Their Own Private Idaho

A front-row witness describes Idaho’s path to one-party rule

Even though I thought your article, “The Promised Land,” was excellent, I disagree with your premise that North Idaho politics have been transformed entirely by right-wing emigrants, especially from Orange County, Calif. I believe many other factors taking place over the last half-century have also left their mark, causing the switch in both North and South Idaho from a Democratic stronghold to a Far Right stronghold.

First on the list is the mechanization of both the mining and timber industries. Many years ago, a friend who was in the mining machinery business told me that if a mine owner could buy something that would replace even one man, he would. Then came the simultaneous decline in both the mining and timber industries in Idaho. When these mostly pro-union Democrats lost their jobs, they all moved away. We’ve never replaced that population of workers.

Another factor is the high number of Mormons (of which I am one). When my wife and I first moved to Coeur d’Alene in January of 1955, I believe the members of the LDS Church numbered no more than 500 souls in all of North Idaho. Today I wouldn’t be surprised to find more than 10,000 members here, based on the number of stakes and wards. My own personal feeling is that in the past 50 years, the Mormon Church, from its presidency on down through the Twelve Apostles and the Seventies, has now become filled with far-right Republicans.

Perhaps one of the biggest factors grew from the 1964 election, when liberal Democrats began nearly insisting upon a pro-choice “litmus test” for all those running as Democrats. As a result, Pierce Clegg (a future Kootenai County Sheriff) left the party; also, a former Democratic lieutenant governor under Gov. Cecil Andrus said one day at a political meeting, literally with tears in his eyes, that he thought the Democrats were a party that could accommodate everyone. I never saw him at another Democratic meeting.

In my early years in Coeur d’Alene, I abhorred the fact that a good share of the “Democratic” office holders were really dyed-in-the-wool Republicans — but they ran as Democrats because that was the only way to get elected. Later, Republican policy throughout the nation lured conservative Democrats into switching parties. This was significant in our county, especially when our then-party chairman, our sheriff, his wife (for all of whom I have the greatest respect) and the prosecuting attorney all simultaneously switched parties.

I believe that not only North Idaho, but the entire state turned into a solid one-party state before the hordes came from Orange County. A good share of the aforementioned reasons occurred after the massive defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964. That’s when the far-right wing of the Republican Party decided to gain complete control over their states’ political processes.

As a person interested in politics, I admired the thoroughness of Idaho’s Goldwater Republicans in turning Idaho into a one-party state. However, I am sure all of the Founding Fathers, including Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and Madison, would be spinning in their graves if they could see what is happening today in the United States, and especially in Idaho. 

Bliss Bignall is an attorney in Coeur d’Alene and the former chairman of the Kootenai County Democrats.