Printed on: March 24, 2013

Legislature's new center of gravity: Bedke's reception room

By Dan Popkey
Idaho Statesman

BOISE -- With a little redecorating, a promise of openness and a new assistant, House Speaker Scott Bedke has transformed a 13-by-23 space into the Capitol's most productive venue.

The speaker's outer office always has played a vital gatekeeper's role. But after winning a close race for speaker in December, Bedke lowered the gate and started playing host, inviting lawmakers, lobbyists, agency heads, reporters and ordinary citizens to join him in his Statehouse salon.

"This room is inviting; it puts people at ease," said Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Idaho Falls. "People feel comfortable coming here to get things done. It's a change of culture."

Bedke, R-Oakley, added armchairs, a love seat, dishes of M&Ms candy, and smoked almonds, and made a habit of retreating into his inner office only when necessary.

The hallway door is kept open wide, a change in practice.

Consequently, folks stop to say good morning and good night; plan dinners; sign get-well and condolence cards; talk about children, grandchildren and pets; search for missing colleagues, and, most importantly, jawbone legislation.

Last week, Bedke chatted with Idaho Parks and Recreation Director Nancy Merrill about House Bill 279, which amends the law on registration of boats, snowmobiles and off-road vehicles.

Merrill said the bill doesn't accomplish what proponents want -- earmarking more money for trails and less for administrative costs. She said her arguments hadn't persuaded the House Transportation Committee.

"They still grabbed the bit in their teeth and ran," Bedke said.

Earlier this month, after an hourlong joint meeting with Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill and the Idaho Press Club, Bedke put out the welcome mat.

"If you have any other questions, don't hesitate to stop by the office -- my office, at least -- and I'll try to clarify some of these things," he said.

Hill, R-Rexburg, said the room is easily accessible but has a small waiting area. He joked about Bedke's new brand of openness.

"I'll reiterate that: Don't hesitate to stop by his office!" Hill said.

The first choice

Two weeks after taking over as speaker, Bedke met with the woman he wanted as his assistant, MaryLou Molitor, who spent 16 years as the Business Committee secretary.

Molitor, 63, raised four children and worked as a teacher, editor and administrative assistant before coming to the Legislature in 1996.

But she barely knew Bedke, whom she found standoffish.

For the interview, she brought her husband, Bill, a certified financial planner.

Bedke brought his wife, Sarah.

"I told him I was terrified," Molitor said, then asked, "Isn't there somebody else you can hire?"

"Yes, but you're my first choice," Bedke replied.

Early in the session, Bedke sat in the love seat next to Molitor's desk, looking at a room filled with two representatives, a senator and three lobbyists in deep conversation.

"See this?" Bedke said. "We've accomplished what we set out to do."

The welcome magnet Molitor's daughter, Teresa, is a lobbyist for urban renewal agencies, an anti-wind energy group, a canal company and RAI Services, formerly Reynolds Tobacco. She's also an amateur decorator and offered to help rearrange the office, lending paintings, books and a lamp, searching for surplus House furniture and shopping for a new rug.

"You can design a room to encourage people to sit in it," Teresa Molitor said. "If things are too formal, people don't feel comfortable."

The new rug cost $199 at Home Fabrics -- it measures 5-by-8, was machine-made in Turkey and its base color is black. "It defines the sitting area," Teresa Molitor said. "Black grounds people."

Said MaryLou Molitor: "This is like the speaker's living room."

Well, Bedke and his assistant's living room.

Molitor added plants and her tongue-in-cheek "MaryLou's Rules of Procedure" sign from the Business Committee:

"State your business. Avoid eye contact. Leave quietly ... and no one will get hurt."

Sitting on a cabinet is her letter-carrier father's homemade "We're-All-Nuts -Here!" desk ornament, featuring eight varieties of nuts with googly eyes (the peanut is one-eyed, no eye patch).

Molitor's sense of humor is near the surface. To a visitor lingering next to a withered flowering plant, she deadpans, "That was fine this morning."

Big wigs, guns & ideas

Molitor is a whiz with names but imperfect.

When Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's chief of staff, David Hensley, came to ask that Bedke phone him, she hadn't yet met him.

"I'd be happy to do that if you'll tell me who you are," she said.

Top officials frequent the salon. In recent days, visitors included Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, who eats enough M&Ms that he refills the jars; Transportation Director Brian Ness, with a job candidate in tow; and Otter budget chief Jani Revier, who was searching for Parks Director Merrill.

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said the new gathering place reflects real change: "It's a manifestation of a different style and a good spot to bump ideas off each other."

The man Bedke deposed, former Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, isn't surprised by the coffee-klatsch atmosphere.

"That's a difference in personality," Denney said.

Denney complimented Bedke's work presiding over seven hours of debate on the health exchange.

"All that time I was thinking, 'God, I'm glad he's up there,'" he said.