Tuesday, July 16, 2019
Michelle Stennett Takes the Middle Road
Michelle Stennett likes to sneak out to jog with her faithful golden retriever Teagan when not reading through proposed bills.
Friday, November 2, 2018


Michelle Stennett was that little girl who was always trying to make peace on the playground.

That calm fair demeanor has served her well as Democratic minority leader of the Idaho Senate.

“I’ve always been a mediator—the one trying to make it right. I always felt very strongly about defending the person being picked on, about giving a voice to those who didn’t have a voice. And you’ll find me in the middle. I want good policy. And I would rather get something good, than take an all-or-nothing stand,” she said.

Michelle Stennett, who owns a small farm, has dubbed her saddle blanket “Senate Stennett.”

The Wisconsin native, who is running for her fourth two-year term as District 26 senator, learned early how governments can fail their people.

At 16 she participated in a family exchange program that took her to Lima, Peru, where she found herself living in the middle of curfews and tanks and guns in the streets as the country unraveled.

“I thought, ‘Wow! I’m not back in the United States, anymore!’ ” she recounted.

After earning a degree in international relations and environmental studies at the University of Oregon, she worked with various programs, such as the Freedom from Hunger Project providing sanitization and water filtration systems in places like Nairobi.

She was working with a program trying to provide food for Ethiopians when she saw how the Ethiopian government asserted its control leaving food stockpiled at the border and at airports as its people starved.

To add insult to injury, she said, the United States sent old corn that farmers wouldn’t even feed to animals. The coarse mealy corn tore up stomachs that had been rendered delicate and distended from hunger.

“We had to grind it up into a porridge so they could digest it, and it didn’t have a lot of nutritional value,” recalled Stennett. “It was a real eye opener for me to see this country coming apart at seams amidst a ruthless government. And, I also saw countries that pretended to help but really just wanted to get into the country for political gain.”

Stennett never envisioned herself serving in government.

That changed when she moved to Sun Valley and met a young state senator named Clint Stennett shaking people’s hands at the Basque Center in Boise. They married in 1996 and the quiet, reserved Michelle became thrust into the very public life of the charismatic senator.

On one occasion, the two were at a county fair when a fairgoer approached Clint and rambled on for 10 minutes before concluding “I’m so glad we had this conversation. It’s so nice to know we think alike.”

“You didn’t say two words,” Michelle said.

“Yeah, but he doesn’t know that,” Clint replied. “He just wanted someone to listen.”

“That has served me well since,” said Stennett. “I learned that you don’t need to grandstand. You just need to listen, do your homework and come up with creative solutions.”

Clint was the longest serving minority leader in the Idaho Senate over a 20-year stint in the legislature before succumbing to a brain tumor. Michelle completed the term he was unable to complete and then was elected in her own right. She has served as minority leader since 2012.

The kitchen table in Stennett’s log home tucked away in West Ketchum boasts piles of studies three and four inches high.

“I get asked all the time to give my opinion on everything from climate change to Medicaid expansion. I vote coming from as much information as I can,” she said.

Stennett must examine between 600 and 800 pieces of legislation per year, even though most will never reach the floor for debate.

One of her favorite piece of legislation was proposed by a fourth-grader who wanted to make a certain salamander the state amphibian. She The Senate committee applauded her efforts, but the House committee turned her down three times.

The girl continued to meet with legislators one by one and on the fourth year it made it out of committee.

“It was a lesson for her that sometimes it makes no sense why the legislators are against something. But if you’re tenacious, you may persevere,” Stennett said. “It takes a long time for things to gain traction. If you’ve got a cause you’ve got to be loud and unrelenting.”

Everything that affects Idahoans—from plumbing codes to water rights—has rules and regulations that have been enacted by the legislature, Stennett said. And she has a litmus test for determining whether she will vote yay or nay.

The proposed laws have to make life better for Idahoans, she said. And they have to be constitutional.

“Sometimes people propose things that I love. But, if it’s not written properly, I have to tell them, ‘Let’s do it right—it has to be enforceable.’ ”

At the forefront of Stennett’s concerns this year is better education and health care.

“We’ve been grandstanding about health care for six years. Now, Medicaid expansion is on the ballot, and, if it passes, we’ve got to pay attention and do something about it. And, regardless of whether the bill passes, health care problems not going away,” she said.

The state needs to find ways to teach trades from plumbing to technical careers in the medical field, Stennett said.

“There will be 49,000 jobs by 2024 that we won’t have a work force for. We’re looking at a mountain of jobs in health care that need new workers due to people who are preparing to retire.”

Stennett laments out-of-state interests trying to influence Idaho politics via mail and social media.

“Since 9-11 we’ve been told to be afraid. And, with the downturn of the economy, many feel  hoodwinked. Anger and fear are motivators in politics as people act from emotion, rather than being thoughtful and analytical. It hurts my soul to see our nation being so angry and afraid.”

Stennett and her challenger Julie Lynn raised eyebrows when people saw them giggling together at a recent debate in Shoshone.

“We’re neighbors—that’s the way it should be,” Stennett said. “I try to keep on the up and up by never talking about my opponent. I say, ‘This is who I am and this is what I bring to the table. Judge me on that.’ I want people to make choices based on facts.”

Stennett said she genuinely likes all her colleagues in the legislature.

“They were my friends before I took the seat. And 80 percent of the bills we do we do together—across party lines. But all you hear about is the divisive 20 percent. We do a lot of hard work—back-and-forth relationship building. We are very firm about debating the issue and not the person.”

TO LEARN ABOUT JULIE LYNN, check out Eye on Sun Valley’s story, “Julie Lynn Chooses Against the Convenient Path,” which ran Oct. 29.


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