Idaho Iconoclast

Would you believe “U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador (R.-Idaho)?”

It doesn’t sound quite right and, a year ago, that possibility would, in all likelihood, have been brushed off with dismissive shakes of the head throughout Idaho’s 1st District. State Rep. Labrador had been born in Puerto Rico and did not come to the U.S. until he was 13—not exactly the background many voters in the Boise-area district had in common with him. He was a Mormon in the “wrong” district. It is the Gem State’s 2nd District that is home to a large number of Mormons and often elects an LDS member to office, not the 1st.

And besides, Labrador had to face stiff primary competition and, if successful, go on to face Democratic Rep. Walt Minnick. Even before Republicans chose his opponent, Minick (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 44%) was being boomed as the archetypal “Blue Dog” or “centrist” Democratic House member who was marked for success by the Wall Street Journal and other national press outlets.

“So I guess you’re wondering how I got here?” U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador (R.-Ida.)said to me last week, five days after he took office and one day after he appeared on “Meet the Press” along with three Democratic House members to discuss the tragic shooting in Tucson, Ariz. After he handily defeated two opponents for the GOP nomination last year, the 43-year-old Labrador went on to unseat Minnick by a comfortable margin.

He is Idaho’s first-ever congressman of Hispanic heritage and the first Mormon to represent the 1st District.

“The critical factor [in winning November 2] was that I always knew what the people of Idaho wanted: authenticity,” said Labrador. “They like people who speak candidly and from the heart. When I was a Republican precinct chairman and later a state legislator, people would come up and say they respected what I had to say, even when they disagreed with me.”

Whether the issue was abortion (“I oppose it in every circumstance except to save a mother’s life”) or rolling back government spending (“cut it as much as possible”), Labrador left little doubt where he stood. His straight talk helped recruit a robust crew of volunteers. As the candidate recalls, “We had a rally in Fruitland and an 83-year-old gentleman came up to tell me he had attended most of my rallies and would knock on every door in his precinct on my behalf. And while we had to operate with limited funds, we had more than 1200 volunteers—and, boy, were they enthusiastic!”

One voice of support that particularly moved the conservative hopeful was that of Meg Chenoweth, daughter of late 1st District GOP Rep. (1994-2000) Helen Chenoweth. Years before anyone outside of Wasilla heard of Sarah Palin, Chenoweth was a female firebrand on the right who never shied from controversy. Proudly recalling how the late congresswoman’s daughter backed him before the primary, Labrador added that ‘Meg told me that I was the first politician who reminded her of her mother. And her son—Helen’s grandson—became the videographer on our campaign.”

‘Everything Has to Be Cut and We’ll Find a Way to Do It’

The newly minted congressman from Idaho hopes that he and his Republican colleagues can work with the White House on a solution to the major problems the U.S. faces “without too much rancor.” But given that the GOP lawmakers and the Obama Administration are light years apart on so much, he’s not too sure.

“I’m not taking a position on raising the debt ceiling right now,” says Labrador of what is by far the most talked-off issue on Capitol Hill. “But I won’t even consider it until we take real steps toward deficit reduction. I say tie raising the debt ceiling to a Balanced Budget Amendment and making meaningful cuts. Everything has to be cut.”

By everything, the Idahoan includes the Pentagon, entitlements (“We have to look long and hard at this”), and the Department of Education. As he puts it, “At the very minimum, we have to consider what the Department of Education does and possibly bring its functions back to the states, perhaps through block grants.”

“There can be no sacred cows,” he emphasized. “I don’t have all the answers, but I will follow the lead of the experts. We’ll find a way to do it.”

Any political discussion with Raul Labrador almost inevitably touches on his Hispanic heritage and the immigration issue. The University of Washington Law School graduate freely volunteers that he practiced immigration law for several years, but that “illegal immigration has gotten out of hand. Washington has not handled the issue well and that’s why states have adopted tough new laws dealing with illegal immigration. Arizona’s law was the proper response.”

Do such laws and such a position risk alienating the growing Hispanic population, I asked?

“I don’t think my fellow Americans of Hispanic heritage disagree with the position of enforcing our laws and tougher border security,” he replied. “It’s the tone of that position—and how its spokesmen are portrayed in the media—that alarms them. That’s where my heritage comes in and I think I can be of help. Look, we can discuss and debate the immigration issue in a way respectful of the other side.”

Labrador referred to an article he read noting that Ronald Reagan “was popular because he was able to articulate strong positions in a moderate voice. Jack Kemp was the same way, and so was [former Florida Gov.] Jeb Bush. I would like to do the same. I sure hope I can.”