‘Reclaim Idaho’ may dominate 2021’s documentary awards race. Film debuts at Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

Feature-length film is a testimony to how democracy works for all of us, writes guest columnist April Neale

April 12, 2021 4:10 am
Reclaim Idaho organizers traveled through the scenic Gem State in a funky 1977 green painted RV.

Reclaim Idaho organizers traveled through the scenic Gem State in a funky 1977 green painted RV. The grassroots campaign advocated for Medicaid expansion in Idaho. (Courtesy of “Reclaim Idaho”)

Idaho’s Medicaid expansion fight may be next year’s award darling for best documentary. 

New Yorkers and first-time filmmakers Laura-Wing Kamoosi and Jim Kamoosi, the married team behind “Reclaim Idaho,” entered the documentary into the prestigious Santa Barbara International Film Festival, and so far the reception has been resoundingly positive. 

“Reclaim Idaho” tells the story of a grassroots team, led by a married couple with a newborn and almost no political experience, campaigning in 2018 for Idaho’s Medicaid expansion bill. Emily and Garrett Strizich drove from town to town, knocked on doors, spoke to everyday people and collected signatures. The film shows the culmination of their efforts. They traveled through the scenic Gem State in a funky 1977 green painted RV. 

The documentary focuses on the last days before the historic vote where Idahoans of every political stripe voted for Medicaid expansion. This task in one of the reddest states of the union was no easy feat.  

The movement to educate and inform voters that there was hope for those who fell in the dreaded coverage “gap”   the group of people who earned too much income to qualify for Medicaid, but also made too much money to earn affordable subsidies on the state exchange.  A lot of Republicans, Independents and Democrats were in that same costly boat, consumed with worry for their family and any unforeseen medical issues.

Laura Wing Kamoosi and Jim Kamoosi have expressed in prior interviews that they felt very strongly about health care justice and access for all. They tell the fascinating story of three neighbors who were agonizing over the costs and access issues for health care, and how the movement took off and its outcome. 

So many people, regardless of their political bent, need health care. They cannot afford health care premiums or get decent health care access. Voters from a swath of political backgrounds listened to the message, and they ultimately voted in the Medicaid expansion. 

This is pure David versus Goliath political arena stuff, replete with old fashioned face-to-face drumming up of support to help people wade through misinformation and some outright lies. 

The feature length documentary is a testimony to how democracy works for all of us, seeing it put into action as over 2,000 ordinary Idahoans, volunteering in over 25 counties, from every part of the state, worked together to accomplish what the predominantly Republican Idaho Legislature failed to do: expand Medicaid. 

What exactly was the issue at stake?

In 2011, Republican-run states refused to expand Medicaid in protest of the Affordable Care Act. In Idaho, it was estimated 62,000+ people lived without health insurance. The vast majority of Idaho legislators did nothing.

Then in 2018, the hard work of this small army of volunteers who spread across every county in Idaho had their moment. This was when an independent film crew traveled to Idaho to make a documentary, chronicling the “Reclaim Idaho” story.  

The story now goes beyond health care, as the people involved want to see concrete strengthening of Idaho’s woefully underperforming public schools and more protections for the public lands that we all enjoy. These are issues that the left, right and square in the middle seem to nod their heads in agreement over. The Idaho Legislature is currently debating a bill designed to stifle residents’ rights to bring initiatives to the ballot on Election Day in Idaho.

By spearheading the initiative campaign to get Medicaid Expansion on the 2018 ballot, organizers have created an awakened and educated voting public in Idaho. The grassroots network still counts over 2,000 volunteers in over 25 Idaho counties.  

The result was conclusive: On Nov. 6, 2018, 61% of Idaho voters approved Medicaid Expansion. Proposition Two won majority support in 35 of 44 Idaho counties and 29 of 35 Idaho legislative districts.  

Now, Idaho’s legislators have retaliated by drafting bills that would essentially block or restrict any initiative efforts — making them virtually impossible to achieve. Reclaim Idaho joined with a coalition of partners to defeat those efforts, asking Gov. Brad Little to veto the bills and protect our collective Idahoan initiative rights.

Reclaim Idaho claims to be taking on the well-oiled political machine of Idaho. The Gem State’s political establishment consistently passes tax cuts and other favors for the wealthy donors and special-interest groups who help get them elected. 

But core issues — education, the right to Medicaid and even prison reform — are squeezed out. 

Idaho Capital Sun guest columnist April Neale spoke to two key people in Reclaim Idaho’s ranks who were directly responsible for turning out the vote.

Luke Mayville, who recently taught civics and political philosophy at Columbia University, is the author of “John Adams And The Fear Of An American Oligarchy.”  In 2017, he co-founded Reclaim Idaho, a grassroots campaign to secure full funding for Idaho’s public schools, protection of Idaho’s public lands, and affordable health care for all Idahoans. 

Luke Mayville is one of the co-founders of Reclaim Idaho.
Luke Mayville is one of the co-founders of Reclaim Idaho, which advocated across the state for Medicaid expansion in 2018. (Courtesy of “Reclaim Idaho”)

April Neale: How did New Yorkers Laura Wing-Kamoosi and Jim Kamoosi “discover” you all for this first-time doc? Who pitched them, or how did they connect to your cause and decide to film it?

Luke Mayville: Health care advocate Tim Faust heard about the work we were doing from an article he’d read on the Yahoo News website. Tim arranged to meet with Emily and Garrett and do some volunteering for the campaign in the final stretch, and he then contacted Jim and Laura — friends of his — and suggested the idea that they come out and film. 

(Former Idaho Sen.) Dan Schmidt was an inspiration early on because he had championed Medicaid expansion in the Idaho Legislature before losing his seat in 2016. Schmidt actually wrote the bill that we put on the ballot. 

Jim and Laura then contacted Emily and asked if they could tag along with the campaign for the final four days before the election. Emily told them that as long as they stayed out of the way, they were welcome to come on board.

April Neale: How did you cross paths with Emily and Garrett Strizich?

Luke Mayville: Garrett and I had been friends since high school, and Emily had grown up in the area. Emily and Garrett had recently moved back to Sandpoint (Idaho), and we decided to work together in March 2017 for the passage of a school levy for the local school district. 

Reclaim Idaho Co-Founder Emily Strizich
Reclaim Idaho Co-Founder Emily Strizich encouraged Idahoans to vote yes on Proposition 2 in 2018, which expanded health care access to Idahoans in the health insurance “coverage gap.”

April Neale: How did you become a citizen lawmaker, what was the tipping point for you to actually get into motion and start organizing others to propel the victory for the expansion?

Luke Mayville: I had been angry for several years about Idaho’s failure to expand Medicaid, especially because several of my own family members had been uninsured or underinsured. 

My mother was diagnosed with cancer 10 years ago. Thankfully she survived, but inadequate health insurance left her with massive medical bills and she almost lost her home. 

Garrett, Emily and I first started thinking that we could succeed in putting Medicaid expansion on the ballot when I saw about 60 volunteers show up to door-knock for our school levy campaign. We figured that if we could organize that kind of grassroots effort in one community, we could do something similar in communities across the state. 

If we could organize locally led, grassroots campaigns in at least 20 Idaho towns, we could qualify Medicaid expansion for the ballot and win. 

April Neale: In your opinion, why is the Idaho Legislature so anti-working families and helping people in matters of health care and education?

Luke Mayville: For most legislators, the path of least resistance is to work on behalf of special interests and the most powerful. It takes courage to work on behalf of ordinary people who don’t have power. 

Furthermore, we live in a near one-party state with a closed Republican primary system. This means that Republican primary elections decide who governs, and special-interest groups have lots of sway in those elections. 

Tracy Mulcahy Olson is a former nurse married to a native Idahoan physician. She was the volunteer Ada County co-leader for Reclaim Idaho. She is a realtor for Windermere Realty in Boise. Olson also has served as a longtime volunteer for Interfaith Sanctuary.

April Neale: How did you cross paths with Reclaim Idaho?

Tracy Mulcahy Olson: I got involved because (of) Sam Sandmire, Reclaim Idaho volunteer leader/organizer, and (was) asked by one of the co-founders Luke Mayville to organize Ada County. 

I had never done a ballot initiative before, and I knew about Medicaid expansion. He asked me to help, and I agreed. So that’s how I got involved. 

At the time, Reclaim Idaho was just three people. It wasn’t a formal group that had been around for a long time. It really just sprung up, mainly organized around this effort of Medicaid expansion.

April Neale: Why do you think this issue resonated across party lines?

Tracy Mulcahy Olson: Because everybody needs health care. I don’t know of one individual who doesn’t need health care and people know people who weren’t able to access health care because they fell in the health care gap, which was defined by if you make too much money to get Medicaid, but you don’t make enough to get a subsidy. So you’re in that gap. 

The number of doors that we knocked when we explained what it was, they’re like, ‘Oh yes, I’m in the gap … Or my aunt was in the gap. My mother was in the gap.’  We all know people who aren’t able to get health care, and we know what an impact not being able to care for yourself has on your quality of life. 

Politics aside, everybody knows when you don’t feel well. Especially if you have a chronic illness that’s debilitating and costly to manage.  

It isn’t about divisive issues like guns or abortion, or any of these things where people can’t seem to find common ground. It’s easy to find common ground because we’ve all been there. 

And even with insurance, you get a bill and you’re going, holy Toledo, this is a lot of money. I have health insurance. Imagine what the bill would be like if I didn’t have health insurance?

