October 10, 2012
By Samantha Wright and Frankie Barnhill
Mountain Home, southeast of Boise is a microcosm of a military town. Many of the 14,500 people who live there are connected to Mountain Home Air Force Base. Four-thousand military serve there and some of them come to Grinde's Diner in Mountain Home to eat and talk politics.
The windows at Grinde’s are covered in patriotic paintings like the statue of liberty, a bald eagle and the liberty bell.
Grinde’s has been a fixture in Mountain Home since 1985. Sisters Sharon and Sandy run the family business for their parents. This is where we meet Justin Shackleford and his wife Meredith. She plans to vote for Mitt Romney. “Because I don’t want to vote for Obama. I don’t know. I don’t like his views on things."
The young couple sits in one of the red vinyl booths. Meredith moved to Mountain Home two months ago to be with her husband. She hasn’t kept up much on politics. “I don’t stay in the political views too much, I leave that up to my husband.”
Justin Shackleford is a crew chief on some of the planes at Mountain Home Air Force Base. He's been stationed here about a year. He plans to vote absentee from his native Tennessee for Mitt Romney.
“A lot of people say the lesser of two evils…I don’t totally agree with everything he’s about," Shackleford says. "He’s more the conservative of the two and as far as his views on abortion and healthcare and gun control. He’s more conservative in that aspect than President Obama.”
Shackleford says when it comes to Romney, it’s hard to identify with a millionaire, who he calls out of touch. But he still identifies more with Romney’s politics than Obama’s. He knows people in the military that will vote for Obama but he believes they’re the minority.
“The military is typically conservative Republican, you know that kind of person, they're the more straight-forward, which I mean you can see it’s changing with with Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal and stuff like that." But Shackleford says, “typically, it’s your conservative Republican type person. That’s always been the military.”
Meanwhile, an elderly gentleman walks through the front door and claims a barstool at the counter. Without a word, a waitress slides an over-sized coffee mug his way.
On the side of the mug is the label, “Mr. D.” This is Aaron Dicello, retired Air Force. He’s 73 years old. “If I knew I was gonna live that long I’d have taken better care of my body I think.”
When his wife passed away a few years ago, the staff at Grindes adopted him. He comes in everyday for a snack. If he misses a day, someone at the diner will call him at home to make sure he’s o.k.
Dicello spent 28 years in the military, including a stint at Mountain Home. He echoes Justin Shackleford when he says those in uniform tend to lean to the right. “As a military man you seem to go more Republican. I don’t know why, it just seemed like they were the ones that were taking care of us.”
That was true for Dicello for the most part. He’s never missed a presidential election and he always voted Republican, with two exceptions. John F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama. “And I vote for who I think is going to be best for the country. I don’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat. I vote for whoever I feel…the one that moves me.”
Dicello says when he listens to Obama, he can tell the President is speaking “from the heart.” That’s why he voted for him four years ago. He thinks Mitt Romney was also speaking “from the heart” when he said 47 percent of Americans don’t pay income taxes.
“You and I are in that 47 percent that he was taking about, not caring about. The people drawing retirement, people that are on Medicare and so forth and that’s who he’s talking about. And we’re not lazy, and that bothers me.”
He plans to vote again for Obama. “Has everything he’s done while he’s in office I have agreed with? No. No. I’ve disagreed with a bunch of his stuff. But I still think he would be better than the alternative that’s being presented to us.”
Before Dicello digs into his biscuits and gravy and scrambled eggs, he has one piece of advice on the election. “If you don’t vote and you come up to me and you say D, you know this guy is really bad. And I’m gonna look at you and say who’d you vote for? I didn’t vote. Then shut up, you got nothing coming.”
October 17, 2012
By Molly Messick
There aren’t many places in deep red Idaho where you’re likely to hear the kind of proud introduction Gini Ballou offered up not long after we met.
“I’m Gini Ballou,” she said. “My mother stopped to vote for John F. Kennedy on her way to the hospital to have me. And the greatest gift I ever got for my birthday was the ’08 election, when I was given President Obama on my birthday.”
