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3/24/2006 6:00:00 AM 
President Bush announces Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, left, as the new Secretary of the Interior in the Oval Office on March 16 in Washington. - AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Mr. Kempthorne goes to Washington

Patricia R. McCoy  Capital Press Staff Writer

Six years in the U.S. Senate trying to reform the Endangered Species Act, and a long history of building successful compromises earned Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne the nomination as the next U.S. Secretary of the Interior March 16.

President Bush made the announcement less than a week after former Secretary Gale Norton resigned, leaving a lot of Idahoans figuratively pinching themselves awake on St. Patrick’s Day in the midst of a whirlwind of national media attention.

Assuming he is confirmed by the Senate, Kempthorne will head for Washington, D.C., in about a month. That is long enough that this year’s state legislative session should be over and all bills signed, but the governor will resign his current office. Lt. Gov. Jim Risch will become Idaho’s 31st governor. Several state legislators were mentioned as potential candidates to replace him as lieutenant governor, including several prominent leaders who have already announced they plan to retire and won’t seek re-election.

Among them: Speaker of the House and rancher Bruce Newcomb, R-Burley, who will retire this year after 10 terms in the Legislature.

Kempthorne’s nomination was announced barely 24 hours before Idaho’s deadline to file for public office, setting off a lot of speculation that Risch, already a candidate for re-election as lieutenant governor, might switch and file for governor. On March 17, he announced he was not going to do so.

“If I entered a political campaign for governor at this time, I think it would not serve the people of the state of Idaho very well. I have a choice to make and that is to conduct a very aggressive, difficult, highly contentious campaign, or being the chief executive officer of this state,” Risch said.

It is no secret that he wants to serve as governor some day, Risch said, leaving open a future campaign for that office.

Kempthorne’s name was mentioned as a possible nominee for Interior secretary within hours after Norton announced her resignation. The chance of his being chosen was discussed favorably on March 15 during the weekly meeting of Food Producers of Idaho, an umbrella organization of most of Idaho’s producer associations and various affiliates.

During that discussion, FPI Executive Secretary Rick Waitley mentioned the possibility of writing a letter in support of Kempthorne, but drew some chuckles by saying the organization would not want to give the wrong impression – that they were anxious for the governor to leave office.

That was not the case, he said.

Even so, the actual nomination by President Bush brought an outburst of pride in a native son from across the state.

If confirmed, Kempthorne will be the second Idahoan to resign as governor to become Secretary of the Interior. The first was Cecil Andrus, who accepted the same cabinet post under former President Jimmy Carter in 1977.

The confirmation process is expected to take about a month. Being a former U.S. Senator will likely help. Congress is traditionally supportive of one of its own.

National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the Public Lands Council both immediately expressed support for Kempthorne.

“We are confident that Gov. Kempthorne will carry on Secretary Gale Norton’s legacy in the Department of Interior by engaging and balancing all interests to come to positive solutions on resource issues,” said Jay Truitt, NCBA vice president of government affairs. “Gov. Kempthorne has been a strong leader for wildlife and ranchers’ interest. He understands western issues, and we have complete confidence in his ability to manage the nation’s public lands.”

More negative comments came from environmental interests, many of whom did not support Norton.

“Gov. Kempthorne has a huge job ahead of him as the nation’s chief advocate for wildlife and wildlands. But he’s got a lot of damage to undo after six years under the Norton administration, so we are hoping he will embrace the chance to return the Interior Department to its proper role as steward of our nation’s natural heritage,” said Suzanne Asha Stone, Northwestern Rockies representative, Defenders of Wildlife.

Kempthorne, 54, was born Oct. 29, 1951, in San Diego, Calif. He has been a resident of Idaho for 35 years. He was mayor of Boise from 1986 to 1993, served one term in the U.S. Senate from 1993 to 1999, then returned to Idaho to run for governor in 1999. He will step down before finishing his second term in that office.

The governor earned a bachelor of science degree in political science from the University of Idaho in 1975. He was student body president during his junior year. His past professional experience included public affairs manager for FMC Corp., executive vice president of the Idaho Home Builders Association, and executive assistant to the director of the Idaho Department of Lands.

He and his wife Patricia have two grown children and a son-in-law. She has already announced she will continue to reside in Idaho, and commute for the 2 1/2 years remaining in the Bush administration.

The governor announced some months ago he would not run for reelection. That set off wide speculation about his future plans.

As Secretary of the Interior, Kempthorne would be able to work for ESA reform, an issue he concentrated on unsuccessfully while in the U.S. Senate. His successor, Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, has taken up the same cause, stressing reauthorization rather than reforming the controversial, politically-polarizing law.

Two more controversial issues he would likely have to deal with: an effort by the Bush administration to open 3.6 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling, over the objections of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; and opening Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling.

Norton stressed what she called the four C’s: communication, cooperation and consultation in the service for conservation. It’s an effort Kempthorne is likely to continue. He is also known for working on compromises. Among his successes: the Nez Perce Water Agreement, which got the state over what many consider the final hurdle before the massive Snake River Basin Adjudication can be completed; state management of Idaho’s wolf population; and furthering the Bush administration’s Healthy Forests Initiative.

Pat McCoy is based in Boise. Her e-mail address is pmccoy@capitalpress.com.




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