On a Monday morning days before the Idaho legislature adjourns for the year, Rep. Maxine Bell flits around her house in Jerome in blue jeans and a denim shirt, purple-painted toenails peeking out from her leather sandals. She attempts to shoo the cat, Ms. Puss, from underneath the coffee table; the cat, indifferent to her owner’s influence in state government, takes her time.
The longtime co-chairman of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has spent the past few hours cleaning the windows and curio cabinets. Next up: planning an upcoming speech for the Future Farmers of America and fixing her husband a Reuben sandwich for lunch. Later, she’ll make the two-hour drive to Boise to meet with the director of Performance Evaluations to wrap up some final business at the statehouse.
This is the last legislative session for the 86-year-old pillar of Idaho politics: She’ll retire at the end of 2018 after 30 years in the statehouse. In that time, she has won 15 elections, worked under five governors, and helped set 29 annual budgets.
As she glances over notes for the FFA, Bell contemplates what she’ll do once the session is really over. For one thing, she’ll need a new license plate to replace her longtime “House 5” plate. (“Something I can make sense of,” she says. “Not this 2J yadda-de-yadda-de-yadda.”) She’s also mulling the idea of driving for Meals on Wheels.
Her thinking out loud is interrupted by her husband, Jack, who has just returned home from running errands. He dutifully hands over his receipts to his wife, the most qualified bookkeeper in the state.
Maxine Bell didn’t always plan on a career in the statehouse. Before there was Maxine Bell, state representative, there was Maxine Bell, farmer’s wife; Maxine Bell, precinct committeeman; and Maxine Bell, school librarian.
“I always loved politics,” she says, sitting comfortably in her large, sunlit capitol office during the last weeks of her final session. “I can remember, as old as I am, the first time I got to vote and how thrilled I was.”
While raising her three sons, she worked with Jack on the family farm in Jerome, driving the grain truck to the warehouse and back and helping out during county fair season. She later spent a decade as a precinct committeeman for her local district, a position she “loved,” and served as the woman’s chair of the Idaho Farm Bureau.
Still, she was hesitant to run for higher office, despite urging from others. She remembers a conversation with Jim Jones, former Chief Justice of the Idaho Supreme Court, at a convention in Sun Valley:
“He said, ‘You know, you really ought to run.’ And I said, ‘I’m not smart enough.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, yeah, I think you are. You really ought to run.’”
In the meantime, she went back to school at the College of Southern Idaho and picked up a second job as a school librarian, a development born more out of love of family than love of literature. One of her sons was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and had recently graduated from college and accepted a job teaching reading and history; working as a school library aide allowed Bell to drive him to work and drop into the classroom when he needed help writing on the chalkboard.
When she did eventually run for a seat in District 24, it was against Jim Jones’s cousin, Waldo Martens — a coincidence she’s laughed about ever since. Her campaign consisted mostly of handing out fliers, attending meetings and introducing herself to passersby in grocery store parking lots. She won.
Initially, Bell planned to keep working as a librarian in the off-season, assuming the school would find a substitute for her during the months of the session. But “heck no, they didn’t!”
“My principal was a real rascally kind of a Democrat-leaning guy,” she recalled. “And I used to joke, well, as soon as he found out that I was Republican, I didn’t have a job.”
Losing her position at the school turned out to be a blessing in disguise, however, as it freed her up to throw herself into her work year-round. Without the demands of a nine-to-five job, she found time to visit schools, attend community meetings, and get to know her constituents and the issues more thoroughly.
‘Make a difference someplace’
Bell attributes her rise to prominence in Idaho politics to one thing: an ability to listen. On a recent Saturday, she spent two hours talking to constituents at WinCo, some acquaintances and some strangers.
“That’s all it takes to be successful in this,” she said. “They just expect you to be receptive when they want to talk to you.”
While the more senior legislators sat in committee meetings, Bell spent her mornings as a freshman lawmaker calling anyone and everyone to ask their opinions on the issues. Thirty years later, she sees this as “the best thing I could have done.”
In her second session, she was appointed to her first morning committee: Appropriations. When the former chair of Appropriations, also a woman, stepped down, Bell took on the role of vice-chairman, and then, eventually, co-chairman, a position that’s now synonymous with the name Maxine Bell.
She presides over JFAC with a signature sense of humor, inserting light jokes and quips between the often-heavy talk of numbers.
“She’s really good at that as a chairman, making people who come in front of her committee feel at ease,” said Rep. Clark Kauffman, the other House legislator from District 25. “She’s as warm-hearted of a person as there is, but when it comes down to business, it’s business.”
“She’s very friendly to everyone she meets, but also to the point,” said. Sen. Jim Patrick, also of District 25. “You can think those things don’t go together, but they do.”
The respect Bell’s fellow lawmakers have for her is obvious in the words they use to describe her: “Courageous.” “Determined.” “A person of the utmost integrity.”
“She’s not just a long-term member,” said Rep. Stephen Hartgen of Twin Falls, who first got to know Bell while working as publisher of the Times-News before running for public office. “We’ve had lots of long-term members. But rarely has there been one that has had so much positive influence in everywhere she touches.”
“Everyone knows she’s one of the most powerful people in the state,” Hartgen continued, “but she doesn’t act like it.”
As co-chair of JFAC, Bell doesn’t often carry bills on the House floor, particularly bills dealing with contentious social or political issues. She likes it that way.
Looking back on 30 years in the statehouse, Bell can’t name any one accomplishment that she’s most proud of. She takes pride in the more subtle nature of appropriations: finding sufficient funds for the Future Farmers of America, or maneuvering the budget so that the College of Southern Idaho was able to purchase the hot spring that heats its campus.
