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Shawn Vestal: GOP shies from criticizing Matt Shea publicly

Did you know Matt Shea was an Oath Keeper?

Did you know he likes to sit around with other Oath Keepers – self-declared patriots and apocalyptic prophets – and check out night-vision goggles and talk about guns?

That he once pulled a gun on an aggressive motorist he thought was targeting him for his work as a legislator, or that he took creepy photos of himself on his election opponent’s property? That his ex-wife, who had a restraining order against him for “assaultive behavior,” once testified that Shea envisioned himself as a future president who would be assassinated? That he anticipates the “inevitable” collapse of the economy, and relishes talk about revolution and preparing for the day when you must “stand up to your government”?

You didn’t?

Where have you been?

Shea’s opponent for a state House seat, Josh Arritola, seems shocked by this old news. He tried to make political hay out of it last week – right as ballots dropped in a primary that both Arritola and Shea will survive. The result was another lively round of Watch Local Republicans Squirm Because They Can’t Say Out Loud What They Can’t Stop Whispering About Matt Shea.

Here’s the latest: Shea, R-Alternative Universe, was overheard on June 22 at a Spokane Valley restaurant, Rancho Viejo, talking with a group including a man who appeared to be Stewart Rhodes, head of the Oath Keepers. The Oath Keepers is a national organization of law enforcement and military folks with far-right views, who suggest very strongly that they may have to honor their oaths by fighting against their own government. Shea is a proud member. They describe themselves as “Guardians of the Republic.”

At Rancho Viejo, Shea and the others were heard talking about snipers, Cliven Bundy and militias. One had thermal imaging binoculars. A neighboring diner was apparently so concerned she called the sheriff’s department and reported: “Sounds like they were planning something.”

I suppose it’s possible that Shea and his buddies were actually planning something. But it’s much more likely that they were just talking the way they always do. If you want to hear Matt Shea talk crazy, you don’t have to catch him at a restaurant. He’ll stand up in public and do it proudly.

The diner called police and took a couple of photographs. She did not identify Shea, and the photos show someone who looks very much like him from side and rear angles. The sheriff’s department took the report and passed it along, pro forma, to the joint terrorism task force of law enforcement agencies in the region – which is not pursuing an investigation, I’m told, because it’s such weak broth.

A whisper campaign ensued to try to push this into the media. Along this way, it became apparent how badly certain Republicans wanted this story to emerge, but also how fearful of speaking publicly about Shea they were.

Arritola put out a news release trying to capitalize on the report. That made one local TV station bite – they did a story, and it came to life online, and then Shea responded to it, confirming it was, indeed, him at that restaurant and adding the incident to the long list of slings and arrows he suffers as a martyr for the truth.

Arritola’s news release would have been a cheap shot if it was any kind of shot at all. For example, he led the news release with the fact that Shea is an Oath Keeper.

Well, duh.

Monday, a package showed up for me here at the newspaper, full of the disturbing but familiar news about Matt Shea: the most recent report from Rancho Viejo; the report on his road-rage incident from 2011, in which he paid a fine in exchange for the dismissal of a charge that he’d carried a loaded gun in his pickup without a permit; and the divorce declarations from 2007 and 2008, in which his ex-wife paints him as dangerous and strange, and in which Shea defends himself in ways that sometimes make him seem dangerous and strange.

It happens every time Shea runs, and it is always accompanied by a burbling complaint that these incidents have been covered up somehow. In fact, all have been covered, and retold with regularity, and retailed by his opponents with vigor – and he keeps being re-elected. Arritola suggested in his release that it’s time for “the community and the media to hold” Shea accountable, but if Shea needs to be held accountable, it’s the GOP that needs to do the holding.

There is a palpable embarrassment about Shea among his party. Many Republicans will tell you what they really think about him in private, and it can be blistering. Few will dare to say one word about him publicly.

Some have endorsed his opponent: Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and former congressmen Slade Gorton and George Nethercutt, along with former Spokane City Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin. The late Bob McCaslin was one of the brave ones; he once wrote a letter to the Spokane County Commission opposing Shea’s candidacy for an open state Senate seat, writing: “I wish to state that under no circumstances would I support Matt Shea for any public office.”

Recently, Michael Cannon, the former City Council candidate, wrote a letter to the editor calling on Republicans to turn Shea out. He was criticized for taking the dispute out of the laundry room and into the daylight.

Shea and his love of guns and Revelations talk are not some secret. They’re not new. New would be if more voters and others in the tent with Shea stopped whispering and started speaking up.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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