By Zach Hagadone
For years, Luke Malek’s name has circulated among Idaho politicos as one to watch. A 2004 graduate of the College of Idaho, he served as North Idaho regional director for former-Gov. Jim Risch, later as executive director of the Post Falls Urban Renewal Agency. Earning his J.D. from the University of Idaho College of Law in 2010, Malek then went on to serve as a deputy prosecutor for Kootenai County and corporate counsel for Heritage Health in Coeur d’Alene.
Malek won two terms in the Idaho House representing District 4 (containing Coeur d’Alene), serving from 2012 to 2018 — in that time holding a seat on the powerful Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. Also during that time, in 2015, he co-founded the law firm Smith + Malek, which until recently had an office in Sandpoint and has now expanded into Spokane.
In 2018, Malek threw his hat in the ring for U.S. Congress, ultimately placing third in a seven-way Republican primary that went to current Rep. Russ Fulcher. Now, at 39 years old, he’s making another run for elected office — this time seeking the job of lieutenant governor, which is currently held by Janice McGeachin, whose first term has made headlines for her frosty relationship with Gov. Brad Little, support for fringe right-wing groups and opposition to the state’s COVID-19 mitigation efforts.
Though that election won’t be decided until 2022, and McGeachin has not confirmed whether she’ll seek the position again, Malek is already piling up a host of endorsements from prominent political, policy and business leaders from around the state. He recently spoke with the Sandpoint Reader from the Boise offices of Smith + Malek, with the following conversation lightly edited for clarity.
Sandpoint Reader: The first and most basic question is what’s making you want to do this now?
Luke Malek: I think we need good leadership now more than ever, and right now we don’t really have that in the lieutenant governor’s office. I have a lot of experience and I have the character to be successful in a leadership role in the state as I’ve proven in my legislative career. I’m a conservative but I’ve also proven that I can be solution oriented and we really need people who can bring those solutions to the table and I think I can be that person.
SR: What challenge do you see yourself posing to the current lieutenant governor?
LM: We have a health crisis and an economic crisis looming. The state’s doing pretty well but not everybody’s doing well, and we need an economy that can bounce back as quickly as possible. Being a small business owner, I understand the needs of small business and through my work in the Legislature I talked with small businesses quite a bit and my work revolves around health care, so I am laser-focused on making sure that we keep people safe and that we keep the economy strong. I just don’t see her bringing any of those solutions to the table. Or being at the table at all.
SR: How would you characterize her time in that office? What has she done?
LM: She has wasted a tremendous amount of time not providing any value to the citizens of Idaho, to put it pretty bluntly. She has not worked to involve herself in any of the decision making about how to deal with this crisis, she has not brought any viable solutions to the table — the solutions she did bring to the table were a joke, to put it charitably, they were laughed out of the public conversation.
SR: How would you characterize the state of Idaho conservatism or the Idaho Republican Party — I feel like there are some pretty serious schisms.
LM: I think you’ve really got to separate the party, which is having kind of a hard time right now, from Idaho conservative values, which generally aren’t having as hard of a time. I think generally people know what their moral compass says, it’s just a matter of whether the political realities are supporting that. I think there’s some vigorous debate to be had. People generally know that they want government out of their lives and they want to maintain safe, healthy communities and jobs that help families provide for themselves. Those are the values that drive everybody. The Republican Party is having a more difficult time and, again, is another place where the lieutenant governor is not providing any leadership in helping the Republican Party reflect those values. We need leaders in the party who can accurately reflect those values.
SR: How would you diagnose the reasons for this disconnect that we’re seeing in parts of the Party?
LM: I think the idea of obedience has been mixed up with the idea of being true to your values. Obviously you have a lieutenant governor and others who are very obedient to factions like the Idaho Freedom Foundation and that obedience is often not reflective at all of the conservative values that we have in our state. If obedience becomes more important than being true to our values, then we’re going to have a crisis and that’s where we’re at.
SR: So you would say we are indeed in the midst of that crisis of consistency?
LM: Yeah, the structure’s not supporting our values. There’s this strong element demanding obedience that’s not reflecting those values.
As lieutenant governor, you’d have a pretty large role to play in the structuring of the ideology of the Party and of the Party itself — you’d be one of the prime leaders of the Party in the state.
LM: A role which I would look forward to.
