How right-wing emigrants conquered North Idaho

  • A 2009 anti-tax rally at Independence Point in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, staged by the local Tea Party. Ultra-conservatives have also pushed the local Republican Party further to the right.

    Jerome A. Pollos/Coeur d'Alene Press
  • A Reagan Republicans member cleans up after a political luncheon in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

    Sierra Crane-Murdoch
  • Dan English, one of the last Democrats to hold a partisan office in Kootenai County, was defeated in 2010.

    Sierra Crane-Murdoch
  • Downtown Coeur d'Alene. One letter to the editor bemoaned that, thanks to "the horde of Californians ... the place has espresso bars and strip malls and ferns and houses with diagonal wood."

    Jerome A. Pollos/Coeur d'Alene Press
  • Bob Pedersen worked to elect more conservative Republicans in many local races.

    Sierra Crane-Murdoch
  • The public beach at Lake Coeur d'Alene.

    Joe Yeah, via Flickr
  • Tina Jacobson worked "under the radar," she says, to elect more conservative Republicans in many local races.

    Sierra Crane-Murdoch
  • Dan Gookin, candidate for the Coeur d'Alene city council and Jeff Ward (with beard), president of the Kootenai County Reagan Republicans, review election results in 2011. Gookin, after publicizing his opponent's support of President Obama, won in a landslide.

    Jerome A. Pollos/Coeur d'Alene Press
  • School-board president Tom Hamilton (left) chats with others at a Reagan Republican meeting, amid posters that mock Obama's economic policies and warn "Don't tread on me."

    Sierra Crane-Murdoch
  • An American flag flies from the stern of a tour boat off the shoreline of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

    Linda Lantzy, Idaho Scenic Images

Page 2

Though Kootenai County's political transformation is evident in the polls, impacts on the ground will take longer to surface. The clearest signs have appeared on the city council and county commission, where opposition to taxes and levies is stronger than ever before. Meanwhile, the "social resonance" that The Big Sort predicted has just begun to surface in county schools.

In the fall of 2010, Tom Hamilton became concerned with what his 9-year-old daughter was learning at Hayden Meadows Elementary, in the Coeur d'Alene school district. I met Hamilton, who has a red beard and a jovial grin, at Ground Force, a mining machinery plant where he serves as manager. He told me: "She came home one day and said, 'Our teacher says that if you take us to church, you're teaching us to believe in ghosts and fairy tales.' " Hamilton said he spoke to the teacher, who responded that the school curriculum, called Primary Years Program (PYP), provided by the worldwide educational foundation International Baccalaureate, "teaches us to question our values, even those that have been instilled by our parents." Hamilton was livid. "You don't get to instill a value system in my child that may be contrary to what I believe as a parent," he said. "You teach them reading, writing, arithmetic, history, a little civics, arts and music, but especially in the formative years, values are up to me." As for his values, he said, "I believe the Bible teaches the truth, and there is no truth outside the Bible. I don't expect our schools to teach that. I understand why they shouldn't. But you don't get to tell my kid that I'm wrong." (The Hayden Meadows teacher could not be reached for comment.)

Hamilton began attending school-board meetings. He had never been politically active, but he now suspected school trustees of promoting a "liberal progressive" educational approach, and squandering public funds in the process. He met a group of parents who were already protesting PYP, as well as an optional International Baccalaureate high school program. Some of their criticisms -- that the programs were a United Nations plot, for example -- struck him as a bit conspiratorial, but others resonated. He especially resented a core IB goal, which is to teach students to be "global citizens." When I asked what he thought IB meant by that term, he suggested it signified "tolerance in the progressive sense" –– the idea that two people can have different belief systems and both be right. "I don't agree with that," he said. "I'll give you an example. I would agree that I have no right to persecute, abuse or judge somebody should homosexuality be the lifestyle they choose. But in my belief system, biblically, I can't say that's OK."

Hamilton announced his school-board candidacy at a Reagan Republicans meeting. Jeff Ward came to his house and explained how to run a campaign, and on Saturdays thereafter, members of a group called Republican Women gathered there and then split off with clipboards and district walking lists. Hamilton knocked on at least 400 doors, he said: "I told people that I was a fiscal and political conservative. That I don't believe value indoctrination should be part of public education." In May 2011, he won the election, along with another candidate backed by the Reagan Republicans. Within 16 months, due to conflicts between new and old members, all three remaining incumbents resigned and were replaced with conservatives.

