Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Traditional Republicans flood May ballot for control of Kootenai County GOP

Self-described traditional Republicans are pushing to retake control of the political party in Kootenai County, which they say has grown increasingly extreme and no longer represents conservative values.

Their full-court press strategy is to challenge nearly every one of the 73 Republican precinct committee seats in the May 21 election with a who’s -who roster of prominent community members including 29 former elected Republicans. Their names include Coeur d’Alene Mayor Jim Hammond, former state Sen. Mary Souza, former Sheriff Pierce Clegg and former County Commissioner Todd Tondee.

Precinct committeemen make up the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee, the official local Republican Party.

The North Idaho Republicans is an association and political action committee that was established a couple of years ago to push back against KCRCC’s influence on nonpartisan races – in particular, the boards of North Idaho College and the Community Library Network.

“The current committee has gone too far,” said Jack Riggs, a former lieutenant governor and cofounder of the North Idaho Republicans, who said that those in charge of the central committee are mostly libertarians and constitutionalists who go well beyond the traditional conservatism of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan.

While they have supported candidates for other offices in the past, this election the North Idaho Republicans are focusing solely on the precinct committee races. Precinct committeemen are an often-overlooked partisan office elected every two years to represent individual neighborhoods. Their races regularly go unchallenged.

“We know the importance of the precincts, that is the foundation of the party,” Riggs said.

Control of the party could influence the direction of the general election in November.

“We believe this very deeply: precinct committeemen will be the most important race on the ballot,” said Riggs, who is not running for one of the seats.

The North Idaho Republicans have endorsed 70 candidates. Only two of those are incumbent committeemen: Bob Thornton and Coeur d’Alene City Councilman Dan Gookin.

They would need 37 seats for a majority to elect a new chairman at the reorganization meeting 10 days after the election.

Christa Hazel, a former committeewoman and founding member of North Idaho Republicans, said the idea to go after precincts to take over local parties was advocated by political strategist Steve Bannon a few years ago, and current KCRCC leadership followed that playbook.

This campaign is a countereffort.

“I think the KCRCC is a little surprised at the effort by North Idaho Republicans to only focus on precinct races,” said Hazel, who is also the founder of Save NIC, which advocates for North Idaho College amid its accreditation crisis.

A North Idaho Republicans radio ad says the KCRCC has been a breeding ground for extremism that has brought chaos and disgrace to the community.

“Instead of investing in schools and libraries, KCRCC promotes white nationalists and extremists who want to take over our state,” the ad said.

KCRCC Chairman Brent Regan claimed the campaign is a coordinated effort from Boise that is being attempted all over the state.

In his “Common Sense” opinion column published in the Coeur d’Alene Press, Regan said the North Idaho Republicans are allied with the Gem State Conservatives, an organization he says is trying to flip Idaho in a “Gem State Heist.”

The phrase was coined by Gregg Pruett, vice chairman of the Constitution Party of Idaho and creator of the website Keep Idaho Free. Pruett takes the phrase from a 2014 documentary, “Rocky Mountain Heist,” that blames the shift of Colorado from a red state to a blue state on a few wealthy leftists. Pruett, Regan and others are spreading the conspiracy theory that the same thing is happening in Idaho.

Riggs calls that absurd. The Gem State Conservatives was founded by two former Idaho Republican Party chairs Tom Luna and Trent Clark. The political action committee advocates for “big tent” conservatism across the state.

Riggs said that while he is aware of the Gem State Conservatives, and the two organizations overlap on some of their goals, North Idaho Republicans are acting locally on their own. They have received no money from the Gem State Conservatives, he added.

Asked about his vision for the future of the KCRCC, Regan said, “It’s in our mission statement.”

KCRCC’s mission, according to its website, “is to enhance freedom and prosperity by promoting fiscally and socially conservative candidates who will implement the Idaho Republican Party Platform as policy.”

The Idaho Republican Party Platform, adopted in July 2022, takes a strong stance on social issues, in addition to responsible fiscal policy, lower taxes and small government.

For example, the platform affirms that “abortion is murder from the moment of fertilization.”

It defines marriage as between one man and one woman, and says Idaho can nullify any federal law or court ruling that requires states to recognize same-sex marriages. The party also is strongly opposed to any “social justice indoctrination” in Idaho’s education system, including social emotional learning, or diversity, equity and inclusion.

Coeur d’Alene resident Dave Patzer is running against Regan for his precinct seat. Patzer says on his campaign website that he seeks “a departure from Regan’s divisiveness” and a return to common sense.

Gookin, a Coeur d’Alene city councilman and one of the few running uncontested, said chairman Brent Regan runs committee meetings “like a dictator” and that he has packed the committee with loyalists through appointments.

“It is no longer a Republican central committee, it is a committee that obeys the chairman,” Gookin said.

The KCRCC is suing Gookin, alleging he defamed the organization by saying the political group has rigged its candidate rating and vetting process and violated campaign finance laws.

Gookin called the lawsuit frivolous retaliation for his legitimate criticisms of the party’s endorsements of nonpartisan races.

“ He needs to go, and in order to get him out, we need to get his supporters out,” Gookin said.

Riggs said the KCRCC’s goal is to take control of every elected office in the county, all the way from county-level officials to city council and school board members down to highway and water districts.

The wake-up call came from the havoc they say KCRCC-backed board members have done to North Idaho College that led to sanctions and have put the school at risk of losing accreditation.

NIC Trustees Greg McKenzie and Todd Banducci are both defending their precinct committee seats. Another NIC trustee, Brad Corkill, who is on the college board’s minority faction, withdrew from a precinct committee race against Jamie Hass.

Incumbent committeeman Art Macomber, a former NIC attorney, also dropped out of the race, leaving Mary Souza unopposed for that precinct.

The other concern is the Community Library Network, the county’s library system outside of Coeur d’Alene, whose KCRCC-supported trustees have withdrawn from the American Library Association and are working to overhaul the library’s materials policy to restrict what it considers sexually explicit materials for children.

“I am opposed to pornography for children,” Riggs said, “but their approach is to tear the library system apart.”

A common insinuation against the North Idaho Republicans and their candidates is that they are RINOs – Republicans in name only.

“That’s all they can do,” Riggs said, “they call anybody who doesn’t fall in line and do what they want a ‘RINO.’ ”

Beyond that term, Riggs said the name-calling online is much nastier.

Gookin said the label points to a lack of positive vision.

“Rather than be persuasive, they call names,” Gookin said. “I don’t think people are buying it anymore.”

Coeur d’Alene Mayor Jim Hammond shrugged the label off as “ridiculous,” pointing to his record as a state senator, and Post Falls mayor and councilman before that.

“I’ve practiced conservative fiscal actions throughout my public life,” Hammond said.

James Hanlon's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.