Brent Regan’s yard signs identify him as a Republican. His challenger, Christa Hazel, has “common sense conservative” on hers. Political persuasion is on full display in the race to sit on the Coeur d’Alene School Board, even though the ballots make no reference to party.
It’s one in a series of election showdowns here forming a politically charged battleground for offices long seen as strictly nonpartisan.
Ever a conservative stronghold, Kootenai County looks to be swinging even further to the right with a wave of party faithful targeting city councils, school boards, the Kootenai Hospital District board and even lowly highway districts.
Firing the salvos is the Reagan Republicans, a group that formed in 2009 with a clear focus in mind: Make elected Democrats and moderates as rare as the giant Palouse earthworm.
“We’re an activist organization almost all about getting Republicans elected at all levels,” said its president, Post Falls resident Ron Lahr.
With the GOP monopoly on legislative seats secure, Reagan Republicans is flexing its muscle in local taxing districts, historically a low priority for the party establishment. These boards and commissions are where many Democrats still control spending and set policy, and voters rarely pay much attention, Lahr said.
“We thought, man, if people knew more about the candidates running, more people would vote, and of course that’s to our benefit because this is such a heavily Republican county,” he said.
So far, Reagan Republicans-backed candidates have taken the reins of the school board and penetrated the Coeur d’Alene City Council and North Idaho College board of trustees.
In an attempt to provide a counterweight, a political action committee called Balance North Idaho is promoting its own slate of candidates in nonpartisan elections and says its endorsements are based on qualifications, not political party.
Election may foretell city races
Three of five Coeur d’Alene School Board seats are contested in Tuesday’s election, with incumbents Regan and Ann Seddon angling to turn appointed positions into four-year terms. Both are backed by Reagan Republicans, and their wins would keep a conservative grip on the board for at least another two years.
The outcome also may foretell if the Coeur d’Alene City Council and mayor’s office swing right in the fall election. Three-term Mayor Sandi Bloem decided not to run again, and the races to fill her seat and to wrest control of the council from political moderates is expected to be fierce.
Bloem said she’s sorry to see party activism spread to levels of government she thinks should remain independent of such influence.
“I’m saddened by the fact that it has all become about political parties,” said Bloem, a former schoolteacher who owns a downtown jewelry store. “The philosophy that all elected positions should be filled with same-thinking people doesn’t sit well with me. I think diversity of thinking is important.”
But Lahr said it’s naive to suggest local government has been free of partisan politics. The Democratic Party endorsed candidates in nonpartisan races and heralded election victories on its website for years, Lahr said.
“It’s quite convenient for them to forget that. Of course they don’t want it to be partisan, because if it is, they lose,” he said.
Only 6 percent of Kootenai County voters are registered as Democrats. More than 60 percent of voters choose no party affiliation, but no one questions how red the electorate is. Two-thirds of voters here supported Mitt Romney for president in November.
“To pretend now, after years of doing it on their own, that we’ve invented something and are doing something dastardly that they would never consider, is hypocritical,” Lahr said.
Both parties have supported candidates in nonpartisan elections but never so blatantly as the Reagan Republicans are now, said Paula Neils, chairwoman of the Kootenai Democrats and a retired teacher.
“We’re choosing not to put our Democratic label on signs because we think it’s inappropriate,” Neils said. “When you put a partisan label on it, it’s shorthand for people who don’t want to do their homework to figure out who they’re going to vote for. It relinquishes our responsibility to really look at the person.”
Tumultuous time in the district
This week’s closely watched school board election comes at a tumultuous time for the district and its 10,000 students. Teachers are incensed over a district proposal to slash their health care benefits to close a wide budget gap, and Superintendent Hazel Bauman is leaving after almost three decades with the district to oversee a Western Washington school district.
The transition to Common Core has hit a bumpy stretch, with some school board members expressing reservations about the new academic standards a few months before they’re scheduled to take effect. And some parents and teachers are still smarting over board votes last year to drop the International Baccalaureate and Primary Years Programme at a pair of schools, decisions criticized for the motives as well as the delivery.
All this is set against a backdrop of teachers feeling devalued by state lawmakers who have steadily cut education funding in Idaho while pushing an unpopular school overhaul package, said Kristi Milan, president of the local teachers union.
“I think that really, truly put a damper on education in Idaho,” Milan said.
Idaho voters last fall repealed the controversial Students Come First reform laws championed by state schools Superintendent Tom Luna. But the Legislature this year reinstated key provisions of one reform measure to roll back teachers’ collective bargaining rights, including limiting teacher contract terms to one year and making it easier to cut teacher pay.
