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
 

If anyone in Kootenai County could have predicted the Democrats' downfall, it was Dan English. He had spent most of his life in the Idaho Panhandle and monitored more than 100 local elections in his 15 years as county clerk. The first ballots he counted, in 1996, revealed tight contests between Republicans and Democrats, but in the years that followed, the margins only widened. By 2002, the Democratic presence had been so whittled down that only one Democrat -- English himself -- still held an elected county office. For his re-election campaign that year, he distributed wooden nickels labeled, "Save the Last One," reminding voters of a bygone time when his party dominated the county. That caught the attention of USA Today, which observed that English was a rare political survivor in what had become "the most Republican county in the most Republican state in the nation." Once again, English was spared.

But by Nov. 2, 2010, when he faced another election, Kootenai County had swung even further to the right. President Obama was especially unpopular with Idaho Republicans, and any association with his party and policies had become a political liability. English is a gentle, affable man with bipartisan appeal: His children served on active duty in Iraq; he founded the nonprofit North Idaho Youth for Christ; and he was civically engaged well before he became clerk, serving on the school board and city council. English knew, however, that his record no longer mattered as much as the letter "D" beside his name. "You don't have anything to worry about. People like you," his friends assured him, but English had doubts. That November evening, he noticed the election supervisor studying the absentee ballots -- often a preview of the final totals -- with particular intensity. "I have to run this again. Something's not right," she told him. When she left the room, English pulled the results from the trash. "Sure enough, there I was, losing." He called his wife and said, "I think this may be the end of the run."

In the end, not a single Democrat was elected to a partisan office in Kootenai County. All three county commissioners, as well as the clerk, the assessor, the sheriff, the treasurer, the county attorney, and the coroner were Republican; so were the nine state legislators representing the area. Voters even backed a Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, Raúl Labrador, by a 10 percent margin over Democratic incumbent Walt Minnick. (Labrador is now one of Congress' most conservative members.)

To outside observers, it may have appeared that the county swung along with the nation's political pendulum. American voters leaned right in 2010, awarding Republicans a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. But in Kootenai County, something far more enduring than partisan realignment had tipped the scales. As English put it, the 2010 election marked "the end of an era" -- not only politically, but demographically. Conservative newcomers, primarily from Southern California, had helped quadruple the county population since 1970. Allied with conservative North Idahoans, they systematically transformed the local politics.

It was part of a much larger pattern: Increasingly mobile Americans were deliberately seeking out communities that reinforced their own social and political values. Elsewhere, conservative emigrants helped push certain suburbs of Boise, Denver, Colorado Springs, Salt Lake City and Phoenix further to the right, while liberals relocated to urban centers and college towns. The shift had a polarizing effect: In 1976, less than a quarter of Americans lived in counties that voted overwhelmingly -- by more than a 20 percent margin -- for either presidential candidate. By 2004, nearly half of Americans did.

The consequences have only begun to emerge. Journalist Bill Bishop and sociologist Robert G. Cushing, in their widely praised 2008 book, The Big Sort, suggest that the U.S. has become a patchwork of ideologically distinct communities that elect representatives who are frequently unwilling to compromise. No wonder, they write, that Congress is gridlocked, and issues such as health care, which once crossed party lines, are now definitively partisan. "What happened," writes Bishop, "wasn't a simple increase in political partisanship, but a more fundamental kind of self-perpetuating, self-reinforcing social division." Americans had created communities that functioned as "social-resonators" in which they could hear the "amplified sound of their own voices and beliefs."

Indeed, Kootenai County's transformation suggests that the most indelible impacts may be felt in the echo chambers themselves -- in the counties, red and blue, where the majorities' values are reinforced in every facet of local government, and where it's easy to forget the way the other half thinks. "It's taking us a step back," one self-described conservative told me, "because by making our own private Idaho, we're insulating ourselves from the world."

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.
Sincerely,

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 Subscriber
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 Subscriber
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 Subscriber
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.