Republican leaders in Sandpoint don’t want their participation in the “Fiesta at the Fair” theme for this year’s Bonner County Fair to be mistaken for a weakening of their resolve that English should be the primary U.S. language, or their support for cracking down on illegal immigration.
So they plan to decorate the GOP central committee booths with license plates from Arizona, ground zero in the latest political debate over illegal immigration, and replace any reference to “fiesta” with the word “celebrate” instead. They’ve also sent a letter to Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer asking for help.
“The Republicans at BCRCC want to make it very clear that English is our primary language, and call our booths ‘Celebrate!’ and display some Arizona license plates if you have some to spare,” Bonner County Republican Central Committee Chairman Cornel Rasor, who also serves as a county commissioner, wrote in the letter to Brewer.
Rasor sought to distance himself from the clash Wednesday but acknowledged he signed and sent the letter.
“Having a fiesta theme at the fair was OK with me, I didn’t even think about it ‘til somebody brought it up,” Rasor said. “But their concerns are very real to them, so I don’t want to downplay it.”
He added, “If I understand it correctly, the word ‘fiesta’ and the word ‘celebrate’ are actually synonyms, and that’s what the people who were concerned about it were talking about, so technically speaking we didn’t have a different theme than the fair - it’s just a different spelling.”
At its monthly meeting in late June, the committee voted to “affirm” Arizona’s tough immigration law - a position also taken last month by the Idaho Republican Party at its annual convention - and to send the letter seeking the license plates for the fair booth to Arizona’s governor.
Rasor said an e-mail went around a week before the meeting from members who “didn’t like the idea that it was a Spanish theme, with the border problems. A couple others e-mailed and said, ‘Chill out, fiesta just means celebration, forget it.’”
Longtime Bonner County Fair Board Chairman Tim Cary of Priest River said, “This has got nothing to do with English or anything else. … We just come up with something that’s fun to decorate with, that’s all we do.”
Last year’s fair theme was “A Black Tie and Blue Jeans Affair,” and in 2008, it was, “Ewe Bee There - It’s Our 80th Fair!” Groups sponsoring booths at the August fair or submitting items in fair competitions decorate to the theme to win prizes.
Gail Curless, a Fair Board member, said, “We try to get it chosen by the first of the year, because there’s people who quilt and who do handicrafts and that sort of thing, and they want to know early on.”
She said she supported this year’s “Fiesta at the Fair” theme, which she said will offer lots of colorful options for decorating. “I think it’s a reach to be upset by the word ‘fiesta’ - that’s a big reach,” Curless said. “It’s sort of like making it ‘freedom fries’ instead of French fries.”
Cary noted that one of the fair’s longstanding food attractions is the Mexican food offered at the Search and Rescue booth. “Are we supposed to change the name of a burrito to something in English?” he asked. “I’m thinking there’s some narrow-mindedness here, but that’s just my opinion.”
State Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said she missed last month’s GOP central committee meeting due to high school graduation festivities, and wasn’t sure what message the committee was trying to send.
“The Bonner County fair staff and the Bonner County fair board are terrific people, and I’m sure that their choosing ‘fiesta’ as the theme for the fair had nothing to do with immigration laws,” she said. “They were looking for something that was upbeat and positive.”
Rasor said there were only “two or three that objected to it” on the central committee, and the overall direction from the committee was “to support Arizona, something a lot of committees are doing these days.”