Ballou is a mother of four, a bartender, an entrepreneur, and – last but not least — chair of the Blaine County Democrats. Last week, as the vice-presidential debate came to a close, she and the rest of the small group that had gathered for a watch party at county Democratic headquarters pulled their chairs into a circle. They were fired up and ready for discussion.
“It’s the hypocrisy of the whole abortion question!” registered nurse Patti Dorr exclaimed, sounding exasperated.
Dorr moved to Hailey from Nevada almost 25 years ago. She used to vote Republican, but George W. Bush changed that.
“For them to say that they don’t want government taking care of the food, or the water, but, by golly, they want the government to tell you if you’re to reproduce or not – they’re hypocrites!” she continued.
That hottest of hot-button issues may have drawn the sharpest words, but Blaine County Democrats have a lot on their minds: education, Social Security, health care, climate change, poverty. “Feed the hungry, heal the sick,” one person declared. Others nodded. They know their opinions are a world apart from those held by many Idahoans – but so be it, they said.
“It was a point of pride when the national map was published, and there was a little blue Blaine County surrounded by a red sea of regional opposites!” exclaimed Ben Schepps.
He was talking about a map showing how counties voted in 2008. In the middle of Idaho sits Blaine County, true blue. “I loved that map!” Dorr said. “It was in USA Today the day after the election!” She let out a delighted laugh.
Voters like Dorr and Schepp and Ballou are in Blaine County’s Democratic majority, but they admit that local Republicans are more organized than they’ve been in years. That’s thanks in part to one woman: Suzan Stommel.
She and her husband run an equipment financing business in Ketchum. Right now, their office is partly given over to the election. Stacks of Romney-Ryan signs lean against walls. There are bumper stickers for sale by the front door. Stommel is a co-founder and past-president of Blaine County Republican Women. “So, what does Blaine County Republicanism look like?” I ask.
She thinks it over. “We have very conservative Republicans here, and then we have some more socially liberal Republicans,” she says.
She puts herself in the first category: very conservative.
“Right now people are being groomed to believe that government can just take care of them,” she says.
Stommel’s politics inform her views on all kinds of issues, but for her, this point is key. “We’re Americans. We are tough. You know?” she asks. “There’s got to be a swing the other way. And right now it’s swinging way too far to the entitlement mentality.”
Blaine County’s Democratic and Republican faithful have no trouble speaking their minds, but the view from southern Blaine County, past Picabo Hill, is a little different. There, Vonnie Olsen stands in her perfectly preserved 1950s kitchen, washing dishes and looking out the window to admire an early fall morning.
“I can look outside and still see up Wood River and the quakies as they turn color,” she says. “I enjoy this every single day.”
Olsen is a city council member in Carey, population 600. She’s lived here for almost 50 years.
“People can tell you that for as long as they can remember, we’ve been the ugly stepchild,” Olsen explains, smiling a little at the characterization. “The upper end of the county has been very, very liberal, and this side has been very conservative. But, you know, I truly believe that there is a little of everything in all of Blaine County,” she says.
Olsen doesn’t like to talk about her politics, but she will say she’s decided to vote for Romney. She believes government spending has to be contained. But she’s also worried about the country’s deep partisan divides.
“Politics can get in the way of progress,” she says. “And I think that’s happened so much! People get so involved in wanting to be right wing, left wing – they forget that it’s all people! And that’s what’s happened with our Congress. We can’t get anything done, because we’re in such a stalemate.”
Here in Blaine County, Olsen says, things get done when people do their best to overlook political differences and work toward common goals. If only it could be as simple in Washington, she says.
November 2, 2012
By Adam Cotterell
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints make up about a quarter of Idaho’s population, and they’re watching Mitt Romney’s presidential bid on the edge of their seats. It’s the closest a Mormon has come to the presidency. But not all are voting for Romney.
A couple things before we go any further. I was raised Mormon. I served a mission for the church and remained active into my mid-twenties. Then about a decade ago I left. I bear no animosity toward the LDS church or its members. Second, this is not a story about which political party Mormons should belong to. I just wanted to know what it’s like to be a Mormon and a Democrat in Idaho.
