Bair and Johnson: Statists of the Week

The last thing voters in Bingham County had to say to Julie Van Orden was that they didn’t want her to represent them in the Idaho Legislature. That was 2018, when the electors of District 31 ousted the liberal Republican in favor of a more conservative voice, Julianne Young. 

But now, Van Orden is back, and this time, she’s a senator, having received zero votes from the district constituents.

This is happening because Sen. Steve Bair has decided he won’t serve the remainder of his term, but he’s also not resigning from office. Instead, he’s allowing a substitute, Van Orden, to take his place in the Legislature. 

Similarly, Sen. Dan Johnson, a Lewiston liberal Republican who recently won the mayor’s race in that town, has decided he, too, will not resign his legislative seat and will appoint Robert Blair as his replacement. 

That’s not how any of this works. At least, that’s not how it’s supposed to work. That’s why Sens.  Steve Bair and Dan Johnson are this week’s Statists of the Week. 

If a legislator has no intent to return to Boise — as is the case with Bair and Johnson — their seats should be declared open. The local GOP central committee should be afforded the chance to send three names to the governor from which he would name a replacement. Why they’re doing it this way is anyone’s guess, but it’s probably because the GOP establishment is worried that the local Republican central committee will mount an effort to get the governor to appoint a conservative to the seats. 

This is what passes for normal in Idaho politics and at the statehouse, and it’s been like this for a long time. A decade ago, Edgar Malepeai, a Democrat state senator from Pocatello, skipped out the bulk of his last two terms in office to take care of his ailing wife. Malepeai appointed replacements to serve in his stead, making it confusing for constituents who couldn’t be certain who was representing their interests at the Capitol. 

More commonly, legislators appoint substitutes to cast votes on their behalf for days or weeks, and those substitutes are given the same rights and responsibilities as lawmakers who were actually elected to office. 

In 2003, as the legislative session dragged on into May, making it the longest session in the state’s history. Rep. Tom Trail of Moscow appointed former Rep. Gary Young to fill in. Young was a conservative, and rose to his feet to debate against then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne’s proposed sales tax increase. “My constituents did not send me to Boise to raise taxes,” Young famously told the House. It was memorable because in 2002, voters sent Young packing. They hadn’t sent him to Boise at all, yet there he was, voting on stuff. 

A friend of mine once called this strange process “the legislator as a fungible commodity,” replaceable at the drop of a hat, like Dick York in “Bewitched.” Maybe you’ll notice, maybe you won’t. 

But this process diminishes accountability. It denies voters and the elected remembers of the political party an opportunity to select the men and women who will truly represent them during a legislative session. It’s a convenient way to give friends and supporters a chance to serve as a senator or representative for days, weeks, or months — a rare gift indeed. 

And that’s why Steve Bair and Dan Johnson are our statists of the week. Who should be next week’s winner? Drop me a line: and let me know your thoughts. 

One Reply to “Bair and Johnson: Statists of the Week”

  1. Mr. Johnson and Mr. Bair apparently have no intention of returning to the Senate to complete the next legislative session as they were elected to do. The proper and honorable course of action is to appoint new senators via an established process. Cherry picking on-again, off-again temps to “sit in” does an injustice to the constituencies of both men. The voters deserve consistency and reliability in the sense of knowing who their senators are. Picking a friend or associate to stand in for a limited time is fine. Using this process for a known full term is abusive to the voting public. And there is no need for such an unwanted approach.

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