In the spring of 2012, many parents, students and teachers defended the IB programs as good preparation, especially for students who would eventually live outside North Idaho. At one board meeting, Tim Sanford, a high school music instructor and conservative Republican, told the trustees, "Asking a student to think and analyze and challenge the world around them is not dangerous, nor is it brainwashing. It makes a self-assured person, who not only knows what they believe in, but why they believe in it." Despite the protests, later that year the school board decided -- unanimously -- to eliminate both IB programs.

But then Hamilton did something that no one expected: He supported a $33 million school bond that would raise taxes. Before he became trustee, he'd voted against school levies. "I was that guy on the outside saying that our schools have enough money, that they can't come to us for handouts every time there's a budget shortfall," he told me. "Well, you get on the inside, and you start looking at how things really are, and you see that the need is very real."

Hamilton knew that most of his conservative supporters opposed the bond, and without them, it wouldn't pass. So, once again, he made the rounds of the Republican groups. "I remember walking into the Pachyderms, and a lot of them had taken the literature I'd mailed out and circled and marked and highlighted it with exclamation points." Hamilton knew then that he had walked into a "hostile" room. "So I began, 'I know many of you don't want me to, but I am supporting this bond, and here are my reasons why.' And then I just let them ask questions."

Last November, 72 percent of voters approved the school bond.

"I understand the fear," Hamilton told me. "I understand that a lot of people are living under a tax burden, and are scared of where the country is going right now. I look at this and say, can I do something about national politics? I don't think I can. But can I impact the community locally? That I can do. Is everyone going to like me for it? Probably not. But I'd like to think that I'm not so dug in on principle that reason doesn't enter into my argument."

Sierra Crane-Murdoch is a freelance writer and correspondent for High Country News, based in Montana.

This coverage is supported by contributors to the High Country News Enterprise Journalism Fund.

Mary Franzel
Mary Franzel Subscriber
May 14, 2013 11:45 AM
I moved to North Idaho, Clark Fork specifically, in 2005 from Minnesota. Even though I've lived here for over 8 years I am still considered "an outsider". Many feel I have no right to suggest any means to improve our area. Things are the way they are and if I don't like it I "should go back to where I came from." Funny thing is, I have a good friend who used to be a state senator. A democrat no less. He basically has said what you did. The politics have dramatically changed over the past decade. He is born & raised here yet does not agree with most political changes that North Idaho has seen. I resent being told that I "have no say" where I live. I do not demand people agree with me, but do feel that all have a right to speak. Incidentally, Mark Fuhrman lives in Bonner county - was the neighbor to a good friend of mine for years. (She's still friends with his ex-wife)Bonner county had an admitted "white separatist" run for sheriff. The Bonner County Daily Bee noted in an article that he received "a shocking 185 votes" which created a firestorm of comments. 20/20 did a segment on the Lightfoot Militia. There are citizen search & rescue groups who regularly practice in the national forests near my home with automatic weapons & "guard" logging roads. 2 years ago my German Shepherd ate sausage laced with the active ingredient of "sevin" (insecticide) and died. It was apparently meant for wolves. It was on a marked & maintained forest service hiking trail. I live alone & feel if I speak my mind someone may throw poison into my dog kennel while I'm away. The area is stunning but the atmosphere is scary. A neighbor kid shot a shotgun at a car leaving his driveway & the consensus in the neighborhood was "the kid deserved it". The people complaining about "outsiders" do not view themselves as outsiders. Yet as evidenced by the article, most are. Hats off to you for an excellent article. One more interesting thing - most here despise Obama & loudly complain about "social programs" yet on the east side of Lightning Creek our county secured Obama funds to put America back to work & paved 3 miles of a road that has at most 30 homes with the reasoning being "dust abatement" for Lightning Creek. Funny thing is, the road is maybe 300' or more above the creek, plus on the west side of the creek there is another 3 mile stretch of road that is about 10' up from the creek with well over 100 homes on it. That wasn't paved. Seems no one sees the double standard. Fine to have principles but then they should stand by them.
Thank you again for a fine article & I do hope in the future more rational & "middle of the road" folks land in North Idaho. You make an excellent point regarding the national political scene as well.

