POCATELLO — Returning to the Idaho Legislature this upcoming session, Edgar Malepeai will no doubt bring a still heavy heart, but will certainly bring with him an unresolved legal issue.
Malepeai missed the past two legislative sessions to care for then ailing wife, Brenda, who lost her battle with a rare cancer in March.
While in Boise early last month, Malepeai was charged with misdemeanor driving under the influence.
The District 30 state senator was formally charged on Dec. 3 and pleaded innocent on Dec. 9. He has a pretrial conference hearing set for Jan. 25 and a trial date of Feb. 18 should the case go unresolved before then.
But despite, or perhaps in spite of his pending legal issue, fellow Democrats in the Idaho Senate voted last week to return Malepeai to his former leadership position of minority caucus chairman.
“Knowing Edgar, and the kind of man he is, there is no one in the state of Idaho who is harder on Edgar than Edgar is,” said state Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot. “I am sure he is heart-broken about this situation.
“Absolutely he should be serving in the legislature, and we are pleased he is going to be serving in a leadership role in the minority party, and we are pleased to have him back in the Senate.”
In his position as minority caucus chairman, Malepeai will be called on to speak for the seven Democrats in Idaho’s Senate. It’s the third highest post among Democrats in the Senate.
State Sen. Diane Bilyeu, D-Pocatello, a long-time friend of Malepeai’s, said her colleague’s pending case was discussed when considering his election to the caucus chairman position.
“I think that most of us, all of us, have compassion for Edgar, certainly for his situation” Bilyeu said. “I don’t think anyone can say he isn’t fit to serve.”
Malepeai was first elected to the Idaho Senate in 2002 and was immediately elected minority caucus chairman, a position he held through 2006. He was absent from the 2007 and 2008 sessions while caring for Brenda.
But during the prior four years, Bilyeu said, Malepeai built up a respect within the Senate not only from his fellow Democrats, but from Republicans as well.
“Edgar is a level-headed person,” said Bilyeu, adding that chief among the reasons he was re-elected caucus chairman was his ability to work across party lines and the respect he commands throughout the legislature.
State Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, said he knows little about why Senate Democrats chose to place Malepeai back into a position of authority, but expects it’s because of his leadership experience. He said it’s a decision he doesn’t question.
“The caucus chairman is an elected position,” Andrus said. “if the members of the Democratic Party (in the Senate) voted him in, then that’s their prerogative.”
Bair believes Malepeai can be nothing less than an asset for Senate Democrats in the caucus chairman position.
“He’s not a loud, shrill voice, rather he is a voice of reason. People respect him,” Bair said. “Whether you agree with his politics, you have to respect him.
“He is a true statesman. As far as I am concerned, that’s the highest compliment that can be paid a legislator.”
Calls to Malepeai seeking comment were not returned before deadline Saturday.