“We have so many teachers who are dusting off their resumes, looking at other jobs, retiring early, applying for jobs … just to get out of the state completely,” Milan said. “Until the state decides that it values education and it’s willing to pay for it, nothing is going to change.”
She added that teacher morale likely will sink lower if voters elect school trustees who the Coeur d’Alene Education Association perceives as “not very friendly to education.”
One race at the forefront
The match between Brent Regan and Christa Hazel for school board is not the only race on Tuesday’s ballot, but it is commanding considerable attention.
A win for Regan would reinforce the new conservative majority overseeing Coeur d’Alene schools and count as a big score for the Reagan Republicans. If Hazel unseats him, that may define the boundaries of right-wing sway in the county and could be seen as a rebuke of board actions in the past year.
Appointed to fill a vacancy in December, Regan is an entrepreneur, inventor and design engineer. A dynamic speaker, he has given impassioned speeches on freedom and federal abuse of power, including at a Tea Party Patriots of North Idaho rally. He and his wife home-schooled their three children.
He said he’s running because he feels strongly about the essential role of education in society.
“Our government is informed by the culture, and our culture is informed by education,” he said. “And so if you get education right, you can fix a lot of other problems.”
Stamping the Republican brand on his campaign is convenient for informing voters of his principles and beliefs, but it does not mean he brings party politics to his role as trustee, Regan said.
“It’s not a political job,” he said. “You are entrusted with the education of children. How can we most efficiently do that?”
Hazel, who has two children attending school in the district, describes herself as a reasonable Republican and has the support of Balance North Idaho. She has been a school volunteer for seven years and headed the district’s long-range planning committee. She also applied to fill vacancies on the school board three times and was passed over each time.
Her husband, Joel, is an attorney with Witherspoon Kelley, a law firm representing The Spokesman-Review.
Hazel said she wants to be part of a school board that is transparent and responsive to the public, and that focuses on how student success translates into economic success for the community.
A lifelong Republican, Hazel said she feels obligated to declare her conservative credentials in the race because many voters want to know, and because she didn’t want to be labeled as something else.
“Unfortunately, our society is so divisive at the moment, it’s so partisan, especially the Coeur d’Alene area, that I just understand that is the reality,” she said. “I wish it weren’t the case.”
Some say board lacks diversity
Tom Hamilton, chairman of the school board and a plant manager for mining equipment manufacturer Ground Force, was elected in 2011 with the help of Jeff Ward, a co-founder of Reagan Republicans who also worked for former Republican U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt of Spokane.
Under Ward’s guidance, Hamilton touted himself as a conservative in his campaign materials and beat an incumbent by 6 percentage points. But he said partisan politics has become an “unfortunate distraction.”
“I hate to see any of it get drug down into the flat-out voting R’s and D’s. I don’t think that’s the right thing to do in these races,” he said. “There’s five zones for a reason. We’re supposed to represent a cross-section of the community.”
Still, some see a lack of ideological diversity in the makeup of the school board. Hamilton and Terri Seymour, halfway through their terms, serve with three other conservatives appointed in the past 12 months to fill vacancies.
One of those seats opened last July when longtime board member Sid Fredrickson, the city’s wastewater superintendent, abruptly quit after trustees voted to remove him as chairman.
The chairmanship “was removed from me in, basically as far as I’m concerned, a power play by the Reagan Republican appointees,” Fredrickson said. “I just didn’t feel like I was going to sit around and endure 4-to-1 votes for the rest of the year.”
In last year’s showdown over International Baccalaureate and Primary Years, many parents complained that their voices in support of the controversial programs fell on deaf ears. Those concerns persist as the board looks closer at the looming changes with Common Core, Hazel said.
“I think people are frustrated because they feel like this board serves one segment of the population, the segment that agrees with their political agenda,” she said. “And for those parents and patrons that have a different point of view, they feel like they’re not getting recognized.”
The board is diverse, Regan countered, if you look at the variety of professional backgrounds and experience each trustee brings to the table.
The Reagan Republicans’ Lahr firmly rejects the notion that local boards should be partisan-free zones.
“The argument that the school board should not be partisan because they represent the entire community is specious,” he said. “The legislators represent the entire community. The president of the United States is the president for all of us, not just the people who are in (his) political party.”
But Neils, with Kootenai Democrats, believes the emphasis on partisanship could backfire for local Republicans.
“Wages are low, our education system is deteriorating, young people leave the state so they can find a job where it pays better,” she said. “The pendulum has swung before and I think it’s possible to do it again, and it may be because there will be a backlash against these extreme, right-wing people.”