Pay to play: The social lives of pols

Unda’ the Rotunda is a syndicated Idaho political column sponsored by the Boise Weekly.

BOISE — They’re not just talking baseball nightly at the smoking table at Leku Ona.

One afternoon last week Clete Edmunson, a former legislator who runs damage control on education for the governor’s office, told Unda’ the Rotunda that working the Legislature is all work, no play.

“Most of them don’t do anything after hours,” Edmunson said.

Not 45 minutes later, Unda’ the Rotunda walked into Leku, a fine Basque guest house, restaurant and bar a few blocks south the Capitol Annex and there was Edmunson, surrounded by lawmakers and a few lobbyists, with a fat stogie in his mouth.

We pulled up a stool, ordered a rum and looked around. The place was crawling with operatives, many still wearing their color-coded name tags from their day jobs, mostly green, the color worn by lobbyists.

A few old hands and two latter-day lady lobbyists (by no means saints) regaled us with tales of how it used to be.

The Statehouse 30 years ago was described as the biggest bar and the best cathouse in town. A curtain used to surround the Senate chamber. Toward the end of the session, committee secretaries by one account and lobbyists by another, would pour drinks and pass cigars to lawmakers as they sat on the floor.

In the 1970s, the Legislature would adjourn for dinner and head back for more official business later. By that time, the bulk of the body was quite sauced.

There are still plenty of fine cigars being passed around—Senate Republicans recently auctioned off a box billed as Cubans and signed by “R. Castro” for about $500. But in the waning days of the 2008 session, the partying is fairly tame.

We should know. We try to go to them all.

Thursday, 5:30 p.m.

While Edmunson and a handful of Republican House members enjoyed themselves upstairs, the basement at Leku Ona was reserved for the House Democratic Caucus “sine die” party. That used to be Latin for “shaken, not stirred” but now it’s Sun Valley-ese for “wine and cheese.”

The Democrats bid silently on auction items, talked policy, and stumbled out early to rest up for another day of losing votes.

“They’re pleasant, but they fall short of excitement,” said Moscow Democrat Shirley Ringo of the evening entertainment during the three-month Legislative sessions.

Every week, the Legislative Information Center publishes a blue social calendar listing association dinners, lobbyist functions and party fundraisers. The final social calendar of the session was posted just last week.

Ringo says Republicans and Democrats have fundamentally different views of these events.

“The difference between their fund raisers and ours is that at theirs, someone will write a $1,000 check for a bottle of wine,” she said. “At ours, people come looking for bargains.”

Ringo is the ringleader of one of the more ribald, bipartisan extracurricular activities of the session. Former state Rep. Mike Mitchell dubbed it “Choir Practice.” A seemingly random bunch of public servants—state employees in the know, a former Otter staffer, university folk and Ringo’s sister—throw $5 or $10 down on the table and share pitchers of beer for a rosy-cheeked happy hour.

It’s no Minneapolis men’s restroom or Eliot Spitzer-style night on the town. But neither is the Senate Republican Caucus bash.

Monday, 5:30 p.m.

Back in the basement at Leku Ona, lobbyist John Watts grabs the mic and appoints Emmett Republican Sen. Brad Little as Vanna White.

Little promenades the goods—a new fly rod, wool blankets, a weekend on a yacht, the Cubans we mentioned—while Watts skillfully extracts what are later revealed as, in some cases, pre-negotiated bids.

Then a hot item comes up—an exquisitely carved crucifix adorned with a white dove. Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, an Idaho Falls Republican, hones in on Unda’ the Rotunda to offer a first bid.

We put our hands animatedly in our pockets and sit on them. The cross goes to the grain growers’ lobbyist in Boise.

Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, who usually goes straight home to bottle feed calves at her vineyard south of Caldwell, made a showing at the auction. But she said her social life has been fairly limited this year.

“Maybe it’s just that I’m not in the ‘in’ group,” Lodge said.

In most years, that group tends to be freshmen legislators who try to go to every event. Until they are thoroughly broken in.

An unscientific survey of which legislators have the best social lives yielded two names. Rep. Bob Nonini, a Coeur d’Alene Republican, blamed it all on fellow Republican Rep. Eric Anderson of Priest Lake.

We asked Anderson why his colleagues referred questions on the legislative social life to him.

“Because I have one,” replied Anderson, who often wears a leather jacket and recently volunteered to be tased in a law enforcement group’s demonstration.

Anderson, whose wife is in New Zealand, often stops at Leku for a bowl of beans and a cold one on his way back to the old folks’ home where he stays for the session. His neighbors are 92 and 104.

“I take the 92-year-old guy down if there’s a fire,” Anderson said.

Sen. John McGee, a Caldwell Republican, has been spotted on Eighth Street at a late hour, and to the Senate’s credit, he, too, considered a tasing, as long as it raised cash for the GOP. Among the ladies, Idaho Falls Republican Rep. Janice McGeachin is welcome anytime at Edmunson’s smoking table.

It’s not clear why Majority Leader Mike Moyle, a Republican from Star, is not there. He may be too busy chasing coyotes on his snowmobile.

Tuesday, 6 p.m.

The Senate got out late, but the same old crowd was waiting for the seven Democrats among them in the towering penthouse at the top of the Hoff building. A stalwart group of contract lobbyists seems to attend all of these parties, dutifully writing $50 and $100 checks to get in the door.

Most of them know how to have a good time and appreciate the role of a free press. But some, including former Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry lobbyist Teresa Molitor, seem to think these events are private parties for their personal benefit.

And maybe she’s right.

Thursday, 6:30 p.m.

Just inside the foyer at the Power House Event Center, Rep. Diana Thomas, a Republican from Weiser, perhaps doing the bidding of a peeved lobbyist, asked Unda’ the Rotunda to leave.

While Donnelly Republican Rep. Ken Roberts, a serious but competitive caucus chair, was eager to demonstrate that the House GOP could party as hard as the Senate, he was overruled by the party-pooping Speaker Lawerence Denney from Midvale.

“I’m not asking you to leave,” Denney told us. “I’m asking you to pay $50.”

We glanced over at the cash bar. Watched Rep. Steven Thayn, an Emmett Republican, filling his plate at the buffet and decided that the party was over.

The Molitors can pay to play if they want to, but there are journalistic principles to be upheld here.

And the shots at Leku Ona are only $1.50.