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An update on the Greater Idaho movement


Despite ridicule by some lawmakers, and what some have said are insurmountable odds, the Greater Idaho movement continues to quietly grow and expand across eastern Oregon.

The movement is simple, move Idaho's border west and absorb close to a dozen Oregon counties into the Gem State. Supporters say those counties more closely align with Idaho's values and culture.

In June, voters in another Oregon county said they'd like to join Idaho, the 12th county to pass a ballot initiative supporting the movement. This year, the legislation that would authorize talks about Greater Idaho made it to the state Senate after it passed the House.

Changing the state’s border would need agreement from the Idaho and Oregon legislatures, as well as Congress.

Reporter Matt Vasilogambros covers voting rights, gun laws and western climate policy for Stateline, which is part of the nonprofit news network States Newsroom, and he went on a thousand mile reporting trek across eastern Oregon to find out how the Greater Idaho movement is doing.

Despite ridicule by some lawmakers, and what some have said are insurmountable odds, the Greater Idaho movement continues to quietly grow and expand across eastern Oregon.

Read the full transcript below:

Gemma Gaudette: From the studios of Boise State Public Radio news. I'm Gemma Gaudette more Idaho Matters. Right now, despite ridicule by some lawmakers and what some have said are insurmountable odds, the Greater Idaho movement continues to quietly grow and expand across eastern Oregon. The movement is simple move Idaho's border east and absorb close to a dozen Oregon counties into the Gem State. Supporters say those counties more closely align with Idaho's values and culture. Back in June, voters in another Oregon County said that they would like to join Idaho. The 12th county, to pass a ballot initiative supporting that movement. Reporter Matt Vasilogambros covers voting rights, gun laws and Western climate policy for Stateline, which is part of the nonprofit news network State's newsroom. And he went on a 1000 mile reporting trek across eastern Oregon to find out how the greater Idaho movement is doing. And Matt is joining us now to talk more about this. Matt, really nice to have you on the program.

Matt Vasilogambros: Thank you so much for having me.

Gaudette: So, Matt, my understanding is you went to a meeting in Enterprise, Oregon, last month to to really hear what people are saying about this movement. So what are some of the pros and some of the cons that people are actually talking about?

Vasilogambros: Yeah, well, the room was was pretty divided, just like Wallowa County, which had just voted in June. And so at the beginning of the meeting, folks were friendly, they were greeting their neighbors. And then when the meeting started and folks started talking about the issues that mattered, you could feel the tension in the room. You know, one side, the folks who did do want secession, you know, they're clearly frustrated with what they see as urban decay in Portland. These policies, these Democratic policies that are passed in the capital, Salem, that are more tailored to progressive population hubs in the western part of the state, they just don't make sense for the rural eastern part of the state. We're talking about restrictions on coyotes or on deforestation, promoting electric vehicles, tax structures, you know, very conservative libertarian ideas. Those were the those were the main motivations for folks who want to leave Oregon. They just feel they're not represented at all. It's too progressive for them. On the other side, folks were, you know, very concerned that if they were to leave Oregon, they're going to lose abortion rights, health care coverage. The minimum wage is substantially higher in Oregon. It's it's 14 or $15 compared to seven 25in Idaho. They're worried about infrastructure spending, marijuana, mail-in voting. So there's a lot of concerns for folks who don't want to leave. They feel like they're Oregonians and they feel like folks who don't like Oregon should just move.

Gaudette: That's really fascinating about some of the cons because I think we've really heard so much more about why folks want to secede. And that is because they're you know, they tend to align more with, you know, the, quote, Idaho values. But with that said, did you find that not all of the supporters of this movement are Republican? Because I think there's an assumption that they would be.

Vasilogambros: What I've found is that they tend to almost always be conservative, right leaning, libertarian. You know, for economics, some of those folks don't necessarily care about socially conservative issues like being against transgender rights or talking about race in schools. But some are very motivated by that. And so what I found is that not all of them are registered Republican, but most of them are pretty far right leaning in their politics.

Gaudette: So you also interviewed the head of the movement, Correct? So so what did he have to say about this?

