The far right is winning in North Idaho and stoking havoc at the local community college, with a little help from an alt-right filmmaker

click to enlarge The far right is winning in North Idaho and stoking havoc at the local community college, with a little help from an alt-right filmmaker
NIC Photo
The North Idaho College campus on Lake Coeur d'Alene

Across three chaotic North Idaho College board meetings last week, Todd Banducci — the controversial college trustee — proclaimed that a new age was upon us. With November's election having delivered one more trustee in his hard-rightwing camp, it was time for a reckoning.

"There's a new board... not a board picked by the governor and his minions," he says. "We're going to start fresh. It's a new era and a new dawn here at NIC."

He calls his critics "bullies" and "cowards," suggests that they're "vile and evil" — and declares that those who "supposedly love this college were ready to burn it down to the ground just because of their own personal issues just with me."

And the language from the other, more politically moderate side of the board wasn't any less colorful.

"It appears that your sole purpose is to undermine the college and to bring it down and destroy the college," newly-elected trustee Tarie Zimmerman said of the board's majority.

The board of a community college may seem an absurd place for this kind of overheated rhetoric. But over the past two years, NIC has become just the latest battleground in the proxy war between the hard-right Kootenai County Republican Central Committee and its more establishment opposition.

"Watching this trainwreck unfold, there's significant concern that our institution is in jeopardy," says Christa Hazel, a moderate Republican activist who's part of the "Save NIC" movement.

After all, the college is currently under a warning from the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, which said that if the board didn't shape up, its accreditation would be at risk. What's more, as the board's politics have swung back and forth in the last 15 months, the college has been through three presidents, sowing more disorder.

Last week, the fourth president was placed on "administrative leave."

And for comparatively moderate Republicans like Hazel, the concern goes deeper. They argue that the local GOP's central committee has not only generated chaos at NIC, it's let the extreme fringe influence its messaging.

THE SWAMP

You can learn a lot about any local Republican Party by who they pick to speak at their Lincoln Day fundraiser. Last year, the Kootenai County Republicans picked Michelle Malkin, a conservative pundit who'd been promoting Nick Fuentes, the virulently anti-Semitic activist, as the future of the Republican party.

But along with dropping applause lines like "it's okay to be white," Malkin offered political strategy.

"If I had to pick any office to run for, I'd start with school board," Malkin told the Kootenai County Republicans at the 2021 Lincoln Day Dinner.

Indeed, longtime Nick Fuentes fan Dave Reilly ran for Post Falls School Board later that year with Malkin's endorsement. And the local GOP endorsed him, even after Reilly's long record of hateful tweets was exposed.

"They had a chance to denounce Reilly when he ran for the school board," says Sandy Patano, a local moderate Republican who's been fighting the fringe for years. "And they were silent."

Hazel knows the GOP's focus on local nonpartisan races isn't entirely new. Nearly a decade ago, she beat Kootenai County Republican Central Committee chair Brent Regan in a Coeur d'Alene School board race.

But as the board has shifted in an ultra-conservative direction, that emphasis has intensified.

"The real power is in the non-partisan boards — the NIC board, the city councils, the smaller taxing districts," longtime Kootenai County GOP member Bjorn Handeen said earlier this year in an interview. "That's the swamp... We're actually threatening the swamp now."

Banducci wrote in an email to a student last year that he's "battling the NIC 'deep state' on an almost daily basis."

In the fall of 2020, after GOP-supported candidates were elected to the trustee board, Banducci had been made board chair. In September 2021, they fired President Rick MacLennan without explanation. A month later, they'd hired the school's wrestling coach, Michael Sebaaly, as the new president, touting his doctorate in educational leadership.

But the Banducci Era was short-lived. Turns out that one of the new trustees technically lived in South Dakota. Hazel and her NIC-backing allies threatened to sue if that trustee didn't resign. He did in January. After that, all it took was for two of Banducci's critics to also resign and the State Board of Education could legally appoint three new trustees, and — voila! — the moderates were back in power by May.

But at the same time the moderates managed to take control of the NIC board, they were getting crushed at the ballot box.

THE REILLY FACTOR

Over the summer, during the primary election, the Kootenai County GOP released a series of sleek and professional-looking videos, including a movie-trailer-style montage of looters, drag queens and drug overdoses with the warning: "Don't. Let. Idaho. Turn. Into. California."

Another video paired drone shots and sentimental piano music to tout the GOP's "sample ballot," with their list of endorsed candidates.

The election was a blow-out: Kootenai County voted for every candidate they'd recommended.

