BOISE — There once was a time when Democrats had power — real power — in Idaho. That time was not so long ago. For years until 1960, Idaho Democrats controlled the Legislature. From 1971 to 1995, Idaho had Democratic governors. The last great year for the Idaho Democratic Party was 1991 when the Senate was split 21-21. The House had 56 Republicans and 28 Democrats. In those days, the two parties were forced to talk and work together on issues.
“When we had the tied Senate, almost all legislation was based on compromise. I think it was to the benefit of education and to the benefit of the people. And I think that’s the way politics should be. It shouldn’t be that just because you’re in power, you power through. What you (should) do is try to represent everybody. And that requires compromise on the big issues. It just doesn’t happen anymore,” said Bruce Newcomb, a Republican who served for eight years as Idaho House speaker.
But the Idaho Democratic Party’s newest chairman hopes those days may soon be here again. Fred Cornforth was selected in March by the state central committee for the party’s highest position. He was able to convince the committee that he has big plans. And maybe, just maybe, he can make them happen.
When pushed for details, Cornforth’s grand plan doesn’t sound overly complicated.
“It’s not romantic. It’s not from a super-secret playbook. It’s not a code you read with a magnifying glass from a box of Cracker Jacks. It’s not ‘Oh, Tom Cruise just texted me, and we’ve got the clue now to turn Idaho blue.’ It really has to do with just sitting down and talking to people. Listening to them and asking questions,” Cornforth said.
But he’s taking the task seriously. Cornforth has dubbed 2021 “The Year of 10,000 Conversations,” a term he’s borrowed from West Virginia Democrats. He wants the Idaho Democratic Party to begin talking to anyone and everyone.
“It’s about starting at the most base level; getting as close as we can to the voters. … It’s a lot of phone calls. It’s door knocking. It’s Zoom calls. It’s lunches, breakfasts, those kinds of things,” Cornforth said. “Being available to talk is probably the most powerful thing. I’m probably going to be doing a lot of listening.”
This summer Cornforth will tour the state doing just that: holding events in towns across Idaho to have conversations with voters. Pat Tucker, chairwoman of the Bonneville County Democrats, said that will include a big Idaho Falls event.
Part of the intention of those conversations will be to identify party leaders and potential future candidates.
“In those conversations, we’ll be looking for people who are more moderate who can see the issues with great clarity, that don’t get caught up in all the rhetoric or words, that are action-oriented. We’ll be trying to find them,” Cornforth said.
The new intensity he hopes to bring will include eastern Idaho.
“We are planning to work very intensely in our neighborhood to get our precinct captains in place, to get those precinct captains responsive to our neighborhoods. We are using efforts to get underrepresented populations registered to vote. Well be doing that more intensely,” Tucker said.
Another reason for talking to people is to raise money and identify donors. The Idaho Democrat Party has already raised around 30% more donations than it did the previous year. That funding will go to staff and campaigns. The party has long been understaffed with everybody “trying to ride nine bicycles,” according to Cornforth.
“We will have an increased level of support from the Idaho Democratic Party. From that standpoint, it is a shift. Fred is doing a really good job with fundraising so that he can support the various regions in Idaho,” Tucker said.
Tucker has been assured she’ll be seeing an increase in funding from the state party to assist with local efforts, which will include a new field captain for the Idaho Falls area.
“The future of the party is brighter than we’ve seen in several years. … Fred has promised to help us turn the Idaho Legislature blue. We hope to do that at some point. No one knows when we can, but we need to make incremental strides, and we think 2022 is a year where we will begin to see voters changing,” Tucker said.
Another reason many Democrats are hopeful for change is the most recent legislative session. It’s been a particularly disastrous year; full of in-fighting, COVID-19 outbreaks, debates on unexpected topics like critical race theory and annexing part of Oregon, holding budgets hostage and, most recently, an ethics investigation into the alleged rape of a 19-year-old intern by a Republican representative.
“I’ve heard it described everywhere as the worst session in history. (Republicans) really did not put a good face forward on why this state should remain in supermajority hands,” House Majority leader Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, said.
Some Republicans too have been left shaking their heads over the happenings in the Capitol Building the past several months.
“I probably shouldn’t say anything, but I’m more critical of the Republican Party than I am of the Democrat Party at this point,” Newcomb said. “It seems to me like the Republican Party has moved to far-right extremes. They’re talking about cancel culture and racial education, and (the Republican) Party, it’s just gone off to a place it never used to be.”
Democratic leaders say the far-right wing of Idaho’s Republican party does not represent the majority of Idahoans. They hope there will be a pendulum effect that will convince more moderate Republicans to turn to the Democratic Party. Soon, they hope, the balance will begin to swing their way.
Rubel believes the Idaho Democratic Party correlates more with the policy interests of most Idahoans than their elected Republican legislators do.
