BOISE — Four Idaho governors from two different parties made strong stands against hate group activity in Idaho a prominent feature of their terms as governor, helping marginalize the Aryan Nations in the years that the neo-Nazi group was active in Idaho.
That record provides a powerful precedent for how Idaho can counter the impact of hate groups, but it’s unclear if today’s state leadership will take the same approach.
Gov. Brad Little issued a statement on social media a day after 31 members of the Patriot Front white supremacist group were arrested in Coeur d’Alene as they rode packed in the back of a U-Haul truck, headed to disrupt a Pride in the Park event by rioting.
“All Americans should be able to peacefully express their constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech without the threat of violence,” the governor wrote. “It is what has always set America apart from other nations. I thank the many, many Idahoans from across the political spectrum committed to peacefully demonstrating.”
“I commend our brave men and women in law enforcement for their swift action in Coeur d’Alene this weekend,” the governor continued. “Their diligence and quick response helped avoid a potentially terrible situation.”
The statement ended there — with no mention of white supremacy, hate groups, or the fact that the group intended to attack Idaho’s LGBTQ community.
“If you don’t say anything, people think you agree with them,” said former state Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb, a longtime advocate for civil and human rights in Idaho. “In leadership, you want to present a front that says, ‘I really do represent all y’all,’” she said. “It’s not happening now.”
There was no such reticence after the Aryan Nations exploded several bombs in Coeur d’Alene in September of 1986, one at the home of the Rev. Bill Wassmuth, a local Catholic priest and human rights leader, and two in downtown Coeur d’Alene.
Then-Gov. John Evans immediately flew to Coeur d’Alene to speak at a unity rally. Tony Stewart, co-founder of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, recalled, “I’ll never forget. He said, ‘I want to be there.’ I said, ‘Well, governor, it might be risky,’ and he said, ‘Nope.’”
“He was the main speaker at North Idaho College at that rally,” Stewart said, and then Evans returned and addressed another large audience at NIC. “He said, ‘To be tolerant of intolerance is to become part of it,’” Stewart recalled.
Evans also signed into law several major anti-hate crimes bills starting in 1983, sparked by widespread bipartisan opposition to the Aryan Nations and its campaign of hate against local minority residents. Gov. Cecil Andrus, who like Evans was a Democrat and followed Evans in office, signed additional bills into law and championed the long-sought establishment of a Martin Luther King/Idaho Human Rights Day holiday in Idaho, which was enacted in 1990.
In 1989, as the Aryan Nations held a conference drawing neo-Nazi skinheads and others to its north Idaho compound, the Kootenai County human rights task force organized a five-day “human rights celebration,” with its centerpiece a children’s party celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Idaho Human Rights Commission. Andrus was the keynote speaker, addressing a crowd that included 600 fifth-graders; after the speech, the governor sliced a 20-foot-long birthday cake.
“We had balloons for everybody,” Stewart recalled. “We took the cake outside, and we ate the whole thing in 40 minutes.”
“Of course, Andrus was here many times,” he added.
“There was a bipartisan consensus,” said Marc Johnson, who was Andrus’ chief of staff. “There was no caucus in the Republican Party that, at least publicly, put up with any of this nonsense around these hate groups. And politicians were really vying to be just as outspoken as they could be about opposing it. … That seems to me to be different today.”
Said Stewart, “There are so many different examples of how they stood up. … What’s so nice about those periods of time, is we didn’t care whether you were a Democrat or Republican, we worked together.”
Gov. Phil Batt, a Republican who followed Andrus in office from 1994 to 1998, was a human rights champion who had sponsored much of the major legislation passed on that issue when he was in the Legislature, including the creation of the Idaho Human Rights Commission.
As governor, Batt pushed through landmark legislation to cover Idaho’s largely Hispanic farm workers under the state’s workers compensation program, despite opposition from his fellow farmers; and personally reached out in unprecedented fashion to Idaho’s five recognized Native American tribes, personally meeting monthly with tribal leaders. Batt, like Evans and Andrus before him, spoke at human rights events in north Idaho. In 1998, his final year as governor, he was the keynote speaker at the first Idaho Human Rights Banquet in Coeur d’Alene, which has now run for 22 years. He pushed back hard against hate group activity.
“He made it pretty clear that he didn’t believe in what it was they were trying to do,” said Lindy High, longtime aide to Batt. “His life’s work in many ways was the total opposite of that, looking for genuine acceptance of people who’d been excluded for a long time.”