“It’s maybe a little challenging,” says Travis Manning: Mormon, Democrat, father of three, Caldwell resident, high school English teacher and wrestling coach. He’s taking time off from coaching to run for the Idaho Legislature, house seat 10 A.
It wasn’t long ago that Manning thought of himself as a Republican. “I donated to Mitt Romney’s campaign when he ran the first time,” he says.
Manning split with the GOP on education and environmental issues. He thinks Republicans want to let private companies play too large a role in public education, and he thinks environmental regulations are an important part of managing public lands. Eventually he realized he was a Democrat.
That makes him the odd man out a lot of the time. Because, according to The Pew Forum on Religion, the LDS church has the most politically conservative members of any of the country’s major religions. Only about a fifth of Mormons are Democrats or lean that way.
More than two thirds are Republicans or lean toward the GOP. Manning says his close friends at church don’t care about his politics, but some people find him puzzling and some don’t know.
“It was in a Sunday school class,” he says. “And somebody made a snide comment about Democrats. A lot of people in my congregation know that I’m running so there was this kind of pregnant pause afterwards and people were like, uhhh.”
Manning says things like that are rare. From what he’s seen, the church has stuck to its policy of non-partisanship even though one of their own – Mitt Romney - is running for president. He adds it happens the other way too. “Some Democrats can really rail on Mormons,” Manning says.
Richard Stallings acknowledges that Democrats do sometimes “rail on” Mormons. But he says it didn’t happen when he was chair of the state party in the mid-2000s.
Stallings is LDS and the last Democrat elected to congress from Idaho’s second district. He held that seat from the late 1980s through the early 90s. He agrees with Manning that it can be tough to be a Mormon Democrat. A few weeks ago he wrote an op-ed critical of Mitt Romney.
“I had a guy come up at church and get in my face, tell me that he wished they’d kick me out of the church. And that Romney’s sort of the Lord’s anointed,” Stallings says. “He was very loud and drew some attention. And it was a little embarrassing. Not because I care what he says about me, but just because here we’re in a church meeting and it’s supposed to be a spiritual atmosphere. But the bishop later called and apologized for this guy.”
A bishop leads a congregation. Stallings also agrees with Manning that the church, from headquarters in Salt Lake City down to local bishops, has stayed out of the election. But he says for years he’s dealt with a few church members who think his party and his faith are incompatible.
That hasn’t always been the case according to Phillip Barlow. He’s a professor of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University. When the LDS church-dominated Utah territory became a state in 1896 Barlow says, Mormons did not like the Republican Party. “The Republicans had been the force behind anti-Mormon legislation and policy,” he says.
To gain statehood Utah had to prove it had a multi-party system. There are documented instances of the church asking members to register as Republicans. “In some locals Mormon leaders said look, for now we’ve got to get involved so you go this way and you go this way,” he says. “So there was a bit of assignment if you weren’t committed on your own principals.”
Barlow says it took a generation for Mormons to completely forgive the GOP. By around the 1930s Mormons were split about evenly between the two major parties. It remained that way for decades. And Barlow says it made sense.
“You can find as many principles that are inherent in Mormonism, and Mormon history and in Mormon theology that would attach to the Democratic Party as you can to the Republican Party.”
On the Republican side there’s the Mormon belief in hard work and personal responsibility. Some went Democrat because of the church’s emphasis on care for the poor. Plus, he says, Mormons tend to have a high level of respect for institutions, like the government. But that fifty fifty party split came to end.
Barlow credits the social changes of the 60s for creating the Republican majority among Mormons. “Casual sex and casual drugs and disrespect for civil authority really veered the culture towards the political right,” he says.
Richard Stallings watched this change take place while teaching at church owned Ricks College, now BYU Idaho, in Rexburg. To Barlow’s list he adds that Mormons weren’t ready for the civil rights movement. The church didn’t allow blacks to hold leadership positions until 1978.
