Representing the Aryans: Political Speech, Violence, and Living Without Fear


Aryan Nations logo.
Later when I served on the
North Idaho College Board of Trustees 1996-2001,
I asked that we cease use of one of the
NIC logo variations that strongly resembled this layout.
The Aryan Nations compound was located in the Idaho state legislative districts I represented from 1990-1994.

Make that “the Church of Jesus Christ Christian Aryan Nations,” their full name.

Needless to say, I didn’t doorbell that particular precinct. I was young and cocky and made a bit of a joke of that when I told people my district boundaries. “I represent the Aryan Nations, but, y’know, I don’t doorbell there.”

The first time I ran, for a state House seat, I was also pregnant. That was another joke: “The baby was planned, the campaign was an accident.”

By which I meant my then-husband and I had decided to start our family, then I attended a women’s political conference and talked about wanting to run for office “someday,” then the week of the filing deadline I got persuaded to file against an incumbent who had no challenger, then—the very next day after I filed—I found out the “starting our family” part of our agenda was under way.

I did a lot of doorbelling. They tell you to walk for exercise when you’re pregnant. Boy, did I! I got asked a lot of questions about my political views and answered honestly while also trying to find common ground with people who might not share my position on a given topic.

Access to abortion was high on the political radar that season; the Idaho legislature had passed a bill restricting access that Gov. Cecil Andrus had subsequently vetoed. My political activities in Idaho actually launched then when I collected signatures on petitions asking Gov. Andrus for that veto.
As you might imagine, I had particularly interesting discussions about that issue the further along I got in my pregnancy. At the Kootenai County Fair I spent time in the North Idaho Pro-Choice Coalition booth, accompanied sometimes by a woman who was nursing her fairly new baby.
The “other booth”—the one espousing views on the other side of this issue—had a display with jars of plastic fetus models showing physical development during pregnancy. We had a pregnant woman (me, at about six months) and a real live burping, pooping, drooling baby. 
While most people might have trouble calling a mom and soon-to-be mom “baby killers” we did get our share of people who went beyond vociferous in telling us how wrong we were to hold our view. People who shared their political/religious beliefs went on to commit murder in the 1990s, with a rash of clinic bombings and assassination of physicians.
Fast forward. I get elected (winning by 313 votes over that incumbent). Six days later baby Katie is born, conveniently waiting until two days after the North Idaho Legislative Tour at which I meet my new colleagues and keep putting my feet up on chairs because they’re so swollen and my back hurts.
Now I’m a new mother. With a baby. One I will kill to protect, with no hesitation. And I’m a liberal/progressive Democrat who says what she believes, representing the district with the Aryans.
At first I didn’t worry about it (hello, hormones!). Oh, once in a while I thought it was probably good that I had retired one of my other jokes—“I don’t want to doorbell the compound while I’m pregnant because I have blonde hair and blue eyes and I’m proven fertile; they might kidnap me for the breeding program.”
But as Katie grew and I took her places with me, I began to think about whether I endangered my family by having her in the public eye. Another woman who entered the legislature at the same time I did and had her daughter a week after Katie was born chose never to include any family photos in her campaign material for that very reason.
I thought about getting a firearm for personal protection. I grew up in a hunting and fishing Idaho family and received gun safety education as a little girl: Assume all guns are loaded, don’t point a weapon at anything you don’t plan to kill, if you wound an animal it’s your responsibility to find it and put it out of its misery. 
I just didn’t get much gun shooting education—that was for my three big brothers.
If I owned a weapon I’d want to know how to use it properly and I just never got around to finding the time and taking that step. We did have a little .22 rifle my husband occasionally took “plinking” (shooting cans off a fence) and I sometimes went with him. 
But in an emergency I wouldn’t have known where it was, much less how to load it quickly (although I have decent hand-eye coordination, an actual advantage women have over men as shooters).
In 1992 I was elected to the Senate seat for a new district alignment, still with the Aryans. I talked with the senator from the northernmost district, which also had its share of people with views that are, shall we say, out of the mainstream (or at least they were then) and who own plenty of firearms.
His take on it: “There are more FBI agents in downtown Coeur d’Alene than in the whole compound. You don’t need to worry.”
I don’t know if he was right about the FBI numbers. And in light of what happened to Victoria Keenan and her son Jason, whose family I knew, in 1998—being chased and shot at by Aryan Nations members in a terrifying incident that subsequently led to the bankruptcy of the Aryan operations—I’m not so sure he was right to tell me I didn’t need to worry.
The Keenan episode took place four years after I lost my re-election bid in 1994. During my years in office alongside my work on issues such as environmental quality and child care licensure I took a number of positions you might say were antithetical to the views of the Aryans:
  • In my first session I debated and voted against an amendment that would have banned flag-burning, which I viewed as an unconstitutional restriction on the First Amendment right to free speech. (My debate included use of a cloth diaper as a stand-in for a white flag of truce, which I used to make the point that it’s possible to communicate without saying a word.)
  • I worked actively in support of sovereign Indian nations’ rights to manage gaming on the reservation. This was the subject of a special session and constitutional amendment in 1992 when the state moved directly to restrict Indian gaming. I and others weren’t successful in our efforts and gaming was restricted in a way that allowed Class I gaming (which let the state run the lottery) and Class II (bingo, pull tabs, etc.) but didn’t allow tribes to run Class III games such as roulette, craps etc. which are the real money makers. (News flash: The house always wins. And for the record I think gambling is stupid and possibly addictive behavior. For me this was about sovereignty rights.) Despite the restrictions the Coeur d’Alene Tribe opened a casino near Worley and has quite a business operation there.
  • I spoke out publicly against the anti-gay Proposition 1 in 1994 as part of the No on One campaign (as did almost every state legislator, Gov. Andrus and Attorney General Larry EchoHawk, I'm pleased to say). In the end Proposition 1 lost by 3,098 votes out of 450,000 votes cast. Little Katie—who is now all grown up—still wears my lavender T-shirt with the slogan “Idaho is too great to hate.”
What I did not do through all of this:
  • Live in fear.
  • Hide my views.
  • Regret running for office.
  • Believe that the Aryan extremism represented the vast majority of my constituents, most of whom just wanted to be left alone and not told what to do regardless of political party affiliation.
Today, with Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in the hospital and six people dead after yesterday’s attempted assassination in Arizona, I have to wonder if I could speak out, uphold my views and live without fear if I ran for office again.
How many people who might make good elected officials will never consider running out of fear, and what does that say about the kind of America we live in today?

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. -Martin Luther King Jr.

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1 comment :

  1. Betsy Macaulay ShermanJanuary 9, 2011 at 2:04 PM

    Do you think a part of it is that we are older and wiser and more cautious? When we are young, we don't think as much about consequences and risk. (Not that we are old -- perish that thought!)

    ReplyDelete

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