Big Business, Big Problems

Idaho’s last legislative session

by Kat Thornton

Illustration by Casey Friedman

published April 11, 2014

In the late 1970s, Richard G. Butler, founder of Aryan Nations, established the neo-Nazi world headquarters on 20 acres of land in Hayden Lake, Idaho. In the two-and-a-half decades that followed, members would gather in this small town, with a population that hovers around 500, for annual congresses. Neighbors complained of burning crosses, loud music, and gunshots. The property, surrounded by the immense Coeur D’Alene National Forest and dozens of lakes, was filled with guard towers and barracks.

     One night a woman and her son were driving near the compound when their car backfired. Two drunk guards followed the pair for two miles until they drove them into a ditch, fired shots into their car, and accosted them. The Aryan Nations now faced a lawsuit. The woman successfully sued Butler, thereby bankrupting the Aryan Nations, gaining ownership of the property, and stripping the group of the right to its name.

     While it was the court case that ultimately pushed the Aryan Nations out of Idaho, the media and political rhetoric that justified its removal over twenty years was focused primarily on the business disadvantages of such a group’s influence on Idaho’s reputation outside the state. For Idahoans, the problem of the Aryan Nations was above all a problem of business. Hewlett-Packard and Boise Cascade, two major state employers, expressed their concern that Idaho’s reputation for intolerance would affect their job applicant pool. People didn’t want to move to Idaho because of its reputation for hate groups. In 1998, there was a Christian Science Monitor article devoted entirely to the problems facing Idaho’s image: “For all its natural beauty, Idaho's income from tourism is far less than that of most other states. And as it moves from a resource economy based on timber and mining to high-tech, companies such as Hewlett-Packard and Micron are finding it difficult to recruit and retain minority employees,” it reads. And in a 2012 article by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report, a longtime Hayden Lake resident reacted to the news that a protégé of Butler had bought a large piece of property in Northern Idaho in similar terms, saying,  “[this is] not good for this region. It will cost us business.” He sighed. “We definitely need to have people notified of what’s going on.”

     It makes sense to appeal to a larger cause, like the state economy, when pushing for causes based in human rights. In Idaho, this is especially the case—and it’s just as prevalent a tactic today as it was in the twenty-plus year struggle over the Aryan Nations’s headquarters. Business has become more than an influencer—it is central to the workings of the legislature, to the way that the media talks about the statehouse goings-on, to the treatment of each controversy in Idaho politics. And now, it’s stifling state-wide debate on progressive legislation for LGBTQ rights—just as it’s pushing big agriculture and gun-rights bills through the statehouse, often times going against what the public has clearly demanded.

Illegal post-it notes

Idaho produced its first Human Rights Act in 1969. Its purpose was—and still is—“to secure for all individuals within the state freedom from discrimination because of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age (40 and over) and disability.” What this first declaration omitted—and continues to omit—is protection for gender identity and sexual orientation.

     Now, activists in Idaho are pushing for an amendment. “Add the Words” is the name of a group and a petition to add language for gender and sexuality protection to Idaho’s human rights act. The wording exists in several cities, including the capitol, Boise, but is not a statewide policy. As it stands, it is technically legal to evict someone from their house or deny them a job on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. As several recent news reports have suggested, this is not good for business. The media has been filled with references to studies that show how having LGBTQ-friendly laws promote economic growth. As a result, Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter has been able to focus his remarks on contesting the notion that an “anti-gay reputation” is bad for the economy, rather than responding to criticism that lacking legal protection for the LGBTQ community is unjust. The media follows in the cycle. A recent Idaho Statesman article explained that the governor has a point: “While recent protests at the Legislature received national coverage, there is no polling available to measure outsiders' perceptions of how Idaho treats lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people.”

     Former Democratic state senator Nicole LeFavour, Idaho’s first openly gay legislator, has become the most prominent leader of Add the Words. She sponsored the bill in 2006 but couldn't gain enough support to have it introduced for a vote. The next year, and in the six years that followed, LeFavour sought co-sponsors but found it increasingly difficult outside of her party.

     During this same time, the legislative agenda came to be increasingly inflexible to public demands. Tim Corder, a legislator from 2004–2012, said the majority Republican party has become more right-leaning, and has made more efforts to rid the party of moderates. Idaho has entered the national news several times in these years for the times that the statehouse considered bills that would outlaw abortions, force ultrasounds on women considering abortions, reduce health and welfare benefits, and keep taxes at the same level while taking away education funding. This story is not abnormal—it’s part of the same national trend that produced the Tea Party and polarized national politics. Corder suggested that in Idaho, this has to do with prioritizing commitment to the party line over other factors that inform legislative decisions, like personal values or input from constituents. Money, in many instances, was a “smokescreen” for maintaining the party line, he said.

     This year, Add the Words organizers turned to civil disobedience—a rare instance in Idaho history—to make their voices heard. In February, protestors of different ages, sexual identities, and faiths wore matching black shirts with white letters that read, “Add the Words.” They stood in silence with their hands in front of their mouths—to symbolize how legislators have silenced their efforts—in front of the doors to the capitol’s entrance, hallways, and voting floors. Forty-four protestors were arrested, and a local TV news station reported that each arrest would cost taxpayers anywhere from $3,000 to $6,000.