Stallings says the Democrats lost Idaho Mormons for good at the 1972 convention. The new party platform, he says was too socially liberal.
“I remember people that came back and said we’re done. We’re going to become Republicans,” he says. “We had three or four prominent Rexburg Democrats that said we’re done, we won’t go back.”
Today Mormons are still largely loyal Republicans. Caldwell Democrat Travis Manning says even though people aren’t politicking for Mitt Romney at church, he can feel an undercurrent of excitement.
“This crazy, wild energy I think about the chances and opportunity for Mitt Romney to win,” he says. “There’s a part of me that wants to vote for Mitt Romney.” That’s because he thinks a Mormon president would be good for the church.
“It humanizes Mormons, we’re not crazy," explains Manning. "There’s been a lot of propaganda about Mormons. I think the Mormon Church has been misunderstood for decades.”
So I ask him, “Are you putting politics above God?”
Manning thinks for a moment and says,“I don’t think so. I’m still very active in my church. I still believe profoundly that Jesus is the Christ. And hold true to the covenants and ordinances that I’ve made.”
Stallings on the other hand, isn’t tempted to vote for Romney. “Just because a person’s a member of the faith, doesn’t qualify him for the job,” he says.
This year, for the first time, the vast majority of Latter-day Saints in the U.S. will have the chance to cast ballots for a Mormon candidate for president. Of course most would vote for the Republican anyway. And Mormon culture professor Philip Barlow says there’s no evidence to suggest church members are moving away from the GOP.
October 22, 2012
By Samantha Wright
Ada County’s Chief Deputy Clerk Phil McGrane describes the upcoming November election this way, “It’s a nice, clean, old-fashioned election.”
He says it will be a big change from the May Primary. “Don’t have to pick a party, don’t have to pick a ballot, no other selections that you have to make.”
May was a challenge for county clerks and voters, thanks in large part to Idaho’s change in primary voting rules. The state Republican Party closed its primary, and the Democrats left theirs open. That meant voters had to choose a party, and then pick a ballot.
Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa says that won’t happen this election. “The clerks will not be asking which party’s ballot you want or whatever. It’s on one big ballot and all the parties are listed and in the privacy of your voting booth, you make that selection.”
In the primary, voters were restricted to voting a straight party line. Ysursa says this time you can jump all over the ballot. “You can vote for a certain party person for President and another party for Congress or whatever, in the general election, we don’t worry about the parties.
Voters may see other changes. This year the state’s political lines were re-drawn to reflect changes in population. Phil McGrane says that means you could be voting in a different district on election day. “Your voting spot may be different, your precinct entirely may have changed and even the district you were in may have changed previously. So for one candidate you voted on previously, may not be on your ballot this time.”
In other words, check with your county clerk before you head to the polls. And make sure have the right identification when you go to vote. Idaho’s voter ID law changed two years ago. You’ll need a photo ID, like a state driver’s license or a passport, to vote. But if you don’t have one, you can sign an affidavit, testifying you are who you say you are.
There’s one more quirk left over from the May primary. Think Idaho’s a Red State? Not technically, at least not right now. Here’s why. Under the new primary law, anyone who voted in May had to pick a party. That’s about 24 percent of voters. For everyone else…“Everybody who was already registered and did not participate in the primary are Unaffiliated at this point,” says Ben Ysursa.
Anyone who didn’t vote, but was registered, was automatically assigned a party. Ysursa says that means 76 percent of all voters in Idaho are now listed as Unaffiliated. So, on the voting books, the majority of voters aren’t aligned with any party. Ysursa says that makes no difference for the upcoming November election.
But Republican, Democrat, or Unaffiliated...whichever way you lean, Ysursa says, get out and vote. “It’s the most important part of our democracy and we need more people to participate.”
Early voting in some parts of the state is already underway and absentee ballots have been available for a few weeks. Polls open on November 6 at 8am.
October 23, 2012
By Emilie Ritter Saunders
Burley, Idaho is farm country. About 10,000 people live in the eastern Idaho town, that for many is just a stop off I-84 to gas up.
