CHUCK MALLOY: GOP stronghold put to the test in North Idaho

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Three decades ago, Democrats running for legislative seats in Coeur d’Alene didn’t have to make this kind of appeal to the party faithful.

“I have reason to believe that Legislative District 4 is primed for Democrat victory,” wrote Cory English, who is challenging Republican Sen. Mary Souza.

A few decades ago, it was a foregone conclusion that Democrats would win legislative races in Kootenai County. The landscape is entirely different today. Republicans hold all nine legislative seats in Kootenai County, and the delegation is among the most conservative in the state. All that bodes well for Souza and other Republicans.

Souza — who sits on the budget committee and has a solid grasp of state finances — is one of the strongest members of the delegation.

English sees this election as a chance for “breaking the hold of alt-right supremacy in North Idaho.” Souza, understandably, takes exception to that battle cry. A C+ grade with the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s “freedom index” hardly qualifies her for alt-right royalty. She’s conservative, for certain, but she doesn’t shout out her ideology from the rooftops as some others do. English is making her first run for public office, but is no stranger to politics. Her husband, Dan, sits on the Coeur d’Alene City Council and is a former longtime county clerk.

The Souza-English race may not be on political “upset alert” in Idaho, given the GOP’s stronghold in Kootenai County. But the contest gives a peek at what Democrats are running on this year and why they think they have a chance of gaining seats.

One factor is Paulette Jordan, the Democratic candidate for governor who has added more excitement to the party than I’ve seen in a long time. Democrats throughout the state came out in droves to support her during May’s primary election. Another factor is Prop 2, Medicaid expansion. If that measure passes by a large margin, then Jordan, English and others stand to benefit. English favors Prop 2, while Souza is opposed.

English and other Democrats also are calling for more “investment” in education, where Idaho is at, or near the bottom, in most spending categories.

“People who I talk to about education are talking about change, and not just maintaining our place at the bottom,” English says. “I know there are those who will say that money isn’t everything, but that doesn’t mean money is nothing. With Idaho constantly being at the bottom of per-pupil spending, something is not right.”

Souza, as with other Republicans, say Idaho is on the right track with education. She says that funding has gone up in each of her four years in the Senate, and students are making gains in achievement.

“We are tied for sixth in the nation for the highest year-to-year increase in funding for K-12 education, and 31st in the nation for student achievement,” Souza said. “When we’re only talking about dollars, we are not focusing on what’s important in my opinion.”

Souza, who is on the Legislature’s budget committee, says two things would need to happen if the Democrats got their wish for significantly more education funding. Taxes would have to be raised, or other state programs would have to be slashed. She argues that Medicaid expansion, if it passes, could place an additional strain on all budgets if demands surge for Medicaid coverage.

There are several local issues playing out in this campaign. English makes references to Souza’s pre-Senate days where she opposed “many great projects of IgniteCDA, our Urban Renewal District. At one time, Souza was among the leaders of the local effort to recall the mayor and city council.

Souza counters that her aim then, and now, is for more transparency and accountability at all levels of government. She has worked on several measures, including tightening laws pertaining to urban renewal districts and taking away some of these odd dates for school elections. “I haven’t changed my focus, or style,” she says.

Voters in District 4 have a lot to think about in this one. Souza says Republicans have built a foundation for sound and stable management of state government. English hopes if there is a “blue wave” brewing in Idaho this November, that it starts in Coeur d’Alene.

• • •

Chuck Malloy, a longtime Idaho journalist, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at ctmalloy@outlook.com.

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