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Voters rejected Chmelik for his style



Andrew Ottoson

If you’ve asked the people you know who voted why they think Idaho County Commissioner Jim Chmelik lost, they’ve probably already told you what they’ve been telling us: Mainly, they just don’t like his style.

That’s odd, because Chmelik’s touchstone idea appears popular. Late last month Idaho Politics Weekly pegged the main idea Chmelik has championed – that states should control what is presently federal land – at 73 percent approval.

Yet statewide primary voters went 2-1 against Chmelik when he ran on the concept two years ago and local Republican primary voters went 2-1 against him in mid-May. The statewide voters might not have recognized his name, but the locals certainly do.

It begs the question: why did local Republicans go so strongly against the man with the public land transfer plan?

Ask Chmelik why he lost and he’ll probably tell you the same two main things he told us: One, that environmentalists took out political ads against him; and two, that while he will continue to stick to his principles about it, the Lochsa Land Exchange put him on the wrong side of a whole lot of voters.

Chmelik astutely made public lands his touchstone issue because practically everyone in the county can see the trouble on the horizon. Our whole region saw last August how desperately public land management agencies are struggling to keep pace with the amount of work that must be done to strengthen local forests against ever-higher fire risks.

But Chmelik’s approach makes it very difficult to separate voters’ rejection of him from the possibility that voters reject his main idea. Chmelik has traveled far and wide in the name of putting the land transfer concept into writing, and environmentalists have put up strong public opposition. Moreover, Chmelik has held himself out as a lightning rod, making sharply worded denunciations of environmentalists for many years. His caustic attitude toward them makes it obvious why environmentalists would fund a campaign against him, even if it meant supporting others with whom they might ultimately disagree.

(The commissioner-elect, Denis Duman, supports Rep. Raul Labrador’s plan to put 200,000 acres of federal land under state management.)

In the course of losing the last vote, Chmelik evidently stopped distinguishing his political opponents from one another, but given survey results as well as this region’s well-known general support for the timber industry, his move appears mistaken.

After the campaign, Chmelik lobbed some of the same darts at Lochsa Land Exchange opponents that he has long been flinging at groups like Friends of the Clearwater, Idaho Rivers United and, more recently, Idaho Conservation League. Specifically, he zinged local land trade opposition organizers Ray Anderson and Bob Mangold in a “turnabout” column he wrote for the Lewiston Tribune’s op-ed page, in which he lumped these men together with his usual bogeymen:

“The threat to our community is unrelenting from the environmental industry, and we seem content to get in bed with them. A recent sunshine report of Citizens for Idaho County, the group Ray Anderson and Bob Mangold organized, revealed they have received $4,000 from Sportsmen for Idaho, which shares the same post office box as Conservation Voters for Action Idaho - and they are both tied directly to the Idaho Conservation League.”

We make no analysis of Chmelik’s claim against those men, except this: Not everyone who opposed the Lochsa Land Exchange also opposes, for example, the post-fire salvage logging over which environmentalists have repeatedly taken the Forest Service to federal court. Nor does everyone who opposed the Lochsa Land Exchange favor tighter regulation of Salmon River mining. Examples abound. The point is: The people who care about public land are numerous and not everyone who cares about public land issues cares about them in the same way.

If Chmelik truly can no longer tell his opponents apart – if he’s unwilling to reconsider the parts of his approach that bring diverse people together against him – he should make his most recent run for office the last of his career.


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