As the political divide continues to deepen around the Gem State and the U.S., Idaho legislators and activists say they’ve seen more examples of tension at the Capitol

When the Idaho Legislature reconvened for three days in November, political organizer Alicia Abbott drove to Boise from Sandpoint. Abbott is an experienced political organizer and never expected she would leave the Idaho State Capitol due to concerns for her safety before the first day back in session was over.

Abbott has been coming to the Statehouse for about the past six years. She’s worked as a field organizer with the Idaho 97 Project, a new group that recently formed to fight extremism in Idaho. Abbott has also worked with the nonpartisan group Reclaim Idaho, which pushed the successful 2018 Medicaid expansion ballot initiative.

She left the Capitol on Nov. 15, shortly after the House voted to censure Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird. Abbott was watching from the public seating gallery above the House floor. She said Giddings had come up to the gallery to interact with her supporters and that after the vote, the tone turned aggressive. On her Twitter feed, Abbott posted videos she took that day of a woman screaming down from the seating gallery, as well as a video of a different woman confronting a lobbyist in the hallway. Abbott said she and a friend who watched the proceedings with her were singled out for not being supporters of Giddings and for adhering to recommended COVID-19 safety protocols, including wearing masks. She left after a man argued loudly with her about COVID-19 vaccine safety.

“It was really because of how the attitude of the crowd had shifted,” Abbott told the Idaho Capital Sun.

“I have never seen this type of behavior,” Abbott added. “There has never been this much vitriol — at all — and intimidation especially. Some of these folks were armed and I could see things going very wrong on that day, and that’s what the deciding factor for me to leave was, the combination of anger and firearms. And, you know, I’m a gun owner myself. There’s been plenty of times when firearms have been in the Statehouse and there’s been no issues, and I haven’t felt intimidated. But this crowd was very angry, so I left.”

Abbott returned to the Statehouse the next two days and testified before legislators on Nov. 17, the same day she spoke with the Idaho Capital Sun. But the experience jarred her. She worries that members of the public won’t feel comfortable or safe at the Statehouse — whether it’s due to the anger or crowds or lack of COVID-19 protocols like masking and distancing. Abbott worries that would rob people of their ability to participate in the legislative process and could limit the perspective of public testimony presented to legislators during bill hearings.

“A lot of my opinions on the safety of public meetings have changed over the last three to four years,” Abbott said. “We see instances where folks are so enraged they’re not taking a moment even to calm down and think rationally before having a conversation. We’ve seen it to the point where people are shutting down (other) public meetings. This is a great threat to democracy if people feel unsafe.”

Abbott isn’t the only one who is worried about the potential for violence and politics to clash. A new study by the Frank Church Institute at Boise State University found that 20 percent of the people surveyed in fall 2021 in Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Utah and Nevada believed political violence is justified when the government doesn’t act in the best interest of the people. Fifty-eight percent of respondents didn’t believe political violence was justified, and the rest of respondents were unsure.

Abbott did stress that while she was in the seating gallery, an Idaho State Police trooper was close at hand and monitoring the situation. At one point, Abbott said the trooper spoke with a man who spoke loudly and gestured aggressively while talking to Abbott about vaccines.

Speaker of the House Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said in November he was disappointed by the public outbursts and shouting that briefly disrupted proceedings on the House floor when legislators reconvened. Twice, Bedke briefly paused legislative proceedings and warned the public he would clear the seating gallery if there was another disruption. Ultimately, Bedke didn’t clear the public. But he said he was not happy with some members of the public’s lack of decorum in November.

“I was very disappointed,” Bedke told the Idaho Capital Sun moments after adjourning Nov. 17. “They knew the rules, and they flouted them.”

When asked, Bedke told the Sun he does not anticipate changes to public access in the Statehouse during the upcoming legislative session that begins Monday.

“It’s always within the presiding officer’s prerogative to clear the gallery, and I think it should not ever come to that, frankly,” Bedke said. “I think that the public’s an integral part to this process and should always be welcomed and allowed to participate, but they need to understand that they are spectators only. That’s it.”

Along with the Idaho State Capitol and the Statehouse, there is another term for the domed marble structure situated at 700 W. Jefferson St., that serves as the home of the state government — the people’s house. As the name implies, the people’s house is open to the public in ways that some visitors say are surprising. Unlike at the nearby Ada County Courthouse, anyone may walk right into the Statehouse during the day. There are no security checkpoints or metal detectors, although Idaho State Police and private security guards patrol the Capitol and associated buildings and grounds.

