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.