Congressman-elect Russ Fulcher will be a newcomer to Washington politics when he takes office in January, but he knows one key to success in a successful congressional career.
That’s building relationships, and the process starts with the Idaho congressional delegation. Don’t expect any juicy stories about personality conflicts within the delegation. Fulcher gets along fine with Second District Congressman Mike Simpson.
“Three of the four members of our delegation have been there a long time, and I’m the rookie,” Fulcher says.
It doesn’t mean the two will think and vote alike on all issues. “We’re not going to agree on everything; I don’t agree with myself on everything,” Simpson says. “But I look forward to working with him. He will be a great member of Congress.”
That’s more than Simpson ever said about former Rep. Bill Sali, who was elected to the First District seat in 2006, and Democrat Walt Minnick, who won the office two years later. And the relationship between Simpson and outgoing Congressman Raul Labrador has been strained from the get-go.
Labrador came to Congress in 2011 with the intention of shaking up things with his new brand of conservatism, and he did all of that and more. Labrador was instrumental in organizing the House Freedom Caucus, which at times was a royal pain to House leadership and establishment Republicans such as Simpson.
Fulcher embraces many of Labrador’s conservative ideals, but with a more congenial style. He wants to do as Simpson did early in his career — get to know his colleagues on a personal basis.
“That’s a smart thing to do,” Simpson says. “It’s important to establish relationships across the aisle, and I’ve worked over the years to do that. I think it’s critical to serving Idaho, whether you are in the majority or the minority.”
Life in the majority is much more fun, of course. But there’s no cause for alarm. Fulcher, a former Senate majority caucus chairman, worked with Democrats on a number of issues over the years — including repeal of the sales tax on groceries, one of Fulcher’s signature bills.
“Democrats will have a majority, but not a super majority as we had in Idaho,” Fulcher said. “We’re talking about a handful of votes that could swing either way. Every vote will be important. I’m excited, I’m looking forward to it, and I’m ready for the challenge.”
Simpson says the Democratic majority will produce changes, starting with the House speaker’s chair, and a different agenda. But it’s no culture shock to the longtime congressman. “I’d rather be in the majority, but I think we still can get things done.”
Simpson will continue with his work on the Appropriations Committee, which is vitally important to Idaho. With the Senate in Republican hands, Sen. Mike Crapo will stay on as chairman of the banking committee and Sen. Jim Risch is likely to move in as chairman of the high-profile Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
But there’s plenty that Fulcher can do as a freshman. He could be the guy who comes back to Idaho on most weekends, holds town hall meetings and responds to media requests. It’s no knock on the other three, because their schedules are jammed. But interviews are difficult to schedule.
Fulcher has another idea, and it’s a good one. He’d like to bridge communication with Idaho legislators. “I would have loved to have that when I was in the Legislature.”
Simpson advises Fulcher to find a few areas of interest and develop expertise in those areas.
“When you get to Congress, you want to know everything. The reality is you can’t,” he said. “If you ask me about banking issues, I don’t want to say I’m a complete idiot … but I’m a complete idiot. I’ve never concentrated in that area, so I rely on people I trust, such as Crapo.”
Although Fulcher is excited about going to Washington, he does not intend to change who he is. While at home, he’d rather be called “Russ” than “Congressman.” And he’ll always be more comfortable driving that old pickup truck we saw in his commercials than hopping on the D.C. Metro. But as a new member of Congress, Fulcher will have a front-row seat in history, with Donald Trump as president and Rep. Nancy Pelosi likely to be the next House speaker. He’ll be going to going to Congress with an open mind and may be a bit awe-struck by the majestic sight of the Capitol rotunda.
We’ll see what six months of political gridlock does to him.
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Chuck Malloy, a Silver Valley native and longtime Idaho journalist, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.