By DAN POPKEY
The Idaho Statesman via Associated Press
BOISE, Idaho (AP) -- Dirk Kempthorne used to tell his wife he'd be happy running a mobile hamburger stand after leaving public office.
That dream is dead.
But the affable former Boise mayor, U.S. senator, governor and George W. Bush Cabinet member has found another rainbow with a pot of gold.
Last week, the Washington, D.C.-based American Council of Life Insurers hired the Republican as president and CEO, effective Nov. 3, after the GOP's likely big gains in Congress. He won't disclose his compensation, saying, "I can finally have some privacy."
But the current CEO, former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, makes $1.5 million annually and received another $1.5 million in 2008, largely in deferred compensation, according to association income tax returns.
"Wow," said Roy Eiguren, a powerful Boise lawyer who dated Patricia Merrill before she became Kempthorne's wife. Both men were student body presidents at the University of Idaho in the '70s. "It's a very significant accolade to have a job like this," Eiguren said.
"Dirk will become wealthy doing this," said former GOP Sen. Steve Symms, Kempthorne's Senate predecessor. "It's a great job and it will secure his family."
Greg Casey, who chose Kempthorne as his best man, said his friend is uniquely qualified to represent association members - more than 300 life insurers who lobby Congress on tax policy and deal with regulators in all 50 states.
"Dirk's been very discerning about what he wants to do," said Casey, a Washington lobbyist. "Guys like Dirk, who've been mayor, senator, governor and a member of a president's Cabinet, aren't just lying around. Lots of folks in town would love to have Dirk run their association."
The American Forest and Paper Association sniffed around about hiring Kempthorne, 58, before he left his second term as governor seven months early in 2006. His appointment as interior secretary ended that. "We never really had the opportunity to discuss it," Kempthorne told me.
"Dirk could have had a seven-figure job years ago," Casey said, "but money's never been a primary driver for him."
When he left Interior in January 2009 after a quarter-century in public life, Kempthorne's wealth was modest. He reported assets between $165,000 and $400,000 and debts of $35,000 to $80,000, not including a condo in Boise.
Kempthorne's last private sector job was as a lobbyist for fertilizer maker FMC, which he gave up to run for mayor in 1985. He said he will keep his board positions at FMC and Olympic Steel.
Back in 2001, when he told me about his notion of trailing a hamburger stand to state and county fairs, he acknowledged his wife was cool to the idea. After leaving office, he said then, "Patricia says it will be time to go and get a real job and make some money."
Having achieved that aim, Kempthorne said he's focused on representing an industry that largely avoided public rancor during the financial collapse. The only black mark was AIG and its failed investment schemes.
He rattled off industry statistics: $4.5 trillion in assets, 90 percent invested in the U.S.; 75 million families that buy life insurance, pensions, 401(k) and other products; and the association's representation of companies that do 90 percent of the nation's life-insurance business, including Allstate, The Hartford, MetLife and Prudential.
"This is a significant part of the economic well-being of the country," he said.
Dennis Johnson, president and CEO of United Heritage Life Insurance in Meridian, is one of 33 board members and was on the five-member search committee. After a headhunter presented Kempthorne's name, among others, Johnson said he became Kempthorne's advocate -- not because he'd known him since their student-government days, but because he was right for the job.
"He can pick up the phone and get his calls answered," Johnson said.
The association has a $10 million lobbying budget and gives about $500,000 per election to federal candidates. The group gives heavily to incumbents, regardless of party. GOP Sen. Mike Crapo has been the group's Idaho favorite, getting $14,500 in the last decade. The association also has given to Republican Sen. Jim Risch and 1st District Democrat Walt Minnick.
Kempthorne says he doesn't think his new job will be his last. He imagines teaching at a university, but says flipping burgers will be a private affair.
"Patricia told me that I'll make a good burger, but it's probably going to be confined to family and friends."
Kempthorne says the couple will keep their Boise home, in part because they have two grandchildren here. He wants his former constituents to know he's not an inside-the-Beltway creature.
"Keep in mind, I'm one of those U.S. senators that voluntarily left the Senate to run for governor," he said. "I'm one of those who knows how to go home."
Information from: Idaho Statesman, http://www.idahostatesman.com
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.