     2014 was not the first year that Add the Words worked outside the system to make a statement. Two years ago, organizers pasted the walls of the state house with post-it notes reading “Add the 4 Words.” The image became a symbol for the movement. Legislators and police reacted by insisting that placement of the notes was illegal, taking the time (and money) to remove the post-it notes. In addition, legislators introduced a bill in direct opposition that would have made it illegal to add gender and sexuality protection clauses to Idaho’s Human Rights Act (this bill was unsuccessful). In the Idaho legislature, there seems to be no time only for certain issues.

74 days

Idaho’s last legislative session, which lasted 74 days, was the second shortest on record. Its legislature, like many across the country, is part-time, and counts each day in session as an unnecessary bill for the state. A recent Spokesman Review article reports that each day of the legislative session costs about $30,000.

     The main goal for legislators, particularly in a primary year like 2014, is to get in, set a budget, and get out. In a state where the primary counts for more than the general election, legislators were eager to “get on with the business of politicking because they’re up against people in their own party,” says George Prentice, a blogger and longtime reporter for the Boise Weekly, an alternative news source. The primary for the Republican Party, the majority representation in Idaho, recently changed its rules to include only affiliated voters, thereby cutting out Democrats (a minority of voters) and the unaffiliated (a sizeable portion of the state). Excluding non-affiliated voters from the primary has pushed Idaho Republicans further and further to the right.

     Legislators did not hold a hearing for Add the Words because it was against party lines. “The legislature is not always driven by public opinion,” Corder told the Independent. In the last few years, the public has been clear on several issues that were settled in direct opposition to these demands. For example, in 2012, Idaho voters repealed every single piece of an unpopular, yet successful, education reform package that would have restricted teachers’ unionization rights, given every student a laptop, and required students to take at least one online course. “But were legislators chastised?” Corder asked, rhetorically. “Not so much.” He blames “the powers that be” inside the Republican Party, which he sees as a radically different entity than the one he entered. Like many recently outgoing Republican legislators, Corder considered himself one of the most conservative freshman legislators but left as a moderate. Corder told me in a low voice that one of the most damaging words being thrown around the Idaho Republican Party these days is “R.I.N.O” (pronounced like the horned animal), Republican In Name Only.

     While legislators didn’t have time to address the number one stated goal of the pre-legislative period (the state education budget, which remains at pre-recession levels) there was time to pass a few significant pieces of legislation. Both reflect Idaho’s commitment to big business interests— specifically, to agriculture companies and the National Rifle Association. “Almost every session there's some ‘red meat’ for the gun lobby and the agriculture,” Dan Popkey, a political reporter of 27 years for the Idaho Statesman, told the Independent.

     One, known as the “Ag-gag” law, outlawed undisclosed filming at agriculture processing plants. Its passage was a direct result of undercover filming that exposed animal abuse at a local dairy plant. The law has clear consequences for journalists. “If that law had been in effect [a few years ago], I personally would have gone to jail,” said Prentice, who wrote an article exposing the destruction of evidence of secret state antibiotics testing in dairy cows. The punishment now ranges from a $5,000 fine to up to a year behind bars. The law punishes critical eyes, and keeps producers safe from skepticism (and potentially fines) that would result from documented infractions.

     Another bill that became law this session allows individuals to carry concealed weapons on university campuses. The law was passed despite objections from all of Idaho’s university presidents and several state police chiefs. The bill was drafted by the NRA, and presented to the first Senate committee hearing by an NRA lobbyist. Those in opposition were banned from speaking at the public Senate hearing, but were allowed to speak in the House committee hearing, where testimony lasted seven hours, mostly from opponents. “Who does this legislature represent?” a Spokesman Review article reported a leader of the Student Association of the College of Western Idaho as saying. “The answer is clear: Lobbyists, and apparently, themselves.”

     The legislation passed the House 50-19, with six Republicans going against party lines to vote with the House’s 13 Democrats. University officials pleaded with fiscal conservatives by pointing out that the bill will actually cost state universities millions, with the need for added security once anyone who passes an eight-hour training session are allowed to carry concealed weapons on campus.

The rest of the state doesn’t want you here

The trailer for a documentary currently in production about Add the Words captures a scene between LeFavour and an angry statehouse visitor. The visitor—a man—stands in front of LeFavour, who leans against a marble statehouse pillar and keeps her hands over her mouth for their entire interaction.

     “The rest of the state doesn’t want you around here,” he yells. “That’s why there aren’t those words and there won’t be those words. Because your foundation is violence. Your heart is in violence.” A cop stands behind them in a silence starker than LeFavour’s. She defends both herself and the movement, tries to convince the man that her actions are rooted in love. She apologizes for anything that has taught him otherwise, but he continues: “If I punched you in the face, you wouldn’t take that. A fist somewhere else would be fine, huh?” She says she would take the punch. He raises his voice: “THERE IS NO PEACE AND LOVE IN YOUR HEART ANYWHERE. IT CANNOT EXIST IN YOU.” At this point, the cop steps in and moves him away.

     The opposition to Add the Words rests in the moral objections of the ultraconservative and the silence of legislators who face no consequences by toeing the party line. Protestors, and by extension the media, have sought to reframe the argument in terms of fiscal benefit. While fiscal arguments have won the hearts and minds of influential Idahoans in the past, it has failed in the case of Add the Words. The same arguments continue to motivate the passage of bills like “Ag-gag” and guns on campus. “Fear casts a pretty long shadow in an election year,” Prentice told the Independent. And fear of losing party allegiance in a party shifting further to the right is obscuring Idaho’s minority voices.

KAT THORNTON B’14 will bring the ‘red meat’ next session.