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News >  Idaho

Stoking Idaho’s conservative fire

District appears destined to seize power from moderates

Idaho District 3 Rep. Vito Barbieri works in his concession stand along with his daughter Tina, 14, at Honeysuckle Beach in Hayden on Aug. 3. (Kathy Plonka)
Idaho District 3 Rep. Vito Barbieri works in his concession stand along with his daughter Tina, 14, at Honeysuckle Beach in Hayden on Aug. 3. (Kathy Plonka)

Conservatism is practically a religion in Idaho’s legislative District 3, the district that elected tax-protesting state Rep. Phil Hart four times and this year added two like-minded lawmakers he recruited to run.

“I was considered a radical to my friends in California, and then I got up here and found out I was a moderate,” said Vito Barbieri, a first-term state representative and, like many District 3 residents, a California transplant who moved north.

The district, which takes in Hayden, tony Hayden Lake, the once-agricultural but fast-developing Rathdrum Prairie and little towns like Spirit Lake and Athol, has seen massive development and population increase over the last decade, but its conservative nature is nothing new – the last time a Democrat was elected here was in 1994. No Democrat has even run for the Legislature since 2002, and then there was just one candidate, who lost.

What’s different, though, is the intensity of the conservative leanings. Former state Sen. Mike Jorgenson, a Republican who represented District 3 for six years but lost to Hart-backed state Sen. Steve Vick in the primary in 2010, said, “These radical losers think that having legislation that requires contractors to register is communistic – any kind of reasonable government is too much government.”

With the Republican Party’s strong dominance in Idaho statewide, District 3 may offer something of a window into the future as conservatives within the party, some of them former third-party members, increasingly seek to steer it to the right and seize the reins from more moderate Republicans they deride as “Republicans in name only,” or RINOs.

When Hart first ran for the state Legislature in 2002, he ran on the Constitution Party ticket and lost with only 32 percent of the vote. But two years later, he beat the late Rep. Wayne Meyer of Rathdrum in a low-turnout GOP primary, targeting Meyer for not voting a hard line against abortion, and sailed to victory in the general election.

It’s a move increasingly seen around the state, as third-party members shift to working within the GOP. Former Libertarian Party Chairman Ryan Davidson of Boise, for example, is now a vice chairman of the Ada County Republican Party. “I really like to consider myself a Ron Paul Republican,” Davidson said. “I just decided that the third-party movement wasn’t really going anywhere, and that maybe if we tried to reform the two major parties we’d have a better chance.”

As for Democrats in District 3, “We have not performed there in a very, very long time,” said Shelley Landry, executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party and a North Idaho resident until this spring. “The population there leans not just to be conservative Republicans, but there are some constitutionalists, some libertarians, that definitely don’t agree with the Democratic Party.”

Rally Right targets candidates

Jeff Alltus, a Christian conservative who represented District 3 from 1995 to 2000, is a member of Rally Right, a group formed by a church pastor in 2009 to try to shift the local Republican Party more toward a religious conservative perspective. The group’s slogan, emblazoned on its website: “It is easier to fix the Republican Party than to try to start a third party.”

Alltus said the group has been successful, electing its own candidates to Kootenai County GOP precinct positions. “It was started to get conservatives back in office, to kind of take over the Republican Party, which they did,” he said.

Hayden Lake GOP icon Ruthie Johnson, the 87-year-old former longtime aide to the late U.S. Sen. Jim McClure, was among those targeted for her party precinct position. In response, she said, she “went to a Rally Right meeting and I told ’em they’d never find anyone more conservative than I was.” She won the election.

Johnson says of the district’s current legislators, “I think they’re all conservative, and I think they represent the conservative thinking of our district.”

She said she’s not thrilled with Hart’s tax-protesting, which includes a pending appeal to the Idaho Supreme Court over his more than $53,000 in unpaid state income taxes. “I think it was foolish of him to fight that in the way he did in the first place,” she said. “I thought that he should pay his taxes, and then challenge it.”

Johnson, a Wallace native, said the area was mostly Democratic when she first moved there in 1968, but that changed over the years. She attributes it to concern over “what’s been going on nationally.” She added, “We’re a self-reliant state we don’t want everything done for us.”

Pluses and minuses to political climate

District 3 is also a remarkably politically attuned district: A whopping 83 percent of the voting-age population is registered to vote, compared with just 50 percent statewide.

Ron McIntyre, owner of Super 1 Foods and the mayor of Hayden for the past 11 years, says the district is “very high in Republican, but mainly conservative.”

McIntyre didn’t vote for Hart in the last election, choosing instead a write-in candidate, Howard Griffiths, who garnered 25 percent of the vote. “Pretty gutsy to run when you have the government after you, the IRS,” he said of Hart. Still, “I thought the write-in had a lot less problems. I figured he could focus better.”

For Howie White, owner of the Saddle Up Grill in Athol, there are pluses and minuses to the political climate. When his restaurant burned down in 2008, he was able to rebuild with the help of volunteers and dealt with little red tape.

But he’s not happy that his hometown of 22 years has stubbornly resisted putting in a sewer system to allow the town to grow. As a result, he estimates, the area around Athol has grown by 10,000 people, but the city of Athol, still on septic tanks, grew by just 16 people in the last census. At the same time, Hayden’s population grew by 45 percent.

“I look at the older people who have to drive as far as Coeur d’Alene for as simple a thing as a prescription,” he said. “Whereas if they’d let a sewer system go in years ago, there would be a pharmacy, there would be a doctor’s office … a large grocery store. It would give a lot of people jobs.”

‘Cream of the crop’

Former state Sen. Jorgenson is bitter over his election loss after three terms, noting that his voting record was ranked the eighth-most conservative in the 35-member Senate in a state-commissioned study in 2010. The same study ranked Hart the 15th-most conservative-voting representative. But the new wave of conservative Republicans in the district branded Jorgenson not conservative enough.

Jorgenson, who was known for backing harsh anti-immigration legislation at the Statehouse, said, “Most of the people, the average Republicans, are embarrassed by Phil Hart’s image.”

He believes most GOP faithful, especially California transplants, are what he calls “stock-in-trade Republicans” who “don’t want to see taxes go up, they want to see immigration issues put in check.” But in a one-party district, voter turnout in the primary elections can be light – 24.7 percent of registered voters in 2010, compared with general-election turnout of 59.2 percent of registered voters – and intraparty squabbles can determine election outcomes.

Jorgenson, a former City Council president in Hayden Lake, said the district is full of haves and have-nots, including many retirees who moved to the area with “substantial means,” along with working-class folks who struggle to find jobs.

Barbieri falls somewhere in between, having sold a law practice in Orange County and bought a North Idaho restaurant, only to have it fail. Now he does “as many part-time jobs as possible,” from state lawmaker to paralegal work to operating a concession trailer with his family, “to try and make ends meet.”

He can’t just take the bar exam in Idaho and start practicing law again because the law school he graduated from in Southern California wasn’t accredited at the time, and he hasn’t practiced law 10 out of the past 15 years. That means he’d have to seek a waiver from the state Supreme Court.

Barbieri, like Vick, lives in Dalton Gardens, a city of one-acre- minimum lots where folks can keep a semirural feel to their in-town living.

With the area’s beautiful lakes, lower cost of living compared with California, and conservative bent, Barbieri said he’s still glad he moved north. He said, “Fifteen minutes outside of your house you’re in the forest – it’s pretty amazing.”

Johnson thinks the influx of newcomers has improved the area’s politics. “When so many people from California were moving in, I thought we were going to get all of the kooks,” she said. “And instead, we got the cream of the crop – the ones that wanted to get away from some of the ideas they had down there.”

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