Letters from the West

Intimidation reports energize North Idaho Democrat’s bipartisan backers

Kate McAlister, Democratic candidate for House from Sandpoint.
Kate McAlister, Democratic candidate for House from Sandpoint.

Charges by a Democratic Party field organizer in Bonner and Boundary counties that he was harassed by supporters of GOP State Rep. Heather Scott has shaken up one of the most-watched legislative races this election.

Scott, who lives in Blanchard in rural western Bonner County, is a favorite of members of the American Redoubt movement, first revealed in 2011 by best-selling survivalist novelist and blogger James Wesley Rawles. Its proponents urge conservatives to move to Idaho and Montana to make the already hard-right conservative area even redder.

She became best known in the Idaho Legislature when she and a small group of conservative lawmakers forced a special session in 2015 when they voted down a bill in committee at the end of the session that allowed the state to meet federal requirements for working on child-support cases with foreign countries. She and two other legislators on their own expense went to meet with the occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January.

And she stood with Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler to stop Veteran’s Administration officials from confiscating a veteran’s guns. My readers might remember the reporting I did earlier this year when she tried to kill state approval of federal funds to purchase easements so Stimson Lumber could protect and still manage forest land that had been slated for residential development.

The first-term representative is challenged by Sandpoint Democrat Kate McAlister, president and CEO of the Greater Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce. McAlister has backers from both parties working for her, including former Republican Rep. George Eskridge of Dover, who gave her campaign the $800 left in his campaign fund.

The Democrats pulled their staffer, a 21-year-old political science major from Brigham Young University, after he reported he had been harassed several times including once at 2 a.m. by Scott supporters. The Democrats’ complaint to the Bonner County Prosecutor’s Office was referred to the Idaho Attorney General’s Office, which initiated a review Wednesday, said Brian Kane, assistant chief deputy attorney general.

McAlister said her 90-year-old mother-in-law was confronted in a similar fashion for having a McAlister bumper sticker on her car. “That’s just uncalled for,” McAlister said.

Scott was skeptical of the claims.

“It’s campaign season and mudslinging appears to be the approach of my opponents,” Scott said in an email. “While allegations make great headlines they are just that: assertion that someone has done something illegal or wrong, made without proof.”

Her friend and supporter, Michelle Parnell Rohrer, whose husband Glenn had lost his challenge to incumbent Shawn Keough in the Republican Primary in May, said Scott could not be involved.

“She would never have anyone intimidate anyone,” Rohrer said. “She’s a Christian lady who knows it would not profit her to gain in this world and lose her soul in the next.”

McAlister said she has attracted so much traditional Republican support because of the way Scott and her supporters treat local elected officials and people who don’t agree with them.

“I’m running a campaign of hope and progress and she’s running on fear and regress,” McAlister said.

Rohrer said McAlister was warning her supporters to stay out of the small, rural communities in western Bonner County where Redoubt supporters are strongest. She also suggested McAlister was avoiding the communities as well.

McAlister said she has campaigned throughout the district and wants to represent the concerns “of all of the people.” The harassment, she said, has actually made her supporters bolder.

“If anything, the article spurred people into action,” McAlister said. “I have given out more signs and more bumper stickers than before.”

The charges of harassment by Scott’s supporters are not new. Helen Newton is a former Sandpoint city clerk. Before the GOP primary in 2014, she said, two men she said were Scott supporters came to her house, where she had signs out for Eskridge and Sen. Shawn Keough. The men said not to vote for Eskridge and Keough. Then they went down the street to the next house with signs and knocked on the door.

“I felt intimidated,” Newton told me.

A flyer put out by the Scott campaign this campaign and obtained by the Idaho Statesman suggests similar behavior.

“If you see Democrat signs go up in your neighborhood, please write down a house number and street name,” the Scott flier told supporters. “We are trying to figure out which ‘Republicans’ may really be Democrats in disguise on the voter logs.”

Rohrer said McAlister supporters had done what she described as the same thing, telling people in businesses with Scott’s signs hanging outside they no longer would shop there.

District 1A is a microcosm of the changing face of rural Idaho. Sandpoint, long a tourism and second-home center on Lake Pend Oreilles, has become a small aircraft parts manufacturing hub and the home of Litehouse Foods. The timber industry is still strong in both counties and Schweitzer Ski Resort and Priest Lake are popular destinations.

That’s why the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry and the Idaho Realtors Association, two traditional Republican backers, support McAlister, a chamber executive. So is Stimson Lumber, which Scott said should voluntarily give up its private property rights and its right to develop.

The economic aspirations of these communities often clash with the strong liberty views of redoubt migrants. The “leave me alone” attitude resonates here as long as it’s not seeking to tell long-time residents they have to change their views and values.

The alleged voter harassment plays into long-timers’ fears of the redoubt movement.

“I find it ironic (Scott is) running on freedoms,” McAlister said. “Don’t we have the freedom to vote for who we want?”

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker