Idaho Lieutenant Governor Faces Backlash For Photo Supporting Jailed Militiaman
Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin is facing questions about a photo she posted Thursday on Facebook showing her posing with two men flashing a sign associated with a militia group. The photo had been removed by Thursday night after swift criticism on social media.
In the post, McGeachin also wrote “Sending love to Todd Engel,” an apparent reference to an Idaho man sentenced to 14 years in prison for his role in a 2014 standoff at a Nevada ranch between federal agents and militia members.
Screen shots of the post show her giving a heart sign to two men in orange prison jumpsuits flashing the modified “OK” symbol associated with The Three Percenters, a national militia group that is especially visible in Idaho. One of the men in the photo appears to be wearing a Three Percenters hat.
Another version of the hand sign is used by white nationalists and some have accused the men in the photo of using that. However, experts and groups like the Anti-Defamation League, which tracks extremist groups, said the sign in the photo appears to be specific to the Three Percenters and not a hate symbol.
McGeachin initially refused to respond to repeated questions from reporters Friday morning as she walked from her office to the Senate Chamber.
Her office later issued a statement through Rep. Judy Boyle (R-Midvale) Friday afternoon. She says the two “Second Amendment supporters” were at the Capitol to support Engel, “who was treated unjustly by the court system for standing up for our fundamental rights.”
“The photo was intended to show support for Engel and nothing more. No other messages were intended in this photo. To claim otherwise is ridiculous, and is part of a larger narrative to paint conservative leaders as embracing identity politics,” the statement reads.
The statement goes on to say she rejects bigotry and discrimination. “Once I discovered that a few people had begun erroneously assigning sinister motives which are contrary to my true character, I immediately deleted the post.”
Gary Raney, the former Ada County Sheriff who is now a national law enforcement consultant, said he was “shocked” by the post and that it sends the wrong message in a time when officers face increased threats of violence.
“That’s why seeing our lieutenant governor support that kind of violence rather than standing beside a law enforcement officer and posting that sort of picture, it’s very disappointing,” he says.
Jasper LiCalzi, chair of the Department of Political Economy at College of Idaho, called the post "disturbing" but says it's unlikely she'll be forced to resign.
“That’s why a lot of people were against her,” LiCalzi says. “It’s insensitive, it’s stupid, but that’s what you get with her.”
During a debate held at Idaho Public Television in October, McGeachin was accompanied by a security detail, though they were not openly carrying weapons. Jeff Tucker, Idaho Public Television’s director of content services, told the Idaho Statesman two men who were not on her guest list came into the building, identified themselves, but not their affiliation. In the interview, Tucker said the men were communicating with others outside via radio. It’s unclear if they were carrying concealed weapons.
“Because we are a state agency, we can’t prevent people from bringing (firearms) into the building,” Idaho PTV General Manager Ron Pisaneschi told the Statesman. “We don’t know if they are carrying firearms, and we can’t legally prevent them.”
Her campaign told the newspaper, “Discussing specifics of security would compromise Ms. McGeachin’s security and is not for release to the public.”
Marissa Morrison, Gov. Brad Little’s press secretary, didn’t immediately comment on the situation. She told Boise State Public Radio Friday that “the Governor’s Office plans to discuss the matter with Lt. Governor McGeachin” before issuing any statement.
The Idaho Republican Party declined to comment on the photo.
The Idaho Senate Democratic Leadership issued a statement saying they have concerns about the photo and that it “could be an experience from which we all learn.”
“We have heard numerous grave concerns overnight and today from constituents who are now fearful of coming to the statehouse. Some have said they will not allow their children to visit. The openness of the statehouse is foundational to our service. Whatever the intention of the post, the impact has resonated negatively across the state,” the statement says.
The Anti-Defamation League also released a statement slamming McGeachin.
“For a prominent politician like Lt. Governor McGeachin to have relationship with these individuals is disturbing,” the statement reads. “We call on our elected officials to hold themselves to a high standard, refraining using their positions of power to elevate a fringe ideology. Our actions matter and fighting hate and extremism is everyone’s responsibility.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story attributed a source claiming McGeachin narrowly won her 2018 election by the lowest statewide margins, which is not correct.
For more local news, follow the KBSX newsroom on Twitter @KBSX915
Copyright 2019 Boise State Public Radio