By Melissa Davlin
On Friday evening, I received a text message from a number I didn’t recognize, encouraging me to vote for Randy Johnson. That text sent me diving down a rabbit hole that showed either another split among Idaho Democrats, or a growing party that’s fostering competition.
“Hi Melissa. This is Chris. Have you seen that Randy Johnson was endorsed by Conservation Voters for Idaho and Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii? I believe that he will provide powerful leadership in the Statehouse as a Rep for our District. Can I count on you to vote for Randy on May 15th?
–Paid for by Responsible Leadership for ID PAC”
I’m an unaffiliated voter in District 17, where incumbent Rep. John Gannon faces a primary challenge from first-time candidate Johnson.
Admittedly, I’ve paid more attention to state races than legislative primaries this year, and I didn’t know much about this political action committee. So I started Googling.
Responsible Leadership for ID PAC, headed by Jeremy Maxand of Boise, was formed in 2016. That year, the PAC received $96,000 from the Idaho Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee — $70,000 in July, and an additional $26,000 in October. While the PAC received other donations, a sizable amount of its money came from the IDLCC.
That cash was mostly spent in the general election to get Democrats elected to legislative seats statewide. (The effort didn’t go so well, as Republican newcomers took out key Democrats that cycle, including then-House Minority Leader John Rusche of Lewiston and Sen. Dan Schmidt of Moscow.)
Back to the IDLCC. Who donated to that? Democrats from across the state, and most of the Democratic lawmakers, including John Gannon.
The same John Gannon that Responsible Leadership for Idaho is now trying to defeat by supporting Randy Johnson.
It’s important to note that there is currently no IDLCC money in the Responsible Leadership for Idaho PAC. On Friday evening, House Assistant Minority Leader Ilana Rubel said the IDLCC isn’t involved in the PAC’s endorsement process, and doesn’t get involved in primary races.
Still, it’s interesting that the PAC that worked so hard to get Democrats elected in the general election less than two years ago — and spend a lot of IDLCC money to do so — is now focusing on a primary race with an incumbent lawmaker. The only reported expenditure for the Responsible Leadership for Idaho PAC is a Facebook ad for Johnson. (More may come out in subsequent reports, including, I presume, the money it cost to send me and other voters that Friday night text message.)
House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding confirmed the IDLCC isn’t engaged in any political activity during the primary, adding that RLI PAC’s endorsement of Johnson won’t affect where the caucus puts its money in the general election, regardless of who wins the primary.
Gannon said he wasn’t involved in IDLCC decision-making in 2016, other than contributing money like most other Democratic caucus members.
“I don’t focus upon the downtown money,” he said in a message to Idaho Reports. “The Bench is where I focus and that includes my concerns regarding fighter jets at the airport which will result in hundreds of homes being unsuitable for residential use according to an Airport Study, a position that is different from downtown interests, as well as questions about the stadium. Another Bench priority is our schools and I am endorsed by the Idaho Education Association.”
In a message to Idaho Reports, Randy Johnson also focused on school issues and healthcare, as well as immigration.
“I’ve talked to hundreds of folks and have heard stories from DACA recipients, from parents who are afraid the deaf and hard of hearing program at Jefferson elementary could be cut and from countless people who are afraid of what healthcare insurance will cover,” Johnson said.
When asked for comment, Maxand of RLI PAC focused on what he thinks Johnson brings to the table.
“(H)e brings fresh energy and perspective to the Legislature,” Maxand wrote. “He’s a combat veteran, a neighborhood association president, he has two young boys in the public school system, and he knows the reality faced by undocumented members of our community.”
District 17 isn’t the only Democratic primary on the PAC’s radar. Maxand says Responsible Leadership for Idaho PAC will have independent expenditures on behalf of Rob Mason, who is running for the open House seat in District 16.
Another note: Most of the PAC’s money this primary season is coming from out of state, including $3,000 from John Stocks, head of the National Education Association in Washington DC, and $2,000 from Janet Swanberg of San Francisco. Neither could be reached for comment; Maxand said Stocks’ contribution came as an advance for the general election, but was reported during this cycle.
And how about those endorsements? Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii has endorsed just three candidates this primary cycle: Johnson, Paulette Jordan for Governor, and Mason in District 16. (That District 16 race for retiring Rep. Hy Kloc’s seat has five Democrats.) PPVNW’s page has no explanation as to why it’s endorsing any of these candidates over their opponents. The website for Conservation Voters for Idaho has no endorsements listed.
But Gannon has his own progressive cred. In a mailer sent to District 17 voters, Gannon touts endorsements from Medicaid for Idaho leaders Sam Sandmire, Luke Mayville, and Tracy Mulcahy Olson.
In short, this is a race you want to keep an eye on — especially as competitive up-ticket Democratic primaries will drive voters to the polls.