Friday, March 12, 2010

Michelle Stennett finds new home in Senate

Sitting in for husband, Clint, has proved challenging and rewarding

Express Staff Writer

Michelle Stennett, left, has spent two months at the Idaho Senate filling in for her husband, Clint, right, who is recovering from brain cancer. Photo by Mountain Express

It's to be expected that a rookie state senator would feel somewhat uncomfortable taking to the floor for the first time.

For Michelle Stennett, however, her long association with the inner workings of Idaho's political scene has made her transition into the fold much smoother.

Michelle Stennett has been standing in for her husband, Sen. Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, since the beginning of the 2010 Legislature as Clint continues to recover from brain cancer.

With Clint recuperating in Boise, Michelle has been able to rely on his expertise on issues and use him as a mentor as the legislative session hits the two-month mark.

"I went in without any expectations," she said. "Although I had an idea of the nuts and bolts from spending time around Clint, I had no clear picture about how it actually worked in the trenches. I think a lot of latitude has been given to me because of respect [the other senators] already have for Clint."

Stennett said her first two months have gone "remarkably well," in part because of this respect afforded to her, as well as from her approach to the session.

"I feel like I've established a good camaraderie with everyone by simply looking for information rather than being combative," she said. "So all the senators have been a dream to work with, even if I'm disagreeing with them."

Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, who also represents District 25, said she has been getting feedback from both Democrats and Republicans that Michelle has taken quickly to her new position.

"Everyone is saying she's asking really good questions," Jaquet said. "I think she's serving the interest of the district really well."

Jaquet said that even asking questions can be difficult for first-time senators, as there is an unwritten rule that they keep their mouths shut for the first month to get the lay of the land in the Capitol and build relationships within both parties.


Stennett said the tension in the Legislature is about to be turned up a notch now that the Joint Finance Appropriations Committee has set a budget for the upcoming fiscal year. The committee adopted $2.29 billion as the revenue target for next year's budget, a significant decrease from the $2.506 billion approved during the 2009 legislative session.

Stennett said one of the most emotional challenges on the horizon will be deliberations on setting a budget for public schools.

"This could put smaller schools in jeopardy," she said of possible cuts. "It's going to be a huge debate."

So far, Stennett said, she has yet to be very vocal about bills that have come onto the Senate floor, choosing instead to gain a greater understanding of the issues at hand.

"I haven't done a lot carrying [of bills] because I think I need more background and knowledge," she said. "I also have a role of asking what the person on the ground would ask. I think leaders can sometimes forget and lapse into shop talk that's difficult for regular people to understand."

Jaquet said that institutional knowledge is perhaps the biggest difference between having Michelle Stennett and her husband, who was Senate minority leader, in the seat.

To get up to speed as quickly as possible, Stennett said she has taken to reading every piece of legislative paper she can get her hands on.

"The [Senate] pages tease me because I'm always stealing paperwork to take back and study," she said. "I think I'm the only one that does that. But it's helpful to have this background for someone who hasn't heard about the issues again and again."

One issue that is in the forefront of her consciousness, however, is the health of her husband.

The pair left Thursday for California, where they have hospital appointments every two months to evaluate Clint's progress.

"He's doing well and moving forward, but it's baby steps right now," Stennett said of her husband's recovery from cancer, which he was diagnosed with in early 2008. "I feel very blessed that he's making progress."

Stennett said Clint has had a "slight setback" with some swelling in his brain due to past procedures. An MRI this weekend will be able to tell if the swelling is completely gone.

"My first priority is to get Clint well. I'm always keeping that first in mind," she said.

Another issue the pair will soon have to tackle is whether he will run for re-election this fall.

Stennett said their doctor's opinion will play an important role in determining whether Clint will get back into politics this year, and, if not, whether she will undertake a campaign herself.

"We're sorting out the details and have to make a decision pretty quickly," she said.

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