Guns are also allowed inside the Capitol, and it has become a tradition for some groups to carry guns inside the building. In 2016, a working group from the Vermont Legislature used a list that identified 27 state capitol buildings that have metal detectors installed at public entrances. The list was based on a 2008 survey, with partial updates from 2011 and 2012, from the National Conference of State Legislatures. And laws surrounding access to statehouses throughout the U.S. are ever-evolving. Oregon, for example, does not require the public go through metal detectors, but its Legislature did ban guns from its Statehouse last year.

“I have friends around the Capitol who are shocked at how open our building is — no metal detector, no bag search, no nothing,” said Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls. “They were very surprised.”

For years, Second Amendment groups and advocates and other members of the public have carried guns — sometimes open carried, sometimes concealed carried — at the Statehouse. Several legislators also carry guns inside the Statehouse while they are working and attending meetings, which reporters have witnessed over the years and multiple legislators confirmed to the Idaho Capital Sun. It’s commonplace for those who spend time at the Statehouse to see guns in the building. But a few instances in recent years stand out.

In 2020 an 11-year-old girl who was attending a committee hearing with her grandfather carried a loaded AR-15 rifle as they spoke during the committee hearing, The Associated Press reported.

On April 2, 2021, Idaho State Police officer James Love saw Jacob Bergquist standing under the rotunda on the second floor making a video of himself while armed with a holstered semiautomatic handgun on his left hip, according to a redacted copy of Love’s report that was obtained by the Idaho Capital Sun. Bergquist, who Boise police say killed two people in October at the Boise Towne Square Mall before he was killed by police, entered Gov. Brad Little’s office on April 2 and requested a meeting with Little to discuss the ability of felons to carry a firearm in Idaho, according to Love’s Idaho State Police report. According to Idaho State Police records, Bergquist told the governor’s secretary that he was convicted of theft in Illinois and wanted to get the word out that other felons could carry too.

“Before he departed, I asked why he was armed if he was a felon,” Love wrote. “He told me by Idaho Code 18-310 he could and that I should check it out.”

The section of Idaho Law Bergquist cited deals with restoring the rights of convicted felons upon the “final discharge” of their imprisonment, probation or parole.

Love didn’t arrest Bergquist that day, but he did file a report on April 21 recommending Ada County prosecutors investigate potential charges against Bergquist. He was never charged with a crime connected to his armed visit to the Statehouse. In the aftermath of the October Towne Square Mall shooting, Bergquist’s armed visit to the Capitol was widely reported on, including by the Idaho Statesman, KTVB and KIVI.

In another Statehouse incident, this time not involving a firearm, an angry crowd broke a glass door on the fourth floor that leads to the public seating gallery above the House floor during the August 2020 special session. People were upset about COVID-19 safety protocols in the building, such as recommendations for capacity limits and social distancing. The glass broke as the crowd tried to push its way into the seating area. No charges were filed in connection with the broken glass, the Idaho Press reported.

One of the greatest joys of being a legislator with a young family was the chance for Rep. Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell, to bring his wife and children to the Capitol to watch him debate a bill or preside over a committee hearing. During his first years in office, Chaney didn’t know as many people and hardly knew anybody watching from the seating gallery. He remembers how exciting and important it was when his wife, Sarah, and kids would come to watch him. But those days are over, at least when the Legislature is in session.

Chaney’s wife and family arrived at the Statehouse during the August 2020 special session about 10 minutes after the large crowd broke the glass above the House floor. The Chaneys were fine, Rep. Chaney said, but they had to be directed to a different part of the building and they haven’t been back since.

“The kids don’t come anymore,” Chaney said in a phone interview. “They want to, but they also understand it is no longer a safe place.”

Even away from the Statehouse, the crowds haven’t always left the Chaneys alone. In February 2021 a group of protestors carrying pitchforks and torches gathered in protest outside Chaney’s home in Caldwell. Police monitored the protests and the crowds left, but not before leaving behind a stuffed animal wearing a shirt with “Chaney” printed brightly on it, hanged in effigy. Three of the Chaney’s children under 13 were home at the time. Chaney said he will keep speaking out and keep showing up to work as a legislator — he said he’s going to make a run for the Idaho Senate in 2022 — because he believes in standing up to bullies. But Chaney says some of the blame for the public’s rhetoric lies with the Idaho House of Representatives itself and with political advocacy groups that seek to divide people and spread misinformation.

