Luke Mayville is reminding me that the conventional wisdom isn’t always so wise.
The founders of Reclaim Idaho didn’t accept the conventional wisdom that citizen initiatives in Idaho can’t succeed. And as the April 30 deadline approaches, the Medicaid for Idaho campaign is nearing its goal of putting before voters the chance to accept federal dollars to expand Medicaid coverage.
The conventional wisdom says the requirements to get 6 percent of all registered voters – a total of 56,000 signatures – in at least 18 of the 35 state legislative districts is a near-impossible task, especially for a volunteer effort not paying signature gatherers.
And that’s what the experts and professionals in Boise told these upstarts from North Idaho.
“They would say things like ‘18 districts means you have to go all out across this huge state to really far-flung places, where it’s really difficult to organize.’ And from our perspective, they’re talking about where we’re from, right?” Mayville says. “And they’re also talking about the kind of place where we had just successfully organized around a school levy.”
Mayville and cofounders Garrett and Emily Strizich spent time in March 2017 helping organize door-to-door campaigners to generate interest and passion in passing a supplemental school levy in Sandpoint, their hometown.
“If we can organize successfully in Sandpoint,” said Mayville, “we can organize all across the state. And we’re not afraid to go to Driggs and Idaho Falls and Pocatello and Salmon and all these other places and build the kind of coalition we need to build to qualify 18 districts.”
I was one of the doubting Boise know-it-alls. I talked to Mayville in the fall about Reclaim Idaho and its Medicaid for Idaho campaign. I was charmed by their gumption and their story: The Striziches had painted their $1,500 1977 Dodge Tioga RV and offered it as a campaign vehicle, and this small band of millennials spent the summer barnstorming across Idaho. In the small towns they visited, they got people to sign their name and hometown: the green RV became a mobile petition drive. If I’d paid closer attention, I’d have seen they were illustrating the breadth of support for expanding federal assistance to 50,000 to 60,000 working poor in Idaho who don’t qualify for free care and who make too much to get help buying health insurance.
When I published a guest opinion about the campaign from Mayville in October, I misspelled his name. He was running was a clever campaign, sure, but what did his band of naive newbies from Sandpoint really know about Idaho political reality?
By October, the trio had decided to make their petition campaign real and filed with the secretary of state, essentially adopting the language of former Sen. Dan Schmidt’s failed Medicaid expansion bill. In December, they hired 23-year-old Zach Reider as field director, the campaign’s one paid staffer. By the time of the January kickoff, it was no longer just a handful of young true-believers: It was professionals and physicians and cancer survivors and retirees and veteran activists and people who feared losing their health insurance.
“When we had our campaign kickoff Jan. 13, and we had 200 people show up, I knew right then there was a lot of support for this cause and that people from all walks of life wanted to pitch in,” said volunteer Rod Couch of Boise, a veteran of progressive causes in Idaho.
“Luke has a really fantastic way of getting people to buy into the bigger vision,” said Reider. “It’s one thing to say ‘Will you go out and collect signatures?’ It’s another thing to say, ‘Will you be a leader? Will you be the person?’”
Boise pharmacist Larry Calkins is gathering signatures whenever his work schedule permits. “I’ve seen through all my years people not being able to afford their medications,” he said. “I’ve never been politically involved with anything in my life. But now, after November 2016, I felt I had to get off the couch and actually do something.”
Organized, enthusiastic and angry
In 2013, after voters petitioned and overturned three unpopular education bills known colloquially as the Luna Laws, the Legislature added new geographic requirements for initiatives and referendums. That’s on top of the requirement for 6 percent of the voters registered, not just those who voted, in the last statewide election.
I asked Gary Moncrief, a Boise State political science professor emeritus, to put this challenge in context. He noted that some states, like California and Oregon, can have dozens of initiatives every year. Idaho has had a total 28 since the first one in the 1930s; 12 have passed. And not one has even gotten on the ballot since the 2013 change to add geography to the numbers test.
