Scorched earth politics leave little room for common ground. Can these Idaho groups fight extremism?
Republicans, Democrats and independents alike seek new ways to engage with Idahoan voters
As politics becomes more partisan across the country and here in Idaho, groups like Idaho Conservatives, Reclaim Idaho and The Idaho 97 say they are looking for ways to fight extremism and disinformation in the Gem State. (Photo illustration by Steve Fischbach for the Idaho Capital Sun)
Lifelong Republican Jennifer Ellis almost doesn’t even recognize her own political party when she looks at some of Idaho’s far-right legislators that dominated the agenda this session.
“This far right faction seems to be getting more traction and getting more people elected than ever before,” Ellis, a Blackfoot rancher, said in a telephone interview.
Ellis has been involved with policy work in Idaho for decades. She got her start with the PTA about 28 years ago.
For the last 25 years, she’s been devoted to agriculture policy.
She’s been active with the Idaho Cattle Association — a powerful, 100-plus-year-old trade association, past and current members of which have ascended to the highest offices in Idaho, including Gov. Brad Little and Speaker of the House Scott Bedke, R-Oakley.
Over the last few years, Ellis has become increasingly fed up with far-right Republicans aligning themselves with what she describes as extremist groups, including anti-government activist Ammon Bundy’s People’s Rights movement, the Idaho Freedom Foundation and The John Birch Society. She also includes The Real Idaho 3 Percent, a militia group, and Health Freedom Idaho, an anti-vaccination group that worked alongside the People’s Rights movement and Idaho Freedom Foundation to oppose and defy public health orders during the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused 2,074 deaths in Idaho, according to the state’s official coronavirus data website.
Some members of extremist groups protested outside of elected officials’ homes over the past year, often carrying torches and pitchforks and terrifying children and families.
Gregory Graf, who writes a blog called Political Potatoes, founded Idaho Conservatives, a website dedicated to sharing fact-based policy information with Idaho Republicans. Soon, Ellis and four like-minded conservatives got involved and started writing on the Idaho Conservatives blog as an attempt to take back the party and combat disinformation and extremism.
They consider themselves a group of conservative Republicans who understand the inner workings of Idaho politics. And they are tired of seeing extremists hijack their party and use it as a bully pulpit, she said.
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Idaho’s role in education one example of things conservatives disagree on
Ellis says a perfect example is the critical race theory and social justice debates that Republicans in the Idaho House of Representatives used to kill two major education budget bills this session (both of which were later rewritten).
“Extremist organizations like the Freedom Foundation decided if they can’t get their way of destroying public schools in Idaho through talking about money, they can run a red herring such as CRT and hold budgets hostage,” Ellis said. “It’s just a poisonous feedback loop and has nothing to do with actualities on the ground.”
The Idaho Freedom Foundation could not be reached for comment.
In a 2019 op-ed, Idaho Freedom Foundation Executive Director Wayne Hoffman wrote “I don’t think government should be in the education business.”
“It is the most virulent form of socialism (and indoctrination thereto) in America today,” Hoffman wrote.
Hoffman wrote that teachers and students are “victims” of the mandate in the Idaho Constitution requiring the state to maintain a free and uniform public school system.
This year, Hoffman and the Freedom Foundation have made the education debate a top issue, pushing many of the critical race theory and social justice anecdotes that legislators used in sinking the education budgets.
Ellis isn’t surprised. She warns people about any legislator who has a score of 90 or higher on the Idaho Freedom Index, a scoring system based on 12 criteria the foundation uses to rank many — but not all — bills. Eighteen legislators have a freedom index of 90 or higher, while Reps. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, and Chad Christensen, R-Iona, have perfect scores of 100.
“That’s what we’ve done with Idaho Conservatives is be a voice of people who have been Republicans their entire adult lives and are calling out what we see as missteps within the party,” Ellis said. “In Idaho, if you have only Democrats and the far right that does all the talking, the 90 percent of us in the middle gets lost.”
Ellis wants to elevate the conversation.
“Politics, to me, dumbs down and puts into sound-bite-form very intricate policy,” she said. “So when people have gotten to the point where maybe they read headlines only or Facebook or memes, for example, the true policy dialogue is being misplaced.”
But she knows it’s an uphill battle.
“Unfortunately, with the pandemic that’s taken place in Idaho we’ve been more reactionary, we have kind of been playing defense,” Ellis said. “And there are so many things every day you’re trying to dig into then you forget what the thing the day before was.”
Reclaim Idaho says state legislators are breaking rules of civility more often
Reclaim Idaho co-founder Luke Mayville knows that there is a lot more to Idaho than the extreme groups and positions that have been making news lately. That’s because Mayville and Reclaim’s volunteers have personally engaged with tens of thousands of Idahoans over the past four years, highlighted by their successful Medicaid expansion ballot initiative Idaho voters approved in 2018.
