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Kempthorne travels far on charisma
Los Angeles Times
BOISE, Idaho — He rides motorcycles, battles a bad back, does a killer impersonation of fellow Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and sometimes forgets to balance his checkbook.
Even those who don't like his politics call him "Dirk," the way he prefers to be addressed. And they speak of him as if he's the guy next door who just happens to be governor.
But the ready smile and neighborly style of Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne don't always get the job done, some supporters and critics say. They contend the man President Bush has picked to succeed Gale Norton as Interior secretary often exhibits more charm than substance.
Fellow Republicans and business leaders say Kempthorne, 54, knows how to create consensus but is too politically cautious. Local Democrats and environmentalists say he is gifted at making people feel heard but that his loyalties lie squarely with development and corporate interests.
If confirmed, what kind of Interior secretary would Kempthorne be?
In the Idaho state capital, where he has been a major player for 20 years, many predict his performance will mirror that of his years as Boise mayor, U.S. senator and two-term governor, a record of mixed success with a list of unfinished projects and of people who call him a good guy.
"His charisma carries him a long way. Even when we were at odds, he was very quick to approach our group with a smile and a handshake," said Roger Singer, executive director of the local Sierra Club from 1995 to 2004. "... In the end, his votes have fallen along the conservative party line."
Singer cited two examples:
In the mid- to late 1990s, Kempthorne successfully brokered a deal — protested by environmentalists — allowing the military to expand a training ground into the Owyhee Canyonlands in southwestern Idaho. Kempthorne also succeeded in weakening federal protection of gray wolves, shifting control to the state.
Singer said he fears Kempthorne would continue his long campaign to water down the Endangered Species Act and would support oil drilling in the Arctic and the sale of public lands to special-interest groups. He said Kempthorne has worked to overturn President Clinton's ban on building roads in wilderness areas.
Local political watchers view Kempthorne as a "middle-of-the-road" Republican in an overwhelmingly conservative state. Some Idaho Republicans say he isn't conservative enough, but many are pleased he has been tapped for the Bush Cabinet.
Former state Sen. Laird Noh, who led the Senate Resources and Environment Committee from the early 1980s to 2004, called Kempthorne "a good steward, a balanced steward" of the environment.
Noh, a Republican, credited Kempthorne with engineering an agreement with the Nez Perce tribe over its claims to the waters of the Snake River, ending a decade of sometimes acrimonious debate. The compromise resolved the tribe's claims, preserved the state's water rights and set protections for salmon and steelhead.
The deal is seen as one of Kempthorne's biggest accomplishments.
But his most loyal supporters hail from his days as Boise mayor, between 1986 and 1993. He is credited with revitalizing a moribund downtown.
Don Brennan, a city councilman then, said Kempthorne was most effective in his city role. Successes as U.S. senator from 1993 to 1999, and as governor from 1999 to the present, have been fewer and harder-fought, Brennan said.
Kempthorne was born in San Diego, grew up in Spokane and has lived in Idaho for 35 years. He earned a political-science degree from the University of Idaho, where he was student-body president as a junior. He and his wife, Patricia, have two grown children.
Kempthorne was considered a leading candidate to be the new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in 2003. The job eventually went to a career administrator, Stephen Johnson, but Kempthorne remained on Bush's radar.
Kempthorne's popularity took some hits after the Sept. 11 attacks, when he barricaded the Statehouse and closed off several city blocks for nearly a year. Several businesses in the city of 185,000 suffered. "It was a huge overreaction," said Boise Mayor David Bieter, who held a town-hall meeting on the issue.
In May, Kempthorne bounced a couple of checks totaling $111 to his hairstylist. The governor, who earns a salary and housing allowance of more than $150,000, told the media he and his wife had been busy and their finances had been drained by surgeries for his chronically bad back.
The mishap made the governor appear more down-to-earth to many Idahoans, just as his avid interest in Harley-Davidson motorcycles had.
Overriding disagreements with Kempthorne on economic and social matters is the sense among Idahoans that "one of our own is ready for the big leagues," said political-science professor Steve Shaw of Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho.
The university last year awarded Kempthorne an honorary degree. After the reception, with the media and everybody gone, Shaw watched as Kempthorne knelt on the floor and chatted face-to-face at length with several children.
"There's something very human about the man," Shaw said.
Los Angeles Times reporter Julie Cart contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company