On a late October evening, state Senator LeFavour gathered a group of volunteers to canvass the neighborhoods near downtown Burley.
Idaho’s 2nd Congressional District covers about 40,000 square miles of southern and eastern Idaho. It includes all of Boise, and everything along I-84 to the Montana border. For almost 15 years, Republican Mike Simpson has represented the district.
LeFavour’s field campaign manager Tom Hamilton shows a handful of volunteers how to work an iPhone app that identifies which doors to knock on.
“So you’ll go to the first street based on your map,” Hamilton explains. “These are registered voters, that’s why they’re on our list, and they’re also Independents.”
LeFavour and her volunteers have knocked on almost 9,000 doors since she announced her run for Congress earlier this spring.
“The day I announced, are you kidding, I was like ‘this is a little crazy’, but I’m a hard worker,” LeFavour says. “There’s some potential out there and take a look at the numbers and see if it’s doable.”
Sen. LeFavour, clearly the underdog, says she wasn’t about to launch a campaign against seven-time incumbent Mike Simpson, if a win wasn’t feasible.
“And what’s amazed me is we’ve been able to hit or exceed all of the goals we’ve set,” adds LeFavour.
Her campaign hasn’t raised nearly as much money as Congressman Simpson’s, but in terms of the cash left on hand, they’re closer. Less than $100,000 apart.
Andrus Center for Public Policy Director David Adler says while LeFavour is well known in the Boise area for her work in the Idaho Legislature, her biggest challenge is trying to convince voters that a very popular Congressman isn’t the best choice.
“Strategically, every challenger would ask of an incumbent why they think they deserve to be returned when in fact some of these deep challenges have persisted over the last decade,” says Adler.
Still, Adler says people like Simpson, and he’s perceived as a moderate Republican…
“Mike Simpson is viewed as a very amiable fellow, down to earth, unpretentious person by both Democrats and Republicans,” says Adler. “The fact that he’s worked across the aisle shows he’s not hardened in positions, his feet are not set in concrete.”
Still, Simpson stuck to party lines when he voted against President Obama’s stimulus bill and the health care reform law.
He voted against the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a law that aims to give women pay equity.
He’s also supported Congressman and Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s budget, which would cut some social and regulatory programs in the name of deficit reduction.
“The government, you’ve got to remember, doesn’t create jobs. The private sector creates jobs,” says Rep. Simpson.
Congressman Simpson says that’s why he voted against the stimulus plan.
“We just have a different idea of the direction you go to create jobs than what the administration believes is right,” he says. “If they had been right, would we have had 41 months of unemployment over eight percent, sometimes nine percent? I don’t think so.”
This is a fundamental difference between the candidates.
Nicole LeFavour believes government jobs play an important role in the economy. Public sector job cuts, she says, haven’t improved the overall situation. She says Idaho’s economy needs public school teachers, and adequately staffed agencies that help get business and industry projects off the ground quickly.
“It really isn’t rocket science to fix some of this stuff, but it is an obstructionist attitude that has kept it this way,” says LeFavour. “I can’t imagine the new Congress can keep that up.”
LeFavour wants to focus on fixing the deficit, and putting people back to work. She also wants to continue her fight on human rights issues and equal pay for women.
As LeFavour and one of her volunteers went door-to-door in Burley, most people who answered didn’t recognize her. But just about all of them had specific issues on their minds. For Soledad Calderra it was education.
When Sen. LeFavour asked Calderra for her vote, this was her response; “Well yeah, because I like the fact that you’re here actually, talking to me.”
The Andrus Center’s David Adler admits Mike Simpson probably doesn’t need to knock on doors anymore, and Simpson says he hasn’t this year.
But, Adler says in many parts of the state, going door to door is still the most effective way to get votes.
“It’s still a tall hill to climb in state like this that is so Republican,” says Adler, “but it’s also the case that this is how political change is made.”
The Idaho Historical Society says just four Democrats have been elected to Congress from the 2nd District since it was created in 1918.
So yes, it’s an awfully tall hill Nicole LeFavour is trying to climb.