Freshman reflects on her first year

Your vote matters — one of the most important things Rep. Janie Ward-Engelking said she learned during her short career in politics.

Even though she’s a freshman Democrat in a predominately Republican Legislature, Ward-Engelking has been convinced during her five months as a lawmaker that her decisions will affect Idaho and its children. That’s why she takes her job very seriously.

  • She has perfect attendance.
  • She responds to every constituent who contacts her.
  • She’s not afraid to ask questions in committee, even though she’s often on the losing side of party-line votes.
  • She writes a weekly newsletter.
  • She hired her own intern to help her research bills so she can make the most informed decisions possible.
  • She attends most every evening reception so she can meet as many people and hear their views.
Ilah Hickman
Janie Ward-Engelking enjoyed her first session as a freshman lawmaker for the Idaho House of Representatives.

“I have an opportunity to serve and I want to do the very best I can,’’ Ward-Engelking said. “There’s so much history and I’m standing on the shoulders of people who made a difference. I’m hoping I can make a difference.”

Ward-Engelking learned early in her political career that every vote matters. She lost her first election in 2010 by seven votes in Boise’s District 18 to Julie Ellsworth. More than seven friends and family members apologized afterward for not voting.

“It was a lesson learned for all of us. My children now know that their vote counts,” she said. “It is a reminder to me how important it is to vote and to be an informed voter.”

She was determined to win her next election in the fall of 2012. She knocked on doors six days a week for eight months and won by more than 2,000 votes.

“I put in a lot of time,” she said. “I learned a great amount of information. I learned what was important to people. Some would say, ‘I’m a Republican and you’re not going to get my vote,’ but I still wanted to hear what they had to say.”

Though Ward-Engelking is a lifelong Democrat, she’s not opposed to supporting a Republican or a Republican idea. She worked on campaigns for Republican legislators Ruby Stone, John Andreason and Sheila Sorensen.

“I support the best person, not always the party,” she said.

Most of her votes this session stayed on party lines, but she said she welcomes learning from other points of view. She was named to the governor’s education task force that includes 31 education leaders from a variety of backgrounds.

“I was skeptical at first because there are so many people on the task force but now I think we can effect positive progress,” she said.

Ward-Engelking retired after 33 years of teaching in the Boise and Caldwell school districts. Her husband was a teacher and both of her parents taught school. They also owned a dairy farm in Notus. She’s proud of her Idaho roots and is using her background in two keys areas of government — education and farming — to help form Idaho’s policies.

What are Ward-Engelking’s impressions from her first legislative session?

What is most difficult? Trying to attend all the evening social events. After a full day at the Statehouse, “I tried to go to everything and it about killed me,” she said. “I knew I would be working hard, but you are never done.”

What is most surprising? The process. “We actually voted to print an RS (or “routing slip” or draft legislation) that we haven’t read.”

Did she gain a new perspective? Most people are trying to do the right thing. “Teachers ask me ‘why do they hate us?’ and I tell teachers that’s not true. Sometimes it appears more negative to them than it really is. Everyone has the same goal, but there isn’t enough money, so we’re all desperately looking for tools. I better understand where the other side is coming from.”

Ward-Engelking has met with Karen Echeverria, the executive director of the Idaho School Boards Association, to discuss bills. “While we did not agree on all the issues, we did agree that we need to work on funding for K-12 public education. She has been very gracious and nice to work with.”

What is most disturbing? “There is a tremendous amount of politics happening behind the scenes.”

What is the best part? The people.  “I’ve been so impressed with everyone, not just the legislators, but the lobbyists and the staff. We have very diverse views and we don’t agree on a lot of things but I’ve found everyone to be genuinely good people.”

Who is one of her favorites? Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, the Republican chairman of the House Education Committee. Ward-Engelking is a member of that committee. “He’s so polite and respectful. I appreciate that.”

Who is most reliable? The Democratic caucus. “If I didn’t have them to help, I’d really be in trouble.” Ward-Engelking sits by long-time Democrat lawmakers Donna Pence and Shirley Ringo, who have been more than helpful, she said.

What needs to change? Balance. “We would have better discussions if we had more balance in the Legislature.”

What is her biggest concern? Valuing the opinion of teachers. “Teachers are very unhappy about bringing up labor and negotiation issues.  It sets a negative tone for teachers and I want them to by-in to this whole idea that we can change education.”

What was her favorite legislation? The personal property tax bill. “It was a really good compromise. I loved that part of it.”

What about the struggle? “Some days you feel beat up and I need to get better at accepting that because I want to be a positive voice.”

Any lesson learned? Nothing is permanent. “We can come back and fix things next year if we don’t get it right today.”

Any other first-year lessons?

  • Protocol — “Confusing … Mr. Speaker … Good Lady …”
  • Dress code — “I’m supposed to wear a jacket every day.”
  • Sitting — “Hours and hours a day … sitting is new for me.”
  • Heavy debate happens in committee not on the floor — “That’s the place where the real work happens.”

“It’s very humbling, exciting and challenging. I look forward to coming back next year,” she said.