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State of the Re:Union - Coeur d'Alene and Ideology Migration

Coeur d'Alene
Coeur d'Alene
The city of Coeur d'Alene

The second segment of Saturday's episode focuses on Coeur d'Alene, Idaho and the battles of its politically conservative school board. The U.S. has been a country shaped by migration, dating back to the days of the pioneers making their way West. But recently, this country has been seeing a different kind of migration, one motivated not by economic necessity, but lifestyle choices. More and more, people are moving to places where they're surrounded by others like themselves. State of the Re:Union tells stories of this new kind of migration, of people moving to different corners of the country find (or build) themselves a haven. 

As State of the Re:Union reports, Northern Idaho has attracted in recent decades conservative Christians looking for a place that shares their values. Kootenai County wasn’t always a Republican stronghold; for years, it was filled with silver miners and the unions that fostered their membership in the Democratic party. But in the last decades of the 20th century, Idaho became the center of migration for conservatives from all over the west, particularly Southern California. 

By the early 2000s, Democrats didn’t even run candidates in several races in Kootenai County. But even so, Republicans in the area were dividing themselves more and more specifically on ideological lines: who was conservative enough? And that’s what takes us back to the school board in Coeur d’Alene, the biggest city in the county. 

When Ken Lahr and Jeff Ward moved to Idaho from Washington state, they formed a group called the Reagan Republicans. They were both frustrated that other local conservative groups weren’t getting involved in local non-partisan races, like school board and city council. They figured that those local boards handled a lot of the finances and taxes for the county, and constituents deserved to know who was Republican and who wasn’t. Even in races where no R or D would appear on the ballot, they’d put forward a public information campaign that would ensure voters knew who had the conservative stamp. It was a massive grassroots effort, knocking on doors, covering whole neighborhoods.

One of the candidates supported by the Reagan Republicans was Tom Hamilton, who won a seat on the Coeur d’Alene School Board. Tom had gotten interested in how the schools were being run in the fall of 2010, when his daughter was in fourth grade. "She came home one day and said, 'Our teacher says that if you take us to church, you're teaching us to believe in ghosts and fairy tales.' " Hamilton approached the teacher about it, and she said it was part of the Primary Years Program (PYP), the elementary school equivalent of International Baccalaureate (IB), which taught children to question their values. This made Hamilton furious. Both he and another Reagan Republican candidate won election to the school board, running on a platform of wanting to take a hard look at the IB and PYP programs.

The three incumbent members of the school board all resigned their positions within months and were replaced by appointed conservative candidates. In the spring of 2012, there was a battle over the International Baccalaureate program. Parents, students and teachers defended the IB—some of them were even conservative Republican. But, unanimously, the new school board voted to eliminate the program. It seemed like the crowning achievement of the conservative push: it now could show a tangible impact on the ground, in what kids were being taught in schools.

But recent months have shown that, even in red Kootenai County, people are resisting their institutions having a uniform partisan voice. The IB decision prompted a new group to form called Balance North Idaho. They weren’t supporting Democrats—in fact, they weren’t affiliated with any political party. They were arguing for a less partisan agenda. And so, when the next school board election came around, Balance Idaho put forward a field of candidates. So did the Regan Republicans, this time even out-and-out advertising candidates for school board as Republican.  Two candidates demonstrate the dynamics of the race: Brent Regan was supported by the Regan Republicans, an entrepreneur who stamped the Republican brand on his campaign, and has given impassioned speeches at a rally of the Tea Party Patriots of North Idaho. Christa Hazel, supported by Balance Idaho, is also a lifelong republican, who says she only declared her conservative leanings publicly, because she didn’t want to be labeled as something else. “Unfortunately, our society is so divisive at the moment, it’s so partisan, especially the Coeur d’Alene area, that I just understand that is the reality,” she told the Spokesman-Review newspaper  “I wish it weren’t the case.” The race was closely watched as a kind of ideological weather vane for the area as a whole. Would the most partisan candidates confirm their hold?

And then: the moderates won. In the school board election, and then again in fall 2013 with citywide elections. Balance Idaho supported candidates were the winners. 

Dan Gookin, a Coeur d’Alene city councilor who was first elected with the help of the Regan Republicans, says this could be the start of a sea change. “We’ve become so antagonistic towards anyone with the opposite view,” he says. “We as a culture don’t know how to properly deal with dissent. We’ve got to understand that we can disagree and still be friends.”