SR: You’re talking about some pretty entrenched power structures … how do you work with or dismantle or navigate these really powerful interests from that position?
LM: There needs to be a realization that there has to be room at the table for everybody but you have to actually show up at that table, which is where I would be. If you really want to have a discussion about what the right thing to do is to keep people safe, then show up at the table — don’t just slap on a bumper sticker that says “disobey” when you really don’t even have a clear understanding of what you’re disobeying. Let’s have a conversation about how we can keep people safe and keep the economy open. And if you’re not going to do that — I think I’ve demonstrated pretty clearly that I’m willing to call people out to put their money where their mouth is.
SR: You have staked some pretty consistent views and made claims in the Party over the years that have drawn some flack toward you from some of these folks.
LM: After my first legislative session the Idaho Freedom Foundation took me on in my own district, again, over obedience not values, because I was fighting for conservative values and they wanted obedience on their policy agenda, which was not conservative.
SR: It seems to me that a part of that is going to have to be reeducating some of these lawmakers who see these groups such as the Freedom Foundation and others as really one-way tickets to getting elected; they can play to that ideology and it’s popular with their regional bases.
LM: Absolutely, and I think there needs to be an investment in leadership. Again: You have to be able to have the conversations and for those who aren’t willing to have those conversations there needs to be accountability.
SR: So what kind of support do you see yourself having in that effort. Are there adults in the room?
LM: There’s a pretty broad selection of other elected officials, private citizens, business leaders and former elected officials that are saying, “OK, we need a new direction for the Party and we need a new direction for this position that has so much potential that is not being used.”
SR: How would your perspective be brought to bear as a North Idahoan serving that role in southern idaho?
LM: I talk about experience and character. I’m going to be true to who I am with the character part of that and I’m going to bring my experience to the table — my experience obviously growing up in North Idaho, I understand our way of life up there. I am North Idaho through-and-through, on the other hand, I’ve had to work and have worked successfully with legislators from all over the state and policy makers and municipal leaders, business leaders and so forth, to understand their parts of the state as well. Even though I am proud to be a North Idahoan, I am not blind to the challenges that other parts of the state face and their realities. And I think often North Idaho is written off.
SR: Do you have a slate of things that are North Idaho-specific that get short shrift down in Boise?
LM: Right now I think we need to be focused on bringing ourselves together. The problems that small businesses face right now are really universal throughout the state. Small businesses are navigating politics more than just about anybody right now; they’re serving customers from a broad array of value standpoints — people who don’t believe that COVID exists at all and people who won’t support businesses that don’t have a mask mandate.
How does a small business survive in such a divided state of mentality amongst customers? Particularly when you’re talking about retailers and restaurants — the ones that are most vulnerable because of COVID are also the most vulnerable because of the division that we face, and the more leaders can do to help solidify a reasonable way to keep businesses open and maintain safety and project confidence in the fact that we have a way to move forward and we don’t need to despise each other for having different beliefs — even on how to navigate this COVID crisis — the better.
There are ways we can find common ground and keep our businesses safe and open. And that transcends any geographic boundaries and that’s really where the focus needs to be and having leadership that tries to heal the divide rather than capitalize on and exacerbate that divide is extremely important.
SR: That’s super tricky considering how effective it is in getting people elected.
LM: My entire candidacy is based on an assumption that while it seems that people want division, they really want to work together to solve problems. There are some people who will always see more opportunity in division than they do in cooperation. Those are usually leaders who stand something to gain there. When it comes to people who are trying to live their lives, looking at the future of what their lives look like, or their kids’ lives look like, or their grandkids’ lives look like, they are looking for ways that we can create something better together. … That is really where our future success lies.
SR: You’ve been a longtime watcher of politics and a participant in Idaho. Do you have particular Idaho political leaders — either past or present — that you look to as examples for the kind of leadership that you want to bring?
LM: As you know, I worked for Jim Risch, and he’s always been a mentor of mine. You and I both studied at College of Idaho [Malek graduated from then-Albertson College of Idaho in 2004, while Reader Editor Zach Hagadone graduated in 2003], and Jasper [LiCalzi, retired professor of political economy] made us read all of the governors’ biographies, and Phil Batt is somebody who really worked hard. You don’t fight the current necessarily, but you use the current and political climate to move things in a positive direction. …
If you want someone who’s just going to create more division, that’s not me. You already have that and no one listens to her. That’s why she will never have a successful policy, she’ll have four years in the lieutenant governor’s office with nothing to show for it because no one gives her the time of day in the public realm — other than those who might see that there’s something to be gained by increasing division.
