Education activist, businessman vie for GOP chair

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Associated Press

Posted on June 20, 2012 at 9:07 AM

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The two aspirants for the Idaho Republican Party chairman post at Saturday's convention in Twin Falls didn't know each other until last week.

That's when Barry Peterson, a 64-year-old former Elmore County commissioner and Mountain Home hardware store owner, invited Gayann DeMordaunt, a 46-year-old charter school proponent from Eagle, Idaho, out to his place.

As DeMordaunt's children rode Peterson's horses, the two chatted about the post now held by Norm Semanko, who is stepping down after four years. Peterson described their meeting as friendly, but told her he's taking the race seriously.

"She's a nice kid," Peterson, currently Elmore County's GOP chairman, told The Associated Press, with a chuckle. "I told her, 'I want to wish you well, but I'm going to kick your tail.' "

DeMordaunt, vice chairwoman of the Idaho State Charter School Commission responsible for overseeing alternative public schools that have been on the advance in Idaho, confirmed the story in an emailed response to questions on Tuesday.

She said she was too busy making phone calls to GOP delegates ahead of Saturday's vote to do a telephone interview.

"In addition to 'kicking my tail,' he also said he was 'no spring chicken,' and suggested that I wait a couple of years to run as chair until after he serves," DeMordaunt wrote, of her meeting with Peterson. "I said I think he is younger than he looks, and, as a gentleman, ought to let the 'young' lady go first."

Both candidates belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but their contest for party chairman pits Peterson's rural Idaho roots — his grandfather settled in Mountain Home in 1885 — against DeMordaunt's more suburban base in Eagle, located just west of Boise.

If she beats Peterson, DeMordaunt, wife of freshman state Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, would be the first woman to hold the Idaho GOP chair post since Marjorie Miner of Silverton in the early 1970s.

A founder of the North Star Charter School, she's has been a supporter of lifting the cap on the number of charter schools that can be created annually, a push that finally won the 2012 Legislature's blessing.

The Idaho GOP chairman is an unpaid position responsible for helping raise thousands of dollars for political activities from businesses and individuals, then directing the money to help elect candidates to office.

Ahead of the November elections, the eventual GOP winner between DeMordaunt and Peterson will also help coordinate efforts to defeat referendums backed by the Idaho Education Association teachers union, to overturn Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna's 2011 public school reforms.

The chairman post can be the subject of contention even within GOP ranks, something Semanko experienced this past January when he unsuccessfully sought to remove Republican Randy Hansen from the bipartisan redistricting commission drawing up Idaho's new legislative district maps.

Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, also a Republican, balked at the ouster, and Hansen remained on the panel.

Semanko didn't return a phone call Tuesday seeking comment about his eventual replacement.

Historically, Idaho's Republican governor has given his blessing to the GOP's choice of a chairman.

But the party turned a cold shoulder on this tradition in 2008 at a raucous convention in Sandpoint, when Semanko beat out Kirk Sullivan, Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's choice.

Sullivan lost largely because he fought party members who were seeking to close their primary election to all but registered Republican voters.

When it comes to this Saturday's vote, Otter has indicated he'd accept either Peterson or DeMordaunt. It's hardly a glowing endorsement, but it's probably sufficient to avoid another embarrassing loss.

Even so, neither Peterson nor DeMordaunt are in agreement with Otter on key issues. For instance, Otter contends the party should return to the open primary, to bolster turnout after dismal 24 percent turnout on May 15, while Peterson supports sticking with the closed elections.

"If you're on the Republican team, you should be the ones choosing your candidate," Peterson said.

DeMordaunt said she's open to new ideas, but agrees the closed primary was a good idea.

"I was definitely an early advocate of closed primaries, and I believe we can massage it to make it work for all Idaho Republicans," she said.

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