North Idaho gets a bad rap. It's nationally known as a region packed with white supremacists, radical bunker dwellers and unhinged conspiracy theorists. And while some of those folks might be found from time to time hanging around the local Army surplus store, by far the overwhelming number of North Idahoans I know have worked hard to repel the darker elements that threaten their reputation and community.
For example, let's look at my adopted hometown of Sandpoint. A funky arts community filled with characters from across the political spectrum, it elected a city council evenly divided among Democrats and Republicans for the nearly four years I served on it. The mayor, at the time, was Gretchen Hellar, a tough-as-nails pragmatic leader, who was also a Buddhist, abstract painter and former hardware store owner. (Like I noted, it was a town full of characters.)
Gretchen had been elected, in part, because of her record as a community activist and board member of the Bonner County Human Rights Task Force, an organization founded in 1992 to stand up for the county's inclusive values and against extremists like neo-Nazi Richard Butler.
Together, we passed the first law in Idaho protecting people from discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation. It wasn't the first time that Sandpoint had taken a stand for equality. Decades earlier, the city had made Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a city holiday, years before the state of Idaho would follow.
In part, these actions were taken specifically because of a belief that we had an obligation to show who we really were as a community, what we really believed, and how we stood in opposition to the carpetbaggers who attempted to turn us into a real-life version of the parody we were too often perceived as.
So perhaps it is true that North Idaho has a disproportionate number of racist radicals, but it also has a disproportionate number of people willing to stand up to them.
Unfortunately, sometimes North Idaho, like any community, makes mistakes. The wrong people are elected and end up embarrassing the community and damaging the progress it continues to fight for.
Heather Scott, a recently elected state representative for Bonner and Boundary counties, is Exhibit A. Scott recently asked her supporters to report any registered Republican who has a sign for her opponent in his or her yard, so that she could create a Joseph McCarthy-style list of "Democrats in disguise." Apparently, Scott doesn't get that it isn't just Democrats who are fed up with her embarrassing North Idaho, but many Republicans and independents, too.
Why, exactly, are people in North Idaho embarrassed by Heather Scott? Sadly, there are too many reasons to list them all here, but I'll run through the lowlights:
Scott campaigned proudly holding a Confederate flag, a symbol that has no connection to North Idaho other than failed neo-Nazis. This past January, in her official capacity, she traveled to eastern Oregon's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to support Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his son Ammon when they and others took over a federal building, in an armed occupation aimed at seizing our public lands. She has repeatedly voted against funding education. After a fellow state representative was caught illegally poaching, her legislative proposals have exclusively focused on making it more difficult to catch poachers. Finally, she's encouraged her supporters to actively intimidate volunteers for her political opponent, leading to a complaint to the Idaho Attorney General.
Needless to say, Heather Scott doesn't represent the North Idaho I know. On the other hand, her opponent is a pragmatic business leader named Kate McAlister, currently CEO of the Greater Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce. It's no wonder that Democrats, independents, and, yes, real Republicans are voting for McAlister. For the sake of North Idaho's reputation and continued progress, I hope she's successful.
Regardless, history shows that North Idaho will put up with people like Heather Scott for only so long.
John T. Reuter, a former Sandpoint City Councilman, has been active in protecting the environment, expanding LGBT rights and Idaho's GOP politics.