SR: As lieutenant governor you’d be working a lot with the Senate; maybe you could speak to your view of the functioning of our current Senate. Most headlines in the state media will focus on the House because, frankly, that’s where a lot of the fireworks are. Having been a House member, you know how that place works. Do you see the Senate playing a distinct role in the Legislature?
LM: I have a tremendous amount of respect for the Senate. I have a few Senate endorsements already and am working on some others, and that’s because I do think that the Senate plays an important role and to be a successful legislator — even as a House member — you have to have a good relationship with the Senate, and I think this is important for the lieutenant governor’s position to keep in mind generally.
It’s not just a relationship with the Senate, it’s a relationship with the Legislature, it’s a relationship with the municipal levels of government, and prosecutors and elected sheriffs and everybody, really, because it’s really a liaison — one more access point for government. If it’s being used to its full potential, that office can really be a liaison between private citizens and government, a liaison between the different levels of government and the different branches of government as well.
SR: You have those connections already, of course, which is maybe a crucial difference between you and the current lieutenant governor — she kind of came from nowhere.
LM: I think it’s showing with her relationship with the Senate; you’re not seeing an open display of respect. She’s not treating her colleagues in the Senate as colleagues, therefore there’s not a lot of respect going either way.
SR: Do you see the Senate as serving as a check on the sort of injudicious ideas that come out of the House on a fairly regular basis?
LM: I think that’s a duty that falls on the whole bicameral and gubernatorial branches. There are times when the governor is going to bear the burden of making sure that bad ideas don’t ultimately become policy and there are going to be times when the Senate has to play the role of making sure bad ideas don’t become policy. And there are times when the House is going to be the body that makes sure bad policy doesn’t go into effect as well.
SR: Right now the relationship between lawmakers and the governor — just generally — is not great.
LM: Generally that’s true, but I think if you break it down on a more individual basis I think you’ll find there’s still a lot of strong relationships between individual legislators and the governor’s office. … This is the nature of politics. Narratives will run wild for a while, and the governor was letting the Legislature do its thing until it became clear that this narrative got a little bit out of control and I think he was right to say, “Listen, there are things that are not being talked about right now and they have to be talked about. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
As bad as things are right now, we probably have it better than probably any other state in the nation; we still have jobs, we still have the ability to go to restaurants. Even here in Boise, which has the most lockdowns in the state, a lot of restaurants are open and we have a surplus because our economy is doing so well. There’s a lot that is going right and our numbers are going down with COVID.
There’s a lot that’s happening that’s good and, as conversations sometimes do they happen in an echo chamber, and I think all the governor did was break up that echo chamber a little bit and say, “Let’s make sure we’re talking about all aspects of the conversation.” …
There comes a time when every check and balance in the system has to do its part and it was his time to step up and do it and he did.
SR: You would see yourself as having a similar view of the duties of that office?
LM: Absolutely. If you’re going to solve problems you don’t get to write anybody off — that includes people that you don’t always agree with. I’ve got to be able to sit down with [House Assistant Minority Leader Rep.] Ilana Rubel and [District 1A Republican Rep.] Heather Scott and have conversations as lieutenant governor. I’ve got to be able to sit down with everybody in the Senate — there’s no one in the Senate that I shouldn’t be able to have a relationship with, and that really is the job of the lieutenant governor.
This interview appeared in shorter form in the Feb. 11 print edition of the Sandpoint Reader.
While we have you ...
... if you appreciate that access to the news, opinion, humor, entertainment and cultural reporting in the Sandpoint Reader is freely available in our print newspaper as well as here on our website, we have a favor to ask. The Reader is locally owned and free of the large corporate, big-money influence that affects so much of the media today. We're supported entirely by our valued advertisers and readers. We're committed to continued free access to our paper and our website here with NO PAYWALL - period. But of course, it does cost money to produce the Reader. If you're a reader who appreciates the value of an independent, local news source, we hope you'll consider a voluntary contribution. You can help support the Reader for as little as $1.
You can contribute at either Paypal or Patreon.Contribute at Patreon Contribute at Paypal