Idaho vs. California: What’s the difference?
Some native Idahoans have a message for Californians: Stay away.
That sentiment is so deeply entrenched, so common, that it is as familiar in Idaho as fry sauce and sagebrush.
But what are the roots of that stigma? And what keeps attracting Californians to the Gem State anyway — now more than ever?
Kristina Winterling, a recent arrival with her family to Boise from the Bay Area, said she left her California home because it was “turning into New York City, where people are so stressed out and confrontational. Imagine making six figures and not being able to buy a house for your family. You’re a renter living check to check in a mediocre town.”
Boise, said Winterling, “is my sanctuary city.”
Lani Gallimore moved to Boise from the Bay Area in the mid-1980s to work at Hewlett-Packard.
“I wanted out of the rat race. I wanted a slower life. I came here without knowing a soul,” she said.
Someone kicked in her restored Volkswagen Karmann Ghia when it was parked at a grocery store, still bearing its California plates.
“I was just shocked. My first thought was ‘why?’ ” she said. “We’re in the same country. It’s not like I had Russian plates or something. It was a rude awakening and one that I’ve never quite gotten over.”
Many Idahoans believe Californians come here with a sense of entitlement and big money that drives up home prices. Many conservative Idahoans think too many California ex-pats are too liberal. Many liberals think they’re conservative.
In fact, dislike for Californians has been around longer than some might think. In 1979, The Washington Post took a look at Idaho’s anti-California sentiment in a story, “To Most Idahoans, A Plague of Locusts is Californians.”
“Old-timers call them goats,” the story said. “The new generation calls them C.B.s (literal translation, ‘California Bastards’).”
Yet Californians keep coming. A 2015 U.S. Census report on state-to-state migration found that one in four people who moved to Idaho came from California.
Some longtime residents say the antagonism is finally easing.
Idahoans may be special, but their sentiments aren’t
The resentment isn’t unique. Similar sentiments bubble up almost anywhere outsiders flow into a settled area.
“There’s almost always this resistance, not specific to the Treasure Valley or Idaho, toward newcomers who are ‘changing the way we’ve always lived,’ ” said Gary Moncrief, professor of political science emeritus at Boise State University.
Oregon, which has also seen big population growth in recent years, has had its own version of the “Don’t Californicate Idaho” bumper sticker. The late Gov. Tom McCall famously stirred controversy in the 1970s with his slogan, “Come visit, but don’t stay.” On July 2, someone spray-painted a Prius in Portland with the message “Go back to California.”
Antagonism toward newcomers is especially strong in a place that’s isolated, as Idaho has been, Moncrief said.
Idaho has always been something of an unknown, and a little mysterious. Outsiders know it for its potatoes and the blue turf at Boise State University’s Albertsons Stadium. They also associate it with white supremacy. Colorado-born neo-Nazi Richard Butler founded the Aryan Nations in the 1970s in North Idaho, where it remained until 2001.
“I am not sure what’s worse: people who won’t come to Idaho because they think we are a bunch of racists in the desert, or people who do come to Idaho because they think we are a bunch of racists in the desert,” said Brian Baker, an Oregon-born Idahoan who lives in Boise.
For a long time, Idaho was the butt of jokes, indicating a backwoods sensibility and lack of sophistication. In J.D. Salinger’s short story “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut,” a Western-born character is distraught, having been mocked by her Eastern classmates for wearing an out-of-style dress bought in Boise.
Anecdotal evidence says perceptions of Idaho are changing. In recent years, Boise and Idaho have appeared on more and more “best of” lists ranking places for everything from mountain biking to raising a family. As news of Idaho’s unspoiled landscapes and relative affordability has spread, something has shifted.
Idaho, and the idea of Idaho, has evolved from joke to hidden treasure. And many of the Californians who come say they don’t want Idaho to change at all.
Fewer than half of Idahoans are native-born
Idaho’s population, at just under 1.7 million, is still small compared with other states. It didn’t break the 1 million mark until the 1990 census.
But newcomers keep streaming in. Idaho is growing at a faster rate than any state except Utah and Nevada, according to the U.S. Census.
There are valid reasons for Idahoans to take note of Californians. For one thing, there are a lot of them — California is the most populous state — and a lot of Californians move. To everywhere. But Idaho is a popular destination.
From 2003 to 2014, nearly 97,000 Californians surrendered their California driver’s licenses and applied for Idaho licenses, according to the Idaho Transportation Department. That was followed by Washington with just under 18,000 drivers.
A 2014 New York Times interactive report found that Idaho’s California-born population had tripled since 1980. Californians represented the largest share of Idahoans born outside the state at 12 percent, followed by Washington. The same report also found that fewer than half of Idaho’s citizens are native-born.
Eric Exline, spokesman for the West Ada School District, said the district’s website in past years got a lot of hits from states bordering Idaho. Recently, the vast majority have come from California.
And there are college sweatshirts.
“On Saturdays, during the football season, everyone wears their alma mater,” said Moncrief, who lives in Eagle and grew up in Palo Alto, Calif. “You see a lot of Boise State and BYU. But when I go to the grocery store, every other person is wearing a USC or Cal sweatshirt.”
What kinds of Californians are coming to Idaho?
Gallimore, the woman whose VW Karmann Ghia was vandalized three decades ago, has given lots of thought to the Idaho/California conflict.
“My best explanation is that over the years, Californians have been coming up with much more money to spend,” she said. “They buy large parcels of land and big houses. It builds resentment and drives up property taxes. … But more than that, it’s the attitude. You moved away from California, supposedly wanting something different. You don’t get to come here and make it like California all over again.”
The homegrown resentment didn’t scare Gallimore away. She married an Idaho native from St. Maries.
“Even my husband’s mom would make comments about Californians,” Gallimore said. “We’ve learned to laugh about it. But it does get under my skin, and sometimes I have to walk away.”
Attorney Bob Wallace, born in Los Angeles to two parents from New York City, practiced law in Boise for more than 40 years. His first wife was born in Pocatello, and he made his first visit to Boise with her in the 1970s. Boise was “a cool town” back then, he said, but anti-California sentiment was alive and well.
“There were misconceptions that the Californians coming in were going to make Idaho more liberal,” Wallace said. “I come from Reagan country. Burbank. It was white, middle-class, a lot like Boise in the 1950s.”
It was those people, not liberals, who were drawn to Idaho, said Wallace, because Idaho was familiar to them: “They were white-flight people wanting to get the heck out of where there was diversity. They didn’t like the brown people. I know because I come from there.”
That’s not a local phenomenon either, Moncrief said.
“There is evidence that people move to places where they are culturally and politically comfortable,” he said. “This is often called ‘the big sort.’ ”
From a political standpoint, Idaho’s “ex-Cals” are “actually very similar to the natives here,” Moncrief said. They’re not changing the political landscape much. Like most Idahoans, they tend to be conservative. In some cases, they’re more conservative than Idahoans.
A 2013 article in High Country News, “How right-wing emigrants conquered North Idaho,” noted how newcomers, mostly from Southern California, transformed North Idaho from politically moderate to strongly conservative.
‘Gotta blame someone’
Moncrief thinks any resentment toward Californians is more economic than cultural.
“Everyone wants more business and economic growth,” he said. “But they don’t want the things that come with economic growth” — including more people.
Californians contribute to the Treasure Valley’s rising home prices. The median cost of a home in California is now $500,000. Californians who own such homes can sometimes sell them and pay cash for a far less expensive house in the Treasure Valley. Californians who can’t afford to own homes near their jobs trade long commutes there for shorter ones here.
But this influx makes it harder for others to afford new homes in the Treasure Valley and elsewhere. Demand has pushed Ada County’s median home price up nearly 9 percent in the past year, to a record $274,000.
And new homes bring new commercial development. As homes are built, retailers, restaurants and services follow.
Brenda Adams, who now lives in Boise, is an Idaho native, born in North Idaho.
“Whenever we pass a strip mall in Coeur d’Alene, my brother grumbles about the Californians that move here to get away from California and then try to turn Idaho into California with malls, etc.,” Adams wrote on a neighborhood discussion blog. “More people, more traffic, more stoplights, more road rage. Things change, but it’s not always viewed as progress. Gotta blame someone.”
Moncrief said the anti-California bias in Idaho was considerably worse 25 or 30 years ago. “There are are so many California ex-pats here now, including me, that it seems there is much less of an ‘old timer Idaho resents newcomer Californian’ attitude.”
