Earlier this year, during a discussion of wastewater, Boise Mayor Dave Bieter uncorked a joke. With seven options presented on the sewage system, the mayor used math for effect.
“You don’t take a little bit of three and a little bit of five… and give me some of number two… no pun intended on this… right?”
In the room that day, I noticed council president Lauren McLean look over with an expression on her face that seemed to say… “gross.”
Several weeks later, McLean would announce her candidacy to slide over to the mayor’s chair. If she wins, it would be the biggest shakeup in city government in 16 years, when Bieter took office.
The ‘poop joke’ moment helps illustrate a difference in style between the two candidates. On one side, a folksy, long-serving mayor who grew up in Boise. On the other, a younger, straightforward challenger who chose Boise in adulthood.
The CCDC split
In 2016, Bieter recast the board of the Capital City Development Corporation.
Bieter removed McLean and former councilor David Eberle – while adding other council members Scot Ludwig, Ben Quintana and Maryanne Jordan.
“I would have served as long as I could have,” McLean told the Idaho Statesman at the time. “My term is up. I serve at the pleasure of the mayor, and he’s opted to appoint three other people in my place.”
During 2015, the CCDC board debated how to move forward with the disposition of the WaterCooler site. Two companies – LocalConstruct and Gardner Co. proposed projects on the site. McLean and Bieter differed throughout the nearly year-long process. LocalConstruct initially offered to pay $250,000 to CCDC to acquire the ground, which helped it beat Gardner. LC later said it couldn’t make the payment — but after CCDC stood firm it restored the payment. Bieter voted against LocalConstruct throughout the process, while McLean generally supported the project.
Four months after the final vote on the WaterCooler, McLean was out at CCDC.
It marked a public split between the two politicians. One that started with Bieter in McLean’s corner. He picked her to fill an empty seat on the council over dozens of other applicants.
“This was one of the most difficult decisions I have made as Mayor,” Bieter said at the time, according to Boise Weekly. “In the end, it was Lauren’s extensive history of community involvement, her strong grasp of the issues facing the city today and her unwavering commitment to Boise’s future that made her my choice for this position.”
That experience included a stint on Planning and Zoning and Boise’s parks commission.
McLean first cut her teeth on the 2001 Boise Foothills levy, spearheaded by then-mayor Brent Coles. The levy brought together conservation allies and the Republican mayor in a successful campaign to raise taxes to fund the preservation of open space.
After the Bieter appointment, McLean ran unopposed in two subsequent elections. With the mayoral race, McLean faces a challenger for the first time in local politics.
Bieter for his part handily dispatched challengers in each of his three previous bids for reelection. The closest race he fought came in 2003 when he topped three other challengers – still gaining a majority of votes.
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Off to the races
McLean’s first electoral face-off started with a bang. And a he-said/she-said.
In a story on the announcement, The Idaho Press’ Margaret Carmel reported McLean tried to tell Bieter about the candidacy in person, but scheduling conflicts forced her to tell him over the phone. A Bieter staffer told Carmel that McLean never requested the meeting – and that the two never spoke directly. McLean later told me this wasn’t true, and expressed surprise at the early tangle – on the very first day of her campaign.
In a review of Bieter’s calendars for the first six months of the year, no one-on-one meeting between the two ever took place. Bieter did, however, meet with every other member of the council at least once.
Personal dynamic aside, the political dynamics are even sharper.
The political spectrum
McLean generally takes positions to the left of Bieter. The office is officially non-partisan, but both Bieter and McLean take positions in line with the Democratic party.
She owns and manages The Confluence Group from an office Downtown, and also works on the Idaho Progressive Investors Network.
In 2015, Bieter accepted political donations from former Republican Lt. Governor David Leroy, former Republican gubernatorial candidate Tommy Ahlquist, top Republican donor Harvey Neef and others. While the vast majority of Bieter’s cash came from individuals and organizations on the left, he takes donations from across the political spectrum.