Mary Franzel
Joel Donofrio
Joel Donofrio Subscriber
May 14, 2013 11:49 AM
As a Coeur d'Alene resident, great job on the story. I'm originally from the Midwest, so I realize politics can be rough and tumble, and that's what the local Republicans are doing.
Many people moved here to get away from something (to put it kindly), but not all of us did ... at some point, the "Rally Right" crowd will push too far and the pendulum will swing back.
I'll add one thing: the ultra conservative crowd skews older; it's mostly empty-nesters, age 55 and older. That matches the overall demographics of North Idaho, for now, but as more young people move here for jobs, the political climate will change, too.
Tom Hamilton
Tom Hamilton
May 16, 2013 08:53 AM
Very well done, Sierra. I enjoyed getting to know you and appreciate the time you put into this article. It was very well written and an intriguing read. Thank you.
Laurie and Tom Ponte
Laurie and Tom Ponte
May 20, 2013 02:35 PM
I hesitate to write in and try and sound clever for pointing out the obvious but if the extreme right wing crowd is so fervent about the constitution then how can they forget about the part of freedom from religion and separation of church and state when they hope to purge all government employees who don’t believe in god? Unless you dropped out of school in the sixth grade isn’t that a part of the curriculum of a basic civics class?
As evidenced by the signs at the rally from the photo the conservatives in northern Idaho like real conservatives across the country are deeply concerned about an emerging left wing socialist\fascist state. Webster defines fascism as a ”political philosophy, movement, or regime that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition” If you want to purge everyone in your county that does not follow a narrowly defined set of beliefs then it seems like all you need to cross the line into fascism is a real charismatic leader. You already have the guns for the forcible part. The thought of the coming of the anti Obama is really scary but that could never happen in the good old USA especially in a meat and potatoes place like Idaho right?
Laurie and Tom Ponte
Laurie and Tom Ponte
May 20, 2013 03:04 PM
It just occurred to me shortly after posting the last comment that if there are Kootenai political operatives who are making lists of who and who isn't a real republican they should take the next logical step and paint donkey heads on peoples front doors. Or how about county mandated donkey tatoos for un-republicans and dog tags? I have a conservative neighbor who went for the American flag house number painted on the curb. Maybe some kind of variation on that would work to identify who is not a republican. When the time comes to take the purging to the next level your all set.
Patrick Truman
Patrick Truman
May 21, 2013 02:16 PM
Is this not the area that Mark Furman moved to? I have been to Sandpoint and was in Boise last year. I found Sandpoint quaint and downtown Boise a lot of fun. Donkey heads, now that is funny!
Rob Ranf
Rob Ranf Subscriber
May 21, 2013 09:32 PM
I believe on the far right and the far left that people simply lack the will and/or capacity to think for themselves. Simply checking the box next to the "R" or the "D" just makes things easier. Here in the Seattle area we see this same phenomenon on the other side of the political spectrum.
Toby Thaler
Toby Thaler
May 23, 2013 03:57 PM
Rob Ranf--Really, you think Seattle's "far left" population gets together and demonstrates with signs the equivalent of "Gov't control of business is called FASCISM", "Born Free, Taxed to Death," "No more taxes", "Socialism works until you run out of others peoples' money", & "The White House is our house and we're giving NOTICE"? Please describe what you see as Seattle Democrats' "lack of capacity to think for themselves."

