Idahoans Reach Out To Chenoweth She’s Attacked Nationally, But Admired Locally
Darel Cupp sold his Louisiana title company and moved to Boundary County last year to “hunker down.”
Here, he says, people whisper that a sneaky U.S. government probably bombed the Oklahoma City federal building in April to gain support for gun control.
“I wouldn’t put it past our government,” says Cupp, soft-spoken and neatly pressed.
The theory illustrates the West’s creeping fear of Washington, D.C. - a fear Cupp says only Rep. Helen Chenoweth, R-Idaho, understands.
“She’s the best champion I’ve seen - gutsy, critical of the government, outspoken,” Cupp says. “We need lots more like her.”
He’s not alone.
On a recent three-day North Idaho tour, Chenoweth met with hundreds of supporters who echoed Cupp’s praise.
They turned out in droves - middle-aged and elderly blue-collar conservatives, mostly - and called her a “hero” and a “maverick.”
Seventy-five Boundary County residents huddled in a back room of the Chic-N-Chop restaurant and offered her a standing ovation.
The trip came as the freshman congressman (she prefers the masculine title) earns blistering national attention for her ultra-right-wing views.
Chenoweth’s rise touches a nerve in the out-of-my-face and off-myland West.
Opponents are virulent in their criticism, but the attention endears her more to supporters.
“There’s a lot of mistrust out there, and I’m talking about from World War II-era folks,” says Chenoweth fan Joe Marano.
The Vietnam veteran lives in the woods one mile from the Canadian border. He has no television, no telephone, no running water. He spends most of his time caring for his wife, Carol, who has cerebral palsy and must use a wheelchair.
“They aren’t going to participate when they fear the government,” Marano says, through a belly-length salt and pepper beard. “She sees that.”
Supporters leap to Chenoweth’s defense when she’s painted as an extremist.
Boundary County resident Cliff Dove, a retired electrician, is tired of seeing Chenoweth labeled a “radical.” He calls it a “stick word” - it sticks with readers after they’ve forgotten everything else she says.
“What is radical?” he asks. “That means out of the mainstream. Well, she got elected by the majority, right?”
Chenoweth received 57 percent of the vote last fall over two-term Democrat Larry LaRocco, whose reelection try was derailed by a sex scandal late in the campaign.
She brought with her a colorful list of associations - some militia members worked on her campaign and her political roots are with the John Birch Society and the Wise Use movement - and an apparent willingness to buck party leaders.
A July 10 article in New Yorker magazine calls the 57-year-old the “scourge of the House” and “the most famous” new member of Congress, and paints her as “the point man of a new Republican Party.”
The article suggests a recent run-in with Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who is chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, could limit Chenoweth’s effectiveness. That does little to deter supporters, who revel in her image as a rumbler mixing it up with corrupt officials.
“She’s not one who is seen and not heard,” says supporter Ron Riley, owner of Panhandle Pizza in Coeur d’Alene. “The fact that she rocks the boat … I admire that.”
Rock the boat she does.
Chenoweth recently dropped in on two dozen residents in Orofino during a meeting about efforts to return grizzly bears to the Bitterroot Mountains in Idaho and Montana.
Biologists and scientists say the bears were exterminated in the 1930s by hunters and trappers.
Chenoweth listened for 30 minutes, then slid to a table in the back near state Rep. Charles Cuddy and whispered, “Were there ever really bears here?”
No, said the Orofino Democrat, it was a myth started by a creative midcentury Spokane outfitter to drum up business. Chenoweth nodded and turned to the audience.
“We need to make sure, absolutely sure, there is scientific and legal evidence that bears were here,” she said. “Right now we don’t have evidence. What we have is opinion.”
It’s Chenoweth’s calling card: Stubborn, clipped bombast stealthily delivered from the hip in cooing tones reminiscent of a Sunday school teacher.
It thrills Orofino logger Alan Deyo, who is disgusted with government spending, and feels threatened by endangered species rules he says limit property rights and cut jobs.
“She’s tough and she’s not afraid of anyone,” says the opponent of grizzly bear reintroduction who attended the meeting in a tattered T-shirt and dust-coated jeans. “She’s out there working to fix a system she knows is broken.”
Critics don’t see it that way.
Dick Walker, a pro-environment, endangered species advocate, lives in a solar-powered home in Peck, Idaho. He logs on private land and earns a living as a helicopter pilot. He says Chenoweth is short-sighted.
“I see a lot of talk about rights - states’ rights, self-reliance, property rights,” says the former federal forester. “But she talks about taking something from our resources without talking about the responsibility that goes along with that.”
Dove argues that he’s more interested in responsibility for arrogant bureaucrats.
“This is the county of Randy Weaver, remember,” he says.
Dove tells of visiting a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office and seeing a new computer - paid for by taxpayers - on a staff member’s desk. Yet he says he can’t get the bureaucrat to pay attention to him or return his telephone calls.
Residents here applaud Chenoweth’s call for hearings into the 1992 siege of Weaver’s Ruby Ridge cabin and her push to rewrite the Endangered Species Act. She also wants to abolish the Internal Revenue Service in exchange for a national sales tax or a flat income tax.
“Chenoweth is facing down out-of-control feds and calling it like it is,” says Ron Woodbury, a Boundary County GOP leader. “If somebody assaults a police officer, for example, and the cop shoots the guy, the officer could lose his career. Feds blow somebody’s brains out and it’s ‘Whoops, we’re sorry.’ She won’t put up with that.”
Cupp, an East Texas native who recalls angrily watching television accounts of the 1993 federal standoff with Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, says Chenoweth recognizes citizens “who love their country and loathe their government.”
Cupp describes U.S. citizens with a parable about a cow on a ranch the government is selling off, parcel-byparcel. The cow never notices, he says, until “she turns around and her tail gets caught in barbed wire. So the cow jumps the fence and runs away.”
Boundary County resident Denis Johnson, a novelist and author of a recent Esquire magazine article on the militia movement, says Chenoweth “says things that need to be said.”
Describing himself as a reformed 1960s left-wing radical, Johnson offers another fable: A frog sits in a pot of water on the stove. The temperature increases so slowly, the frog never notices. The frog dies.
Cupp nods in agreement.
“We’re fighting a political and cultural war,” he says.
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