Vasilogambros: Yeah, I went to Mike McCarter's home in La Pine, Oregon, which is just outside of Bend, you know, just near the lava fields of that of that really pristine area, you know, And he he's a he's retired and he, he he works as a he assists with pastoral duties. He's a long distance runner. He fixes ham radios. And then on the side he leads this greater Idaho movement. And, you know, he he basically told me that the the pandemic when that happened was a, quote, blessing for the movement because folks were riled up about the new restrictions that were coming out of Salem that said that businesses had to close. Kids couldn't go to school. You know, some of these folks couldn't go to church and worship. And so it really fired up the movement. So it became this kind of puttering thing and kind of exploded where it's now 12 out of 15 counties in Oregon have voted for this, or 12 out of 15 counties in eastern Oregon have voted for this and expect to get three more out of it. And so, you know, he was a he was a a genial man, you know, not necessarily soft spoken, but you can tell like he's a deeply religious guy.

But he is he's he's leading this movement and he has hoped that it will succeed. He also pushes back pretty heavily against some of the criticism that the movement receives, including about its supporters like Ammon Bundy and some of the white nationalists. He says, you know, this movement is not about race, even though most of eastern Oregon is predominantly white. It's not about militias, he says. This is a peaceful political solution to avoid violence. But during my interviews over my thousand mile trek, I could hear undertones of that, that bubbling desire for violence. You know, when you talk to folks sometimes at political rallies or in small towns, there's always this undercurrent of maybe there will be civil war if we can't figure these divisions out. And the solution that I'm hearing from these folks is to avoid potential violence, you know, to avoid that rhetoric that we hear about our nation's founding being about redress of grievances, that we should split up the state in order to calm things down.

Gaudette: You know, I want to go back to the point you made where some of some of the folks who are against this movement said, look, if you don't like what's going on in Oregon, just move. I mean, move to a more conservative part of the country. And I want to dig a little bit deeper into that, because I think on the flip side of that is that, you know, you take western Oregon and western Washington, it's very liberal. However, there are pockets of very conservative counties over there. I happen to grow up in a very red county in western Washington. And the politics, everything was definitely, you know, felt by the big hand of King County, Right. Seattle, Tacoma. And, you know, and you just kind of the people who didn't agree, you know, they didn't move. They just kind of dealt with it. And so it's interesting to me that there is this movement to we don't want to move. We just we just want you to, you know, put us into another state. And I mean, with that said, Matt, it's not that simple. Right. I mean, just because they have 12 of 15 Eastern Oregon counties saying yes to this, you can't just go and decide to be a part of another state.

Vasilogambros: Right. And to your point, it is it's, you know, 65% of the state's land mass, but it's less than a 10th of the population. But then those folks do want to secede, say, okay, we are less than 10% of the population, but don't we matter? We feel completely unrepresented in Salem. And, you know, when I talk to folks who were against the movement, they all told me we completely empathize. We empathize with what they're saying. We get it. We understand those frustrations. We should be having more dialog. We should be hearing your concerns. Maybe it can be a wake up call maybe for Democratic lawmakers in the western part of the state, in Salem, those folks who are coming from the Willamette Valley, from the Portland area, from Eugene, to maybe listen more to those concerns, but also what I heard from folks who were against the movement is that this is this is a democracy. You know, you need to vote. You need to work a little bit harder to get your folks elected. And that's how it works. You know, I was I was as I was driving, I was thinking about what would happen, say, in the South if, you know, groups of Democratic voters say we don't feel represented and we want to secede, say, from Alabama or Mississippi. I just think it would be a completely different conversation. The reaction would be completely different as well. And so these are some of the debates that I feel like we've been having as a country since its founding about minority political rights, about what would happen if we're if grievances get too far. So, you know, these are big questions that folks are dealing with out there. I don't think it should be dismissed. And I don't think that and I believe that from talking to opponents of this movement, they seem to be taking it a lot more seriously than they were in the past.

Gaudette: Well, and also, I mean, again, like, let's take the Treasure Valley, for example, Ada County, Boise, specifically to really narrow it down. I mean, it's kind of a little dot of blue in a sea of red and and I think there could be an argument made that, look, Democrats are not represented in Idaho. Right? Those those values are not representative. Lawmakers do not listen. So, you know, and then you talk about the South. I mean, these issues are everywhere in our country. And I'm curious as to, as you said, opponents taking this more seriously now. But are lawmakers or are they still kind of ridiculing this this movement and this ideology?

