Democrat Steve Berch has spent more money losing — almost $100,000 — in the last two Idaho elections than most winners. But he now has a relatively well-known opponent he aims to define as a conservative religious bigot in West Boise’s closely contested District 15.
Rather than run again for the House “Seat B” he lost by a 53 percent to 47 percent margin to Republican Mark Patterson in 2012, Berch has set his aim on four-term GOP Rep. Lynn Luker, a voluble and respected lawyer whose religious freedom bills were among the most controversial measures of the 2014 session.
Berch says Luker, chairman of the House Ethics Committee, “pursues a narrow, personal legislative agenda” and “dreams up solutions for problems that don’t exist while ignoring the real needs and opportunities for West Boise.”
Luker withdrew House Bill 427 last month, though it had cleared the House State Affairs Committee after a hearing drew 500 people, most of them opponents.
HB 427 was aimed at permitting businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians — Luker cited examples of refusing to bake wedding cakes and take wedding photos for same-sex couples — based on religious beliefs.
Luker was preparing floor amendments when House Speaker Scott Bedke intervened, suggesting a “thoughtful pause.” Luker ultimately withdrew HB 427 as a similar measure was getting national attention in Arizona. The Arizona bill was vetoed after threats of boycotts and other economic sanctions. Idaho GOP Gov. Butch Otter congratulated Gov. Jan Brewer for her veto, but declined to say what he would have done had Luker’s bill reached his desk.
Stung by opponents who considered him an anti-gay bigot, Luker said HB 427 was “misinterpreted as a sword for discrimination. I respect the concerns that I heard and therefore want to find the right language to balance those concerns.”
Luker said he would work on the bill for the 2015 session.
A companion measure, House Bill 426, never got a hearing after the Idaho attorney general’s office said it likely was unconstitutional. HB 426 would have barred the state from denying, suspending or revoking any occupational license or registration if a professional had denied service to a person based on religion. It exempted from the religious freedom provision workers performing emergency public safety duties.
Now, Berch seeks to use Luker’s notoriety and coins a phrase reminiscent of the “Luna Laws” — branding HB 426 and 427 as the “Luker Laws” — though unlike the 2011 school reforms championed by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna and overturned by voters, Luker’s bills never became law.
“Mr. Luker made his priorities clear,” Berch says in a news release announcing his candidacy. “His sponsorship of discriminatory, job-killing bills in the 2014 session, known as the ‘Luker Laws,’ would create a ‘freedom to discriminate’ against those who do not share a business owner’s personal beliefs. This is the same type of legislation also introduced in Arizona this year that is damaging that state’s reputation and hurting its economy.”
Luker replied that Berch’s statement “perpetuates misinformation and mischaracterization about the religious freedom bills that I sponsored earlier in the session. It also reflects a philosophy by Mr. Berch of desiring increasing government control over our lives and in the economy which is not shared by the majority of District 15 voters.”
Berch, who moved to Idaho in 1981 to work for Hewlett-Packard, was elected to the board of the Greater Boise Auditorium District in May.
Despite a dogged campaign style that has included thousands of door-to-door stops, Berch’s two legislative campaigns have been costly and fallen short.
In 2010, Berch lost to GOP Rep. Reed DeMordaunt. Despite spending almost $53,000, Berch got just 32 percent of the vote to DeMordaunt’s 68 percent. After redistricting put Berch in a district friendlier to Democrats, he spent $46,000 in 2012 losing to Patterson, who frustrated Berch by refusing to engage in public forums.
After 13 months in office, Patterson resigned in January under pressure after news he had been twice charged with rape and pleaded guilty to assault with intent to commit rape in 1974. Instead of running against appointed incumbent Rep. Patrick McDonald, who took Patterson’s seat, Berch chose Luker’s “Seat A.” Luker defeated Democrat Richard Keller with 59 percent of the vote in 2012.
Berch also will sound themes common among Idaho Democrats this election season.
“I am running to restore our pride in Idaho,” Berch said in his announcement statement. “We have been let down by our local legislators who have led Idaho to be last in the nation in education, last in wages and last in many vital social services. Electing the same people over and over again is not working. It is time to elect new leaders, with new ideas, who will work to bring people together.”