This year, federal funding was low for library books — a problem that hit close to home for Bell. When her son was bedridden for 11 years with multiple sclerosis, unable to use his arms, he found comfort in listening to recordings of books.
“We couldn’t have gotten through a day without those talking books,” she said. “So to my way of thinking, we had to have several thousand dollars for reading books. Because if I had that, surely somebody else out there couldn’t use their arms and somebody else had a blind mother in their home, or a child that needed help.
“That’s the type of thing you do in budgeting. You come to that from those experiences. And it must make a difference someplace.”
‘I never thought twice about it being a woman’s job’
The Bells have sold most of their farmland, but Maxine and Jack still live in the Jerome house they built forty years ago, a modest, homey, one-story building surrounded by fields. The ceilings are high, the windows large, and the furniture stylishly comfortable; paintings of cowboys, horses, and all things Western adorn the walls.
Though her demeanor is far from wild, Bell identifies as a woman of the West, a breed with a less “pampered” view of life than women in other parts of the country.
“When women left the East, they had a tough time getting here,” she said. “When they got here, they just assumed that they were equal because they’d had equal hard knocks. And so they had equal opportunities.
“It was a different world for women,” she continued, “and so I think women in the West have a different view of what’s equal and what isn’t.”
Among female lawmakers, she’s seen as a trailblazer. Rep. Sally Toone, a Democrat from Gooding, says she believes Bell has “absolutely” made a difference for women in Idaho politics. “She showed us that it could be done,” Toone explained.
Still, Bell doesn’t consider herself a feminist. (“I’m not sure exactly what that is,” she said.)
“I have felt bad about this activity that’s going on right now,” she said, referring to the #MeToo movement that’s swept through other statehouses around the country, “because I have never been treated with anything but respect and kindness from the men that I worked with. I never thought twice about it being a woman’s job.”
She can recall one time, and one time only, that she felt any sense of humiliation at work: On her first day serving on the Appropriations committee, 29 years ago, she sat down prematurely and was chastised by an older male legislator, an embarrassing story that sticks with her to this day. She was flustered — but, she’s careful to clarify, not hurt.
“There’s protocol there,” she said matter-of-factly. “And I know that now, and I didn’t know then.”
She estimates that roughly half of the legislative committees today are helmed by women — the percentage is actually closer to one-quarter — who make up about a third of the legislature overall. But Bell doesn’t count things that way.
“I figure, if you want to stay home and raise your family, that’s a very good thing, because that’s a group of people I don’t have to find some health and welfare for,” she said. “And if you want to be a city councilwoman, that’s a very good thing.”
An increase in the number of women in leadership roles is not the only change Bell has witnessed in the statehouse over the past 30 sessions. She laments what she calls a decline in civility, coupled with an increase in small, polarized caucuses.
Civility is important to Bell. Some nights, she and Jack mute the television so they don’t have to listen to the “chaotic” discourse on the national news.
“It’s an embarrassment to me,” she said, shaking her head. “Because I’m not used to somebody who calls names and tweets and that type of thing. So you just kind of keep your head down and hope that things calm down a bit.
“And yet,” she added with a sigh, “you’re happy that there’s less regulations.”
Bell, who identifies as a fiscal conservative, sees women of her ilk as misunderstood in the current political climate. Working in the budget, she tries to keep in mind all the things taxpayers could have spent their money on instead: new shoes, a college fund, a sofa. But when it comes to helping others, she sees herself as less conservative than some of her colleagues.
“If you’re blind, if you’re lame, if you’re a child with health [problems], there has to be a reason for us as a group of people to help each other,” she said. “So if that’s conservatism, no government in my life, then I’m not there.”
Growing fractions within the Republican Party, in Idaho and elsewhere, have brought that question to the forefront in recent years: What does it mean to be conservative? For a while, Bell felt a rise in sentiment among Idaho Republicans that she and others with similar worldviews were RINOs — Republicans In Name Only. She hasn’t heard that term so much lately, but still does on occasion.
“It seems like there are a few that are always wanting to say that the rest of us are not constitutionally-minded and not careful,” she said. “I took the same oath they did…and it’s just as important to me to uphold our constitution. I don’t have to stand up and talk about it.”
Bell’s advice for whoever takes her seat next session: stay open-minded, and avoid falling into a “small group that coalesces around one view of the world.”
And her advice for her party in the years to come: “I think the Republican Party in Idaho will have to be very careful, with the power it has and the numbers they have, to remember that there are other views and to treat them with courtesy and respect.”
What will Maxine Bell miss most about the legislature? The people. And her office.
“I stayed too long,” she said, her voice quivering slightly. “I should never have stayed so long. Because it became too big a part of my life.”
Though she’s looking forward to spending more time with her husband, their house isn’t as full as it once was. Two of their sons have passed away and the third now lives in Idaho Falls; they have no grandchildren in the area.
“This is my family, in a way,” she said of her fellow lawmakers and staff. “If you want to use the word career, I guess that’s kind of what it is. But it’s more than that.”
In the last week of the session, Bell is invited, per annual tradition, to preside over the House chamber for a few bills, acting as Speaker of the House.
Standing before her friends and colleagues at the front of the Idaho House, she ends her short tenure as Speaker Pro Tem with a bang of the gavel.
“The House will now be at ease,” she announces with a self-deprecating chuckle, “and I bet you’re so glad.”
The House chamber rises in thunderous, lasting applause, and the most powerful woman in Idaho sits down.