Vasilogambros: You know, earlier in the summer, I had spoken to a Democratic lawmaker and, you know, he basically told me that he didn't he didn't think this was a, quote, serious thing, that, you know, a serious movement that's happening. And then fast forward to last month when I'm an enterprise and I'm sitting in the meeting, he actually joined by Zoom. And, you know, his tone completely changed. And he said, you know, I'm here to listen. And he acknowledged that he needs to do a better job of listening to those concerns. And and but he said this is just not the solution. It should be a political solution in Salem. It should not lead to secession. But to your point about Ada County and others, you know, and this might be a little too philosophical, but I do feel like this kind of represents the growing, you know, siloing of our different cultures, you know, people becoming way more isolated politically, culturally, geographically. And, you know, it really it was kind of it felt heartbreaking in a way. I felt like I wrote in the story like a tearing of the American fabric. And and I and I feel like this is just one example of many throughout the country. You know, you could you could draw lines to Trumpism, but you can even go even further back than that. And I think we're having a hard time as a country from two sides of the political spectrum to talk to each other. And it's getting to points where folks are talking about splitting from, you know, splitting from the other part of their state. And it's not just in Oregon. There are movements in California, in Illinois, in North Carolina. They're popping up everywhere. And so I think that we do need to have these broader conversations as a country to figure out how, you know, it can't be so polarized or siloed because this is the result.

Gaudette: Well, and maybe, as you said, a wake up call. Right. Whether whether you tend to be a a state that leans very democratic or you tend to be a state that leans very Republican. Maybe what needs to happen when we see something like this that is really taking hold is that lawmakers have a responsibility to listen to all of their constituents. Right. Not just the ones who align with them politically. And maybe we need to find more common ground than division Did. Did you did that conversation happen at all as you covered these thousand miles?

Vasilogambros: I had that conversation several times with people, not only the folks that I quoted, but, you know, just random people that I would meet on the street or in stores or whatever, you know, just try to broach this, broach this topic with with several different people on the road. A lot of the folks that I saw I talked to just really don't want this to happen. But, you know, the folks that I do quote in the story when I would pose the question of is there a solution here that is not secession? Is there a solution here where we're not splitting up? And, you know, one man, Grant Darrow from from Oregon, he he thought about it for a while. He later texted me and he said there is no other way. Mike Mike McCarter, the the the leader of this movement. I asked him the same thing. You know what if they offered to have more conversations, more representation, you know, maybe funding some of the the projects that that you want more on the eastern part of the state maybe loosening some of those regulations, you know, encouraging electric vehicles in rural areas, those things that kind of fire you up. And again, he thought he without even really even thinking about it, he just said, no, this is it. And so I feel like there is still a middle ground on this issue. Some of those, you know, the the non vocal majority, probably a lot of these votes are extremely close. And so it is not as if these these votes are passing, you know, 70%, 80%, you know, they're like a 55, 45, 51, 49 percentage. And so it is it is divided. I don't think it's resolved yet on the eastern side. But, you know, some folks are extremely set and they don't see any other path forward.

Gaudette: So before I let you go, can we just talk logistics here? Because this is an uphill battle to do something like this. I mean, what steps have to be taken Because we're talking, you know, getting the Constitution involved.

Vasilogambros: Yeah. And so I'll go each legislature. So in Idaho, Barbara Earhart, a representative, she has sponsored legislation that actually passed the Idaho House earlier this year. It didn't go anywhere in the Senate, but she told me that after having conversations with lawmakers, her colleagues in the state Senate, she's pretty confident it's going to pass next year, both in the House and in the Senate in Idaho. So Idaho seems to be kind of taking care of at least that's what I've been told by lawmakers for next year in Oregon. I don't see Oregon Democrats doing anything about this. There has been legislation introduced by Republicans, but the Democratic lawmakers have killed it in committee. Proponents of secession have told me that there is a potential workaround that they could do a statewide ballot initiative to to move this forward. But say that does pass say that Oregon lawmakers pass this or there's a ballot initiative. So then there's the two states. It would then go to Congress and Congress would have to pass this. So like you said, it's an uphill battle. There's a lot of work to do in this. There does seem to be a willing participant in Idaho, but I don't know if if it can really go anywhere in Oregon.

Gaudette: Well, Matt, I really want to thank you for coming in and talking to us more about this. I appreciate your reporting on it.

Vasilogambros: Thank you for having me on.

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