Elected during the “Republican Revolution” of 1994, Idaho Representative Helen P. Chenoweth1 cast herself as a conservative populist and states’ rights advocate by challenging everything from enhanced environmental regulations to affirmative action. Outspoken and, at times, controversial, “Congressman” Chenoweth, as she preferred to be called, focused on natural resource policy in western states.
Helen Palmer was born in Topeka, Kansas, on January 27, 1938, daughter of Dwight and Ardelle Palmer. After graduating from Grants Pass High School in Grants Pass, Oregon, she attended Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington, from 1955 until 1958. At Whitworth, Helen Palmer met and married Nick Chenoweth, and they raised two children, Margaret and Michael. The Chenoweths later divorced; Helen Chenoweth eventually married Wayne Hage. Several years after leaving college, Helen Chenoweth became self–employed as a medical and legal management consultant from 1964 to 1975. She managed a local medical center. She later entered politics, focusing on public affairs and policy. Her work as a lecturer at the University of Idaho School of Law and consultation experience landed her a position as the state executive director of the Idaho Republican Party, where she served from 1975 until 1977. From 1977 to 1978 she served as the chief of staff to Idaho Congressman Steve Symms. In 1978, Chenoweth and a business partner founded a lobbying group which handled issues related to natural resources, energy policy, environmental policy, government contracts, and political management.
In 1994 Chenoweth challenged two–term incumbent Democrat Larry LaRocco in an Idaho district that encompassed 19 counties along the state’s western border, including its northern panhandle. She campaigned with the promise that the state economy came above and before state wildlife and recreation. She vowed to fight the “War on the West”—the name she gave to federal policies in the 1990s which raised fees on commercial mining, logging, and grazing on federal property.2 Her positions on sensitive environmental issues rankled activists. Chenoweth suggested that a state recreational area be used for metal mining, and later, in order to solve overpopulation of elk, proposed that a hunting season be opened in Yellowstone National Park.3 During a radio debate, Chenoweth claimed that her anti–abortion position should not be a pivotal election issue since she viewed it as a matter to be decided in the individual states, not Congress. It “is a non–issue because Roe vs. Wade must be overturned in whole or part and the state must respond to the Supreme Court decision by altering the state code,” Chenoweth said. “In Idaho, a woman has the legal right to have an abortion. That is already on the books. An alteration to that will come at the state, not the federal level.” She also pledged herself to a three–term limit in Congress, a promise which she later fulfilled. LaRocco charged her with being a “stealth candidate” and evasive on critical issues because her positions were “extreme.”4 Nevertheless, Chenoweth prevailed by a 55–to–45 percent margin. She narrowly won re–election in 1996, surviving a challenge from Democrat Dan Williams with a 50–to–48 percent win, in which a third–party candidate contended. In her final re–election bid in 1998, Chenoweth again dispatched Williams with 55 percent of the vote.5
Once in Congress, it became apparent that Chenoweth was a radical even among her GOP freshman class of 73 revolutionaries. She insisted on being called “Congressman Chenoweth,” declared to the New York Times that affirmative action programs made white Anglo–Saxon men “an endangered species,” and, after the federal government shutdown in late 1995, was one of just 15 Republicans who voted against reopening its operations (despite an appeal to vote for reopening from Speaker Newt Gingrich).6 She was assigned to two committees as a freshman: Agriculture and Resources. In the 105th Congress (1997–1999), she added an assignment on Veterans’ Affairs and, in the 106th Congress (1999–2001), also got a seat on Government Reform. In the 105th and 106th Congresses, Chenoweth chaired the Resources’ Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health.
True to her campaign promise, Chenoweth used her position on the Resources Committee to battle federal regulations over land use in Idaho. As a noted private property rights proponent, she took aim at the Endangered Species Act which, she argued, prevented property owners from fully utilizing their land. To curtail government interference in private life, she also advocated the dissolution of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy (as well as the Education, Commerce, and Housing departments). “We want things to be the way they used to be,” she told one interviewer.7 In 1998, Chenoweth argued that national forest policy tilted too far in favor of conservation and, thus, jeopardized local economies like that in Idaho. “It baffles me why it is so trendy to oppose cutting trees,” she added, vowing to fight a William J. Clinton administration plan to ban new logging access roads on federal land, “until hell freezes over, and then I will fight on the ice.”8
Not surprisingly, Chenoweth became a lightning rod for environmentalists, holding events such as an “endangered salmon bake” in her district. At a 2000 conference at the University of Montana on western wildfires, a protester pelted Chenoweth in the head with a rotting salmon shouting “you are the greatest threat to the forest.” Unruffled, Chenoweth brushed herself off, took to the podium, and quipped, “I would like to say that I find it amusing that they used a salmon. I guess salmon must not be endangered anymore.”9
Chenoweth consistently remained popular with her core constituents in Idaho—conservatives, states’ rights advocates, and many of the states’ citizen militia enclaves. An outspoken opponent of gun control, Chenoweth sought to rein in the power of law enforcement. Following the April 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 men, women, and children, Chenoweth condemned the bombers but not the militia groups to which they were linked. “While we can never condone this,” she said, “we still must begin to look at the public policies that may be pushing people too far.”10 Inspired by a 1992 siege in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in which Federal Bureau of Investigation agents shot and killed the wife and son of a federal fugitive, Chenoweth also introduced legislation in the House requiring federal authorities to secure state and local permission to conduct law enforcement operations in municipalities. Additionally, Representative Chenoweth called for the dissolution of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.
Helen Chenoweth honored the term limits pledge she made in her first House campaign by not seeking re–election in 2000. After she left Congress in January 2001, she returned to Boise and continued her work at her consulting firm. Helen Chenoweth died from injuries sustained in a car crash near Tonopah, Nevada, on October 2, 2006.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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