“One thing we found with Reclaim Idaho and Medicaid expansion is you could make a lot of progress when you get off social media and start going door-to-door and start hosting face-to-face events and, even more importantly when you sideline the issues that are most divisive and invite people to engage on issues that bring people together,” Mayville said in a telephone interview.
In fact, Mayville isn’t really worried about the people of Idaho. He said it is important to call out protestors when they cross a line. But Mayville is much more worried about elected officials and divisive extremist groups.
“We are not paying nearly enough attention to all of the ways elected officials who have a great deal of power are breaking rules of civility,” Mayville said. “The No. 1 rule is that if you are enacting policy that directly affects people’s lives, you should be willing to engage in open, transparent discussions with those who are most affected.”
The Legislature broke that rule several times this year, Mayville said.
“So it’s when you see major property tax legislation rammed through in 24 hours without any serious discussions with low-income seniors whose property taxes will go up or major legislation transforming ballot initiatives without making an effort to reach out to grassroots organizations that collect signatures,” Mayville said. “It’s when you see anti-indoctrination legislation get rammed through without any serious effort to engage teachers and learn what they think.”
Mayville said the closed Republican primary system is a major problem in Idaho. No Idaho Democrat has won a statewide race since Marilyn Howard won the 2002 superintendent of public instruction’s race. In that regard, the Republican primary has become the race that matters. Only a fraction of voters participate in closed Republican primaries, and candidates tend to run far to the right.
For instance, there were 269,467 ballots cast in the 2018 primary election (that total includes more than 65,800 Idahoans who voted in the Democratic primary and could not vote in the GOP primary, which is only open to voters who specifically affiliate with the Republican Party).
By comparison, there were 612,536 ballots cast in the 2018 general election.
“Our closed primary system insulates elected officials from the majority of the population,” Mayville said. “Most of our elected officials don’t really have to face the majority of voters and win them over. And that gives them a sense of impunity that they may not be held accountable by anyone other than a very small group of active primary voters.”
Other problems include the decline of traditional media, the rise of social media, the ready availability of disinformation and a tendency to make politics about the most divisive issues, he said.
Mayville is optimistic. Reclaim Idaho tapped into something with its Medicaid initiative, he said. Now it is partnering up to sue the state in an attempt to throw out a new ballot initiative law that requires initiative and referendum organizers to collect signatures of 6% of voters in 35 of Idaho’s 44 counties. Legislative leaders hired their own outside attorneys, in addition to using the Idaho Attorney General’s Office, to defend the law, Betsy Z. Russell of the Idaho Press reports.
Reclaim Idaho also has a new education initiative in the works if the lawsuit succeeds.
But Mayville’s optimism hinges on Idahoans’ ability to engage in elections, government and politics.
“We have to have people engaging in large numbers and frequently enough to counterbalance the division, the divisive forces,” Mayville said. “I wouldn’t say we are there yet; I’d say we have made some progress.”
It can be intimidating finding a place to start. Mayville recommends picking an issue that you care deeply about, one that you believe many other Idahoans care about. Try to engage with someone in a civil, informed way and bring them along. Then find an organization that is working on the issue and get involved.
“If you can’t find such an organization, then consider starting one,” Mayville said.
That’s how Reclaim started. Mayville and friends, who grew up in Sandpoint and attended the Lake Pend Oreille School District, started the organization in an attempt to pass a local school levy. It was right in the wake of the divisive 2016 presidential election, but people from all sides of the political spectrum came together to work for something they could all get behind.
It worked, and the levy passed.
“That got us thinking, ‘wouldn’t it be a good thing for the state if we started a statewide organization and identified the top two or three issues for a majority of Idahoans?’” Mayville said.
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The Idaho 97 Project formed in recent months to combat extremism, COVID-19 disinformation
Political and civic minded Boiseans Nathaniel Hoffman and Emily Walton created The Idaho 97 Project, the newest group entering the fray to oppose extremism and engage Idahoans.
“It was quite spontaneous — Emily and I both were sort of simultaneously reacting to the very aggressive protesting outside of Central District Health (while the public health district was considering strategies to slow the spread of the coronavirus),” Hoffman said.
“The name was pretty spontaneous too,” Hoffman added. “It represents what we believe to be the feelings of most Idahoans, who have had enough of the extremist views of politics ruling the day.”
Soon, Mike Satz, an attorney and a former executive officer and associate vice president for the University of Idaho in southwest Idaho joined the effort. Satz became the founding executive director of The Idaho 97 Project and the group formed as an LLC and relaunched.
Satz said he is the only paid staff member, and the project’s funding is entirely donation-based. He said they have received contributions ranging from $5 to $5,000 and have received support from independents, Republicans, libertarians and Democrats alike.
Satz said the timing was ripe because he has observed what he calls a dramatic change in the Legislature in the last couple of years, particularly this year. In the past, Satz said moderate and conservative leaders could be counted on to focus on the interests of the people. This year, Satz said more legislators left the people behind and started catering to the extremists.
