Russ Fulcher took his brother's Harley out for a "joyride" on an Idaho country road in May 2018, just days after besting six other Republicans in a tough congressional primary.
"I hadn't taken a day off for over a year, and I love motorcycles. Ridden them my whole life," said the freshman congressman earlier this year during an interview in his Capitol Hill office.
It was a gorgeous day, the Boise native remembered. "I was having such a good time." But he was going "way too fast" and hit a hairpin curve laced with gravel.
"And so I took a 1200 Harley into the burrow pit at about 40 miles an hour," Fulcher recalled. "I tore the living crap out of myself."
Fortunately, the veteran state lawmaker was wearing leather, gloves and a helmet. But he still broke nine ribs and his clavicle and scapula, and suffered a collapsed lung.
Fulcher has a ton of metal inside his body now but nearly a year later has made a full recovery. He said his experience with the health care system as a trauma patient was a "painful" but "valuable" lesson that will inform how he approaches the health care debate as a member of Congress.
The "human compassion" and expertise of medical caregivers and talking with them about the challenges they face in their profession had a profound effect on the 57-year-old.
"I wish I was smart enough that I could learn it some other way than having to experience it [as a patient], because that sucked," Fulcher said.
His approach to politics and legislating involves much less risk than his motorcycle habit, apparently.
Fulcher's reputation in Idaho is that of a pragmatic, measured lawmaker with a background in business who leans more toward cooperation than confrontation. He served in the Idaho state Senate for a decade, including a stint as majority leader.
"I'm not a bomb thrower. I don't lead with my chin," Fulcher said, describing his style. His predecessor, Rep. Raúl Labrador, who unsuccessfully ran for governor last fall, was a high-profile and vocal member of the House Freedom Caucus.
"I know I got to collaborate, especially now, because you're not going to do a power play as a freshman in the minority," said Fulcher.
'Smart enough to know what he doesn't know'
"You don't get to those positions by not being effective in working with other people and taking into consideration other points of view," said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), when asked recently about his home-state colleague.
"And that's what I've seen out of Russ here is that he is very interested in learning, not just the process, but learning about the issues. When you come out here from Idaho, there are a lot of issues that you've never really dealt with in the Idaho Legislature," said Simpson, an 11-term lawmaker who previously served as speaker of the Idaho House.
Fulcher, Simpson said, is "smart enough to know what he doesn't know and to seek answers. That's what he's doing."
Fulcher spent years in the commercial real estate business and traveling the world as an executive for Micron Technology Inc. The freshman congressman isn't afraid of a learning curve.
"When I tell you that I don't know something, it's because I don't know something," he said. "And there's a lot I don't know."
Fulcher at 'center' of Idaho's GOP
The federal government owns about 62% of the land in Idaho. As in much of the West, public lands management is an "eternal issue," in the Gem State, said John Freemuth, the Cecil D. Andrus endowed chair for environment and public lands at Boise State University.
"The public lands system is incomprehensibly weird," Freemuth said because of its "checkerboard access." In many places, public and private lands abut and transect, leading to all kinds of thorny access issues.
Wooden cutout in the shape of Idaho in Fulcher's office. Russ Fulcher
Fulcher's ideas on public lands management have evolved somewhat since 2014, when he ran unsuccessfully for Idaho governor against then-Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter (R) in the primary.
"I never thought of him as one of the right wing, sell-off-public-lands kind of guy," said Rocky Barker, an author and former longtime environmental reporter for the Idaho Statesman who covered Fulcher. "However, when running against Otter, he clearly turned that direction."
But Fulcher "got beat up" for that position, Barker recalled, because it was not where voters "wanted to go." Barker said Fulcher told him he ultimately changed his position on transferring federal land ownership mainly because he realized how much money it would cost the state to maintain and sustain such a large portfolio.
Fulcher said during his interview with E&E News that the state should have more input in land management decisions.
When asked if that involves transferring federal ownership, Fulcher offered this: "I think you've got to take it one step at a time. You can make the argument of transfer, and I've seen that. And I'm not opposed to that." But he added that the "more achievable, realistic approach" is one that involves "wise, local management" alongside federal management. "That doesn't mean we don't have that check/balance thing going on."
Fulcher said the federal government right now is not doing a great job managing some of the natural resources it's in charge of.
"I've taken helicopter ride over helicopter ride over private land, state land, federal land, and you can see the difference just like a blanketed line in the ground. The resource base just simply isn't there, the management on the federal [side]. That's where the fuel load is, the lightning strike is ripe, where the wildlife is in its poorest condition. It's literally rotting, in many, many ways."
Still, there are many well-managed federal lands in the state, including the beloved Cecil D. Andrus-White Clouds Wilderness Area in the Sawtooth National Forest, the "crown jewel" of central Idaho.
"Even if states could be more efficient and effective, it doesn't mean they can afford to do it," said Freemuth of caring for federal lands. "These are complicated issues. I think Fulcher is becoming much more aware of the complexity of all of this."
Barker said he thinks Fulcher "right now represents the center of the Republican Party in Idaho," a very red state. "The party is still so far right, it can have in its center a guy who ran only four years ago on the idea of selling off public lands."
Fulcher said his top committee pick was Natural Resources because the issues that the panel handles are so important back home.
"Thankfully, I'm on it," he said. "And look, I'm not naive, OK. I'm a freshman in the minority party. It's not exactly like I'm carrying a big stick. But at least I can get educated. And I'm familiar with it from our citizenry standpoint."
Educating and listening
Freemuth said Fulcher "can explain to other parts of the country why the West is different and why we care so much about these issues. If he can be an educator, that's good. More power to him."
In fact, Fulcher views his role as a federal lawmaker in much the same way. Educating Washington about his district and representing his constituents' interests are critical components of the job.
"One of the primary things that I struggled with as a state legislator, and one of the primary reasons that I'm here, is I hope to get intelligent enough, make enough contacts and be a good enough communicator," he said of his time in Congress. "Be a good enough steward that I can try to influence just a little more wise management of what God put underneath our feet."
That also involves translating the ways of the nation's capital and federal government to Idaho's 1st District.
Fulcher pointed to Owyhee County in southwestern Idaho as an example. The Bureau of Land Management, which has a field office in the county, manages 1.2 million acres of land in the area.
"The cattlemen will congregate in a grange hall in Owyhee once a year. Here is a culture that's been, in most cases, the same families for literally 100 years," Fulcher said.
"And you don't want to walk in with a suit and tie and some slick, fast-talking attitude. These are good people. They're used to making a living off the land. And they don't have any room or any kind of tolerance for somebody who's going to flap their lips at them again," said the congressman, who grew up on a dairy farm in Meridian near Boise.
"I've got to listen first, and then be very careful of what I say," Fulcher said. "And when I say 'careful,' try to frame it in a realistic mindset but also communicate what I'm doing about it or trying to do about it. That is not an easy task."
Author: Kellie Lunney
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