TWIN FALLS • Two Magic Valley Republican legislators are being primaried by challengers who say they want to take things in a more conservative direction.
Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, who was first elected in 1988 and co-chairs the Legislature’s powerful budget-setting Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, is facing off against Reggy Sternes, the owner of Sternes Realty and a Jerome High School graduate and 21-year U.S. Navy veteran.
And Rep. Steve Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, a former Times-News editor and publisher who has represented Twin Falls in Boise since he was elected in 2010, is being challenged by Mary Bello, who moved here from California 11 years ago and runs Saddle Up Kids, a business giving children horseback riding lessons.
There aren’t any primaries in District 26, which covers Blaine, Camas, Gooding and Lincoln counties, nor in Mini-Cassia’s District 27.
Sternes, who describes his personal philosophy as a combination of libertarian principles and conservative values, said he decided to run after looking at his legislators’ ranking on the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s “Freedom Index.”
“The only reason I’m running is because of the Idaho Freedom Foundation,” he told the Times-News editorial board. “I looked at their data.”
The IFF, a conservative group based in Boise, ranks bills during the session based on principles such as whether they expand government or lead to more spending, and then scores lawmakers’ votes on them. The high scorers on the index are a handful of the Legislature’s most conservative members, mostly from northern Idaho; the Magic Valley’s lawmakers mostly fall into the GOP’s “establishment” camp and most of them got “F” ratings this year.
Sternes said he decided to take on Bell, rather than Rep. Clark Kauffman, R-Filer, or Sen. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, who have marginally better Freedom Index rankings than Bell but also have far less time in the Legislature, because her ranking shows she is the least likely, out of the three, to vote in accordance with his views.
“If I’m really principled, would I take the easier one?” he asked.
Sternes said he knew Bell when he was a student at Jerome High School and she was the school librarian, and worked under her as a librarian’s aide. He said she has served honorably and bears her no ill-will.
“I think she can only improve as a representative if she’s competing,” he said.
Bello said people approached her to run earlier this year, expressing worries that Hartgen, who missed several weeks of this year’s session to recover from pneumonia (his wife filled in for him in Boise while he was out), would be re-elected and then wouldn’t be able to represent them. She said she favors lower taxes and spending and the freedoms outlined in the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and said government is moving away from those principles.
“I’m very conservative,” she said. “I believe that the free market is almost always the answer to almost every single one of our problems.”
Hartgen pointed to the 73 percent ranking he got from the American Conservative Union, a national group best known for hosting the Conservative Political Action Conference every year, in 2015, meaning he agreed with the group on eight out of 11 votes they scored. Bell got a 75 percent from the ACU.
“I’m not a liberal at all,” Hartgen said. “Never have been. And I have a conservative track record.”
A few other Republicans who are facing primary challenges from the right have been highlighting the ACU rankings rather than the IFF’s, such as Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, who recently sent out a mailer highlighting the fact that the ACU rated him the second-most conservative member of the House.
Hartgen attributed some of the opposition to what he called a “tea party philosophy” that if you’re in leadership, you must be doing something wrong. He described himself as a “common-sense conservative,” and said his views are more in line with what Magic Valley voters want.
“They don’t expect me to be extremely ideological,” he said. “And I’m not sure they want a representative who’s going to vote ‘No’ on appropriations bills and common things and so forth.”
But the Idaho Legislature isn’t conservative at all if you look at the yearly increases in spending, said Fred Birnbaum, vice president of the IFF.
Speaking to about a dozen supporters at Perkins Restaurant and Bakery in Twin Falls on Tuesday, Birnbaum said state spending went up 8 percent this year while state revenue was only up 5 percent.
“That sort of informs how we view the Legislature,” he said.
Both Bello and Sternes were in attendance, although Birnbaum started his presentation by stressing that he wasn’t there to talk about the primaries.
This year’s scores were based on almost 100 bills the group rated during the session. Budget bills are not included in the IFF’s ranking system. Lindsay Russell Dexter, the IFF’s senior policy director, said the principles they use to score legislation — does it grow or shrink government, does it expand or shrink government intervention in the free market, etc. — are pretty close to the principles Republicans say they stand for.
“It’s simple,” she said. “We’re just talking about the legislation.”
Bell said she suspects her vote this year against a bill getting rid of the requirement for a concealed carry permit within city limits — she was one of just three Republicans in the House to vote against it — is part of the reason she is facing a challenge.
“I just was so concerned about having a concealed carry in a populated area and not really having any training at all,” she said.
Sternes supports the bill that passed this year, saying mandatory permitting created hoops for law-abiding citizens to jump through while doing nothing to stop criminals who would ignore the law anyway.
“The permitting requirement only made it burdensome to the law-abiding citizen, who in an urgent situation needs or wants to carry a gun to protect his or her family,” Sternes wrote in a letter to the editor that ran in the Times-News in March. “It (the new law) makes it legal for a coat to accidentally fall over an open-carry holstered gun.”
Bell recalled a vote she cast early in her legislative career based on something a lobbyist told her, to legalize dog racing, that she came to regret after learning more about how the dogs were treated. She said that experience made her more careful. She said that, out of the dozen or so constituents who reached out to her before the permitless carry vote, all but two were against the legislation.
“It would have been very easy to just vote with it for me, but it wouldn’t have been easy to live with for me,” she said.