BOISE, Idaho — Mayor Dave Bieter earned his first political win in sixth grade and never looked back.
He was chosen as the representative of his class to go to the Idaho State Capitol to decorate Gov. Cecil Andrus’ Christmas tree, decades before he would take his father’s seat in the Idaho State Legislature and, starting in 2003, go on to serve four terms as one of Boise’s most famous mayors.
The Idaho Press reports Bieter never lost an election, until this fall when he lost twice at the polls while seeking an unprecedented fifth term in office.
Bieter duked it out over several months with six opponents with a range of political views, and finished second in the November general election, 16 points behind City Council President Lauren McLean. The two then headed into a 30-day runoff election campaign, after which McLean came away with an overwhelming victory of 65% of the vote, opening a new chapter for Boise.
Throughout the campaign, Bieter frequently referred to leading his hometown as a dream job and the honor of his life. Now, he is preparing to say goodbye.
“It was so much fun,” he said last week, sitting in his third-floor office overlooking Capitol Boulevard. “You get to wake up every day and try to make the city a little better. It’s a great job.”
Over those four terms, Bieter soared to the highest heights of establishing a parade of successful programs, and in 2015 flying with President Barack Obama on Air Force One. He also hit the lowest of lows with a wildfire that claimed the life of a Boise State University professor in 2008 and a mass stabbing at a refugee child’s birthday party in the summer of 2018.
Under Bieter’s watch, Boise became a reliably liberal stronghold in a deeply conservative state. Bieter added protections for LGBTQ residents, funded sustainability programs and built the state’s first development dedicated to the chronically homeless. He also oversaw expansions of neighborhood services, including nine new community recreation centers, four new library branches and new park amenities.
Bieter wasn’t without critics. As the Treasure Valley’s population has exploded in recent years, traffic worsened and the affordable housing crisis began to strain Boiseans’ wallets like never before. Bieter came under fire for his proposed $85 million main library project and support for a public-private partnership to build a downtown sports park. Residents said he didn’t let them have enough input on expensive projects and wrote off the public’s concerns in favor of his own vision.
When asked about the turning tide of his popularity over the last year, Bieter maintained that many voters are still supportive of him despite his losses at the polls. He pointed to rumors that he would fill the vacated seat of House Minority Leader Rep. Mat Erpelding — who resigned days after the runoff election — as further evidence of his strong standing in the community. (Gov. Brad Little this week appointed Lauren Necochea to the seat.)
“From the post election, I think I am still popular, but (voters) didn’t want me to have a fifth term,” Bieter said. “I had dozens of people say, ‘You had been a great mayor, this is a great city, it is one of the best around, and I won’t be voting for you.’”
One agency Bieter was not known to be allies with was the Ada County Highway District, which builds and maintains Boise’s roads. On multiple occasions on the campaign trail, he said he wished ACHD didn’t exist so the city could handle the roads within its limits like most other cities in America instead of handing the job over to another agency.
One of Bieter’s challengers in this year’s mayoral race was Rebecca Arnold, president of the ACHD Commission, who came in third place during the general election.
Even though public transportation has become an increasingly big issue in the city as the area becomes crowded, neither Bieter nor ACHD Second Vice President Sara Baker said his difficulties with the agency caused him to lose the election.
“I just think after 16 years of his attitude toward pretty much the general public was his downfall in terms of trying to ram stuff down people’s throats,” Baker said, referencing the sports park and main library projects.
Even though the main library project drew ire from voters frustrated about its steep price tag, the design and the public input process, Bieter said he would not change anything about the project. He has always staunchly defended the 30 input sessions the city held with library users and others before the final design was unveiled, and he said the idea of a new library was a major part of his reelection campaign for a third term, which he won overwhelmingly.
His one regret, he said, is not having the construction process underway before the election. Bieter said it was the only big project left unfinished.
“Had we gotten underway (on the library before the election), then I might not have run, or if I ran and lost they couldn’t undo it and it wouldn’t matter,” he said, laughing quietly to himself. “That’s really the only thing though.”
The library project is now at a standstill, complicated by a voter initiative that passed last month requiring a public vote on library projects of more than $25 million. City officials say all work on a main library must stop because of the way the initiative is worded, but organizers for the proposition disagree.
Critics aside, Bieter also has many supporters in all corners of society backing him. He was endorsed by four of the six sitting city council members, and by multiple Democratic state lawmakers, including former City Councilwoman and current state Sen. Maryanne Jordan of Boise. Jordan joined the city council in 2003, the same year Bieter took office, and was a major partner of his as the new group of elected officials stepped in after former Mayor Brent Coles resigned amid a public funds scandal. Coles was another of Bieter’s challengers in this year’s mayoral race.
Jordan said of Bieter last week, “I was very impressed from the beginning with the way he set about making it a safe work space for all of the employees and focus not only on cleaning up City Hall but on moving past all of it, which was really important at the time.”
On Jan. 7, McLean will be sworn in as the city’s first female elected mayor, and Bieter will leave his post and head down a new path. He said he is in talks about a new opportunity, but he couldn’t share any hints as to what that would be.
“It would be hard for me to imagine a better job (than being mayor),” he said. “But, who knows?”
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