A few weeks ago, a county road crew cleared the mud from the culvert across the road from my mailbox. The beavers of Gamlin Lake had been busy packing mud, twigs and limbs to, as one of the crew said, “make a nicer pool to swim around in.” With just a few stretches of the big yellow excavator the operator placed the bucket against the mud bank and dug out the dirt and debris. Soon water was flowing from the lake into the culvert under the road and into our weed-choked stream channel. The muddy moving water was a sight to behold, instantly turning a dry gulch into a spring-like stream.
Idaho politics feels much the same: A political process jammed last year and this spring by extremists in the legislature and clouded statewide by deliberate misinformation. It’s too soon to report that the dam has burst or that the system is working once again but there are hopeful signs – green shoots, perhaps. Even a small stream of good news if you look hard enough. Could it be that Idahoans of many stripes are finally tiring of the extremist-fueled drama that is our state government?
Ammon Bundy is still around and has said he’s running for governor next year. Remember him? Notorious for leading the occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016. He was arrested last year after attempting to take over the Idaho legislature, which was in session to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. Bundy refused to leave so he was wheeled out in an office chair, making for a widely seen silly photo.
In May, far right Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin took advantage of Gov. Brad Little’s brief trip to a meeting in another state to declare a no-mask mandate. A week earlier she had announced she would run for governor next year. This all seemed a bit phony and obviously political since Gov. Little had never issued a mask mandate. He is a conservative Republican of the type once common in Idaho government, and a relatively mild-mannered fellow. When he returned to the state, he reversed the order and blistered McGeachin, calling her move an “abuse of power” and an “irresponsible, self-serving political stunt.”
About the same time the Republican Central Committee in Bonner County, where I live, called for the resignation of two-term state senator Jim Woodward calling him an “uncomfortable fit for the Republican party.” The GOP committee had been taken hostage by party extremists a few years ago, but this seemed crazy even for them. Woodward is a popular legislator who won handily last fall. The group cited Woodward’s “score” from the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a mere 44 out of a possible 100.
The IFF is the most dangerous cudgel now at work in Idaho politics. Its website says that despite GOP dominance in Idaho politics for the last 25 years (it now holds 80 percent of the legislative seats), the state “has a penchant for embracing socialism, government control and special interest collectivist causes.” Translation: public education, public health departments, etc. IFF promises that socialism will be the “defining issue” of 2022. McGeachin will have IFF backing, as will an announced candidate for lieutenant governor, Rep. Priscilla Giddings, who earned a 100 score from IFF and who happens to represent my district, if not me.
Beneath the headlines other stories tell of citizens pushing back.
Idaho 97 Project was formed in March in response to safety concerns about Covid-19. Its mission has since broadened to counter disinformation and extremism. Mike Satz, its executive director, now sees Idaho 97 Project as a natural balance to IFF: “They give voice to the special interests; we give voice to the people of Idaho.” Satz, who moved to Idaho in 2006, is an interesting character to step into this challenge. He has been a law professor at the University of Idaho and eventually moved into administrative roles. Before launching Idaho 97 Project, he was associate vice president for U of I in Southwest Idaho. He formerly practiced law in Texas.
Why the name, Idaho 97? It’s a dig at Bundy who claims allegiance to the anti-government militia movement known as 3percenters. Satz said his organization represents the 97 percent of Idahoans who are staying home. His fledgling organization is ahead of where he expected to be, and he seems surprised at the success of online fundraising. Donations range from five dollars to $5,000. Two interns are joining the organization for the summer.
“We are not trying to turn Idaho liberal,” Satz said. “It’s a conservative state where extremists are usurping the GOP.” Their message is one of fear – fear of mask mandates, fear of liberals, fear of what’s taught in schools. Satz ended with a fear of his own: McGeachin could be elected governor. “We have to take these threats seriously.”
