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Analysis: Voters give Boise establishment a boost with council picks, sewer bond

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It was a big night for the establishment in Boise. 

After months of tense campaigning and a diverse field of candidates, Democratic supported incumbent City Council Members Lisa Sánchez and Holli Woodings will keep their seats for another two years. They will be joined by newcomer Luci Willits, a Republican from West Boise.

Voters also overwhelmingly approved a $570 million bond to fund improvements to the city’s sewer system, paving the way for a replacement of aging assets, water recycling and new infrastructure to accommodate growth. 

Districts shakeup election for the first time

This was the first year Boise voters were split into districts after 2020 legislation required cities over 100,000 to make the change. This left many voters without a choice on the ballot aside from the sewer bond, or in one slice of West Boise no ballot at all. As the city continues the transition to districted elections, Tuesday’s three winners will serve two-year terms before all six council districts will be up for election in 2023 with a new district map. 

Boise council districts
The City of Boise’s map for the establishment of council districts for the city. Courtesy City of Boise

But, turnout didn’t suffer. Of the 132.147 registered voters, 34,113 showed up to cast their ballots for a turnout of 26% citywide. This eclipses the 20.9% turnout recorded in 2017, the last time Boise held a city council election without a mayor on the ballot. 

Voter numbers were especially strong in District 3 where Sánchez overwhelmingly bested her opponents, including well-funded Greg MacMillan. Over 10,000 people voted in the hotly contested race. 

Sánchez wins despite negative ads

Lisa Sanchez
Lisa Sánchez

All eyes were on Sánchez heading into this election season. She faced an attempted recall in 2020 along with Mayor Lauren Mclean stemming from some comments she made after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

She and MacMillan both raked in over $40,000 in donations and multiple PACs spent big trying to sway voters. Conservation Voters for Idaho backed Sánchez, while developer-backed Conservative Citizens for Thoughtful Growth PAC and Responsible Government Fund ran negative ads and pushed MacMillan. Sanchez was endorsed by several prominent Democrats and the Ada County Republicans also ran negative ads against her.

In the end, Sanchez handily beat MacMillan with 57% of the vote. The other two candidates in the race, Nicholas Domeny and Maria Santa Cruz-Cernik took home less than 6% of the vote between them. Sánchez won all but three precincts, which went to MacMillan. 

MacMillan earned the backing of groups opposed to the Interfaith Sanctuary shelter relocation to State Street and both the Boise Police and Boise Fire Unions, similar to Mayor Dave Bieter in 2019. Sanchez, the only renter on the council, ran on continuing her platform of supporting low-income Boiseans and advocating for diversity, equity and inclusion in the city.

Voters once again backed Woodings

Holli Woodings
Holli Woodings

Woodings, a former Democratic state legislator, easily fended off challenges from three other candidates and earned 49.2% of the vote.  

She faced off with Katie Fite, a public lands activist and frequent critic of Boise city government, constitutional conservative Steve Madden and Public Works Commission Chairman Crispin Gravatt. Fite came closest to beating her with 21.3% of the vote, or 1,436 ballots. Madden and Crispin trailed with 18.7% and 10.8% respectively. 

Both Woodings and Sanchez rolling to victory promises the left-leaning political makeup of the council and its approach to affordable housing, growth and climate change will remain largely unchanged. Woodings is a strong backer of the city’s proposed zoning code rewrite to allow for more density in the city, sustainability efforts and the city’s affordable housing strategy.

A new voice coming to City Hall

Luci Willits
Luci Willits

Even though Willits, backed by several prominent Idaho Republicans, coasted to victory in District 1 over Democrat Laura Metzler, she was not the furthest right-wing candidate across the field. Boise Regional Realtors endorsed her along with MacMillan and Woodings and she pledged to work on addressing homelessness, supporting first responders along with the Office of Police Accountability and focusing on fiscal conservatism to the dais. 

She took home 55.9% of the vote, besting Metzler by over 1,000 votes. David Jones, a right-wing candidate who did not raise money or campaign, took home 9.5% of the vote with 535 ballots in his favor. 

Overwhelming support for sewer bond

Boise sewer
A manhole cover near Boise City Hall for the city’s sewer system. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev

Voters city-wide also broadly approved the city’s bond to boost the city’s wastewater renewal system.

This gives the city the green light to borrow up to $570 million for a range of planned improvements with 80.7% of voters saying yes. It will be paid for with years of 9% rate increases, instead of one large 53% increase on ratepayers. If the city is able to land federal money, it will borrow less.

At a press conference held Wednesday afternoon, Mayor Lauren McLean lauded the voters’ choice to support the funding model for the decades-long project.

“I am reaffirmed by the vote which was one of the largest yes votes, if not the largest yes votes on a ballot in recent memory,” McLean said.

Public Works Director Steve Burgos said this allows the city to move ahead with its applications to access low-interest loans from both the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency. Next year, the city will use the money from the bond to start the second phase of improvements at the 1940s-era Lander Street Water Renewal plant and begin planning the early stages for its recycled water program.

Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect the correct number of registered voters and how many cast a ballot city-wide. The original version of the story used turnout numbers from one of the districts, which showed roughly the same turnout but gave a much smaller number of registered voters and number of ballots cast.

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Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at [email protected] or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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