I have lots of problems with Seattle governance, including lack of sufficient fiscal accountability, but your oversimplification doesn't come close to describing the political situation I'm familiar with. (I've been active in local politics for forty years. As a grass-roots Democrat.)
Laura Fremgen
Laura Fremgen
May 24, 2013 09:18 PM
Great article. My parents moved my family to CDA when I was 4, after the Rodney King riots threatened our lives. Growing up there was great most of the time, but I moved away when I turned 18 and haven't regretted it. It's unfortunately become a place that I do not miss. The longer I'm gone, the worst it gets. The one thing this article doesn't really go into depth about is how Cecil Andrus and Walt Minnick affected the county. It's negligible maybe, but ANY Democrat influence is certainly worth noting. Also, Tim Sanford was one of my teachers in high school and its refreshing to hear him say that about IB...but of course it got cut. That's north Idaho; good luck with progression.
Peter Prince
Peter Prince Subscriber
May 27, 2013 10:05 AM
Just what is the end game for these folks? I can understand how they became frustrated with where ever they used to call home and went looking for something new. That has been happening to populations as long as there have been deserts to cross. I can understand their desire to get involved with the political situation and sorta wish that more people would follow their example and take up a cause. But what now? The populations that so bothered them in their previous locations are still there plus a couple hundred million more scattered across the nation. This will be a big obstacle for the transformation into a national movement of any significance as demonstrated by their inability to convert the masses located elsewhere in the first place. Meanwhile at the local level they have eliminated all the competition so there is no one left to blame when things go wrong. Since it appears a big part of their game plan is to blame others for all faults what are they going to do now? Go write romance novels?
If they try the same tricks that worked locally to overtake the national political scene there will be a revolt among the populace that fully demonstrates the reason behind the second amendment. Or if they just stay local they will either eat themselves alive or die of boredom reading each others trashy novels. What a misguided and hypocritical bunch!
Wayne L Hare
Wayne L Hare Subscriber
May 27, 2013 01:54 PM
That's a scary article! Or more accurately, an insightful article about a scary group of people and a scary trend. I dunno, but maybe there's a comfort in living amongst folks who tell you what to think, who to love, what God to believe in, how to vote. This does not seem to be a group comprised of intellectually curious or independent thinking people. One wonders what our founding fathers, the very folk that these extremist purport to honor and respect, would think...but I think we know the answer to that. And it's hard to not note that of the 125 or so folks pictured that there was no discernible ethnic diversity; that movement leader Ronald Rankin liked the "small, almost entirely white, community atmosphere"; that avowed racist Mark Furhman lives nearby; and that northern Idaho is the whitest section of the whitest state in the country. Yeah, yeah, yeah...I know...the conservative movement, embodied by the Tea Party, claims to be tolerant, inclusive, and non-racist. But several times a week in the Grand Valley of Western Colorado, I bike by a home flying a flag with the Tea Party symbol contained within America's racial hate symbol - the Confederate Flag. Hopefully, as other readers have suggested, the insular, intolerant, disrespectful and extreme views held by these folks will be the cause of their quick demise.
Chris  Phelps
Chris Phelps Subscriber
Jun 17, 2013 10:10 AM
Nice and thoughtful article with great history of NW Idaho politics. I will point out another scenario which occurred very close by in Montana.
I grew up in Lincoln County in Northwest Montana. The county was dominated by the Democratic Party until the early to mid 1980s. The elections were determined in the Democratic primary. Republicans did have a chance in the general election.

Lincoln County has completely flipped and elections are determined in the Republican primary. It is very conservative and dominated by Tea Party/gun rights Repulicans. All of this change in Lincoln County, MT, happened without an influx of conservative Californians.
The loss of thousands of union jobs in the timber industry in NW Montana and in the mining industry in NW Idaho seems to the be the connecting point of the political change in this region.
William Mullane
William Mullane
Jul 04, 2015 10:45 PM
Small world. I moved to the Inland Northwest in 1975 and spent a lot of time enjoying the lakes and mountains of Panhandle. In 1985 I took a job in St. Louis and worked with Dan English's brother - another great guy. It seemed like North Idaho was trending hippie for quite a while; except for the occasional white supremacist. Oh well. Welcome to Whiteaho.
Scott Miller
Scott Miller
Jun 18, 2016 09:04 PM
I see a lot of complaining here, but Montana where I grew up has become much more Republican. Maybe, rather than getting upset, people should consider the positions of the Democrats and wonder why rural people no longer support them. Having lived all over the country, good urban liberals look down their noses at rural people, and make comments about being ignorant or racist. My experience is these holier than thou liberals are the most racist people around, but as long as they vote for the right people, they are absolved of their sins.