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Eye on Boise: Democrat challenges Rep. Barbieri in heavily GOP North Idaho district

No Democrat has represented North Idaho’s Legislative District 2 since 1994, but newly retired St. Maries teacher Kathy Kahn thinks she’s got a shot in her challenge to third-term Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens.

She and her campaign manager, former state Sen. Mike Blackbird, D-Post Falls, point to the numbers. Sure, Barbieri defeated his Democratic challenger in the past two elections – Cheryl Stransky, also a retired teacher – by big margins, collecting nearly two-thirds of the vote. But Barbieri collected just 4,569 more votes than Stransky in 2014.

Kahn, who taught English at St. Maries High School for 28 years before retiring this spring, estimates she has 3,000 former students who live in the district. Plus, she’s a native of the area with deep and broad family ties.

“I think I have 2,500 first cousins,” she joked. She and Blackbird say the biggest demographics in the district are women and unaffiliated voters. And they point to the 1,500 votes that went to Barbieri’s challenger, Fritz Wiedenhoff, in the May primary.

Between all those factors, they see a path toward a win for Kahn.

Kahn said she’s been campaigning for the past six months and now will be doing it full time with the end of the school year.

“We plan to visit every house in the district and hold several events throughout this summer and fall,” she said, “and always stay positive and hope for the best.”

Barbieri is an unabashedly conservative state representative who famously called on Christians to pull their children out of Idaho’s “Godless” public schools in 2012, and who stands by those comments today.

Barbieri said he believes the comment “still resonates with many of the Republican conservatives in my district.”

“I gave a commencement speech for home schoolers this year, and after it was all over, a mother came up to me and said, ‘You’re my son’s biggest hero,’ ” Barbieri said. “She said he had come to her with that comment, and was praising it in recognition that the public schools are, in his mind, and of course his mother’s mind, more of indoctrination institutions than educational institutions. I laughed because I said that was so long ago when I took so much heat for that – it’s encouraging to have someone bring that up out of nowhere in such a positive light.”

Kahn, who in addition to her long teaching career has a husband, Ralph, who serves on the local school board, said she objects to Barbieri’s votes against public school funding, noting that the Legislature is directly charged by the Idaho Constitution to provide for public schools.

“I’ve never had time for any passion but high school kids and activities for 28 years,” she said. “This is a complete lifestyle change for me, a new challenge, and I’m very excited about it.”

She also said Barbieri has “embarrassed” the district with his representation. Though she didn’t mention the incident, he received national attention in 2015 for asking a doctor during a hearing on an anti-abortion bill whether a woman could swallow a pill containing a tiny camera for a remote gynecological exam; the answer was no, Dr. Julie Madsen responded, “simply because when you swallow a pill, it would not end up in the vagina.” Amid hoots of laughter from the audience, Barbieri responded, “Fascinating. That certainly makes sense, doctor.” The exchange went viral; Barbieri said his question was rhetorical and he was making a point about the differences between various medical procedures.

Barbieri is a former California attorney who moved north in 2004 with his family; he has owned several businesses including a vapor cigarette store in Post Falls and a concession stand.

Kahn is a lifelong resident of the area.

“I come from a logging family, a hunting family,” she said. “I know the people – I grew up here. … I believe I would be a true representative of these people, and not someone moving in from California.”

Barbieri, who was originally recruited to run for the Legislature in 2010 by tax-protesting state Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, said, “You can look at the numbers and see that the Republicans far outnumber the Democrats in this district. But if I rest on those laurels, then I risk losing an election. So for me, the idea here is that I just campaign like I’ve always campaigned against the past Democrats, and even in the primary – I just have to campaign vigorously to assure a win.”

Barbieri said he met with Kahn in her tiny hometown, Medimont, a few months ago.

“She’s a very engaging woman; we had some good conversation,” he said. “But overall there are the distinctive differences between the Democrat ideology and the Republican conservatives.”

He added, “It’s going to be a campaign, and I’m going to run it to win.”