“These two factors combined mean Idaho’s requirements are considerably more difficult to satisfy than is the case in most initiative states,” said Moncrief. “What this all means is that a group must be very well organized and either well funded or very enthusiastic and/or angry to pull this off.”
For Mayville, anger or enthusiasm doesn’t sum up what he’s seeing. There’s a mood in the country that has something to do with reaction on the left to the 2016 presidential election and from the center and right on “bread-and-butter” issues that are going ignored or unaddressed. Others in the Idaho campaign take their inspiration from Maine, another conservative rural state where voters passed Medicaid expansion last fall in the face of legislative inaction. They cite Boise State public opinion data that show two-thirds or more supporting Medicaid expansion, and studies from Montana that its 2015 expansion is paying for itself.
Mayville sees Idaho issues like health care, education and access to public lands echoing movements in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky to boost spending for schools and teachers. Another important data point for him: The night of the 2017 Sandpoint school levy victory party, the room was at least half Republican.
“On the one hand, we’re harnessing all this energy that was riled up by the 2016 election, but on the other side of the coin is the sense that there’s actually real opportunity for bipartisan, nonpartisan coalition-building when you organize around these consensus issues,” he said. “We can harness a lot of energy and build a majority coalition around these kinds of issues.”
Knocking on doors with mom
Mayville grew up in Sandpoint, then went away to school on the East Coast. He has a Ph.D. and teaches political philosophy and civics at Columbia University in New York. He’s written a book about President John Adams. He’s been racking up frequent-flyer miles between Idaho and New York for the past year. He’ll be in Idaho for much of the rest of this month, but I talked with him Wednesday by phone in New York. I asked if he’s been called an East Coast carpetbagger yet? “It’s pretty easy to beat that back when you show up for an event in Coeur d’Alene and your mom drove down from Sandpoint to … go out and knock on doors with you.”
But it was his time in New York that let him see a way to build a movement in Idaho. He’s been the social action committee chairman of his parish in New York, and has been watching and learning as the Catholic social justice movement has been reinvigorated by Pope Francis.
“I saw an opportunity to try to take everything I know about organizing and the political science research or my own experience with the social action committee or volunteering for campaigns and focus it on this one weeklong campaign to pass the (Sandpoint) levy,” Mayville said.
He’s also persuaded from political science research “that face-to-face interaction is still the most powerful thing … even in the age of big money in politics, big data, big analytics,” he said. “Relationship-building and door-to-door contact and phone calls are still the indispensable, essential stuff of politics.”
From political theory to practice
The practical effect of this political science was on view the past 10 days, as volunteers and activists gathered in Boise and Nampa to canvass neighborhoods in targeted legislative districts.
“This group has done a great thing, and now other groups can step up and say ‘We can mobilize our network, too,’ ” said Lauren Necochea, director of Idaho Voices for Children, a longtime activist and advocate on this issue. “They’re tapping into Idahoans’ strong interest in doing something about the coverage gap problem. We’ve seen it in the polling data.”
Necochea’s allies in Close the Gap such as the Idaho Medical Association and the Idaho Academy of Family Physicians are joining this month’s closing push.
“As I’ve been canvassing, I haven’t had anyone say ‘No, we’re not willing to sign,’ ” said Rob Mason, a Democratic House District 16 candidate who carries a petition as he knocks doors. He said people at the door often ask if they can take the petition inside to get their spouse to sign.
As of Thursday, the campaign had about 47,000 of the 56,000 signatures and was close to having 15 of the 18 districts needed to qualify for the November ballot. As importantly, it’s signing on volunteers and groups from around the state to help meet the April 30 deadline. A Boise friend of mine mentioned Wednesday that her women’s group was gathering signatures in Canyon County this weekend. The cause has gotten a boost from the Fairness Project, which also advocates for minimum wage and earned paid sick time campaigns in various states.
As the advocates close in on their target, Ada County campaign co-chairs Sam Sandmire and Tracy Olson chart how many signatures are left to collect on a white board in the Boise office. In the parking lot sits the weary green RV, no longer traveling, covered in signatures that bear witness to the power of deciding to defy conventional wisdom.