BLANCHARD, Idaho – C.J. Rose wants the Idaho Legislature to look more like the people who live in the state, especially the rural areas of North Idaho.
Wearing a purple flannel shirt, jeans and tennis shoes, Rose prefers to talk outside in the summer sun about her challenge to state Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, in the November general election.
Like many residents in District 2 – an oddly-shaped expanse that includes parts of Bonner, Kootenai, Shoshone and Benewah counties – Rose embraces a country lifestyle.
The Democrat lives on 20 treed acres in the Hoodoo Valley just across the county line from Spirit Lake. She heats her cabin with the 10 cords of wood she cuts and stacks each summer, and she cooks on an old Monarch wood stove.
Rose has electricity and Internet but no microwave, clothes dryer or lawnmower. But she does have several chainsaws and a cherished 1954 John Deere tractor to keep the driveway clear in winter.
A recent retiree at age 61, she can’t afford health insurance.
Rose is also openly gay and has been with her partner for nine years.
If elected – even she acknowledges that would take a surprise upset – Rose would become the second openly gay legislator in the state.
“We all want the same things – affordable health care, living-wage jobs, well-funded schools, independence and dignity,” she said. “If you believe all citizens have equal opportunities in the workplace, consider this a job interview. Am I the best qualified to represent you in Boise?”
She said studies show that one in seven people is gay, with a greater percentage in urban areas. If true, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population appears underrepresented in Idaho – not necessarily a surprise in a state known for its conservative values.
It’s also a state where 67 percent of voters passed an anti-gay-marriage constitutional amendment in 2006, even though gay marriage already was illegal in Idaho. Proponents said the constitutional change was needed to cement the state’s opposition to such unions and prevent the courts from someday making them legal.
State Rep. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, was elected in 2004 as Idaho’s first openly gay legislator. But she lives in one of the most accepting towns in the state.
What chance does Rose, a retired teacher, have in the rural woods of North Idaho?
Harwood, a fourth-term lawmaker known for his conservative stances and distrust of the neighboring Coeur d’Alene Tribe, isn’t bashful about his feeling that having a gay opponent only will help his re-election bid.
“Most people kind of look down on that lifestyle,” he said, adding that he is one of them. Harwood strongly believes marriage should be between a man and woman.
Yet he said he hadn’t planned to refer to Rose’s sexual orientation in the campaign and didn’t know for sure she was gay. “I wasn’t going to go there,” he said.
Rose is open but not effusive about it. Her March announcement noted that she shared her log cabin with her partner, and her campaign Web site makes no mention of gay rights.
Rose didn’t draw much notice until she attended a fundraiser held in Boise by LeFavour, an event billed as “Change the state for LGBT people one Legislative seat at a time.” Rose told a reporter at the party she was “interested in how small an issue it’s going to be.”
She does support gay rights as well as civil rights and human rights, but her focus is on the elderly, education and health care. She wants to represent the views of District 2, not just lobby for a single issue.
She’s realistic that her sexual orientation will likely cause a stir, but it’s a conversation she said people need to have, especially in rural areas.
When told of Harwood’s comments, she politely said his attitude was “stuck in the 1950s.”
LeFavour agrees. Both she and Rose think that attitudes across the country and even in conservative Idaho are changing. They point to the Public Policy Survey conducted in June by Boise State University, in which 63 percent of the respondents from across the state said they believed it should be illegal to fire an employee because they were perceived to be gay or lesbian.
Of those respondents, 47 percent strongly agreed that such a firing should be illegal, which when broken down by political party included 30 percent Republicans and 57 percent Independents. Only 17 percent strongly disagreed.
LeFavour said the perception that rural areas like Benewah and Shoshone counties aren’t ready to elect a gay person is wrong. “I think everyone would be a little bit surprised how many folks care about gay and lesbian issues and know someone who is gay,” she said.
And that’s not optimistic, liberal Boise talk, LeFavour said. She was raised on a ranch in rural Custer County in central Idaho.
“I totally know how differently small communities come to figuring out how they feel about gay people and gay issues,” she said.
Rose’s campaign strategy is a “fierce focus” on door-knocking and getting to know voters.
LeFavour said she thinks that’s a good strategy because Rose is personable and knowledgeable about the issues.
“To a lot of people a gay person in the abstract is one thing,” LeFavour said. “But when it’s a person you know, when it’s C.J., it’s something totally different.”
As for fundraising, the two are neck and neck.
Rose has raised $4,187, which includes a $1,612 loan from herself, according to state campaign finance records. Harwood has raised $4,189, which includes a $1,568 loan from himself.
Born in Columbus, Ohio, Rose moved to Brazil in eighth grade because her father was a professor of industrial arts who worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development. She graduated from high school in Rio de Janeiro and returned to the United States, where she received a master’s degree focusing on helping children with special needs, whether gifted children or those with disabilities.
She has worked across the globe, from an all-black school district in California to a school in Australia full of Greek and Italian migrants. She also worked in Bonner County schools as a resource and consulting teacher, helping children with special needs get more services.
Before retiring, her last job was convening town hall meetings in the five northern counties for the North Idaho Linkages Caring for Older Adults program, trying to connect senior citizens with accessibility to health care and support services.
“The theme of my career is helping individuals in need get heard, understood and (services) delivered,” she said. “That’s my intention with this campaign.”