Printed on: January 08, 2013

Pioneer roots are central to new Idaho House speaker

By Dan Popkey
Idaho Statesman

When Scott Bedke looks out his kitchen window, he sees exactly where he came from.

Seven miles east of his brick home in Oakley is a grassy basin that, for a time, was known as "Bedke Springs."

It was named for Frank Carl Bedke, among the first settlers in 1878.

Steeped in history, Oakley has an opera house, Victorian homes and threads of Mormon royalty that include Mitt Romney's father, George, who spent part of his youth in the Cassia County farm town.

"There were other prominent founding families," Oakley Museum volunteer Marge Woodhouse said. "But the Bedkes stayed."

Three generations later, Bedke and his brother, Eric, run 1,300 cow-calf pairs on 130,000 acres of federal grazing allotments in Idaho and Nevada, an operation among the largest 2 percent in the U.S.

"The Bedkes have been here the whole time," Sarah Bedke said.

Bedke's wife of 32 years made the comment as the couple prepared breakfast together last month, shortly after Bedke became Idaho's speaker of the House.

He defeated three-term speaker Lawerence Denney in the 57-member Republican caucus, becoming the first speaker in memory to unseat an incumbent.

Bedke credits his heritage and parental high expectations.

"There's a legacy of industry, of hard work, of just making it happen," he said. "It's important to me that I'm in the fourth generation and that I don't do anything to wreck the good name."

Being speaker means more time away, but Bedke intends to stay grounded.

"Sarah and I really enjoy our time in Boise," he said, "but you know every person here. There is no place like home."

Leaving Prussia

At age 15, Frank Carl Bedke left behind the family flour mill in Prussia in 1861.

A sailor for five years, he also worked as a lumberman and miner across the West. He landed in Oakley in 1878.

Four years later, he married a woman half his age, Polly McIntosh; the couple had 13 children. They lived through drought, a winter that killed all but three of the cattle, cricket infestations and a shooting war between cattlemen and sheepmen.

Called Frank Carl, the patriarch expanded his holdings and was active in civic affairs, including education and music.

"They were achievers," Woodhouse said.

Happy at home

Speaker Bedke's father, "Ray C," couldn't wait to get home after two years of stateside Army service during the Korean War.

"He was one of the original old-time cowboys," said Merv May, co-owner of the Burley Livestock Auction where the Bedkes sell cattle. "He was a hard-working old boy."

The Bedke children were raised Mormon. Scott served a two-year mission in Italy, reads LDS scholar James Talmadge and teaches Sunday school to adults. But he speaks of his faith only when asked.

"I think it's best not practiced on your sleeve," said the 54-year-old Bedke, who graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in finance.

A ranch life

Ray C and his wife, Nedra, married in 1952. Ray C died in 1998, at age 67. Nedra, now 80, lives across the road from her oldest son in the brick house where she raised her kids. She's kept the ranch books for more than 50 years and still teaches 19 piano students.

"The secret in raising kids is that they know how to work and where the money comes from," Nedra Bedke said. "When they go off into their own lives, they still know how to work. I think that's why they're all successful."

Bedke might have been a better student had he not felt the tug of the ranch. He contrasts his experience with that of a soldier whose commander burns the ships upon landing in foreign territory.

"He could sail home if he wanted to," said Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, another fourth-generation rancher who sells breeding bulls to Bedke.

"A lot of people don't fully appreciate where they came from in today's mobile, hectic lifestyle," said Brackett, who like Bedke was a president of the Idaho Cattle Association. "It grounds you, furnishes core principles. Otherwise, it's easy to get whip-sawed. If you have those core values, then people might not agree with you, but they'll respect you."

The 'idiot cowboy'

Bedke said he has three avocations: gardening, golf and the Legislature. He's also a wisecracker.

On his first day in the Legislature -- he was appointed to fill a vacancy just before the opening of the 2001 session -- Bedke's wit got the better of him. The last person to speak in the Education Committee, he'd grown weary of what he considered unwarranted trashing of the K-12 system that had produced him and most of his colleagues.

"So, I introduced myself as a 'survivor' of the public school system, in a smart-aleck way," Bedke said. "I was immediately stereotyped: 'Who is this idiot cowboy you've sent us?' "

The Idaho Education Association unsuccessfully targeted him for defeat in 2002 and 2004. He's still torqued about the incident, which prompted a 20-minute soliloquy in the cab of his pickup.

"I am a lot of things, but anti-education is not one of them," Bedke said. "No one has led their life, or tried to influence the lives of their kids, in a more pro-education way than I have mine."

At the time, Bedke responded by making himself an expert on No Child Left Behind, tangling with the Bush administration over Idaho's tweaking of the law and leading the budget committee's move to split the K-12 budget into five parts.

One bad experience didn't blunt his humor.

"It's what I call the Bedke twinkle," said former Speaker Bruce Newcomb, a close friend who's also from Cassia County. "He's one of the brightest guys around, very compassionate and complex. In the back of his mind, he's got a puzzle and he's trying to figure out the solution."

Sending a message

Newcomb said Bedke signaled a major shift in House workings by appointing Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, known as "the Speaker's committee." Under Denney, Anderson lost his vice chairmanship after complaining about the ethical lapses of tax-dodging former Rep. Phil Hart.

"What does that say? There will be none of this crap going on," Newcomb said. "He's in charge."

During six years as assistant majority leader, Bedke was sometimes viewed suspiciously for socializing too often with senators, including Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, and Finance Committee Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. He even got the demeaning moniker, "the 36th Senator."

"Scott's his own man," Davis said. "Because of his skills, he's been able to influence the Senate to embrace things that were important to the House."

Bedke said he will reform House practices, including establishing a standing Ethics Committee.

Most important, he said, is an inclusive culture where all viewpoints are heard.

"I believe if we all feel comfortable laying our cards on the table, we'll be able to make a better hand, if you will, that is superior to any of the hands we could have made individually."