Hate makes a comeback in Idaho, this time with political support
Swastikas placed outside the only Anne Frank memorial in the United States. Gay Pride flags stolen from a Boise neighborhood. Members of a white nationalist group found with a smoke grenade and riot gear headed to a Pride celebration in Coeur d’Alene. A cruel prank targeting needy families on the sidelines of the Idaho GOP Convention. These are some of the recent events highlighting an uncomfortable fact: hate is making a comeback in a state that chased out the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations two decades ago.
Idaho was once infamous for being the base of that violent hate group, whose compound at Hayden Lake in the 1980s and 90s blighted the region’s reputation. The community pushed back on the Aryan Nations and a lawsuit eventually bankrupted the group.
Fast forward two decades to June 11, when 31 members of the white supremacist group Patriot Front were arrested in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Police say they were jammed into a U-Haul moving truck en route to trying to start a riot at a Gay Pride event. All 31 face misdemeanor charges and are awaiting trial.
The arrests shocked many around the country, but perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise that a hate group thought it would get a friendly reception in North Idaho. Over the past few years, figures from around the country and world spewing anti-Semitic, racist and homophobic rhetoric have been setting up shop in the area.
At the moment these figures have nowhere near the numbers or organizational power the Aryan Nations did. But some of them do have one thing that group never had: political support from members of the local GOP.
“I think that’s definitely a concern, especially when (hate figures) are so open about making inroads within the GOP,” said Stephen Piggott of the extremism watchdog Western States Center. “And not only are they being public about it, but they seem to have been making some headway as well.”
A cruel prank
That came into sharp focus on July 14, in the midst of the Idaho GOP Convention in Twin Falls, when someone handed out misleading flyers at a local homeless shelter that read: Pizza for the Needy. It posted details of an event hosted by Tom Luna who was running for a second term of the chairman for the Idaho Republican Party. It continued with: “for the benefit of the needy in Magic Valley.”
But the gathering was actually a meet and greet for GOP delegates. When homeless families showed up, Luna treated them to pizza when he figured out what had happened.
Later, the leader of the homeless shelter said it was David Reilly who handed out the fliers. Alarmingly to many inside and outside the GOP, he was also a voting delegate at the GOP convention.
Reilly didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story.
Reilly has a history of anti-Semitic and other bigoted comments. He resigned from his father’s radio station after taking part in the Charlottesville Unite The Right protest in 2017. That event, which happened five years ago Thursday, brought together white supremacists from around the country and ended in the murder of a counter-protester.
Reilly also has tweeted a litany of anti-Semitic statements, like, “White privilege is a thing, because Jews pretend to be white when it's expedient for them. Everyone else of European heritage is left footing the bill, and taking the blame for their bad behavior.” He’s also bemoaned women having the right to vote.
At the Idaho GOP Convention, Reilly supported Luna’s opponent: far-right state representative Dorothy Moon in her bid to become party chairwoman. Moon, who has promoted the baseless conspiracy theory that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump, easily beat Luna to become leader of the Idaho GOP.
Moon did not respond to a request for comment.
Some Idaho Republicans are wondering what people like Reilly were doing at the GOP convention in the first place.
Ashley Aven, who helped oversee the vote for leaders at the convention and was part of Luna’s unsuccessful campaign to remain GOP chairman, said she’s worried about the party’s direction.
“I was concerned about many of the people (at the convention),” she said. “I don’t understand why people like David Reilly would be welcomed in.”
The convention wasn’t the first time party officials had been friendly to Reilly.
Reilly moved to North Idaho after the fallout from Charlottesville and quickly ran for school board in the town of Post Falls. His well-documented bigotry did not stop local Republicans from donating to his campaign, including the most important GOP figure in the area, Kootenai County GOP Central Committee Chairman Brent Regan.
Regan, who apologized for a racist anecdote about Barack Obama during a 2013 run for Coeur d’Alene school board, declined an interview request. In an email he wrote, “Apparently one is now to be judged by the alleged sins of the people they meet, talk to, are photographed with, or assist in any way and for any reason.”