“When you look at what’s happening this session, we have a record surplus. We have more than $600 million in surplus. We have another $600 million in the rainy day funds. We’re receiving billions in federal funds. And we have a Legislature that is still leaving us with the worst-funded schools in America, that is refusing to even accept ‘free money’ from federal dollars for (pre-school). They are cutting funding to universities. They are refusing to even consider property tax bills,” Rubel said. “On all of the issues that are important to the people of Idaho, it’s actually the Idaho Democrats who want to deliver on those items.”
The party is also wary of that pendulum. All are careful to ensure they don’t come across as swinging too far to the left. The Idaho Democratic Party, insists Rubel, should not be confused with the National Democratic Party.
“I’m really excited about the prospects of the Democratic Party going forward,” said. “We now have leadership in place that is really interested in getting our message out and conveying that we’re a fairly centrist bunch who are interested in good governance. We are not interested in huge ideological battles and culture wars.”
The issues that Idaho Democratic Party leaders continually bring up include more education funding, higher salaries for teachers, property taxes, better roads, the state worker shortage, environmental issues and health care.
“We’re not interested in screaming all day every day about guns and abortion,” Rubel said.
This moderate Democratic approach is especially evident when talking with the new chairman. Cornforth’s biggest focus is on equal opportunity. He’s got roots in eastern Idaho. His father’s side of the family is four generations deep in Aberdeen and, though his family moved to Boise soon after, he was born in Blackfoot.
Growing up most of his life with a single mother, his family was on food stamps. He never received dental care until the age of 22 when he needed emergency operations done to prevent him from losing most of his teeth. A religious man, Cornforth spent years as a pastor and still considers himself an “active member of the Cloverdale Adventist church in Boise.” He has since become a successful businessman and real estate developer. He owns Community Development Incorporated, “a private nonprofit organization specializing in real estate and community development.”
Cornforth said he wants to see Idaho return to a place where everyone can succeed, no matter their background. His great-grandfather was a potato farmer in eastern Idaho. His great-great-grandfather on the other side had the first lumber mill in Idaho near Boise’s Barber Park. They were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Days Saints and the Catholic Church.
“Both of them were groups that were put down by others, discriminated against. And if you were Irish, that made things even worse. But somehow Idaho provided an environment where everybody was able to be engaged and get what they wanted. I think at the base of what Idaho wants is for individuals to be self-directive. And you want that person to be educated. You want them to be thoughtful,” Cornforth said.
He said there’s a “misunderstanding about what Democrats stand for.”
“Everybody should have equal access to education. Everybody should have the ability to start their own companies or (get the job) they want. Everybody should have equal access to education. Everybody should be able to buy a home. Everybody should have health care. Everybody should have equal access to our public lands. That’s what Idaho is about,” Cornforth said.
And that, according to Cornforth, is also what Democrats are about.
Inside the Capitol
Yet for anyone who’s spent time at the Capitol this legislative session, Cornforth’s sentiments can come across as idealistic; overly optimistic at best.
When Pocatello’s Sen. Mark Nye, in his seventh year at the Legislature, decided to move from the House of Representatives to instead run as a senator, it was not easy to find a Democrat willing to run for his place in the House.
“I went to 31 people before finding one who would step up,” Nye said. “There’s reluctance to put yourself out there and be criticized.”
Newcomb has seen the same thing among moderate Republicans who he’d like to see run.
“Politics is so ugly right now. Decent people don’t want to subject themselves to the angst that comes with it,” Newcomb said.
Sen. David Nelson, D-Moscow, agreed it’s not easy being a Democrat in a Republican supermajority state. Bills brought forward by those in his party are often denied a hearing. On the floor, he’s often left with the unenviable task of debating a bill he knows will come down to a party-line vote. But Nelson thinks it’s important that there are Democrats to do it anyway.
”We feel pretty passionate that the public, and our Republican colleagues have to hear the other side on what we’re pushing for. We can’t just pass something bad and silently oppose it,” Nelson said.
It’s that difficulty finding leadership that leads Newcomb to be skeptical about the Democratic Party’s ability to regain power in any sort of meaningful way, though he doesn’t think it’s impossible.
“I think the Democrat Party has lost any ability to affect a balance. Hopefully, there will be some corrections in the future. The central committees of the Republican Party have moved to the far, far right,” Newcomb said. “But moving the needle from the far right to the center is a difficult process and then moving it to where it goes farther to pick up the Democrats is a bigger challenge in this state. I don’t see anyone in leadership who could bring about the change needed.”
But, with new leadership and big plans, most within the Idaho Democratic Party are hopeful. Even those like Nye, who have spent years in the Legislature, think there’s a chance.
“Things go back and forth in our country and in our state,” Nye said. “... It’s a pendulum. Pendulums always swing.”