho history. After decades of service, she declined to run for re-election this year and was succeeded by Jim Woodward, who won with her endorsement.

Keough is a pragmatic conservative, grounded in fiscal realities more than ideology. She is honest, hardworking and independent — an embodiment of the values Idaho politicians tend to tout but too often fail to live up to.

All of this adds up to Keough being a once-in-a-generation leader. Unlike the archetype of such figures, Keough's skills are not oratorical in nature. Rather than relying on mere rhetoric, Keough built her legislative legacy on a combination of empathy, deep knowledge of the state's budget and pure force of will.

Her record is impressive. To pick just a couple from dozens of examples, Keough led significant investments in infrastructure and education, including North Idaho College and its expansion into Bonner and Boundary counties. During the "Great Recession," she perhaps shined the brightest — ensuring cuts were carefully made and protecting essential services, especially for children.

Beyond her successes, Keough stands out for her fearlessness. While more interested in getting it right than appearing righteous when she saw Idahoans being mistreated, she stood up with them regardless of the odds.

Last year, this meant standing up for women by opposing draconian legislation requiring women seeking abortions to be quizzed by their doctors, with all the information being reported publicly to the state. Before that, she supported "Add the Words" human rights legislation to protect all Idahoans from discrimination based on their sexual orientation and gender expression. She didn't win either fight, but has set the stage for future lawmakers to follow and right these wrongs.

As a plain-spoken, common-sense conservative, Keough consistently stood up for the values of individual liberty in the context of strong communities, where no one is left behind.

Her constituents rewarded her for it, as she impressively defeated right-wing challengers in primary after primary. After one such victory, her opponent remarked that "she was more popular than Jesus" with her North Idaho constituency.

That might be taking it a bit far, but Keough's connection to the people of Bonner and Boundary counties does indeed run deep. They are her base.

For Keough, this always seemed to mean more than simply that they were the core support behind her political power. Instead, the people she represented were the foundation of her approach. Their well-being was both her goal and her motivation. Unlike modern ideologues, she wasn't fighting for some abstract ideas, but the very real people she knew back home.

Earlier in her life, Keough tended bar in the then-rougher logging town of Sandpoint. It's hard not to see the skills she perhaps developed there in her political career as she tended to her constituents.

She could be a sympathetic listener, personally responding to every one of the thousands of letters sent to her during her over two decades in elected service. She also could provide tough talk about the realities of the world. Most importantly, there was never a mess that she wouldn't roll up her sleeves and fix — including if that meant having to throw a few troublemakers out.

Republicans in Idaho look likely to continue to hold majorities for years to come, but nationally the party will only survive with more representatives like Shawn Keough. Leaders who understand that fiscal responsibility shouldn't be used to hoard wealth, but instead to ensure that services get to those who need them most.

Unfortunately, Shawn Keoughs are in short supply. I've personally only met one. But for that one senator and her impact, I will always be grateful. ♦

John T. Reuter, a former Sandpoint City Councilman, has been active in protecting the environment, expanding LGBT rights and Idaho's GOP politics.

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About The Author

John T. Reuter

John T. Reuter, a former Sandpoint City Councilman, studied at the College of Idaho and currently resides in Seattle. He has been active in protecting the environment, expanding LGBT rights and Idaho's Republican Party politics.