Political campaigns are often won by whoever can define the candidates. John Kerry was defined as a windsurfing flip-flopper and was never able to recover. As soon as Mitt Romney became known as an out-of-touch millionaire, equally heartless in firing workers and tying his own dog to the roof of his car, he never had a chance.
This week an ugly robocall in Sandpoint, my adopted hometown, effectively defined the candidates in the race for mayor — although perhaps not in the way the caller hoped.
The call attacked city council president and mayoral candidate Shelby Rognstad, questioning his sexual orientation and implying in only slightly coded language that his policies would bring violent black gangsters to town, replacing country tunes with rap music. The caller specifically suggested that Rognstad's support for affordable housing would turn Sandpoint into Ferguson, Missouri.
Before I go on, I have to note that the implication that what is wrong with Ferguson is the concentration of communities of color who live there is pretty damn offensive — and not supported by the facts. When police officers kill black teenagers under circumstances that are questionable at best, it's not those teenagers' families who are to blame.
Nearly as upsetting is the classist proposition advanced by the caller that having affordable places for people to live is bad for Sandpoint — that somehow by creating space for people of all incomes, we are harming rather than enriching our community.
I could continue to go through the call point by racist, homophobic, classist point. However, you can just go and listen to the call yourself (there's a link on Inlander.com). If you're not as offended as I am, then first, there is something deeply wrong with you, and second, nothing I have to say about that call is going to change your mind.
Here's what really matters: Despite its failings or perhaps because of them, the call has successfully defined the race for the next mayor of Sandpoint.
The question for Sandpoint voters: Are you going to vote for Rognstad or with the racists who oppose him? Rognstad has been elevated from a mild, centrist civic leader into a community hero fighting against racism and homophobia.
In Sandpoint, this is possibly the best position a candidate could find themselves in. Because if there is one thing Sandpoint desperately doesn't want to be, it's racist. People there overwhelmingly despise the stereotypes of North Idaho as a haven for white supremacists and are proud of having created institutions like the Bonner County Human Rights Board. Recently deceased former Sandpoint Mayor Gretchen Hellar was well-respected for her part, prior to being elected, in largely driving white supremacists out of town.
I know Rognstad's opponent and don't believe he is even a little bit racist or had anything to do with this robocall, which is part of why I am not tarnishing him by using his name here. In this election, Rognstad is most vocally opposed by the out-of-town supporters of State Rep. Heather Scott, who earlier this year was photographed proudly displaying a Confederate flag in a local parade. Scott has also been a consistent critic of Sandpoint, including its ordinance protecting people from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Next month, Sandpoint will get to again declare their support for everyone who lives within their community, and I have little doubt that they will again tell those who attempt to spread racism in their town to get lost. ♦
John T. Reuter, a former Sandpoint City Councilman, studied at the College of Idaho and currently resides in Seattle. He has been active in protecting the environment, expanding LGBT rights and Idaho's Republican Party politics.