The Kootenai County Central Committee reported to the state that it paid a company called Idaho Dynamics $11,000 for these ads. It listed a P.O. Box at Upscale Mail in Post Falls as the company's address, matching what was on file as the company's official business registration.

And it's the same mailing address that Reilly listed on his website while campaigning for governor and school board the past two years.

It made sense. Before Reilly's drone footage and pro-alt-right tweets at the 2017 "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville resulted in him losing his talk radio gig, his website touted his expertise in web design, music production and digital video production.

So while it looks likely that Reilly helped make the videos for the local GOP, records show that Regan, the party's chair, amended his campaign finance record to list a different address for Idaho Dynamics a week after the Reilly connection was described in a Coeur d'Alene Press opinion article. (Another client made a similar change in May.)

Reilly, too, seems keen on not having his exact role clarified. He responded to an Inlander email inquiry last week by asking for the paper's "correct address to serve the papers for your restraining order."

Regan says he worked with somebody named "Matt" — Regan wouldn't provide the last name — at Idaho Dynamics and scoffs at the idea he'd need to vet every employee of a firm he works with.

"When you go buy groceries, do you ask everybody there who supplies their groceries?" Regan says.

Asked if he'd talked to Reilly about the Idaho Dynamics advertisements, Regan says doesn't remember. He said he wouldn't help chase "rabbit holes and conspiracy theories," and abruptly ended the call.

Regardless, Reilly's behind the camera again.

"Where we see him now the most frequently is at the North Idaho College trustee meetings," Patano says. "He films everybody."

MOB RULE

North Idaho College trustee candidate Diana Sheridan moved to Coeur d'Alene in September 2021. She gives off the opposite vibe as Banducci — more grandmother than gadfly.

For most of her life, she says, she didn't pay attention to politics. COVID and the 2020 election changed that.

When she moved to Kootenai County, she connected with local conservative political types who recommended — with her background in educational advocacy — that she run for the NIC board of trustees.

Sheridan concluded the claim the college's accreditation was at risk was wildly overblown. She felt that Banducci was the victim of unfair attacks and was being used as a "fall guy."

She went through the local GOP's rigorous candidate vetting process and earned an endorsement on their recommended candidate list.

But Sheridan says she "became very aware, very quickly" that she was facing off against a "crap ton of money" on the other side. Just one PAC supporting the moderate slate, the "Friends of NIC," had raised nearly $150,000, including huge donations from the Realtors and the Coeur d'Alene Tribe.

"I'd never worked on a campaign," Sheridan says. "I'm like, 'How many signs do I need? Where do you get them?'"

As she was looking for help, people around her connected her to various operatives, including Reilly. Sheridan says Reilly took photographs, and later, video footage for her.

"He got presented to me as a craftsman," Sheridan says. "To me, he was a technician."

Campaign finance reports show that Sheridan paid $1,500 to Revere Media, a business that, despite just forming in September, churned out a number of flashy Idaho Dynamics-style ads for far-right independent governor candidate Ammon Bundy.

Asked directly whether Reilly took the footage for Revere, Sheridan refused to answer.

"I'm not willing to draw any connections for you," she says.

Ultimately, Sheridan says, she didn't end up using Reilly's work or Revere's advertisements.

Other ads went up without her involvement. In October, a video went up on the Idaho Tribune — a Reilly-connected far-right North Idaho news site — attacking Sheridan's opponent as a mask-mandate supporter. It called upon voters to support Kootenai County GOP-endorsed candidates instead, and "say no to the radical leftist agenda that is threatening our institutions."

Ultimately, Sheridan lost by less than 500 votes. But all the Kootenai County GOP's bloc needed was one candidate to win to take control. When another one of their candidates, Mike Waggoner, won, they got it.

The new conservative board zeroed in on President Nick Swayne, the current college president. The previous board had changed Swayne's contract to ensure that he couldn't be fired without cause. But after the board installed a new attorney — another Kootenai County GOP member — they used the contract change as a reason to put yet another president on administrative leave.

Despite the election losses, both Sheridan and Hazel have still been attending most every NIC board meeting. If there's one thing they agree on — it's that things have gotten really nasty.

"That meeting was... it's not been pretty," Sheridan says about Saturday's meeting, punctuated by raucous protesters. "It was practically mob rule."

Sebaaly, the wrestling coach, rejected the board's attempt to rehire him. At press time, NIC has no president.

The direction of the Kootenai County GOP, however, is less uncertain. Just last week, the board announced their 2023 Lincoln Day Dinner headliner: Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, of Jewish space laser conspiracy fame. ♦

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters is the Inlander's senior investigative reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...