Bill Roden’s obituary told a story about him I can’t recall ever having heard, certainly not from him, and it may explain a lot about who he was and why he had the effect on people he did.
During World War II, internment camps were set up around the American West to hold large numbers of Japanese-Americans. Roden’s parents, then federal employees, were among those assigned to manage the camps—first one in Topaz, Utah, then at Hunt in Idaho—and their young boy came with them. Roden’s parents were deeply opposed to the internment, and in protest they moved in with the Japanese while working there, bringing their son with them. That was how Roden spent part of his childhood: Absorbing what happens when we treat people so abominably.
He didn’t forget. A quarter-century later, as a state senator in Idaho, he wrote and pushed through the state’s first civil rights law.
Roden, who died on July 8 at 90, has been known in more recent years for other things, such as being the most influential Idaho lobbyist of the last half-century. But to chat and drink coffee with him, as I have over the years, is to see the two aspects of the man as one.
Back in the 80s and early 90s I occasionally cobbled together lists of the most influential lobbyists, usually based on recommendations from legislators. The lists were always interesting to compile, but not because of any curiosity about whose name would be on top of the list. That was always Bill Roden.
And it wasn’t because of his client roster or his deep contacts at the Statehouse; it had more to do with the sense you got of the integrity and decency of the man. The irony is that although he once was an elected official—a state senator, the last one elected by all of Ada County when it was a single legislative district—and a highly capable one at that, it’s what he did in the decades after that made him such a major figure in Idaho.
When Martin Peterson and I wrote a book about the 100 most influential Idahoans in the state’s history, he made that list too, at number 83—one of the few people still living we allowed on the list. Roden would be on that list today, though no longer among the living.
Here’s some of what we wrote about him in 2012:
“How to assess the influence of a lobbyist, who pursues not so much an individual, personal agenda, but rather that of an employer; and whose influence is filtered through that of the people he tries to influence? How to do it, moreover, when much of what that lobbyist does is far from visible, when his actions leave only subtle traces? There’s no perfect answer.”
But we argued that Bill Roden, a Boise attorney, and central figure in Idaho government and politics for half a century and more, clearly had enormous impact: “When it comes to persuading the Idaho legislature to do something, Roden has for decades been considered the top pick by far. That surely translates to placement on this list.”
Roden set the pattern and mold for lobbying in Idaho’s capital, which—owing in no small part to his influence—tends to be a good deal more straightforward and honorable than many Idahoans might suspect. But he also quietly advocated for many things and served in all kinds of civic roles. He was one of those people who helped to keep the peace when politics would get a little too ugly and intense.
We need more Bill Rodens around these days. We really need them.