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Congressional candidate rubs leaders of GOP the wrong way

Dan Popkey
April 7, 2006
Idaho Statesman

Few voters know it, but the leading GOP candidate in the race to succeed U.S. Rep. C.L. "Butch" Otter is a pariah in his own party.

On Wednesday, however, Rep. Bill Sali confronted House Speaker Bruce Newcomb and revealed for all to see the hostility he's earned for not being a team player. Thursday morning, Newcomb stripped Sali of his committee assignments for the session's final days; on Thursday afternoon, Newcomb rescinded his action.

Sali, R-Kuna, asked Newcomb to split into three bills the House's property-tax relief bill, which included a 11/4-cent increase in the sales tax and an increase in the homeowner's exemption. Newcomb declined and told the House he would resign if members backed Sali. Newcomb won a 65-2 vote, cementing a package that had the best chance of passage. The bill passed the House Wednesday, but it died Thursday in the Senate.

Sali said he was right about splitting the tax bill, and he called Newcomb vindictive.

Sali's lone ally was Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona. Newcomb took Loertscher's committee assignments away, too. But Newcomb's chief lieutenant, Majority Leader Lawerence Denney, persuaded Newcomb to retreat. "When you root with pigs, you get dirty. Don't stoop to their level," Denney advised.

"I didn't want to go out that way," said Newcomb, who is retiring after a record eight years as speaker. Newcomb still accomplished his larger aim: He wants to signal voters that electing Sali — an outcast because of his self-righteousness and refusal to compromise — would be a mistake.

Sali is the top money raiser in the six-way GOP primary May 23 for the 1st Congressional District seat held by C.L. "Butch" Otter, who is running for governor. He'd banked $244,000 by Dec. 31, nearly double his nearest rival, Sheila Sorensen.

Almost all Sali's cash came from out of state, thanks to an endorsement from Club for Growth, a national antitax group. GOP leaders fear Sali will win, boosting prospects for likely Democratic nominee Larry Grant in a year when control of Congress is in doubt.

Enmity toward Sali has bubbled in recent weeks. At an Otter for Governor fund-raiser last month, Newcomb was roasted as the guest of honor. Former state Rep. Bev Montgomery of Caldwell asked if Sali was in the room. He wasn't, but her question won a laugh.

She told a story of getting so frustrated with Sali she was ready to kill him. "Don't worry," she said Newcomb told her, "it'll be justifiable homicide." Bigger laugh.

It's one thing for an ex-lawmaker to poke fun. But Otter also made Sali a punch line of a joke involving former speaker and now-U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho.

"Bruce has been a great speaker of the House," Otter said. "And as he told me, he learned everything that he knows from Mike Simpson. And that is why every time he has a bad day, he goes and beats the hell out of Bill Sali."

Another big laugh.

The prospect of Sali representing Idaho in Congress is no joke. His 16-year record in the Legislature raises doubts about how effective he would be in Congress.

As chairman of the Health and Welfare Committee, he focused on abortion legislation that wound up costing taxpayers when it was deemed unconstitutional. But he couldn't achieve consensus on critical reform of the ever-more-costly Medicaid program. After two years of warnings, Newcomb replaced Sali in 2004 as chairman. This year, under Chairwoman Sharon Block, R-Twin Falls, reforms have been enacted.

In 2002, Sali angered colleagues when he said in a deposition that he was still "better than most" legislators despite his claim that he suffered from "brain fade" and impaired memory as a result of a car wreck.

"How shall I say this?" Sali said. "Much of the time in the Legislature, critical-thinking skills are not necessarily needed."

Simpson and Newcomb are best friends. Simpson has built enormous clout after eight years in Congress. He can't stand Sali, either.

After Wednesday's flap, Simpson finally spoke on the record about a fabled incident when Simpson was speaker and Sali was criticizing a measure supported by Simpson and Newcomb. Newcomb says Sali was telling colleagues that Simpson was "a liar." Talking to Sali by phone when they were both on the House floor, Simpson said, he told Sali to "stop lying" about the measure.

Simpson then told Sali: "If you want to debate this, I'll put the House at ease and we can go back into my office and I'll throw you out the window."

Sali then reported Simpson's bullying to the House sergeant at arms. "I felt threatened," Sali told me Thursday. "I just wanted to make sure there wasn't going to be anything."

Simpson said he was irritated but had no intention of assaulting Sali. He added, however, that as House colleagues heard the story, many told him, "The third floor wasn't high enough. You should have taken him up to the fourth floor."

But Sali said he can work with Simpson and other leaders. "Nobody likes being the butt of a joke, but I'm about doing what's right for the people. I worked with Mike Simpson quite well on all but a couple of occasions. As long as he doesn't have a problem working with me, everything should work out just fine."

Simpson is backing Sorensen, but said he will support and work with the winner of the GOP primary.

Sali said he was happy to let folks know about Newcomb's punishment. He handed out copies of a letter barring him from committees. Gary Glenn, a Sali confidant and former Ada County commissioner, has said Sali will wear conflict with Newcomb as a badge of honor.

"Politics is a full-contact sport," Sali said, "and I think people are smart enough to figure out who's right and who's not."

Sali wouldn't say how much new money he's raised, but reports are due April 15. He's papered the district with glossy mailings and aired radio ads.

Should Sali continue to rake in cash, look for the GOP establishment to step up efforts to undermine him.

Originally posted at

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