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Sandpoint High alumnus Luke Mayville led Medicaid initiative effort

UPDATED: Fri., May 4, 2018, 6:04 a.m.

Luke Mayville was a junior at Sandpoint High School when the 9/11 attacks happened, and his English teacher, Marianne Love, encouraged the quiet, high-performing student to read his essay on the attacks in front of a school assembly just a few days later.

“It was my first ever public speech,” Mayville recalls.

The young student of modest means is now a political scientist who teaches at Columbia University, holds a doctorate and two master’s degrees from Yale, is the author of a book on President John Adams, and helped organize the “Reclaim Idaho” campaign that collected thousands of signatures across the state in an attempt to qualify an initiative to expand Medicaid for the November ballot.

If voters approve the measure, they’d close a health coverage gap in the state that the Legislature has refused to address every year for the past six years.

“There was so much skepticism and doubt out there that it was possible to do this,” said Mayville, 33. “And those who were skeptical put forward a lot of really good reasons to be skeptical. You have to organize in 18 different districts all across the state, you’d have to gather all of your signatures in the dead of winter, etc. But as we organized and started building teams of incredible volunteers all across the state, month after month, it just kept gaining momentum.”

Love, who taught English at Sandpoint High School from 1969 to 2002 and herself is the author of three books, said, “Luke is someone special.”

The two have kept in touch over the years, and Love said, “I am totally amazed with his vision, with the amount of reading that he does on every subject that he ever talks about. He cares about facts. … When he speaks in front of a group, they’re pretty mesmerized. … He’s very, very eloquent and articulate.”

Even as he was teaching Columbia students in New York about civics and political philosophy from Plato to the U.S. Constitution, Mayville stayed up to speed on what was happening back home. And when a close friend from middle and high school, Garrett Strizich, moved back with his wife, Emily, the three became concerned after a local school levy in Sandpoint failed.

“That had been really crushed by a margin of 2-1,” Mayville recalled. “It was a facilities levy to rebuild a number of crumbling schools. And that was extremely disappointing, because we know those schools well – we went to them. And what was really disturbing was that it had been defeated in part by an organized opposition to public education.”

Mayville said he was concerned that an organized effort was pushing back against the whole idea of public education, in favor of a movement toward a system of home-schooling. “We were seeing that in the local letters to the editor and things like that,” he said.

“But this next levy that was coming up seemed even more urgent, because if it failed, it wasn’t just that crumbling schools wouldn’t be rebuilt.”

It was a supplemental levy on which the local school district relied for a third of its operational funding, he said. If it failed, “They would have to close three elementary schools and lay off 300 staff,” plus likely merge the local district’s two high schools, which are an hour’s drive apart.

“It was a real crisis in the community,” Mayville said, “and there was a sense that a lot of people wanted it to pass, but no one was organizing to make that happen, really.”

One local effort involved volunteers waving signs on street corners in support of the levy, he said. But Mayville said he knew from his political science background that that kind of effort actually has a neutral effect – it encourages “yes” voters to go to the polls, but it does the same for “no” voters, by reminding them of the upcoming levy vote.

“The way to actually move the vote is to go out and find your people and bring them to the polls,” he said, as well as identifying undecided voters and persuading them to support the measure and turn out.

Mayville and his friends organized a massive door-to-door campaign in favor of the levy – and since the election coincided with his spring break at Columbia, he flew out from New York to help.

“About 10 days in advance of the vote, we put together a committee of concerned people around the town,” of all ages, from varying walks of life, and started planning. They also aggressively publicized the effort through traditional and social media. The big door-knocking push aimed for 3,000 doors in one weekend, and came close, hitting about 2,750.

“By the end of it, we won by a margin of (more than) 2-1, so we flipped the whole thing around,” Mayville said. “There’s no way of knowing whether we were totally responsible for that outcome,” but the voter turnout in areas where the group organized swelled to nearly three times that of neighboring districts.

“I believe what happened is in that community, people really started to think of this as an important election, and I know that we were a part of that,” Mayville said. “We at the very least were a part of that.”

“We kind of stepped back from that experience, looked back on it and thought, ‘Wow, that was fun,’ ” Mayville said. “And we think we made a difference. And we started asking ourselves a question: How could we do something like that levy campaign for the whole state?”

Mayville and the Striziches – Garrett is a first-year medical student, and Emily is an occupational therapist – settled on the issue of Medicaid expansion. It’s something Idaho has declined to do under the Affordable Care Act, but which would provide health coverage to up to 62,000 Idahoans who now fall into a coverage gap, because they make too much to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to qualify to buy subsidized health insurance through Idaho’s state insurance exchange.

Mayville said polling shows Medicaid is popular across the country, and Idaho polls show strong citizen support for expanding it to close the coverage gap. Plus, he said, “It would actually save taxpayers money by doing it.”

If Idaho expands Medicaid, the federal government would cover 90 percent of the cost, tapping federal tax funds that Idahoans already pay. And current state programs to cover catastrophic medical bills for Idahoans who can’t pay wouldn’t need the millions in state and local taxes they now consume.

“Medicaid expansion would immediately start saving taxpayer money, and then in the medium term it would generate all kinds of economic benefits by bringing so many of our federal dollars back into Idaho,” Mayville said.

The three began driving a 1976, green-painted RV around the state to visit with Idahoans about Medicaid expansion and the coverage gap, and mobilized teams of volunteers. At least three-quarters of the signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot were collected by those volunteers.

The remainder were collected by paid signature-gatherers hired by the Fairness Project, a national advocacy group that worked on Maine’s Medicaid expansion initiative, heard about Idaho’s effort, and launched a parallel effort to the Reclaim Idaho push to help gather signatures, largely in four southern Idaho counties.

Mayville and his wife are now back in Sandpoint and looking into how to move back permanently.

He’s “overjoyed” by the progress so far on the voter initiative. He believes the group has turned in more than enough valid signatures to make the ballot; the final word will come by June 30, when county clerks around the state have finished verifying the signatures.

The issue, Mayville said, is one “that cuts across party lines and that you can really build a majority around. That was partly out of the experience of organizing the local levy, and going to the victory party and finding that half the people there were Republicans.”

Love said, “Luke is one of a kind. Luke has all the potential in the world to be a great political leader.”

“I think he has that quality because he’s been on the ground floor,” she said. “He has known what it’s like to be poor, and he’s known what it’s like to be hungry to better advance his knowledge. He’s just followed a wonderful pattern.”