The Lewiston Tribune this week published my remembrance of Mike Mitchell a long-time Idaho legislator and one-time chief of staff to Idaho Governor Cecil D. Andrus. Here’s the piece, written with a smile and a heavy heart.
Generally speaking there are two kinds of people in politics: the show horses and the workhorses. The show horses are often in the game for the title, the attention and because its makes something of them. The workhorses are different. They don’t crowd to the front to take the bows. They go to the meetings, read the bills, master the budget and are in politics because they think they can do something, not just be something.
Long-time Lewiston state legislator Mike Mitchell, who died last week at 91, was a workhorse, or more correctly a draft horse. He pulled the heavy loads in state government and he did so for decades motivated by a fierce commitment to Nez Perce County, his state and to those people at the edges of our system who never seem to have a platform, but deserve an effective voice.
I first met Mike Mitchell in the late 1970s. I was a very junior statehouse reporter. Mitchell, already a legislative veteran, was a minority Democrat on the powerful Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, the legislature’s budget committee. It didn’t take long for even a novice political reporter to appreciate his encyclopedic grasp of the state budget. He was approachable, authoritative and incapable of the kind of partisan animus many politicians can’t seem to avoid. He was funny, often at his own expense. My regard only grew as I came to know him better and better.
During his long years of public service Mitchell mastered the hard, essential, but not very unglamorous work of government. He forgot more about the state budget than most legislators ever learn. He was an expert on corrections and education and, of course, Lewis Clark State College. He knew more about roads and bridges than most Idaho Transportation Department district engineers. Mike was a student of government and his fingerprints are all over Idaho from social work licensing to services for troubled kids.
It is often said, incorrectly, that government must operate more like a business. Mitchell knew something about business – he was a successful businessman, too – but he also knew that government is different than the private sector. Operating successfully in the public arena, particularly as a Democrat in Republican Idaho, requires an appreciation for facts, a commitment to accommodation and a belief in the art of the possible. Success depends on build relationships and trust and credibility, all of which Mike did and that is why so many people who knew him and worked with him praise his ability to bridge the partisan divide. To know him was simply to like him and respect him.
Mike Mitchell wasn’t a big guy, but his heart was. It was made of gold and his backbone made of steel. Mike wasn’t one to shy away from a fight, but he was more comfortable making things work and he did make things work time and again.
I had the singular honor of my life to work with Mike Mitchell and for Cecil D. Andrus, the man Mike replaced in the state senate when Andrus was elected governor for the first time in 1970. Mike became a mentor, a friend, a golfing partner and one of the best joke tellers I’ve ever laughed with.
When he “retired” after Andrus’ 1990 re-election – that retirement didn’t stick and he had a whole second act in politics and public service – I followed him as chief of staff to the governor. I didn’t replace him, however. No one could. He was Mike Mitchell.
There was only one of his kind. He is missed already.