Idaho is a red state. Much of the country went Democratic last November, but Idaho saw all its statewide races go Republican, as well as both of its House seats. And no race drew as much attention as Republican Bill Sali's campaign to represent Idaho's First Congressional District.
The First District has long been home to eccentric figures, most notably the late Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage, who during her congressional campaigns famously held "endangered salmon bakes" to protest the 1973 Endangered Species Act. With Sali running to replace Republican Butch Otter, who retired from Congress to run a successful gubernatorial bid, the district once again featured a candidate who was no stranger to publicity.
A great deal of lore surrounds Sali and his 16 years in the Idaho House. Born outside of Idaho, Sali moved to the state when he was eight years old. As a child, he says, he never dreamed of getting into politics. "When I was in high school," he said in a recent phone interview, "there were two things I knew I didn't want to do. One was be a lawyer, and the other was be in politics. And I ended up doing both."
Sali's tenure in the Idaho House was not without theatrics. Years ago, when Republican congressman Mike Simpson was the speaker of the Idaho House, he got so fed up with Sali that he threatened to throw him out of a window. While no defenestration occurred, it would not be the last time Sali clashed with a leader of his own party.
Perhaps his most famous confrontation came in April 2006. Nearing the close of the legislative session, a bill set to strengthen penalties for violating the state's informed consent law--which mandates that doctors inform women seeking abortions about fetal development--came before the chamber. A longtime pro-life activist, Sali made a controversial speech on the floor making a causal link between abortion and breast cancer.
According to local press covering the session, as Sali spoke, the state House's minority leader, Democrat Wendy Jaquet, began to look visibly disturbed. Jaquet is a breast cancer survivor. The Republican House speaker, Bruce Newcomb, temporarily called a halt to Sali's speech. He told Sali that there were enough votes to pass the bill, so there was no need to be unnecessarily provocative. "Why stick your finger in people's eyes?" he reportedly asked Sali, referring to Jaquet.
But Sali pressed on. He kept alluding to the highly debatable and, according to the American Cancer Society, still unproven linkage between abortion and breast cancer. Jaquet left the chamber. Speaker Newcomb was forced to order an early recess. "That idiot is just an absolute idiot," Newcomb told the press afterward. "He doesn't have one ounce of empathy in his whole fricking body. And you can put that in the paper."
Despite his rocky relationship with other Idaho Republicans, Sali, backed by the Club for Growth, won the Republican congressional nomination with just over a quarter of the votes cast in the crowded primary. He went on to win the general election over Democratic businessman Larry Grant, 50 percent to 45 percent, a closer margin than expected in the overwhelmingly Republican First District.
Asked about some of his past problems with his fellow partisans, Sali told me that he is "not spending a lot of time looking in the rearview mirror." He added that he and Rep. Simpson--his would-be defenestrator--"have a good relationship at this point." And he blames the media for his controversial image. "I'm trying to remember if there was a single incident where the media came to me and asked me what I thought," he said. "You know, they were always printing one side without coming to hear what the response was. I can't say it happened every single time, but it seemed to happen way more often than not."
On the phone, Sali doesn't quite live up to his controversial reputation. He speaks calmly and rationally about an array of topics. Asked about Iraq, for example, he goes into a wide ranging discussion about "what Islamic jihadists are up to," tracing what he considers the "three revolutions in Islam that kind of explain where we are today": from the rise of Wahhabism to the ascension of Ayatollah Khomeini to the founding of al Qaeda.
Recently Sali was elected president of the 13-member GOP freshman class, the smallest such class in over a decade. He had been urged to run for the position by freshman Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado. Lamborn said that he urged Sali to run because he admired "his strong conservative values," his "willingness to take a stand," and his "leadership ability." Asked whether Sali's reputation gave him any pause, Lamborn said he was "skeptical about local media," and added that he understands that tough things get said in contentious races, since he ran in a crowded primary too.
As freshman president, Sali has adopted an agenda that shows his pragmatic side. Besides bringing in speakers to help the new Republican members learn their way around the Capitol, Sali wants to "arrange social events with the Democrat freshmen" because "these are people who we're going to have to work with in the majority to move legislation." Instead of burning bridges, Sali seems to want to build them.
But how long before he lights a torch? While Sali is reasonable and collected over the phone, his contentious past always looms in the background. Was the controversy he generated in Idaho the result of media bias and thin skins? Or is Sali exactly what he is portrayed to be, a dogmatic ideologue unable to get along with members of his own party, much less the opposition? Will he be the right's version of Cynthia McKinney, or the "compassionate, hard working, thinking kind of guy" he claims he is?
Jamie Weinstein is a reporter in Washington.