“A lot of the temperature from the public, I think, originated from the House floor and the temperature of our conversations as legislators has a direct correlation to the temperature and reaction of the public, whether member at large or member of an extremist group,” Chaney said.

Chaney isn’t alone in his concerns.

Horman, the Idaho Falls Republican, describes herself as an advocate for increased Statehouse security. During a Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee meeting in early 2021, she said she spoke up in favor of the Idaho State Police’s budget proposal for Statehouse security. Horman said she asked legislators to prioritize “protecting a priceless treasure, which is our state Capitol and the people who are in it and our year-round staff,” Horman said.

As a legislator, Horman said she has noticed increased security measures around the Capitol. For instance, she said 2021 was the first time in nine years as a legislator that she’s attended a hearing that featured a security briefing beforehand. Safety isn’t just a theoretical matter for Horman either. In fall 2021, Horman said she received a threatening letter mailed to her home in Idaho Falls. Horman said the letter mentioned a wolf bill and included personal details about her, which she considered a threat. Horman said she reported the letter, which she believes other legislators received similar versions of, to an Idaho State Police officer who worked with security detail at the Capitol.

“That is not the first death threat I have received, either,” Horman said. “It’s been a rare occasion when I haven’t felt safe in the Capitol, very rare, very rare,” Horman said. “So one way to keep the people’s house open to the people as much as possible is to increase that security presence to protect both the building and the people in it.”

Rep. Brooke Green, D-Boise, said she’s worried about stories like Abbott’s and others where people don’t feel safe coming to the Statehouse to share their views and participate in the process.

“One of the things that is probably the most unfortunate is the fact certain folks in our population feel like they can’t come down, like the security risk is too great or the precautions aren’t in place to protect them,” Green said in a telephone interview. “That is unfortunate; that is not the intention of the people’s house. Everyone should feel safe to come here.”

Green is married to a Boise Police Department officer and said security and the tenor of political debate is something that has been on her mind lately.

“I don’t think anybody can discount how divisive things are now,” Green said. “We are in some of the most divisive times we have ever seen. I will say I have seen an increase in security, and there were several instances in the past where I had to go to security, and I had to say, ‘help me, I don’t necessarily feel safe.’”

Overall, Green said she feels comfortable and hopes the most divisive days are behind everyone. She said it’s up to legislators, legislative committee chairmen and legislative leaders to promote decorum and preserve order during proceedings. She applauds Idaho State Police and what she described as increased security protocols — including a new “special button” installed in her office.

Looking ahead to this upcoming session and beyond, Green doesn’t foresee any changes to the ability of legislators or the public to carry guns at the Capitol.

“I know several of my (legislative) colleagues carry concealed,” Green said. “It’s not uncommon to walk these halls and see someone walk in with an AR-15; we’ve seen it before. It’s not uncommon to see someone with a pistol on their hip. It is the Idaho way. “I don’t anticipate any time soon any restrictions on anybody’s Second Amendment right to carry in this building. That is something many of my colleagues are proud of.”

Idaho State Police, the Idaho Department of Administration and Capitol Mall Security provided by a private company called CBI Security Services all play a role in securing the Statehouse.

Idaho State Police communications director Lynn Hightower referred the Sun’s questions about security at the Capitol to Steve Walker, state security manager with the Idaho Department of Administration. Walker then referred the Sun to Department of Administration public information office Kim Rau. Overall, Rau said the Department of Administration oversees security at the Capitol and has a security division with the department, which Walker oversees.

“For the (Capitol Mall )Security firm and staff for the Department of Administration, basically their job at the Capitol and capitol mall area is just to be the eyes and ears, essentially,” Rau said. “If something needs to be reported or elevated, we talk to ISP. And we do have ISP present at the Capitol constantly as well.”

Rau said Department of Administration staff are aware of the elevated rhetoric, disruption and public concern.

“Certainly during legislative sessions security is amped up a bit as additional (private) security officers are added during the session, generally on the Senate side and House side,” Rau said.

But she said she doesn’t know of any major security changes planned for the 2022 legislative session. Rau said there were a few changes before the 2021 session due to the COVID-19 pandemic — some committee rooms were reconfigured to spread out spacing and Plexiglass was installed, and then later removed, in some committee rooms and on the House floor.

But overall this year, Rau said officials are treating it “as any other normal year.”

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