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 4

Republican groups proliferated across Kootenai County after the 2008 presidential election, and among them was Rally Right's greatest rival, the Reagan Republicans. I met that groups' president and co-founder in the office of his custom tiling company, X Things Manufacturing, tucked in a dingy concrete complex in Post Falls. Ron Lahr, a funny man whose sarcasm often edges toward exasperation, wore a leather jacket over a green sweatshirt. He had moved to Kootenai County from Spokane in 2002, and connected with Jeff Ward, another Washington emigrant and a former staffer for George Nethercutt, the Republican who defeated that state's 30-year Democratic Rep. Tom Foley in 1994. "We talked a lot about how unsophisticated the politics were here in Kootenai County," Lahr recalled. Together they joined a "Pachyderm Club" affiliated with the Republican National Committee, and both became precinct captains. At one event, Lahr was instructed to write down his name and the city of his birth. "Of the 60 or 70 people there," he said, "most were born in California."

Lahr and Ward thought the Pachyderms and the Central Committee were hamstrung by party affiliation, unable to back candidates in the primaries or take part in non-partisan elections, such as for school board or city council. Non-partisan officials oversee the levying and management of many local taxes, and since incumbents rarely lost, many of the same people held their positions for years. Lahr and Ward suspected there were Democrats among them -- the county's last holdouts -- who were prone to irresponsible and excessive spending. "We thought, if we can influence the election for fire district, city council, school board," Lahr told me, "that's access to a lot of money."

Lahr and Ward formed the Reagan Republicans in 2009, aiming to not only influence the standard partisan races, but also to recast nonpartisan races as, essentially, partisan. No R or D would appear by a candidate's name on the ballot, but the group would ensure that voters knew candidates' affiliations and be inspired to vote. They set about compiling lists and neighborhood maps, and on Saturdays before elections, gathered club members and knocked on doors. With donations to their PAC, they acquired data on demographics and voting patterns. They learned, for example, that many Democrats did register as Republicans in order to vote in primaries. "If you just take the information from the county, it says, 'This person is a Republican,' " Lahr explained. "With our data, we can say, 'This person is registered as a Republican. Here's what we think they really are.' "

Within three years, the group helped 51 Republicans, including 15 non-partisan candidates, win primary and general elections. In 2009, three of their candidates fell short in races for Coeur d'Alene city council, but two of them, including Dan Gookin, who also had roots in California, tried again in 2011, this time amid controversy over the council's plan to spend $15 million reconstructing a downtown park. Gookin hired the services of Strategery, a side-project of Lahr and Ward's that offered more sophisticated assistance than volunteers could provide. The seat Gookin sought was open, and Democrats had nominated George Sayler, a popular retired legislator with a record of earning bipartisan support. (Gookin himself had once voted for Sayler.) But Sayler favored the park project and was an unabashed Democrat. A few weeks before that city council election, during a public conversation with Gookin hosted by the North Idaho Pachyderm Forum, an audience member asked Sayler if he supported President Obama. "What connection does that have with the city election?" Sayler asked. Then he replied, "I am proud I endorsed Barack Obama, and I would do it again."

A week later, Strategery reprinted the quote on a flier beside headshots of Sayler and Obama, and dropped it on peoples' doorsteps. Sayler lost by 15 percent.

The city council election aggravated an ideological conflict within the local Republican Party -- not between conservatives and moderates, but between those who believed, like Jacobson, that only conservatives counted as Republicans, and those like Lahr, who believed that any Republican, moderate or conservative, was better than a Democrat, and those like Gookin, who believed that there was still a sacred place for non-partisanship. The flier unsettled Gookin -- Sayler's politics, though no secret, struck him as "just one of those things" that needn't be mentioned.

Gookin moved to Coeur d'Alene from Seattle in 1993. Previously, he'd lived in San Diego, where he founded the For Dummies book series and authored many of them himself. When he arrived in North Idaho, he "wasn't really associated with one party or another" and was often accused of being both a Democrat and a Republican. "It's just a way to marginalize someone you don't understand," he told me. "They just kind of shove you into an area and say, 'This is where you're supposed to go.' " He thought that politics had grown nastier over his years in the county, and his own campaign was a casualty of this. "We're taking national issues and projecting them on a local level," he said. "It just doesn't work. It's not the same thing."