While Idaho 97 Project is largely an online organization, at least at this early stage, Reclaim Idaho has a proven record of success as a face-to-face, feet-on-the-ground grassroots movement. It was founded by Luke Mayville and Garrett Strizich, 2003 graduates of Sandpoint High School. Both left Idaho to continue their education – Mayville in political science and Strizich in medicine. In 2016 they came home to organize Reclaim Idaho and campaign for expansion of Medicaid in the state.
If Mike Satz conveys a lawyer’s readiness to engage in political battles, Luke Mayville has the calm, reflective manner of a political science professor and community organizer eyeing the long road to reform. In fact, he is a political science professor with a Ph.D. from Yale, was a professor at Columbia University and now is adjunct professor at Boise State University Honors College.
Under Mayville’s leadership, Reclaim Idaho won an unlikely victory with passage of a citizen initiative to expand Medicaid in Idaho. Equally unlikely was the campaign’s symbol, an ugly green motorhome – not of recent vintage – that carried organizers to back roads and small towns to explain that Medicaid expansion would mean millions of available federal dollars in health care for low-income people of Idaho. People responded. The initiative qualified for the ballot and when voters had a chance in 2018 to weigh in 61 percent favored it.
Reclaim Idaho’s success was viewed with something close to horror by many Idaho legislators who responded by making it nearly impossible to accumulate enough signatures to get a measure on the ballot. Call it Idaho’s version of voter suppression.
Reclaim Idaho isn’t giving up. Mayville is convinced that “bringing people into the political process” is the only path to progress. He is plowing ahead on a new initiative, the Quality Education Act, on the belief that bypassing social media with fact-based face-to-face discussions can still bring legislative victory. But can he win in court? Reclaim Idaho has sued the state over the new ballot initiative law. The case has been heard by the Idaho State Supreme Court. If the court tosses out the new law Mayville is ready to hit the road for the education initiative
There’s been a trickle of good news elsewhere. Bonner County held elections for a library board, a hospital board, and a school levy. All faced attacks from the extremist wing of the GOP. In each case active engagement at the grassroots defeated misinformation. Experienced candidates for the library and hospital boards defeated lies of their challengers, and the school district eked out a victory in the home district of one of the legislature’s most extreme members, Heather Scott.
It’s clear – for now – that regular folks are finding their voice. After the GOP attack on Sen. Woodword the letters and commentary pages of local newspapers were filled with vigorous attacks from across the political spectrum against the party extremists: “Disgrace,” “egregious abuse of power,” “enough is enough.”
Darrell Kerby, former mayor of Bonners Ferry, north of Sandpoint, an Idaho native and life-long Republican, wrote one truth that many of us – natives and non-natives – have noticed. “Idaho’s accepting nature has been turned against us by the new people who have run for political office as Republicans.” And they were voted into office “because of our own complacency of either not voting or not taking the time to learn who they were.” He called them “newly minted radicals.”
Finally, it was a good friend who made me realize that something might be changing, that our political dam might be leaking. This friend is deeply rooted in politics. Her ideal political world would have room for a third party where she would belong, the Independent Party. We have had long and vigorous discussions about how realistic that is or isn’t. She doesn’t have a social media platform and is a conscientious seeker of fact-based news and commentary. But more than anything she is an insider, actively recruiting candidates, working to build coalitions, always behind the scenes.
When she wrote a signed opinion piece that appeared in both the daily and weekly Sandpoint newspapers, I knew she was – at least temporarily – in a new political space. She focused on the “toxic environment” that led to the GOP attack on Sen. Woodward. “Our time is short,” she wrote. “Get informed. Get involved. Get a voice and vote”.
Two weeks after the culvert was opened and water flowed down my stream, it stopped, having emptied the small lake that feeds it to its usual summer level. Balance was restored. Nature’s processes are simpler and more predictable than politics. David Satz and Luke Mayville are the guys with the heavy equipment working to unclog the big mess that is Idaho politics. The rest of us have the equivalent of little shovels – our voices and our votes – to keep political channels open, a stream filled with truth and facts.