Hoffman said an example was the Legislature’s “complete denial of science and aggressive tactics to spread disinformation about COVID 19.” This session, legislators fought to repeal coronavirus safety precautions such as crowd limits and unsuccessfully pushed a bill to outlaw mask mandates.
“The views of the extremists are now becoming policy, and our legislators are enacting their views and allowing their views to steer policy away from what most Idahoans want and away from the values most Idahoans want,” Satz said.
Mayville said people are taking notice.
“Clearly extremism is also a serious problem,” Mayville said. “It’s good to have an organization that is vigorously focused on the problem of extremism and bringing in a lot of people into that work.”
Satz and The Idaho 97 Project were particularly upset with the Legislature rejecting a $6 million grant for early childhood education, killing education budgets and then cutting a combined $2.5 million in funding from Boise State University, University of Idaho and Idaho State University.
From May 3-5, The Idaho 97 Project mobilized its supporters to send thousands of letters to legislators telling them to fully support education and end the session. They told legislators that legislators had listened to the wrong special interest groups on social justice and they were tired of education budgets being held hostage.
In their urgency, the group flooded the email inbox of Rep. Caroline Nilsson Troy, R-Genesee.
“Whatever way you voted and whatever you might have said on the floor or in committee, we see you holding higher education budgets hostage for illogical pet projects pushed by a few special interests steeped in conspiracy theory and disinformation that are DAMAGING our state and our children,” the letter said. “We see you cutting higher education budgets by the millions — raising red flags for students, parents and Idaho employers.’
Troy was devastated.
She was the only Republican who joined Democrats in voting for Senate Bill 1179 the original, fully funded higher education budget. She also stood up against the conservative tide and voted in favor of House Bill 354, the original K-12 teacher salaries bill that the Idaho House killed.
As the House vice chairwoman for the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, Troy was working behind the scenes trying to secure votes needed to pass the budgets.
“I’ve been really disappointed because we worked really hard to get the very things done they’ve been sending emails about,” Troy said in a telephone interview. “I was there early in the morning, I’m there late at night, I’ve done everything in my power to deliver the best budgets possible.”
At first, Troy was excited about the Idaho 97’s mission. She agrees with opposing extremism and fostering civility. But she said the Idaho 97 used some of the same tactics of the groups it targets.
“These are some of the most insulting emails I have ever read,” Troy said.
She said she read every one and replied to Nathaniel Hoffman saying she would delete Idaho 97 emails going forward.
When Troy replied to Satz with the word “deleted,” The Idaho 97 posted screenshots online and accused her of “throwing a hell of temper tantrum.”
Democratic Reps. Colin Nash and Brooke Green, both D-Boise, jumped to Troy’s defense to praise her for fighting for education funding.
On Twitter, the Idaho 97 stood by the letters and the campaign, saying residents have a right to voice concerns to legislators and legislators should take those concerns seriously. They also pointed out the end result was the Legislature passing a rewritten higher education budget with reduced funding.
In the wake of the dispute, several people pointed out Troy is the kind of legislator groups like the Idaho 97 should want to work with if they want to make inroads with the Legislature.
“We sent that letter out and didn’t know what Rep Troy was doing; one of things that was going on at that time was negotiating for a resolution to a higher education budget,” Satz said.
“She has been a strong, stalwart supporter of the University of Idaho,” Satz added. “I recognized her feelings, and I am sorry she was hurt by that.”
As the longest session in state history continued to move along, The Idaho 97 Project continued to stay engaged. The group supported Jane Doe, the teenage legislative intern who accused former Rep. Aron von Ehlinger, R-Lewiston, of sexual assault. The Idaho 97 Project joined the ACLU of Idaho, the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual & Domestic Violence and The Idaho Female Veterans Network in calling for accountability and an investigation into Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, who shared a far-right blog post identifying and shaming Jane Doe.
During the House Ethics Committee’s hearing on the complaint against von Ehlinger, Giddings described her actions as sharing a news article that provided additional information on the situation. Von Ehlinger then resigned from the Legislature. Giddings announced Friday she is running for lieutenant governor in 2022.
Looking ahead, The Idaho 97 Project has an ambitious agenda. It wants to continue to combat disinformation and organize in ways that help Idahoans share their voice and reach elected officials. Satz said the group will work to reduce the number of extremists holding office, and that may involve putting information out about candidates or issues or even recruiting candidates. They are also asking business leaders not to donate to politicians who cut education funding.
“We came into the session in the middle, and I’d say we were behind everybody else in terms of having a presence at the Statehouse,” Hoffman said. “We’re brand new and have one staff member. But we have gotten people’s attention by choosing issues that highlight extreme, far-right rhetoric and thousands of people responded and the Legislature has responded and I think we moved the needle a little bit.”
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