A Rising Crimson Tide?

Can Democrats turn the Idaho panhandle purple?

In 2010, Democrats could have gone after Phil Hart. The Idaho state representative by then had federal liens placed on property for refusing to pay taxes. He now owes over half a million dollars in back taxes.

The only problem was, Democrats hadn’t shown up.

“Even though he was in real trouble, we didn’t have anyone on the ballot,” says Idaho Democratic Party Chair Larry Grant.

While Hart is gone — he lost his Republican primary this spring — Grant cites him as the inspiration for Democrats fielding candidates across the state this year. Idaho Democrats recruited more than 90 candidates, just in case “some [GOP] candidate is going to steal an RV or refuse to pay their taxes,” Grant says.

Democrats may need all the help they can get after the beating the party took in 2010 — losing its one congressional seat and three seats in the Legislature.

Regardless, the strategy of showing up this time extends to North Idaho. Democrats have a candidate this year in each of the nine legislative districts that include Kootenai County. In District 2 — Hart’s old stomping grounds, which runs north of Coeur d’Alene — Democrats are contesting all three legislative seats for the first time in more than 10 years. In fact, the man running for Hart’s open seat is the last Democrat to hold office in Kootenai County.

“Trying to make a change with Phil Hart,” is why Dan English filed to run for Hart’s now open seat. English, 61, has been a Coeur d’Alene city councilman and school board member. His election loss in 2010 as Kootenai County Clerk — a position to which he was appointed in 1995 and won the next four elections — also marked the end of Democrats holding a countywide position.

English talks about finding ways to preserve the safety net. And he says he wants education reform but is against the reforms put forward by Schools Superintendent Tom Luna and passed last year by the Legislature. (The measures are on November’s ballot for a final verdict by voters.)

English says he won elections in such a deeply conservative region “because I treat everybody with respect. Whether I agree with them or not, I do listen to their point of view.

“I just want there to be more of a balance in Boise,” says English, adding that Republicans in North Idaho have restricted themselves to “one narrow voice.”

Ed Morse, the Republican candidate who beat Hart in the May primary, supports the Luna education reforms. Morse, 62, is also calling for better ethics laws for legislators. He cites the perceptions of infighting brought on by several contested Republican primaries — like Morse and two other Republicans who targeted Hart in the May primaries — along with the Luna laws as having generated more interest in Democratic candidates this year.

Morse worries about holding down the budget and funding education.

“Our expenses for prisons and health and welfare are expanding quite rapidly,” says Morse, a professional real estate appraiser by day who lives just north of Hayden. “The expansion of those costs are squeezing other areas of the budget like education.”

Morse also disagrees with the nullification bill proposed by Vito Barbieri, another District 2 legislator, to stop the health care reform law in Idaho. Nullification is a doctrine declaring a state can refuse to enforce or recognize laws enacted by the U.S. Congress.

The only two realistic two choices, Morse says, are between setting up a state or a federal health care exchange as provided in the health care law.

But Barbieri, 60, is still looking for ways to stop the law.

“I’m not saying nullification so much,” says Barbieri, a retired attorney who lives in Dalton Gardens and is chairman of the Open Arms Pregnancy Care Center. “There are some great alternatives that would not lead us down this socialized medicine path.”

Barbieri, also a supporter of Luna’s reforms, speaks about working on legislation next session to give tax credits that would “allow individuals and business to contribute to scholarship programs and help some of those who are unable to get into private schools.”

But it was Barbieri’s nullification proposal that drew the freshman legislator a Democratic challenger: Cheryl Stransky.

Stransky, a retired counselor from Coeur d’Alene High School, calls the nullification proposal “a waste of time” that could cost the state money.

“It’s immoderate and unreasonable,” she says of Barbieri’s positions. Stransky disagrees with Barbieri’s vote last session against new cigarette taxes. She also opposes the Luna reforms and believes the state should focus on improving students’ abstract reasoning and problem-solving skills.

A third Democrat, Shirley McFaddan, is running against incumbent Sen. Steve Vick for the District 2 state senate seat. McFaddan, a retired Verizon worker, is pledging to work on raising education standards, a better economy and more support for small businesses. Vick, who previously served four terms in the Montana Legislature, wants to focus on limiting the scope of government.

Grant, the chair of the Idaho Democrats, believes his party can pick up three or four seats around the state. But he concedes District 2 will likely remain Republican.

Says Grant: “It’s a tough district for Democrats, there’s no doubt about it.” 

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