BOISE — Militia groups and extremist ideologies are slinking from the political fringe onto the ballot in Idaho, where far-right groups have used the coronavirus pandemic and protests for racial justice as a vehicle to amplify their movement.
Extremist groups have gained ground in all levels of state leadership, several progressive advocates from Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint told the Statesman. From precinct chairs to the state’s lieutenant governor, some leaders in Idaho city, county, and state government affiliate or sympathize with the American Redoubt and militia movements. Some residents fear dire consequences.
As Black Lives Matter protests reached small towns across the country after the police killing of George Floyd this summer, some demonstrators in Idaho were met with groups of armed civilians. Among them were men affiliated with the far-right militia movement, an extremist movement with anti-government roots.
Coeur d’Alene, a town in northern Idaho, saw armed residents show up to unofficially “guard” businesses and civilians — a tactic which many told the Statesman amounted to intimidation. In Sandpoint, 50 miles north, a group of armed men intimidated and harassed protesters, shouting racist expletives and spewing exhaust fumes onto a small group of mainly students.
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“It’s just an extremely scary situation to understand that no one is going to help us. No one is going to hold these folks accountable. And they have absolutely gained ground,” said Rebecca Schroeder, an outspoken progressive advocate from Coeur d’Alene who fled the town with her 13-year-old son after receiving death threats.
The mayor of Sandpoint, Shelby Rognstad, said fears that local leaders were on the side of armed groups are justified. In his view, he said, anti-government ideologies have become entrenched in the Idaho government itself.
“We have this strong anti-government ideology that has, in many ways, taken hold of our democracy, and we see that clearly here in Idaho,” Rognstad said.
Susan Drumheller, a Sandpoint resident, attributes the election of candidates with ties to militias and the far-right to a closed primary process, in which voters registered as Democrats cannot vote in Republican primaries — the most competitive races in the region. This, said Drumheller, relegates registered Democratic voters — who might otherwise cast their votes for moderate Republicans — to uncompetitive primaries, and results in the election of far-right Republicans.
“The far right is well-organized,” Drumheller wrote in an email. “Voters are generally confused by the new primary process, and often sit out the primary, and the result is we have a Republican Party that’s purging the moderates, who traditionally were elected into those offices in North Idaho.”
Through interviews, acquired emails and letters, and a review of social media profiles, the Statesman determined that there are a variety of elected Idaho officials with ties to groups like the Three Percenters, the Oath Keepers and the American Redoubt movement. Tom Luna, chairman of the Idaho Republican Party, did not respond to requests for comment, nor did many elected officials whose ties to militia groups or extremist ideologies are mentioned in this story.
The Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters are two core components of the modern militia movement, an extremist movement with roots in anti-government organizing, conspiracy theories and white supremacy.
The American Redoubt movement is a far-right political migration movement that advocates for Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and eastern regions of Washington and Oregon to serve as an autonomous stronghold of religious conservatism once civil war engulfs the United States.
Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin has employed security details with Three Percenter affiliations, the Post Register reported in 2019. McGeachin was also photographed in 2019 posing with two men who held up the “OK” symbol.
The symbol has ties to the white power movement, but the people holding up the symbols said it represented the Three Percenters. McGeachin later deleted the post and issued a statement saying “no messages were intended” in the photograph. McGeachin did not respond to requests for comment.
Idaho state representative Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, has expressed outward support for the Oath Keepers, even taking the oath herself. Scott did not respond to requests for comment.
Many elected officials show their support or interest online by “liking” groups on Facebook.
Sandpoint Police Chief Corey Coon “likes” the North Idaho Militia, while Bonner County Commissioner Dan McDonald likes Facebook groups such as the Oath Keepers of Bonner County, Oath Keepers of Shoshone County, The real 3%ers Idaho, Liberty for all 111%, 3% of Patriot Riders, III United Patriots, and the Idaho Light Foot Militia. McDonald likes three separate pages dedicated to Redoubt.
The Statesman contacted all of the militia groups liked by elected officials. Each group either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment. Coon did not respond to the Statesman’s request for comment.
McDonald said that he was not a part of the Oath Keeper or Three Percenter organizations, but that he knew some members and leaders. He said that he doesn’t see the activities of these groups, which he described as getting together and becoming proficient with firearms, as extreme.
“That’s the problem, is that your extreme and my extreme may be completely different,” McDonald said.
Another Bonner County Commissioner, Steven Bradshaw, likes the Oath Keepers of Kootenai County and the Oath Keepers of Bonner County. Asked for comment, Bradshaw wrote, “If you want to report on something, how about the Governors (sic) recent overreach of powers … That would be good journalism.”
The Facebook profiles of some local officials in Coeur d’Alene — and Kootenai County more broadly — show similarities. Leslie Duncan, one of three Kootenai County Commissioners, and Brent Regan, the Kootenai County Republican Party chairman, “like” Redoubt News. Duncan did not respond to requests for comment.
The connections aren’t confined to Facebook.
Regan wrote an article for Redoubt News criticizing the Panhandle Health District’s recent decision to mandate masks in Kootenai County.
He compared Redoubt News to the New York Times in an email to The Statesman, writing, “‘Redoubt News’ is a name where ‘Redoubt’ refers to a geographical area in a similar way that ‘NY Times’ refers to the city of NY.” He rejected the Southern Poverty Law Center’s description of the Redoubt movement as extremist.
“Using SPLC as a source metric is no way to establish credibility,” he wrote. “The problem is that of perspective, as the average Idahoan would consider a socialist teaching at Cornell as a far left extremist while that same professor would consider the average Idahoan an extreme right conservative. Therefore the term ‘extremest’ (sic) is not helpful in understanding regional cultural variances.”
Rep. Scott has ties to Ammon Bundy, who was the leader of the armed group of far-right extremists who seized and occupied the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters in 2016.
Bundy and Scott spoke at a “Liberate America” rally where Oath Keepers provided security detail.
Bundy also spoke at an Aug. 1 “Freedom is the Cure” event, which derives its name from the John Birch Society, an organization “crucial to the anti-government extremist movement,” according to the SPLC.
The Aug. 1 event featured Real Three Percenters leader Eric Parker, according to the Times-News. Parker is running for Idaho state Senate.
“It’s coming — win or lose,” Parker said of the 2020 election, the Times-News reported. “The history of a peaceful transition of power in America is slowly going down the drain. If you’re not prepared for that, you’re behind the curve.”
Lt. Gov. McGeachin, Idaho Rep. Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton, Rep. Christy Zito, R-Hammett, Rep. Chad Christensen, R-Ammon, Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, and Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale also spoke at the rally, according to a poster shared on Facebook.
Ties between law enforcement and militia groups remain largely unexplored. When asked to provide the names of their police officers, Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint said public records requests were necessary to access officer directories.
Elected officials showing support for militia groups is a particular problem, said JJ MacNab, a fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. The support of officials allows extremist ideas to come into the mainstream.
“When an elected official praises or backs or supports these groups, he’s telling them, ‘Hey, you’re right.’ It helps them recruit, it gives them a comfort in what they’re doing and saying that would have been considered extremist a few years ago,” MacNab said. “The more this happens, the more mainstream the group gets, the more acceptable extremist ideas become.”