Tax-protesting state Rep. Phil Hart may be the most controversial lawmaker in North Idaho, and his re-election bid for a fifth term in the state House has drawn a bevy of challengers in the May 15 GOP primary.
It’s a far cry from the last election, in which Hart was unopposed both in the primary and on the general election ballot. But an unprecedented 20 percent of the vote went to a write-in challenger in the general election in 2010, after news broke about Hart’s court fights over back taxes and a 1996 timber theft case. He subsequently lost his seat on the House tax committee and gave up a vice chairmanship on the Transportation Committee to avoid House ethics sanctions.
Hart said this year’s campaign is keeping him busy. “I think there’s a lot more interest this year, just because people are paying more attention to politics,” said Hart, 56, a civil engineer.
Ron Vieselmeyer, 71, an outspoken Christian conservative, ordained minister, former state lawmaker and current North Idaho College trustee, is among Hart’s GOP challengers.
“I’ve known Phil Hart for a lot of years, we’re good friends,” he said. “I like him, I agree to some things he stands for. The problem is that instead of what he’s doing is the issue, he has become the issue. And that distracts from what should be happening in the Legislature.”
Just last week, the Idaho Supreme Court rejected Hart’s latest appeal of an order to pay more than $53,000 in back state income taxes, penalties and interest. The U.S. Justice Department is in the process of trying to foreclose on Hart’s log home in Athol for back federal income taxes. That’s the same home he completed in part with logs illegally cut from state school endowment lands. Hart still maintains, though he lost repeated court appeals and never fully satisfied a court judgment, that as a citizen he had a right to take the timber for free.
Last month, a federal judge rejected Hart’s argument that his status as a state legislator should protect him from the IRS action to foreclose on his home. Hart has cited legislative privilege numerous times to win delays in both his state and federal tax cases.
Ed Morse, a longtime Hayden real estate appraiser, said, “For years my opponent has used his legislative position to promote his ‘tax protester’ ideology and assert legislative privileges. It is time for a change.”
Morse, 61, said, “I believe politicians should pay their taxes, not steal timber, and not represent a fringe political ideology. I will represent the average voter and small-business interest that are concerned about the cost of government, the burden of government regulations, and not waste time trying to revert back to the gold standard.”
Fritz Wiedenhoff, a 41-year-old firefighter, said he joined the four-way GOP primary race “just really to continue to serve.” He said, “I don’t have bones to pick with anybody. I’m running to represent the people.”
The winner of the four-way race will face Democrat Dan English in November. Although the highly conservative district hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Legislature since 1994, English is the well-known former county clerk, and a moderate who for many years was the only Democratic elected official in Kootenai County.
The district’s other two legislative seats are both held by close allies of Hart whom he recruited to run two years ago, Sen. Steve Vick and Rep. Vito Barbieri, both of Dalton Gardens.
Both Vick and Barbieri face challenges in the Republican primary this year as well, and Democratic challengers are standing by to run against the GOP primary winners in November. That’s an anomaly for this district – no Democrat has even run for the Legislature from the district since 2002.
Former state Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, whom Vick defeated two years ago and who’s challenging Vick in the primary, said, “We deserve better representation, we deserve better integrity and we deserve representation that doesn’t serve just a small segment of society.”
Jorgenson, 63, said, “A lot of people I talk to seem to be fed up and tired of the acrimony and the special agendas that this group represents.” He noted that as a former three-term senator, he has six years of seniority and could be in line for a committee chairmanship, as large numbers of legislative seats switch this year, due to everything from retirements to redistricting.
Vick, 55, said, “If they elect me, they elect somebody that they know is solid conservative on virtually every issue.”
Barbieri, 60, who made a splash his first year by pushing legislation attempting to “nullify” federal health care reform laws, said, “I think the key is to remain true to the conservative ideology. … It boils down to whether or not the conservative ideology is represented down there in Boise.”
His challenger, Hayden businessman Mark Fisher, 49, said, “I think the extreme right, my opponent and his cohort, they’re not paying attention to things that matter to most of the people that I talk to.” He mentioned Barbieri’s focus on issues like raw milk and gold and silver coinage. “That’s not what’s important to the people I’ve talked to – it seems to be a real fringe. It may have some merit there, but it’s not on my radar.”
Fisher said he wants to focus on “getting people back to work, providing jobs, growing our state economy.”
Fisher echoed Hart about the interest he’s seeing locally in this year’s legislative primary election, which historically has drawn low turnout and little interest. “There’s a whole lot of politics going on up here,” he said.
Vieselmeyer said issues aren’t as much at stake in this year’s race as people. “It’s either somebody else wins and represents them, or they continue to have Phil Hart representing them,” he said. “And that’s been an uncomfortable situation for a lot of people.”
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