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‘Degrading and disrespectful’: Boise Republican rebukes Freedom Caucus lawmakers

The leader of the Idaho Senate chastised three Republican members for making disparaging comments about their colleagues in what has become a public spat two months before the Idaho Legislature is set to convene.

The Idaho Freedom Caucus published three letters Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise, sent last week that rebuked the state senators for criticisms they made about other legislators online.

In his letter to Sen. Glenneda Zuiderveld, R-Twin Falls, Winder said he would remove the Magic Valley senator from her post as vice chair of the Health and Welfare Committee for posting cartoons and blogs lambasting other state lawmakers for their ties to corporations and stances on immigration. In his letter to Sen. Brian Lenney, R-Nampa, Winder said he would remove him from his position as vice chair of the Commerce and Human Resources Committee for “aggressively” attacking and disparaging his colleagues.

Sen. Scott Herndon, R-Sagle, also received a letter after he posted online criticisms of federal and state spending, saying that he thinks legislators do not sufficiently scrutinize the billions of dollars spent by the state every year.

All three senators are members of the Idaho Freedom Caucus, a hard-line group of conservative lawmakers loosely tied to the House Freedom Caucus in Washington, D.C.

“We have a tradition in the Senate, and that is, you debate the bills and not the person,” Winder told the Idaho Statesman by phone, adding that he has never castigated two of his colleagues like this before. “There are consequences when you attack other people in your statements and you try to defame those other people.”

The Idaho Freedom Foundation, a think tank whose views closely align with those of the Freedom Caucus on spending and social issues, subsequently called Winder’s comments “authoritarian” and said he had abused his office.

Winder shot back that the Freedom Foundation attacks “anyone who resists their intimidation and bullying.”

The Freedom Caucus, which is co-chaired by Sen. Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton, and Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, have pushed to curtail “explicit materials” at libraries and limit Medicaid spending. They have taken aim at legislators, like Rep. Dan Garner, R-Clifton, who have pushed back against the caucus’s efforts to censor library books.

Now, the caucus has publicized an internal fight between its far-right wing of the party and Senate leadership — a harbinger of tensions that could play out during the legislative session between factions of the state GOP.

’You’re attacking your colleagues’

Winder said he had discussed his concerns about the senators’ words with Senate leadership, but that sending the letters had been his decision.

Zuiderveld took aim at lobbying from big business in the Legislature in her blog and included a cartoon depicting Winder and Sen. Kevin Cook, R-Idaho Falls, as well as Rep. Stephanie Jo Mickelsen, R-Idaho Falls, as rhinoceroses, seemingly a reference to Republicans in Name Only (RINO), a disparaging term on the right for politicians deemed insufficiently on board with conservative ideology. Zuiderveld did not respond to a request for comment, but said in the Freedom Caucus news release that she “will not allow intimidation to silence me.”

In his letters to Zuidervelt and Lenney, Winder said he doesn’t plan to pursue ethics complaints against them, but “if your misconduct continues, you may leave me with no choice.”

“You recently posted an article written by you that openly attacked the integrity of your fellow members of the Idaho Senate,” Winder wrote in his letter to Zuiderveld. “The article and enclosures were, to say the least, degrading and disrespectful of your colleagues, Senate leadership, and the Senate itself.”

In his letter to Lenney, Winder wrote that the Nampa senator had violated “rules governing decorum.”

“It has been brought to my attention that on countless occasions you have aggressively attacked, disparaged, and degraded fellow members of the Senate, members of Senate leadership and members of the general public,” Winder wrote

In a statement from the Freedom Caucus, Lenney said he has not spoken to Winder in seven months.

“Let’s be clear: Sen. Winder is neither my boss nor my dad,” he said. “I serve the people, not Sen. Winder.”

In late October, Herndon published a blog post on his website criticizing legislators who do not vote against any budget bills.

Herndon — who is a member of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, the budget-setting legislative panel — wrote that none of the more than 200 budget bills voted on in the past two years were halted on the Senate floor and returned to a committee, noting that the senator he replaced, Jim Woodward, voted “yes” on the 110 budget bills last year, as did a large majority of his colleagues.

In his letter, Winder asked Herndon to apologize to the other members of JFAC.

“Although your fellow colleagues on JFAC have taken their duties seriously, you have not,” Winder wrote in his letter to Herndon.

“When you start saying that you’re the only really good Republican on there that’s really looking at budgets and working hard, ... you’re attacking your colleagues,” Winder told the Statesman. “If you disparage them, then how are you going to get them to support you when you want to get anything else done?”

Winder added that he believes in the “committee process,” which includes public hearings and deliberation and that legislators should look to the recommendations made by committees, which proceed a full vote before the entire House or Senate chamber.

In an interview with the Statesman, Herndon said he thinks legislators should speak their minds about issues and disputed Winder’s charge that he has not worked on enough budget bills, pointing to five bills he sponsored.

“I don’t think we want to quash debate and quash differing opinions,” he said. “I don’t think a senator from District 20 should be telling the senators from District 1 and District 24 what they should be saying.”

Winder said he was “disappointed” the two senators “did a full press release and went after it the way they did, rather than accepting it in the manner that it was intended — and that was to use it as a teaching moment and hopefully improve their relationship with their colleagues.”

He added that he had sent the letters privately, and that the senators released information to the Freedom Foundation and the public that “should have been kept personal.”

“They just want to attack me by turning their membership loose on me,” Winder said in a text message. “So much for a tax-exempt political think tank.”

The Freedom Foundation did not respond to a request for comment.

This article was updated 5:40 p.m. Nov. 15 after the Idaho Freedom Caucus released a third letter, which Winder sent to state Sen. Brian Lenney.