Though McLean had far fewer donors in 2015 due to her unopposed campaign – it’s difficult to discern many with a conservative tilt. But campaign money from the likes of Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg help illustrate her progressive lean.
Bieter is widely popular in the business and development communities in Boise. One local leader quipped to me “he might be more popular with Republicans than he is with his own party.”
Listen to the BoiseDev podcast on local politics, the stadium and library with the Idaho Press’ Margaret Carmel:
The Faucher factor
Bieter and McLean both have challenges heading into this election.
During sentencing for a Catholic priest who stored – and shared – thousands of pornographic images and videos of children, a letter Bieter wrote came to light.
The Idaho Statesman said police struggled with the investigation of Thomas Faucher. The images found “were sexually exploitative or pornographic with young-looking subjects. The files were described by police as violent, disturbing and torturous, some involving children crying,” according to reporting at the time from the Statesman.
During the hearing – Faucher’s attorney read aloud from the letter of support written by Bieter.
“I don’t know how I would’ve made it through without Tom Faucher,” Bieter wrote.
The next day, the mayor’s spokesperson issued a statement of explanation on the mayor’s behalf.
“Forgiveness and mercy are central tenets of my faith. I condemn Thomas Faucher’s crimes in the strongest possible terms and remain deeply disturbed and angry that a man I’ve known for decades was capable of such things. He was a family friend and priest for more than 40 years. His support and counsel when my parents were killed was irreplaceable in helping us get through that very difficult time. That history and my faith compel me to have compassion for an old sick man and prompted me to encourage what leniency the court saw fit to offer.”
According to KTVB, the judge in the case “questioned whether those who had written letters of support would have done so if they knew the truth about the case.”
Name ID and anonymous calls of ‘dark money’
McLean, for her part, isn’t nearly as well-known as the long-serving mayor. Longtime city critic Dave Frazier wrote about McLean’s campaign in May. He noted “she may need to do a better job when it comes to name recognition.” In what may or may not have been intentional, Frazier made his point by calling her “Loren McLean.”
A story last week in the Idaho Press revealed a pair of emails McLean wrote that were later forwarded to Hilary Clinton campaign chair John Podesta. Those emails and thousands of others were hacked by the Russian government and provided to Wikileaks, which released them in an attempt to derail the campaign of Hillary Clinton.
Someone highlighted the emails for the Idaho Press “alleging McLean is part of a ‘dark money’ political fundraising effort to shield progressive donors from campaign finance laws that would require them to disclose their identities.” The Idaho Press source also did not disclose their identity.
McLean pushed back on the dark money idea and told the Idaho Press: “These people are members of the investor network, but because this information relates to their financial decisions, they ask for privacy. Just like a law firm wouldn’t list clients, a small business rarely shares their client list, etc.”
McLean’s campaign announced it would not take contributions from corporations or PACs.
The Boise electorate
A map produced by The Boise Commons shows voter turnout trends in the last municipal election – 2017. The areas with the highest turnout are the ones you would expect – the North and East ends. Turnout across vast swaths of the Boise Bench and West Boise trended much lower – as low as 8.1%.
One Republican strategist told me the race is Bieter’s to lose. The power of incumbency is always strong and Bieter is well-known.
To win, McLean will need to pull any number of levers. She could convince the public that Bieter has been in office for too long. She could catalyze East End frustration with decisions over St. Luke’s and North End frustration over several growth policies.
She could draw additional new voters into the ballot booth from areas like Northwest Boise and the Boise Bench.
The challenge will be her voting record. While she is sometimes in the minority on council votes, a dig into voting records shows the Boise City Council votes unanimously the majority of the time.
Without a viable ‘Republican’ challenger in the race, McLean may be able to pull together the city’s progressive voters, as well as voters to the right of Bieter who are disillusioned with his policies. It’s an odd coalition to string together, but with frustration over growth, public input and issues like the stadium – it’s an unpredictable time in Boise.
Ada County showed a strong preference for female candidates in the 2018 election cycle.