I heard this frequently throughout my reporting: The same politics dividing the nation in presidential and congressional elections had seeped into local government. The difference was that in Kootenai County, Democrats had all but disappeared, and so Republicans had no common enemy to rally against.

Many I spoke with blamed the Reagan Republicans for the party's conflicts, because their work in primaries pitted Republicans against one another. Others pointed to the 2010 election of precinct captains, which forced people to take sides. One Rally Right member told the Coeur d'Alene Press, "The Republican Party is not being fractured. It's just being cleansed of the people who are not true Republicans." Bob Pedersen perpetuated this distinction; according to Lahr, Pedersen wanted "to be the arbiter of who's Republican and who's not." Pedersen denounced Lahr and Ward as "the real enemy" because he often disapproved of candidates the Reagan Republicans endorsed. When Gookin met Pedersen at the fairgrounds one summer and mentioned that he was running for city council, Pedersen regarded him skeptically. "What do you think about government?" Gookin recalled him asking. "I said that I thought taxes should be low and government should be small. He thought that was a good answer. Then he said, 'What do you think about gay rights?' I told him I thought gay people had a constitutional right to be married. He said, 'Well, we're going to disagree on that.' He never talked to me again."

Among the many Republicans Pedersen refused to endorse was Luke Malek, who won a Legislature seat in 2012. John Cross, chairman of the Republican Central Committee of North Idaho, told me that some people didn't think Malek was conservative enough "because of who he hung around with," an accusation I heard applied to several moderates. Even Cross, who is considered highly conservative, initially drew Pedersen's skepticism due to his take on the role of God in politics. "It's not that I have an open disagreement with Bob about religion," Cross said. "I just -- how do I put this? -- I don't talk about it, and I don't define other people by it."

When I finally met Pedersen, in a Post Falls suburb, I was surprised to find him at once boyish and grandfatherly. He has cloudy blue eyes, thinning hair and eyebrows that bristle over the rims of his glasses. He works as an antique collector. "I want this to be known," he insisted. "I did not try to control the Republican Party. All I did was get conservatives elected. I'm nobody. I'd never been in politics before."

Despite Pedersen's delight in the conservative takeover, some Republicans told me they feared speaking out against what the conservatives defined as the party line. "The more the party gains power," one told me, "the less dissent it seems they're allowing." Gookin blamed this on a lack of effective leadership: "We don't have anyone saying, 'Knock it off, we both believe in the same thing. Get back there. We have enough room to tolerate different opinions.' No one wants to do that. And by being silent, you encourage it."

The infighting struck a new high in February 2012, when Tina Jacobson helped choose Richard Mack as the keynote speaker for the annual Lincoln Day dinner. Mack is widely celebrated among Libertarians and Constitutionalists for winning a U.S. Supreme Court case that found a gun control bill unconstitutional in 1997. This time, it was Jeff Ward who doubted Mack's loyalty. Ward and 13 other Central Committee members wrote a letter charging that, "It is quite evident that Mr. Mack's support of the Republican Party is inconsistent, intermittent and questionable," and suggested that Republican officials might be offended if forced to share his podium. The Committee put the question up for a vote, and decided 31-30 to disinvite Mack. The ensuing debate in the newspapers grew so hostile that Mack himself wrote in. Jacobson told the Coeur d'Alene Press, "This breaks my heart to see how we are treating each other. These are your comrades, not your enemies. We're Team Republican." Two weeks later, Jacobson re-invited Mack, alleging that a "false proxy" ballot had been used in the vote against him, and Ward dropped the issue.

Jacobson resigned from the Central Committee in May 2012. She told me that she wanted more time to work on her novel, a paranormal romance about an ambitious anti-tax crusader who is elected to the Idaho Legislature and falls in love with a ghost.

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.