Leslie Goddard, who worked as either the lead counsel or the director of the Idaho Human Rights Commission for 20 years, said, “He was just a champion on human rights issues, and he knew that that was not popular with a lot of people that he had to work with.”
Rod Gramer, author of a book about Batt, said, “Phil Batt was a human rights champion before human rights were cool. He believed that the vast majority of Idahoans were not like these people.”
Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, also a Republican, who followed Batt in office, came to Coeur d’Alene and gave the keynote speech at a human rights rally in 1999 that was held as the Aryan Nations was parading down Sherman Avenue, Coeur d’Alene’s main street.
“He said to me before he went up on stage, he said, ‘I want to put a line in here – what do you think?’” Stewart recalled.
Here’s the line, a message to Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler, which Kempthorne delivered to acclaim, according to news reports at the time: “You might as well package your prejudice elsewhere, because it is just not selling in Idaho. If you’re looking for new placards to display at your compound, may I suggest a sign that simply says: ‘For Sale.’ I’d gladly help find a buyer at a fair market value.”
A civil lawsuit filed after Aryan Nations guards attacked a Native American woman and her son as they drove past their compound bankrupted the group and cost it both its compound and its rights to its name; the Sept. 7, 2000, jury verdict awarded the victims $6.3 million. The compound was razed and turned into a peace park.
Kempthorne later told a human rights symposium, “We stood up to them and won.”
In his 2000 State of the State message to a joint session of the Idaho Legislature, Kempthorne lauded successful fundraising efforts to create a permanent Anne Frank-Idaho Human Rights Memorial in Boise, and said, “This effort represents the true face of Idaho. But we still know that a small number of people who peddle hate can cast a false image of Idaho, an image that’s absolutely against who we are and what we are about. An image that’s against our values. I will continue to speak out against those who promote prejudice. I know you will too.”
He then successfully proposed a $100,000-a-year campaign through the Idaho Department of Commerce to repair Idaho’s image and erase the stain of association with hate groups; at that time, the state seemed to be known on the national scene solely for potatoes and neo-Nazis.
The efforts proved successful to some extent, as Idaho became known for other things, from its growing high-tech industry to its tourist-attracting scenery and recreation. For more than a decade, Idaho lawmakers repeatedly debated expanding the Idaho Human Rights Act, which addresses racial and religious discrimination along with discrimination over age or disability, to also cover discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, though the bill never advanced. When lawmakers didn’t act, more than dozen cities across the state enacted their own local ordinances, which now cover a majority of Idaho’s residents.
But those debates have slowed, and there’s been increasing support in the Legislature for anti-gay and anti-trans legislation. Little two years ago signed a law forbidding trans girls or women from playing on youth sports teams that align with their gender identity, that then became a model for multiple other states; it's currently under legal challenge in federal court. The House this year passed legislation, which died in the Senate, to make it a felony to provide gender-affirming medical care to trans youth, over strenuous protests from the medical community and families who’d be affected.
The Patriot Front arrests, and other signs of intolerance and hate-group activity, have brought back bad memories.
“We’re seeing it across the United States — it’s not just isolated incidents in Idaho,” Buckner-Webb said.
But national news reports immediately brought up Idaho’s history as a perceived haven for hate.
Stewart said things have changed in Idaho, including a large inflow of new residents. Among them, he said, are some who “are very, very racist, and particularly directing their anger at the LGBT community.”
“Now is a wake-up call again, with this group,” he said of the Patriot Front. “Now is the time for vigilance and to take that lead.”
Goddard said state leaders, including Little, could have a big impact, just as they did with the Aryan Nations response. “I wish he would step up and maybe address this issue of discrimination based on sexual orientation, and the kind of ugliness that was going to happen when Idaho doesn’t take a stand on that,” she said.
Stewart said, “I think the governor’s made the first step, because what he said this weekend was quite clear.”
Little, in response to questions from the Idaho Press, issued a statement condemning racism, hate and bigotry.
“Our citizens and communities have made great progress in promoting human rights and the value of all people,” he said. “As I have stated clearly in the past, Idaho leaders and community members at all levels have been consistent and clear about our values — we denounce racial supremacy and fully reject racism in all its forms. We embrace diversity. There is no place for racism, hate, or bigotry in the great State of Idaho. We condemn bullies who seek to silence others. The right to free speech should not be used to intimidate and scare others.”