At the same time, Regan declined to disavow Reilly, writing, “the [Kootenai County GOP Central] committee has not opined on the status of Mr. Reilly and as chairman I represent the committee.”
Another supporter of Reilly’s school board campaign was Idaho GOP Region 1 chairman Bjorn Handeen, who derogatorily referred to the Pride event targeted by Patriot Front as “tranny day” in a Telegram post.
Handeen did not respond to requests for comment.
Reilly lost his school board race but received nearly 47% of the vote.
'Echo chamber of bigotry'
David Reilly is not the only one spewing hate to receive GOP support. In 2019, Austrian white supremacist and former neo-Nazi Martin Sellner was engaged to marry Brittany Pettibone, a North Idaho resident who has promoted the baseless Pizzagate conspiracy. Sellner says he is no longer a neo-Nazi, but has been convicted of putting swastikas on a synagogue in Austria and continues to espouse racist, anti-immigrant views. When Sellner tried fly to the U.S., he was stopped from entering the UK because of anti-Islamic rhetoric. The Kootenai County GOP Central Committee stepped in and passed a resolution calling on the U.S. to let the Austrian national into the country. The U.S. declined and Sellner and Pettibone married in Austria. Reilly flew over to attend.
That kind of mainstream political support can help hate groups spread their message, said Piggott of Western States Center.
"Elected officials have a bigger platform than white nationalist groups have. I think it contributes to an echo chamber of bigotry of dehumanization and we know that rhetoric is not cost free."Stephen Piggott
"We know from the past that in many, many occasions that hate speech and bigoted speech can lead to targeting of communities of color, marginalized communities, etc,” Piggott said.
Other European hate figures have also seen the panhandle as a friendly place to land. Henrik Palmgren from Sweden and his American wife Lana Lokteff recently set up shop in North Idaho to run their popular white supremacist media organization, Red Ice. The couple has built up a large following, peddling anti-Semitic and homophobic tropes and racist screeds like comparing interracial marriage to mass murder. In 2019, they were booted from YouTube for offensive content.
Another recent transplant is Vincent James Foxx, who founded the white nationalist organization, Red Elephants. He didn’t respond to a request for an interview through his website Daily Veracity but claims to have deep ties to Idaho’s militia-supporting lieutenant governor Janice McGeachin.
McGeachin didn’t respond to a request for an interview, but she posed for a photo with Foxx and Reilly during her failed bid for governor this past spring. McGeachin also appeared by video at the white nationalist America First Political Action Conference, organized by Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes.
Aven, the GOP delegate critical of Reilly’s participation in the convention, said the far-right politicians embracing some of these hate figures could cost the party support in the long term.
“As a party, these more right-wing types don’t reflect the actual values of the party and they don’t reflect the actual values of the greater Republican community and they have so isolated those who are fiscally conservative and maybe not so much socially conservative … they’re going to completely cut off that support,” she said. “I think it will push many people away and I think (far-right activists) would say ‘That’s good, they’re RINOs (Republicans In Name Only)' and that’s really not true.”
Alicia Abbott, who works for the left-leaning anti-extremism group The Idaho 97 and lives in the North Idaho town of Sandpoint, said she’s worried the state is going back to the bad old days, when the Aryan Nations held neo-Nazi marches in the region. She said with so many bigots moving to her area; she’s careful talking to strangers now, unsure if they might be a part of a racist movement.
“It has become very apparent to me that we did not get rid of the white supremacist problem in the 90s,” she said.
Updated: The first version of this story misspelled Stephen Piggott's name and has been updated. We have also added references to the five-year anniversary of the United the Right rally in Charlottesville.
Heath Druzin is a Boise-based reporter covering far-right movements and politics. His work has appeared on outlets such as NPR, BBC and The Daily Beast. From 2018-2020 he was Boise State Public Radio’s Guns and America fellow, reporting on the intersection of firearms and American life. Find him on Twitter @HDruzin