Health care is one of those issues where we all can agree that people do deserve to have access to them. It was a unifying issue. It was not a one-sided issue, but it really did come up like three people who had never really worked in grassroots organizing on a large scale. 

I know Luke did some organizing in New York, but Emily and Garrett did not. And … it just bloomed out of nowhere. And people came together. It was a very unique situation because people came out of the woodwork to volunteer, to help because they knew people who were living this reality and people wanted to get this done. And that I think is needed in this state.

April Neale: Were you aware of the filmmakers doing their work while you were boots on the ground?

Tracy Mulcahy Olson: No. So the thing about this film is it captures the last three days of the election leading up to the election. I had talked to Luke after seeing the film, and in a film you have a finite amount of time. You have to get a story told within a certain period of time. I loved what they did, and I loved what they highlighted. 

What they didn’t clearly frame is there was months and months and months of work before those three days happened. It didn’t describe, or even frame, that there were hundreds of people around the state organizing to get signatures in order for people to vote on Medicaid expansion.

That was that first step. We had to get it on the ballot and in order to get it on the ballot, we had to qualify signatures and 18 legislative districts and had to get almost 57,000 signatures in order to get it on the ballot for people to vote. 

So that effort of which Emily, Garrett and Luke were obviously leading from the very beginning, that wasn’t captured. The documentary captures the last three days, that intense pressure to get people out to vote. It was very exciting to relive it, but that’s up in North Idaho. And honestly, I had no clue they were filming. We were so busy down here in Ada County doing the same thing. It was a blur.

(The film) was very interesting, but it brought all the emotion back, all the stress, all the weight on your heart, because there was, like I said, hundreds of people who organized around the state and worked their hearts out to get this on the ballot. It was that feeling of, did you do enough? Did we do enough to win?

April Neale: Who were your biggest political opponents to Medicaid expansion?

Tracy Mulcahy Olson: The Idaho Freedom Foundation. They slanted to individuals to just take care of themselves. And we should not be like this as a society, and that our focus is about helping one another. They played the socialism boogeyman, that our taxes should not be used to help our neighbor. Those neighbors should be able to just help themselves. 

Their whole thing is gas-lighting people into believing that there are other ways that individuals bear the brunt of care for themselves when they have an urgent medical need or chronic medical need, which is absolutely not true. 

That is their whole beef and they’re anti-public funding of anything for the general good of society. They would prefer everything should be privatized and monetized. We had to fight against just basic misinformation coming from them. 

This (Medicaid expansion) is federal funds that all of us pay into. And that we’re asking the funds to come back to Idaho, to invest in our communities, invest in people who live in our communities. 

And they have a huge stance about being against accepting federal funds because they don’t want the state to be dependent upon federal funds, which by the way, in Idaho, we are very heavily reliant as a state on federal funds. We take in more federal funds than we give. We are a huge taker. 

But it’s this whole notion of you need to be independent. You need to take care of yourself, or if you made better choices … you would be able to take care of yourself. And we all know it’s getting harder and harder and harder for individuals, young families and older families to take care of themselves because of cost of living, wages, and on and on. 

The one thing about Medicaid expansion that I will say why it was successful is that our Legislature failed to pass it for seven years. 

And every time it came up, there was testimony. There were newspaper articles. There were people out talking, and it became clearer and clearer and clearer that we have a medical health care crisis here in Idaho that the Legislature is not meeting. 

It’s not like this concept came out of the blue and then, ‘Hey, how about we expand Medicaid?’

People were well-versed at the door. When we knocked on the door and said, ‘Here’s what we’re trying to do.’ They’re like, ‘Yes, let me sign. I’ve been trying to get health care for seven years.’

So people were well-versed. And that was the thing opponents of this bill tried to, or that they tried to say, was that the people didn’t know what they were voting for. 

No, they knew what they were voting for because they’ve lived it. These people lived it. They didn’t have health insurance, their family didn’t, and their kids didn’t. So they knew very well what the issue was.


How to watch the trailer:

Directed by Laura Wing-Kamoosi, Jim Kamoosi

Written by Laura Wing-Kamoosi

Featuring Emily Strizich, Garrett Strizich, Luke Mayville, Tim Faust, Dan Schmidt

Runtime: 60 minutes

Year: 2021

Festival Section: Social Justice Competition

World Premiere: April 1 at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival

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April Neale
April Neale

April Neale is an entertainment writer and film and television critic. Neale is a member of the Hollywood Critics Association, Television Critics' Association, The Alliance of Women Film Journalists, Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association and Critics' Choice Awards – Film, Documentaries, and Television. Neale has read her original work for NPR and 'Spoken Interludes', and has previously worked at industry trade Below The Line. Neale also writes for Monsters & Critics, TV Shows Ace, MSN, Cheapism, MSN Canada, Yahoo, Country Music Alley, Alliance of Women Film Journalists blog, and AOL.