Rep. Walt Minnick (D)
Elected: 2008, 1st term.
Born: Sept. 20, 1942, Walla Walla, WA .
Education: Whitman Col., B.A. 1964; Harvard U., M.B.A. 1966, J.D. 1969..
Family: Married (A.K. Lienhart-Minnick); 4 children.
Military career: Army, 1970-72
Professional Career: White House OMB, 1973; T.J. International, 1974-95; Founder, SummerWinds Garden Centers, 1998-08.
The new congressman from the 1st District is Walt Minnick, a Democrat narrowly elected in 2008. Minnick ousted one-term Republican Bill Sali by capitalizing on Sali’s campaign missteps. Minnick is the first Democrat Idahoans have sent to Congress since 1992.
|Walt Minnick (D)||175,898||(51%)||($2,649,953)|
|Bill Sali (R)||171,687||(49%)||($1,168,536)|
|Walt Minnick (D)||Unopposed|
Minnick was born on a wheat farm in Walla Walla, Wash. His father was a small-town lawyer, and his mother was a leader in the local Republican Party. At Whitman College in Washington state, Minnick was president of the College Republicans and earned a business degree. After getting a law degree from Harvard University, he served two years in the Army, then got further immersed in Republican politics by going to work for former President Nixon as an assistant; he helped create the Drug Enforcement Administration. Frustrated by the escalating Watergate scandal, Minnick resigned in protest immediately after the 1973 "Saturday night massacre," in which Nixon fired his attorney general and deputy attorney general in order to remove Archibald Cox as the Watergate special prosecutor. Minnick left Washington in 1974, moved to Idaho to work in the forest industry at T.J. International, a wood-products business, eventually rising to president and chief executive officer. In 1995, he founded SummerWinds Garden Centers, which has stores in California, Missouri, and Arizona.
In the mid-90s, with Newt Gingrich and his followers newly dominant on Capitol Hill, Minnick came to believe his party had drifted too far to the right. He became a Democrat and in 1996, challenged conservative Republican Sen. Larry Craig, who was up for re-election. He held Craig to just 57% of the vote, Craig’s lowest Senate re-election percentage. Minnick also pulled nearly even with Craig in fundraising. (Craig later retired from the Senate in 2008 after getting arrested in a homosexual sex sting in a Minneapolis-St. Paul airport bathroom.)
Minnick’s fundraising mettle was important in his second try at public office. Although he entered the Democratic primary for Sali’s seat relatively late, after two other candidates had announced, Minnick jumped ahead in fundraising and pulled in support from high-ranking Democrats, including former Gov. Cecil Andrus. The other candidates withdrew, and Minnick was unopposed in the May primary. Meanwhile, Sali had to beat back a primary challenge from Iraq War veteran Matt Salisbury, finally winning with 60% to Salisbury’s 40%.
In the general election campaign, Sali also found it difficult to keep pace with Minnick on the money front, raising $1.2 million to Minnick’s $2.6 million, which included nearly $900,000 of Minnick’s own money. At one point, Sali encouraged his supporters to host “Yard Sales for Sali” and donate their proceeds to his campaign. Sali also had an embarrassing moment when he and members of his staff were caught heckling Minnick’s communication director while he was being interviewed by a local television station. Minnick espouses a libertarian political philosophy: He believes government intervention should be limited and so supports abortion rights and opposes an increase in capital gains taxes. He emphasized his support of gun ownership and his business résumé to peel away some of Sali’s voters. He ran ads that depicted him hunting and touting the fact that he owns seven guns. Sali tried to discredit those claims by pointing out that he had been endorsed by the National Rifle Association, which had given Minnick a “D+” grade. Sali’s ads charged Minnick was too cozy with environmental groups.
In the final weeks, some heavyweights tried to save Sali. The anti-tax group Club for Growth and the National Republican Congressional Committee both funded direct mailings and television ads. The conservative group Freedom’s Watch also made calls to voters questioning Minnick’s support of traditional family policies. In the end, their influence would not be enough. Even as McCain swept most of the district, Minnick narrowly edged out Sali by a margin of 4,211 votes, 50.6% to 49.4%. Minnick was the beneficiary of ticket-splitting in counties where McCain had prevailed: Ada, Benewah, Bonner, Nez Perce, Shoshone, and Valley.
Once in the House, Minnick was cautious in dealing with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, joining the moderate Blue Dog Coalition instead. He was appointed to the Financial Services and Agriculture committees. He was one of only 11 Democrats to vote against the January 2009 economic-stimulus package, saying, “I think it's a horrible idea to try to appropriate large sums of taxpayer dollars to programs that have never before been debated or authorized.” Minnick introduced his own stimulus bill, which trimmed the plan from $1 trillion to $170 billion by stripping out earmarks and focusing on cutting taxes and investing in infrastructure.
Minnick, who is high on Republican hit lists for 2010, was getting help and advice from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee as he prepared for a likely challenge to his re-election. In January 2009, Sali signaled that he was planning a rematch with Minnick when he filed a statement of candidacy with the Federal Election Commission. But if Sali does run, he could face another crowded Republican primary.