Partisan rancor in Oregon spreads to Idaho’s effort to absorb its rural neighbor

John Day, Oregon

Matt McCaw cringes if you say the word “separatist” around him.

McCaw, a soft-tempered eastern Oregon native and former high school math teacher, fosters children to help his community.

“We don’t see ourselves as a secessionist movement. We see ourselves as a self-determination movement,” McCaw said of the Greater Idaho movement, which seeks to move the Idaho state line west to include Oregon more than half of the state.

A proposal to bring the Republican-dominated eastern Oregon region into conservative Idaho moved forward in the Idaho legislature after being rejected as a fringe proposal. There have been many other attempts across the country to break up the country’s fragments in an attempt to join more politically similar states, but this one is the furthest along. The measure passed the state legislature last month and has advanced to the state senate, which is forming a committee that is expected to wrap up in late March.

Critics see the effort as symptomatic of a larger problem facing the United States in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic — an unprecedented hostility toward those with political dissent.

The Greater Idaho Movement sign seen at the Wheeler County Trading Company in Mitchell, Oregon.

In Idaho, where Republicans control the legislature and the governor’s mansion, the Greater Idaho campaign’s success surprised state lawmakers from both parties in the Northwest. But there are many more state and congressional hurdles ahead — including some that even its most ardent supporters admit may be insurmountable.

“When I started two and a half years ago, a lot of people rolled their eyes and laughed. The elected leaders didn’t pay attention to us,” McCaw said. “Two years later, we have elected leaders who listen.”

One of those elected leaders is Idaho GOP state Rep. Barbara Ehardt, who introduced House Joint Memorial 1, which authorizes state lawmakers to start talks with Oregon on relocating shared state lines. There was a similar bill before the Oregon Legislature, but it received less support.

“It just hit me overwhelmingly. It made sense. It made a lot of sense,” Earhart said of her reaction when members of the Greater Idaho Movement first shared their plans. Relocating more than half of Oregon’s geographic footprint, while much sparser than the western part of the state, feels like just bringing the same types of people into one state, she said.

But she is most sympathetic to the issue of government representation in rural Oregon.

“Constitutionally, people should have the opportunity to seek redress from the government,” Earhart said. “When you go for redress and your government doesn’t listen to you, where do you turn? These people are looking for redress from the next best thing, and that’s us,” she said of eastern Oregon conservatives – the state supports president biden 16 percentage points in 2020.

The remedy that members of Greater Idaho want is representation of their conservative minority views in the Oregon government, which is overwhelmingly controlled by Liberal Democrats, McCaw said. But since that’s unlikely to happen, being part of Idaho — which supports former President Donald Trump by more than 30 percentage points — looks more attractive.

The Idaho flag inside the Idaho State Capitol.

Sitting on a bench looking out over his sprawling 20-acre yard in Powell Butte, Ore., where fresh snow is gently covering the juniper trees, McCaw’s property is a far cry from Portland. It was a free city he knew well, having lived and taught students there for 20 years. McCaw and his family had only recently left when the pandemic hit, frustrated by school closures and restrictions on their family.

He said the problems between where he currently lives and his old city started when people in rural Oregon lived very differently from those in Portland. At the ballot box, rural areas are at a disadvantage in every primary statewide vote because of their large urban populations.

McCaw cites gun control and drug legalization as two major issues clashing across the sparsely populated rural and vote-popular urban divide. “Political tension isn’t because Portland is doing something. Political tension comes when Portland does something and says we have to do the same. It doesn’t work for us.”

Sandie Gilson, a Greater Idaho Athletic board member and small business owner in John Day, Ore., puts it more simply. “We’re very different people,” she said of her state’s Eastern and Western cultures. “The rules and regulations they made work in the city, but they don’t work here. People haven’t changed here. Portland has changed. Salem has changed. Eugene has changed.”

Gilson said government comes down to representation. “I don’t believe that the Oregon government as a whole, and the vast majority of people who have been in power there for decades, are not going to listen to Eastern Oregon at all.”

Greater Idaho Athletic board member Sandie Gilson in Mount Vernon, Oregon.

Rural communities’ discontent with their urban (often liberal) counterparts has been a long-standing sentiment across the United States.

About two years ago, Republican lawmakers from three counties in western Maryland letter written Asked if state legislative leaders could leave Maryland and join their more conservative neighbors in West Virginia.while in West Virginia 2020Some Republicans in the state legislature are trying to get Virginia’s conservative counties to join them — 160 years after West Virginia seceded from the Union.

In Colorado, Weld County residents have seen various efforts to change state lines so that Weld — a county that voted for Trump by double digits in a state that voted for Biden — would become more red Part of online petition Urges support for relocating state, “Weld County’s values ​​are more in line with Wyoming than Denver/Boulder,” adding that “rural communities are being neglected.”

In New Mexico in 2021, a Republican state senator propose constitutional amendments This would allow counties to petition the state legislature to secede from the state and join a neighboring state or create a new state.

But none of these measures went beyond the scope of the proposal. Greater Idaho’s success is notable because it has passed one chamber of the legislature.

Rep. Ilana Rubel, the Democratic Minority Leader of Idaho, sees redistricting state lines as dangerous partisan politics.

“If I was sure it wasn’t going to happen, I’d be laughing,” she said.

But she sees the bill as a real threat, and Democrats are outnumbered in trying to stop it. “Ten years ago, I thought I thought it was an unlikely possibility. I no longer rule out anything impossible.”

Rubell has sympathy for rural Oregonians who say they are seeking fair representation. As a Democrat, Rubell is in the political minority in deep red Idaho. “We’re in the 16 percent minority,” Rubel said. “It’s a tiny minority or a super minority. I find this whole “Greater Idaho” thing ironic because they’re here to say, ‘We’re a 44 percent minority in Oregon. “It’s outrageous. How can we expect to live as part of a 44% minority? It’s kind of funny to me to be part of a 16% minority. We certainly don’t get our policy preferences very often.”

The Greater Idaho Athletic logo in John Day, Oregon.

Rubell sees the advancement of the Idaho bill as a symptom of an increasingly polarized state.

“It’s sad, but I guess it’s not surprising that people are now thinking about carve-up states and moving state lines that have existed for over a century so they can avoid being with people they disagree with politically. ”

“Are we going to carve Georgia out of Atlanta? Are we going to carve Austin out of Texas? Are we going to carve out western Illinois?” she asked, alluding to being more purple and red. An overwhelming blue city surrounded by areas.

McCaw simply replied, “Yes.”

He and Earhart acknowledged that rural leaders in multiple states, many of them swing states like Michigan and Georgia, have asked about the political path Greater Idaho is taking. Their answers became more ambiguous when asked where the border movement should stop for political reasons. “I would say it needs to go further, within reason,” McCaw said.

Earhart believed that the immediate redrawing of the state line between Oregon and Idaho would bring peace to the Northwest Territories.

“We don’t want them to start a civil war. But at some point, if people can’t hear their voices, they turn to them,” she said of rural Oregonians. “So they turned to us. If we can carve a path forward, others can too.”

Kyung Lah and Jack Hannah reported from John Day and Redmond, Ore., and Boise, Idaho.

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