Still, when it comes to the influx, it does appear to matter where you’re from.
Boise artist Pat Kilby, a Canadian-born Idaho transplant, said local residents have reacted more warmly to him than to Californians.
“It’s interesting to me that the reaction I get is universally positive: ‘Oh Canadians! We love you!’ or some such gushing welcome,” said Kilby, whose work has appeared in local exhibitions and the city’s traffic-box public art. “Yet when I lived in Canada and moved from the Toronto area to Vancouver Island after college, I got more reactions similar to Californians here: ‘You damn Easterners!’ — that sort of thing, although less harsh than I think Californians suffer here.
“The California-Idaho tension here is definitely palpable, or has at least been a subject I’ve heard come up repeatedly in my 14 years living here,” he said. “And this can be from some very liberal-minded people. The same ones who welcome refugees from afar are sometimes the ones shunning or disparaging these near neighbors.”
Locusts at the state line?
For the 1979 Washington Post story, reporter John Accola (who then worked at the Idaho Statesman) interviewed several California transplants. One was Bob Trerise, who worked 33 years in personnel at Hewlett-Packard. Trerise came to Boise from Palo Alto. His reception in Idaho, he said in 1979, was “less than lukewarm.”
“It wasn’t until I told them I was born and raised in Montana that they would warm up to me,” he said in 1979. He, like others, hastily switched out his California license plates.
Trerise, now retired, still lives in Boise. At HP, he got involved in human rights, in part, he said, because the company was trying to create “a more inclusive environment” and dispel ideas people had about Idaho because of the Aryan Nations. Trerise later directed the Idaho Human Rights Commission. Idaho has made great strides when it comes to its attitude toward outsiders, he said.
“There’s been a dramatic change since the old days,” when Idaho was “a kind of club with people saying, ‘don’t come in and ruin us,’ ” he said.
But he added, “There’s still a sense of slight resistance.”
A different place to call home
Tiara and Orion Valentine moved with their two young children to Boise from Tracy, Calif., in January. The move meant leaving Orion’s well-paid job with the state, selling most of their belongings, leaving family behind and coming to a place where they knew no one.
People have been kind for the most part, Tiara Valentine said, save “those occasional nervous responses from people who have lived here longer than us.”
“Here’s the deal: We don’t like California either. We didn’t fit in there. That’s why we searched out a different place to call home,” she said.
Tracy is about 60 miles east of San Francisco. Even if he cut through back roads, Orion Valentine’s commute took around two and a half hours each way to his job in Menlo Park. It was common for him to leave home at 4:30 a.m. and not return until after 7 p.m. The lack of family time was unacceptable, said Tiara.
After deciding to change their lives, the couple considered several states before settling on Idaho because of its good weather, its four distinct seasons and a culture friendly to Christian values, young families and home-schooling. Tiara home-schools the couple’s children.
The Valentines sold their house in Tracy for $390,000 and bought an 890-square-foot house in Boise’s North End for $170,000. As she sees it, if home prices are increasing in the Treasure Valley, that’s as much because of selling prices set by agents and owners, not solely the size of newcomers’ wallets.
The Valentines have spent months making upgrades to their house, including a new run for their pet chickens. Tiara Valentine loves the affordable resources Boise offers, including its extensive library system and affordable museums, invaluable to a home-schooler.
“We didn’t have that where we were from,” she said. “We can visit parks and recreation areas without paying $5 parking fees and $10 entrance fees.”
Orion’s five-hour daily commute has shrunk from five hours to 30 minutes, from Boise to his job in Meridian and back.
Idaho has become home, Tiara Valentine said.
“We want Idaho to stay everything that it is just as much as the ‘natives’ do, because we have experienced firsthand the demise of a good place when people don’t invest in preserving and investing in their communities,” she said. “We chose this place for what it is, not because we think we should change it.”
Where most Californians come from
According to the American Community Survey, from 2010 to 2014, about 10,200 people moved to Idaho from California.
Almost half came from the southern counties in and around Los Angeles, including 7 percent from Orange County. Seventeen percent came from counties in the San Francisco area.
This is the most recent data available, said Craig Shaul, research analyst supervisor at the Idaho Department of Labor.