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

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Indeed, as the county's population soared above 100,000, it began to look less like Idaho and more like suburban California. The prairie was paved with curling cul-de-sacs and gridded with Starbucks, Del Tacos and Holiday Inns. The old Potlatch Mill on Lake Coeur d'Alene became a golf course, and another mill site, just past the outflow into the Spokane River, became an office complex and parking lot. Once, when county commissioners voted to approve a subdivision, a local politician opined, "They are trying to turn Idaho into Orange County." Another resident wrote to the Spokesman-Review, "When I moved there in 1976, Coeur d'Alene was a nice, sleepy town, just getting ready to construct its first McDonald's. Today, thanks to the horde of Californians who settled there, the place has espresso bars and strip malls and ferns and houses with diagonal wood."

Pundits predicted that Californians' migration to places like Kootenai County would have a moderating effect on the politics of the Intermountain West. The newcomers "are finding work in jobs unrelated to the traditional timber, mining and agricultural fields," observed Timothy Egan, a Western correspondent for The New York Times, in 1993. Egan suggested that these "lifestyle refugees" would cause an "environmentalist tilt in the (Western) electorate." But he overlooked a key detail: The counties from which these refugees came were the most conservative in California. They were, in fact, the birthplace of modern American conservatism -- home to the John Birch Society, early evangelicalism, the 1978 tax revolt that led to property-tax limits in Proposition 13, and two years later, Reagan's election to the presidency.

When California's conservative bulwarks faltered in the 1990s under the weight of rising taxes, stricter regulations, Mexican immigration, and the state's steady liberalization, conservatives went looking for what they believed they had lost. Many told me that Kootenai County became their idea of "God's Country" -- an American utopia, a refuge from "a world turned upside down." As one transplant told Egan, "There's this desire to return to a simpler, nostalgic life, even though we don't really have any idea what that is."

Last December, I met Tina Jacobson at a Starbucks in the suburbs north of Coeur d'Alene. I had been in the area for only a few days but already knew that, depending on whom one consulted, Jacobson was either the county's most principled or most pugnacious Republican. "I make no bones about it," she told me. "I am a Conservative. I spell 'Conservative' with a capital C."

The daughter of Dutch immigrants, Jacobson grew up in Southern California, where, from a young age, she listened to talk radio. She recalled with alarming clarity the day that her high school political science teacher "came bouncing into the room braless" and cried over Democrat George McGovern's loss in the 1972 presidential race. When Jacobson turned 18, she registered as a Republican and, soon after, entered politics, campaigning against a school bond. Eight years later, she escaped California and moved with her husband to Boise, where she eventually won election as a local precinct captain. Idaho's small population gave her an entry into politics that would have been impossible in California. She mingled with conservative heavyweights, and when she moved to the Coeur d'Alene area in 1993, for her husband's job, she sought, and won, an appointment as secretary of the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee. That gave her access to addresses and voting records, which she scoured for emerging patterns. The next year, Helen Chenoweth, a leader of Idaho's conservative movement, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and later she hired Jacobson as an assistant. Jacobson admired the congresswoman and read her subsequent re-elections in 1996 and 1998 as landmarks in Idaho's rightward tilt.

In Kootenai County, the shift was especially noticeable. By 2002, registered Republicans outnumbered Democrats, and even as the nation swung left in the 2008 election, the Democratic Party didn't run candidates in five local Legislature races. Still, the county's Republican Party struck Jacobson as lackluster. "We needed to run the agenda, put forth resolutions, move politics in a direction that conservatives wanted to go," she explained. "If you're a majority party, if you don't use that to your advantage, what's the point?" She suspected, too, that as the local Democratic Party atrophied, its members were switching their affiliation in order to vote for moderate candidates in Republican primaries. "They still wanted to be a part of it, so they came to us because we were the only game in town," she said. "The battle was still Republicans vs. Democrats. The problem was, we were all wearing the same jersey."

At a Central Committee meeting after the 2008 election, Jacobson saw an opening when another former Californian, Bob Pedersen, asked for help to run for Congress. Pedersen came from Orange County, where he'd been active in the early evangelical movement and worked as a volunteer pastor. In his view, the pivotal point in California's decline came in 1992, when police officers charged with brutally beating a black man, Rodney King, were acquitted of criminal charges, setting off riots across L.A. Pedersen recalled standing on his porch with a gun, looking over that urbanized valley, the horizon lit with fire. "It looked like Armageddon," he recalled. "I said, 'I'm getting out of this. I'm not going to raise my kids here.' " In 1994, Pedersen and his wife packed their three children into a van and drove north. "I believed Idaho was the new Promised Land," he said. "It was beautiful. It was a new place to start."

Jacobson advised Pedersen that he wasn't ready to run for Congress. "He had no name recognition," she told me. "I said, 'Bob, if you want to make a difference, you're going to have to take over the Republican Party. Here's how it's done.' " Jacobson believed that the precincts offered citizens the greatest potential for political influence. Precinct captains walk their neighborhoods, meeting voters face-to-face, and together they form the county Republican Central Committee, which grooms candidates and has tremendous influence among regional and state Republicans. If a county commissioner or legislator steps down, the committee nominates replacements. Jacobson advised Pedersen that precinct captainships were rarely contested in elections; incumbents would be unlikely to even notice someone vying for their seat, until they saw a ballot.

In the spring of 2009, Pedersen placed an ad in the weekly Nickel's Worth: "Are you tired of the Republican Party? Conservatives Unite!" On April 1, 130 people packed into a pizza parlor in Post Falls, west of Coeur d'Alene. Pedersen was nervous, not expecting such a crowd. Through a hand-held microphone, he explained that the same kind of liberals leading the country toward financial and moral ruin had infiltrated the local Republican Party. "They're just Godless," he said. "They aren't Republican." That night, several volunteers joined him in organizing a club they called Rally Right. (Though its principles resemble those of the Tea Party, Rally Right's slogan states, "It's easier to fix the Republican Party than start a third party.") By the end of the summer, Rally Right boasted more than 2,000 members and invited candidates to speak at their meetings. Raúl Labrador came twice.

Pedersen vetted candidates for precinct captainships according to what he called "The Conservative Creed." It began, "Do you believe God is the foundation of this country, and do you believe in God?" and then asked about states' rights -- "a protection against tyranny of a federal government" -- and the right to bear arms. Finally, it asked, "Do you stand for the traditional marriage and do you stand against abortion?" Each candidate was tested twice.

In May 2010, 42 of the vetted candidates won positions on the 71-seat Central Committee; Jacobson was elected chairwoman. "It was all under the radar," she told me. "By the time we were done, it was too late for anybody to react."

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.