Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Pence opens ears at Capitol

First year legislator learns from senior counterparts

Express Staff Writer

Donna Pence

For the first time in 40 years, Donna Pence is a freshman.

As a first-year lawmaker in Idaho's House of Representatives, Pence is the newest Statehouse politician representing District 25, which includes Blaine, Lincoln, Camas and Gooding counties.

The Democrat is in her third month as a first-year lawmaker, and she said during a recent interview between debates on the House floor that she is still trying to listen and learn as much as possible.

"There's an old quote I remember that goes, 'It's better to stay quiet and let people wonder what you're thinking than to speak up and prove you don't know what you're talking about,'" she said. "I think I'm doing some good, and I'm just sitting back, listening and learning. I'll become even more effective as I learn."

She said she introduced several bills this winter, but the legislation was not a product of her own agenda. The various bills originated with state agencies and were assigned by committee chairs. Nonetheless, they afforded Pence the opportunity to learn about the process of making laws.

"Any time you have a bill, you better do your research and know every little thing people could say or think about it," she said.

A Gooding tree farmer and retired teacher, Pence ousted incumbent Republican Rep. Tim Ridinger in November. Ridinger was a veteran lawmaker from Shoshone, and it took Pence two attempts to unseat him in a district known for electing Democrats. In November 2002, she lost by 144 votes. In November 2004, she won by 96 votes.

But the intense door-to-door campaigning that helped get her elected was only the first step up a mountain of work.

"I think I expected the work," she said. "I expected there to be a lot of information. I think the thing I probably didn't expect were all the social responsibilities. It took a lot of time away from studying."

Pence said lawmakers sometimes seem to engage in an endless string of social events with lobbyists and other legislators. But building relationships is a big part of the job, and the events afford the opportunity to shake a lot of hands. Nonetheless, they have kept the new lawmaker on her toes.

One event in particular helped form lasting relationships she said are paying off as she continues as a lawmaker.

As one of 22 freshmen working at the Idaho Capitol this year, she attended a four-day orientation that was designed to give new lawmakers a rundown on everything from ethics to drafting a bill.

"I've developed a lot of relationships with a lot of the freshman legislators. We were really all in the same boat. We didn't know where we were. Shoot, we didn't know where the bathrooms were."

One lesson sticks out in Pence's mind, and it's not because it made a big impression on her during orientation.

"At the time, I didn't really think too much of it," she said, reflecting on her orientation ethics instruction. "But this Jack Noble situation has come to pass."

Noble, a two-term Republican Senator from Kuna, resigned March 7 following an ethics committee investigation that determined he perjured himself over trying to pass legislation that would have benefited his family business.

"You can see how something can escalate," Pence said. "If you do make a mistake, it's best to come clean. Honesty is the best policy. I've always maintained that, but it was really driven home."

As the newest Democratic lawmaker in a district that also includes the House and Senate minority leaders, Pence is low lawmaker on the totem pole, but she also has readily available mentors eager to help her learn.

"I think she's doing really well," said House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum. "She's been working very hard."

Along with Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, and Pence, the district is well represented, Jaquet said.

"We've got the senior statesman (Stennett), the worker bee (Jaquet) and the new worker bee (Pence)," she said.

And Pence, who starts her days at 5:30 a.m. at the Boise YMCA, has been working hard. She often doesn't leave the Capitol until 8 p.m.

"I feel a real obligation to know about what all the bills in these committees are about," she said, adding that she is continuing to develop contacts throughout the statehouse and particularly in other committees. She is talking with lawmakers on both sides of the isle.

This winter's legislative session could draw to a close later this week. When it does, Donna Pence will have completed the first year of an education that's guaranteed for only two years.

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