Boise City Hall was hit with a shock wave when City Council President Lauren McLean announced her mayoral candidacy. Incumbent Dave Bieter had appointed her to City Council in 2010, where she rose to the rank of council president. Despite a variety of candidates vying for the City’s top office, the spotlight was on McLean and Bieter from the start.
McLean came out on top on election night, Nov. 5, but that still wasn’t enough to clinch a win. Despite a commanding lead of 15 points, McLean and Bieter went to a run-off, a secondary election because neither candidate secured the number of votes necessary—more than 50% of the vote. Election Day for the run-off is Tuesday, Dec. 3, but early voting is already underway.
McLean said her decision to run wasn’t made in a single moment; rather, it was a series of events that led her to conclude that Boise needed new leadership. The tipping point was during the listening sessions the City held in April, where she heard Boiseans’ concerns for the future.
“There wasn’t truly a moment, it was really a series of conversations I had with the public in April and recognition that what was being done wasn’t enough to adequately address the new challenges we have as a city, particularly around affordable housing and the lack of progress we’ve made around transportation,” McLean said.
McLean said she believes Boiseans are feeling shut out and unheard, and pointed to Bieter’s record of dismissing residents and pushing his own projects.
“Any mayor should be able to hear feedback from the public and recognize when you might have to change what you hoped to do for 16 years because the city is in a different place than she was when you started,” she said.
The city has to tackle a number of issues if it wants to grow into a continuously livable community. At the top of her mind is transportation, an issue where she believes the city is 20 years behind. Complicating the matter is the fact that the City of Trees is in the unique position of having no control over its roads. Rather, it has to foster a working relationship with the Ada County Highway District, a largely conservative board of commissioners that Boise has been at odds with in the past.
“It’s a must, but also possible to disagree on a lot of things but still build the relationships necessary to effectively govern for the public. That’s on any elected official to do that,” she said. “I know what hasn’t been accomplished in the last 16 years, so with certainty I can say we ought to be trying it differently.”
Both candidates acknowledge working with an independent body to achieve a common vision is a challenge. Bieter pointed to Whitewater Park Boulevard as a success, noting that the city did a majority of planning for that project, but was able to work with ACHD to achieve an agreeable solution.
“The possibilities are really there; it’s a challenge to have an independent group,” Bieter said. “But we’re gaining on it in important ways.”
McLean also said Boise should address its homelessness issue differently. In July, the city filed documents with the U.S. Supreme Court to hear its case on a camping ordinance that enables police officers to ticket people for sleeping on public property. McLean has argued against the ordinance, sayingshe prefers the city not ticket people for sleeping outside. Proponents of the ordinance, the incumbent mayor included, say its simply a tool for the city to use to break up large encampments. Bieter said it’s only used in the rarest of circumstances, but it’s an important tool nonetheless, he said.
“There’s an awful lot of success there, but all of that will be worsened if we allow camps to spring up,” he said.
In debating the effectiveness of the city’s ability to ticket the homeless for sleeping on public property, he’s reminded of the debacle at Cooper Court in 2015, where a homeless camp grew to a shocking size. What precipitated that, Bieter said, was the police believing they were unable to ticket campers. Without an anti-camping ordinance, he fears a repeat of the establishment of a tent city like Cooper Court, the removal of which was the hardest decision of his tenure, he said.
That’s not a good excuse, according to McLean. Instead of proactively tackling homelessness, it’s criminalizing it without a plan in place.
“The incumbent mayor is creating this sense of fear on the backs of those who are most marginalized in our community,” McLean said.
To tackle homelessness, the city needs to provide adequate affordable housing and services to economically disadvantaged people in Boise. To McLean, this includes writing inclusionary zoning laws into Boise’s codes, which require a certain number of affordable units.
Bieter pointed to the city’s initiatives on Adare Manor, Valor Pointe and New Path, all efforts to either tackle homelessness or address the city’s issue of affordability. Those sorts of projects serve as prototype designs, which he believes the city can use to build projects in the years to come.
“I think we have the model there, too, built over a number of years,” he said. “No administration has done as much for the least fortunate.”
Bieter and McLean’s visions for the city don’t differ drastically, but their paths for achieving those visions diverge. For Bieter, dealing with growth is about maintaining the progress the city has made. Upending the mayor’s office would throw a wrench into that operation.
“We have momentum, we have relationships that are poised to do more of that,” he said. “Our tools are pretty limited but it’s exciting to see what we might do.”
In his 16 years as mayor, Bieter remembers a time in which the city was dealing with rapid growth. In the years leading up to the recession of 2008, Boise grew rapidly, just like today, and to Bieter’s mind, untenably.
“You had a sense, even then, that it was likely an unsustainable kind of growth,” he said. “We were successful in directing that growth in a kind of productive way.”
Having dealt with rapid growth before, he said he’s the only one positioned to do so right now. Leveraging the relationships he’s built over time is key to doing that, he said.
Despite a terse, historic election, there has been little public discourse between the two since early November. McLean declined to debate Bieter one-on-one, something she said was satisfied during the run-up to the election. Bieter, on the other hand, said the run-off entirely changed the dynamic of the race, and more public debate should be welcomed.
“We’d had eight debates before election round two, and this was the same campaign. The mayor believed it was a new campaign after seeing the results on election night,” she said.
The two have appeared at candidate forums since the election, during which she said the mayor engaged in what she described as unsavory campaign practices.
“There’s a disappointing sense of theatrics and gotcha politics that’s coming out in these forums,” she said.
Bieter said that he received a number of requests from Boise City Club and news organizations for secondary debates. He disagrees that it’s the same campaign as before. To him, it’s entirely new.
“She’s premised her campaign on transparency and wont publicly engage on these issues,” he said.
Despite a wide margin of voter support at the polls, McLean received no support from her city council members, with all but one endorsing Bieter. Lisa Sanchez, the sole member of the council that did not publicly endorse a candidate, said she chose to speak with them privately, but did not wish to reveal her vote.
For City Council Pro Tem Elaine Clegg, the key issue was McLean’s position on the city’s camping ordinance, which she said is a necessary tool for the city to adequately tackle encampments.
“We’re not criminalizing homelessness, we are not throwing people in jail, we are using it as only a last resort,” she said. “Having that tool there has proven to be the difference in controlling encampments.”
Councilmember TJ Thomson also endorsed Bieter, but there wasn’t one issue that swayed him one way versus the other. To him, the direction Bieter has led the city is a direction he’d like to continue.
“I’ve just been extremely pleased with what’s been accomplished in his time there,” he said. “He’s never scared to make big decisions and difficult decisions.”
Thomson did point to the Cooper Court decision as an indicator of the mayor’s decision-making ability, noting that it showed a capacity to deal with tough issues empathetically. He added that he believes Bieter is willing to listen to his constituents, noting that he walked back the library plans after hearing pushback. That decision, however, was made shortly after the results of the election were finalized.
Bieter said he has heard the response to the library project from the public, and looks forward to a chance to revisit the project and bring it back before Boiseans.
“We swung hard, and went big, you can always scale something back, you can’t scale something up,” he said.
For McLean, however, it’s time for a new generation of leadership. It’s a generation that she’s hoping to usher in.
“It’s on leaders to recognize how the world has changed,” she said.