Kootenai County spans 1,316 square miles, from its flat prairie border with Washington state across the north shore of Lake Coeur d'Alene to the dense pine forests on Fourth of July Pass. In the late 1800s, prospectors discovered gold, silver, lead and zinc in the mountains just east of the pass, and for much of the next century, mining undergirded the regional economy. In the 1970s, the "Silver Valley," on a fork of the Coeur d'Alene River, produced half the nation's silver and ranked among the 10 most productive mining districts in the world. The mines, and the unions that arose with them, made the region faithfully Democratic. Republicans rarely won local partisan elections, and unionized workers backed Idaho Sen. Frank Church, who sponsored the 1964 Wilderness Act and opposed the Vietnam War.
But North Idaho also contained deep conservative pockets. In 1964, the presidential election revealed strong support for Republican Barry Goldwater, and the area caught the attention of Ronald Rankin, a leader of Southern California's burgeoning conservative movement. In 1965, Rankin moved to Coeur d'Alene, the largest town in Kootenai County, from Orange County, south of Los Angeles, where he'd directed the California Republican Assembly and rallied Goldwater supporters. (At one event, Rankin reportedly told a young Ronald Reagan -- then making his first run for California governor -- that he was "too liberal.") According to the region's leading newspaper, the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., Rankin and his family moved to Idaho "looking for a quieter life." The following year, however, he revealed another reason in the Lewiston Morning Tribune, saying that "several very wealthy Southern Californians" had planted eight field organizers, including Rankin, across the West to "reshape the Republican Party from the bottom up along arch-conservative lines."
Kootenai County was a strategic target. Rankin told the Tribune he liked the "community atmosphere"; the small electorate was easier to influence, and almost entirely white. (The Aryan Nations, a white supremacist group, had its headquarters in the county until 2001.) It was a place, Rankin believed, where one person could make a difference -- where, by reorienting the local politics, he could help change the nation. "If we can carry the bottom of the ticket," he said, "then we have a chance of carrying the top."
Rankin's failures and successes read like a litmus test for the county's political transformation. His first move -- an attempt to recall Sen. Church -- was seen as radical, even among Republicans, and over the years, as the Spokesman-Review noted, he ran "for every public office from governor to a seat on a local highway district ... most always unsuccessfully." Eventually, though, Rankin's popularity grew. He hosted a radio talk show and had some success spreading his anti-tax philosophy. In 1996, he finally won a seat on the Kootenai County Commission and persuaded fellow commissioners to make English the county's official language. By the time Rankin died in 2004, local politics had shifted so drastically to the right that some conservatives considered him too liberal. (Rankin reportedly dubbed them "the far-righteous.")
The economy had slid out from underneath Democrats. The price of silver dropped precipitously in 1980, the metals market slumped, mines closed, and Idaho passed right-to-work legislation that effectively disabled the unions. Kootenai County's new economy was based on tourism, medical care and the high-tech industry. At the front of this transition was Coeur d'Alene native Duane Hagadone, an ambitious conservative who owned the Coeur d'Alene Press and other Northwestern newspapers. Hagadone believed that the region's economic future depended on its natural beauty, epitomized in the 25-mile-long Lake Coeur d'Alene. He was already on his way to becoming one of Idaho's wealthiest men when he built an 18-story hotel and resort on the lakeshore, featuring a golf course with a floating green and a new marina that offered cable television and room service to visiting yachtsmen. At a Chamber of Commerce meeting in 1985, after county commissioners approved the project, Hagadone gushed, "The potential of what we have in this great community in this great area is almost scary."
Meanwhile, Southern California was struck by a series of disasters in the early 1990s -- a recession, an earthquake, race riots -- that together marked the beginning of an exodus. Between 1992 and 2000, excluding birth and death rates, California lost 1.8 million more people than it gained; collectively, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Arizona gained 1.4 million more than they lost. More than half of the immigrants to Idaho in that period came from California. Of the top four counties that lost emigrants to Kootenai, three were in California -- San Diego, Los Angeles and Orange.
Like many other mass movements, this one spread by word of mouth. In 1990, the Coeur d'Alene Press reported that one Orange County family had convinced "half its neighborhood" to relocate to Coeur d'Alene. A pastor told me that "whole (evangelical) ministries" came north together. By the end of the 1990s, more than 500 California police officers had retired to North Idaho, among them Mark Fuhrman, who committed perjury in the prosecution of O.J. Simpson. One officer told the Los Angeles Times that he left Anaheim because "the narrow roads got wider, orange groves became tract homes and street gangs became too numerous to count." He went looking for "another Shangri-La," and found it in Kootenai County.