He added, “More and more vitriolic hate is playing out across the country. Unfortunately, this past weekend, one of our Idaho communities was the target of a group of out-of-state agitators with nefarious plans. Thankfully, watchful citizens and an effective, swift law enforcement response prevented a dangerous situation, and we are all even more vigilant now.”
“I will continue the tradition of past Idaho governors in supporting our local leaders in their efforts to eradicate hate and bigotry from our communities,” Little said. “Mayor Jim Hammond and I have been in regular communication about potential needs in his community.”
He added, “Where other isolated incidents have occurred in our state, I have seen Idahoans come through every single time to stand up for our shared values — to show respect, love, and compassion for our neighbors. Idahoans are good people, and we must not allow the hateful actions of a few – many times individuals not from Idaho — to achieve their desired goal of tarnishing the Gem State. Only by working together will our momentum continue, and we will not be deterred or back down because of a few individuals with malicious intent.”
He urged Idahoans to “reach out to others with kindness and humanity so our beautiful state can continue to be a welcoming, safe place.” But he didn’t mention that the LGBT community was the target in the Patriot Front’s intended offensive.
Boise State University history professor Jill Gill, director of the Marilyn Shuler Human Rights Initiative, said, “The national political situation is different now, in that the most conservative state leadership shows little fear of the state being perceived as ‘extremist’ in terms of LGBT or anti social justice/diversity.” Instead, she said, “Current state leadership seems to see far less risk or harm in being associated with extremists who terrorize minority groups.”
An April 28 event hosted by Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, at a north Idaho church included leaders of the Panhandle Patriots Riding Club, a motorcycle club, calling on people to help them vehemently protest the upcoming pride event in Coeur d’Alene. The group sponsored an event at another, nearby city park initially called “Gun d’Alene,” but then changed the name to “North Idaho Day of Prayer,” and said it opposes violence. Nevertheless, the video of the April 28 remarks drew widespread attention on far-right social media channels, according to Boise State Public Radio, where groups including the Patriot Front would have seen it. Flyers for the Panhandle Patriots event declared, “If they want a war, let it begin here.”
Scott and other far-right Idaho legislators haven’t shied away from extremist groups or anti-LGBT rhetoric.
“Aligning with extremism was more of a liability politically in the 1980s and ’90s in Idaho,” Gill said. “Elected officials often mirror what voters want to hear, I think, because voters ignore and punish officials who do otherwise. If our elected officials don’t criticize hate groups, I fear they’re reflecting general voter disinterest.”
Little’s office said he immediately spoke with the chief of the Idaho State Police and the mayor of Coeur d’Alene about last weekend’s incident, and has “maintained regular communication with local leaders about the arrests and has offered support from the state. Those discussions will continue in the weeks and months ahead.”
Buckner-Webb and Stewart both said Aryan Nations leader Butler made a fundamental mistake when he chose Idaho for his group, assuming that the state’s less-diverse population would provide fertile recruiting ground for its racist and neo-Nazi beliefs. Instead, few Idahoans signed on, and most participants in the group came from out of state.
“They just didn’t do their homework — they didn’t know Idaho,” Buckner-Webb said.
Said Stewart, “Where he made his bad mistake was he thought this was such a non-diverse population that everybody would join him. He was wrong.”
But these days, Goddard said, “The issue of sexual orientation, I don’t know where Idahoans are on that one. I think that still is problematic, which makes so little sense to me. I don’t know why it matters to other people who someone else marries.”
Johnson said he fears that today’s politicians “really seem somewhat intimidated by what’s going on, and have let it, in my judgment, get out of hand again, and get out of hand in a way that these groups feel emboldened, they really do. And that’s very dangerous.”
The strong response to the Aryan Nations from Idahoans, from the top down, “was really effective,” Johnson said. “I think it got Richard Butler and his followers on the run, and ultimately run out of the state.”
Today’s hate group activity, he said, “demands a strong, effective response, it really does, at the highest level.”
Buckner-Webb said, “It’s very difficult for somebody that’s GLBT or that’s Black or that’s Latino or that’s short or that’s fat to fight for themselves singularly. They need a base of support, because they are not mainstream, dominant culture.”
“Your beliefs can be totally different than mine,” she said, “but that doesn’t give me the right to go and destroy everything that belongs to individuals based on their purported identification.”