Two races with male incumbents went instead to women – Diana Lachiondo beat Jim Tibbs for an Ada County Commission seat, and Mary May beat incumbent Paul Woods at ACHD. In all but one county-wide race in Ada County where a man and a woman competed for a seat in 2018 – the woman won. (The lone exception is Phil McGrane, who beat Kelly Yvonne Mitchell in a race for county clerk).
Issues like a streetcar, stadium, library, use of urban renewal and a fight over F-35s could animate the electorate and drive them to the polls. But which candidate those issues benefit might be hard to understand until results are in.
Mixing it up
The recent Brookings Report on Boise’s future drew contrasting responses from the candidates. Bieter’s campaign issued a statement that said he met with the report’s authors, and they said Boise was doing all the right things. McLean wrote an opinion piece for BoiseDev that said the report echoed what she has been hearing from residents.
Bieter continues to tout his string of endorsements. They include every member of the Boise City Council except McLean of course and Lisa Sánchez. They also include Cherie Buckner-Webb, Paulette Jordan, Betty Richardson, Grant Burgoyne, Janie Ward-Engleking, Ben Quintana, Hy Kloc, Maryanne Jordan, and others.
In a newsletter to supporters this week, McLean said her campaign hasn’t “pressured every elected official in town for an endorsement, because we know the best endorsements come from voters like you on Election Day.” In the email she highlighted a “very personal endorsement” from Rep. Melissa Wintrow.
While remaining cordial during council meetings, the pair have mixed it up in the media.
Bieter told the Idaho Statesman’s Hayley Harding McLean’s move to challenge him is “disappointing.”
“I’ve said in the past that I needed a food tester because council members want to replace you,” Bieter told Harding.
McLean linked to the story on Facebook and added commentary of her own.
“Gosh, I promise I’m NOT planning to poison anyone’s food: I’m simply running to advance a robust, public (and lively!) conversation about our biggest issues as Boise stands at a pivotal crossroads. And I’m proud to be offering voters a choice. That’s not a “disappointment” in my book: that’s pretty exciting.”
She signed off with the hashtag #NoPreviousRecordOfPoisoning.
McLean also reacted to a revelation – again by the Idaho Press – that the city decided to put in a facial recognition system at Boise City Hall. McLean issued a news release hitting back on the decision.
“The administration’s decision to invest in and deploy surveillance technology without a full discussion of the impacts and rules around its use, or at minimum a conversation with City Council about the decision, isn’t acceptable to me,” McLean said in her release.
Late last week the city issued a news release saying it would scrap the program.
As we enter August, the campaign hasn’t yet kicked into high gear. But campaign activity is already strong.
McLean is out knocking on doors and Bieter has amped up his presence around town. Bieter spearheaded the publicly-funded “#BoiseKind” campaign that often puts him at its center. McLean continues to look for news items to add commentary to that draws a contrast between her and the mayor.
The two candidates know each other well. They likely would understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses better than the typical pairing of vote-seekers.
In a 2011 Q&A with Boise Weekly’s George Prentice, McLean foreshadowed current events. Prentice asked McLean what she would say to people who think she would be in “lockstep with whatever the mayor wants.”
“I would say they don’t know me very well,” she told Prentice. “I fully expect that there will be times that we whole-heartedly agree and times we don’t. I’m very much my own person and that’s why I went into this.”
Beyond factors like incumbency, political leaning, gender, age or voting record – the winning candidate will have to convince a nervous population base that they are the right choice for the future.
A Boise State survey released earlier this year of the Treasure Valley found 71% think local government is doing either a “fair” or “poor” job of handling growth.
As I wrote at the beginning of this year before any candidate entered the race, this election will center on growth. The candidate that wins will face steep challenges in coming years.
This analysis could change entirely if another viable candidate enters the race of course. The filing deadline for the race runs until September 6th – an eternity in political time these days.
This is a race where, as Mayor Bieter might put it, no one wants to be number two.
Election day in Boise is Tuesday, November 5, 2019.