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There’s nothing bittersweet about Michelle Stennett leaving the Idaho Senate

Michelle Stennett leaves legislature.jpg
Idaho Legislature, Boise State Public Radio
Sen. Michelle Stennett (D) will officially leave the Idaho State Senate in November when her successor is elected.

The melodrama of the Idaho Legislature has nothing on being caught in the middle of a coup in Peru … when you’re 16-years-old. That was Michelle Richer and it was one of a number of globe-trotting experiences, which also took her to Bangladesh and Kenya.

“I feel very, very grateful to have that experience and that opportunity, because it certainly made me a much different person than I might have been had I not done that.”

But another life-changing moment, the day she met Clint Stennett, would alter her path forever. After marrying, she watched her husband become one of the leading voices of the Idaho Democratic Party in the Idaho Legislature. And upon his passing, she was urged to run for his seat in the State Senate.

“I never saw myself being a politician,” she remembered. “I have always worked behind the scenes.”

Stennett visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about her decision to step away from the legislature, about her global perspectives, and how, and more than a few occasions, she bit her tongue, wrung her hands, but as she says, “ I would hold my own counsel” in her time at the Statehouse.

“I feel very, very grateful to have that experience and that opportunity, because it certainly made me a much different person than I might have been had I not done that.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. Senator Michelle Stennett is here. It's hard to believe that Senator Stennett has been serving in the Idaho legislature since 2010, but that is about to change. And we'll talk a bit about that…a bit about the past, but more about the future. But first, let's welcome her. Senator Stennett. Good morning.

MICHELLE STENNETT: Good morning. Thank you for inviting me. I'm so happy to be here.

PRENTICE: Can I assume… well, I don't know. Was it one thing or was it several things that led to your decision not to seek reelection?

STENNETT: I think it is a culmination of a lot of things as most big decisions like this are. By the time I am done with this term, it'll be 13 years, which I think is quite an amazing length of time to be a public servant. And of course, my husband was 20 years in representing our area in the legislature before that. So, between us, 33 years, 29 of that in the Senate. So, I am extraordinarily honored to have been able to represent the folks both on the state level, but also in my district for that length of time. But at some point it's time for new adventures. So, I have been thinking about this for a while. I wanted to make sure that we were done with a good redistricting process, which I was a part of, having selected one of the commissioners, make sure that we set ourselves up as best as we could for the next ten years ahead. But also recognizing, because it has been over the last four decades, three of which we participated in in redistricting, that the population and demographics have all changed. We are in the middle of the state and therefore we knew that we would be pulled apart just because of the basic requirements to put a redistricting together. Once you figure out equal population base for every district, splitting as few of counties as possible and communities of interest, we knew that our district, because of everything that's grown around us, would have, would look very differently than what I have been representing. And it wasn't any gerrymandering. It was just the nature of when you put all that stuff together, that is how the map sort of makes itself at some point. So we had to look at earnestly at what the population and whether we fit that demographic and would represent it well. And I think I would. But it was also a good time to bring new blood and a new energy, a new perspective to this part of Idaho. And it was a good time to transition.

PRENTICE: I'm glad you mentioned Clint Stennett. He was rather extraordinary, and I wish many of my colleagues could have had the chance to talk to him and cover his campaigns. Do you ever play the “What If” game? If you hadn't met and fallen in love with Clint Stennett, do you think your road would have been dramatically different?

STENNETT: Yes, in a word, I never saw myself being a politician, which some people know from very early on, that they want to be politically active and they see their contribution to the to society as being in that kind of role. I have always worked behind the scenes. I've done a lot of work abroad and domestically working with various different indigenous groups and local governments and national governments in a role where I was serving and in a nonprofit sector or bringing emergency services or that sort of thing. And that is where I am the most comfortable. I don't see myself as being a tremendous extrovert or taking on the lead role, which I have learned to do in this position. And I learned a tremendous amount about politics. It is one of the most extraordinary challenging professions a person can take on, and it probably wouldn't have been available to me, or I wouldn't have looked for it if I hadn't met Clint Stennett and been able to see it from the outside as a supporting role while he was in office. But it still looks very different when you become the senator yourself and do it from the inside. But I have to say, it has taught me a tremendous amount, developed many skills I wouldn't have ordinarily been able to cultivate. I am a very different person, having done very different experiences than I would have otherwise. So you're correct.

PRENTICE: But that said, and I want to make sure I remember this right….If I remember, didn't you travel outside the country when you were in high school and then you continued that in NGO's in Kenya and Bangladesh and Peru?

STENNETT: You have a tremendous memory. Yes, I remember that.

PRENTICE: I remember how you spoke of that with such great passion. And I thought of that often when I would watch you in action, in the eye of the hurricane, and still looking for compromise at the legislature.

STENNETT: I remember my first international experience in Peru. I had just turned 16 and they had a coup. And at that time, you couldn't call on your cell phone or communicate out. I mean, all communications got shut down and there was tanks and machine guns in the street. And you were confused. And as a 16-year-old, having come from Wisconsin, it was an eye opener on how different politics work in another part of the world, but it was also how tremendously brave people are in moments of crisis like that and the kind of courage that you see. I think we talked about it when you interviewed me after I got elected, that if we could make it possible for our students to have an experience outside of their home environment, whether that's domestically or abroad, their understanding that what of what's happening outside of themselves and their families is so different from what they experience that they'd have a much broader respect for the differences and what we value here and how extraordinarily fortunate we are in so many ways, and that it would be a way of people understanding and being more tolerant of differences. And I feel very, very grateful to have that experience and that opportunity, because it certainly made me a much different person than I might have been had I not done that.

PRENTICE: Because of that, you have been a public servant and a public figure. Have you had to… well, bite your tongue on occasion or maybe not comment on certain things that you might be able to say a year from now?

STENNETT: There have been many moments that I've held to bite my tongue and wring my hands in my lap and just hold my own counsel. It is a combative profession. It can be, unless you try to find… I'm a centrist. I always have been. My family is very divided on its own politics.

PRENTICE: Weren't you a Republican in Wisconsin?

STENNETT: My family is very Republican still. Yes. But I felt like when I started politics in Idaho… I have such a strong social justice, especially women's issues streak to me. And I did go to the University of Oregon, which was an eye opener for a Catholic Republican from Wisconsin. But I think we all have to recognize that we find our own way and that no two people live exactly alike… and our experiences are not exactly alike. And so what we are politically typically is a blended thing. And I think I'm very discouraged about how politics puts us in these labeled silos of existence with that doesn't fit any of us. So, I think I look at my politics as being everybody is uniquely experiencing something. And we tried to the best of our ability to affect policy that helps the greater whole. It is not a perfect science, but it also isn't black and white. It never is black and white. We live in the gray matter in between, and we need to be doing our policy making from there. And it's very hard if it's pretty lopsided legislature and being a Democrat, even though I have a very fiscal responsibility streak to me. I want us to spend our money wisely. But I think there were there to do our best work to help the greater whole. And that means that everybody is equal under the law. Everyone not just this little bit or that little bit or not, these exceptions or that exception, everybody. And that's where we should be driving our issues and politics and policy making.

PRENTICE: Thank you for your years at the Statehouse. Even though it seemed like weeks for some of us. But congratulations on a wonderful, fresh outlook. Most importantly, have a lovely spring and summer.

STENNETT: Thank you so much. You as well. I really appreciate chatting with you today. It makes me very happy.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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