Local Republicans disagree on what their party represents

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  • Post Falls resident Brittany Pettibone, right, talks with Kootenai County Republican Central Committee member Alex Barron at an April 25 meeting. Pettibone successfully petitioned the committee to urge the Department of Homeland Security to reinstate her fiancé Martin Sellner’s travel privileges. Photo courtesy Duane Rasmussen

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    Washington State Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, is under review by the Washington State Legislature for a 2017 chatroom thread in which he offers to perform background checks on American citizens. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

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    Alleged Christchurch shooter Brenton Terrant, who is accused of murdering 50 worshippers in two New Zealand mosques March 15. (Photo courtesy Associated Press)

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    Former Idaho State Senator John Goedde, left, served his local constituency in the Idaho State Senate for 14 years. (File photo by Lisa James/Coeur d'Alene Press)

  • Post Falls resident Brittany Pettibone, right, talks with Kootenai County Republican Central Committee member Alex Barron at an April 25 meeting. Pettibone successfully petitioned the committee to urge the Department of Homeland Security to reinstate her fiancé Martin Sellner’s travel privileges. Photo courtesy Duane Rasmussen

  • 1

    Washington State Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, is under review by the Washington State Legislature for a 2017 chatroom thread in which he offers to perform background checks on American citizens. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

  • 2

    Alleged Christchurch shooter Brenton Terrant, who is accused of murdering 50 worshippers in two New Zealand mosques March 15. (Photo courtesy Associated Press)

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    Former Idaho State Senator John Goedde, left, served his local constituency in the Idaho State Senate for 14 years. (File photo by Lisa James/Coeur d'Alene Press)

I sit in a Coeur d’Alene Starbucks and wait for an answer from these two men: one a 36-year-old from Rathdrum, the other 29 from just south of Athol, both physically fit, both with high and trim haircuts, both dressed in matching fatigue pants and combat boots. They stumble a few times as they try to agree on an appropriate response.

“We’re patriots,” the older one tells me.

“And nationalists,” the younger one adds.

Nationalism is a movement that preaches the identification of a citizen’s home nation above all else. It’s a movement that has swelled and subsided in Europe for centuries, and it’s no stranger to America, recently producing a rise in marches, anti-immigration legislation and divisive debate. But I’m not thinking about any part of this definition right now. I’m too preoccupied with their guns.

“Just since I graduated high school, things have changed,” the younger one says as he sips his Frappuccino, a semi-automatic holstered along the right side of his waist in plain view. “We’re definitely losing our identity. If we don’t stop this mass immigration from invading this country, through whatever means are necessary, we’ll lose our economic position in the world, and we’ll lose what’s left of our culture.”

“Things have definitely changed,” the older one agrees. “There isn’t a place for our culture anymore. We’re still trying to carve one out. We’ve been trying to carve one out since the Mayflower.”

When I ask the defining traits of their culture, their terms seem more suited to an anthropology lecture: “stabilized migration,” “closed borders,” “European” and “ethnopluralism.”

Ethnopluralism is the theory of dividing borders — either nationally or locally — by culture or heritage, essentially segregating populations by race. It is an idea that has made its way into supremacist rhetoric. Those same extremists also support a more mainstream conservative American movement: nationalism, or the idea that those who live within a particular boundary should place country above all else.

But these two men sitting across from me, who met only on the condition I not name them, aren’t talking about nationalism. They’re talking about ethnopluralism. I nod to them in what I think is understanding. “Ethnopluralism,” I reply. “You mean, ‘white.’”

The older one shakes his head vehemently. “No,” he defends. “I’m talking about preserving a European heritage.”

After five more minutes of conversation, I reach for my smartphone, touch through a few links and pull up an image of Giannis Antetokounmpo, a seven-foot-tall Greek immigrant, an MVP-caliber forward for the Milwaukee Bucks and quite possibly the happiest player in the history of the NBA. He is, among other things, black. I show the two men his image, inform them of the player’s background and receive a muscle-clenched denial.

“I’m talking about a more historical European model,” the older one explains, “one that better defines where we want to go as a culture and a country.”

Regardless of whatever you call them, and regardless of however they characterize themselves, they both agree to a common characteristic. They pride themselves as, among other things, Kootenai County Republicans.

• • •

Two controversies emerged in late April that have cast area conservatives in challenging light. The news has made international headlines.

The first controversy came when online chat threads surfaced April 20. In them, Washington state legislator Matt Shea, a Republican from Spokane Valley, allegedly participated in an online conversation titled “White Movement,” in which he volunteered to perform background checks leading to intimidating and assaulting liberal American citizens. His messages follow other participants’ threats against liberals, threats that became graphic in their violent overtones.

Some North Idaho Republicans have rushed to Shea’s defense. Brent Regan, Chairman of the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee, issued a statement to The Press after the story broke, in which he said the KCRCC has not formally discussed the Shea situation, but that The Guardian, the news organization that broke the story, mishandled the truth.

“A simple reading of The Guardian article proves the assertion that ‘(Shea) took part in private discussions with rightwing figures about carrying out surveillance, psyops and even violent attacks on perceived political enemies’ is not supported by the facts presented,” Regan’s statement reads.

“The alleged texts include the dates and times the texts were made. The Guardian presents these texts out of chronological order. If you simply read the posts in the order they were made, the Guardian’s assertion utterly collapses. You cannot be accused of ‘participating’ in a conversation that occurred two days before you walked into the room. Bosworth and Robertson are exchanging texts between Oct. 29, 2017, and Nov. 4, 2017. Shea’s only texts are from Nov. 6, 2017, two full days later. Since there was zero evidence that Shea participated in the conversation, the Guardian rearranged the sequence of the comments and lied about what happened.”

After another inquiry, Regan claimed that performing background checks on people who have made threats against Shea or his family would be a reasonable precaution.

Shea’s office did not respond to an interview request. He is currently under review by the Washington legislature, and fellow lawmakers have called for either his resignation or expulsion. Later that same week, as the story circulated across the country, Shea spoke at a dinner sponsored by a local chapter of the John Birch Society — a conservative group that attracts regional Republicans (characterization) — at the Best Western Plus Coeur d’Alene Inn, receiving rounds of applause.

Duane Rasmussen says the narrative that all Republicans gravitate toward violent means to justify a racist end is absolutely wrong. He believes nationalism — not ethnopluralism — is at the heart of more than just his party’s platform.

“Yes, I’m a nationalist,” the longtime Republican and Hayden resident declares. “I believe that all Americans should consider America first. What kind of American wouldn’t think that? But that doesn’t make me a racist.”

Rasmussen has served on the KCRCC since the dawn of the new century, first becoming politically active in 2001. He says serving his fellow Republicans has afforded him a unique view of the party’s history.

“I’ve been supportive of this party’s platform in the past,” he says, “and I’ve been part of its dissent. This is a party that holds true to its values, but it’s always changing. I was there when we unified behind our state platform, and I was there when the Ron Paul people came in.”

The Ron Paul people he remembers references the Texas Republican and Libertarian who ran for president in 2008, 2012 and 2016, gaining momentum through a grassroots campaign. Paul’s platform was based on conservative and independent values, including anti-immigration measures and states’ rights over federal regulation. During this time, Rasmussen says, through both election results and political pressure, Idaho’s state party and Central Committee representatives absorbed some of Paul’s doctrine, turning abruptly to the right.

“Anytime an organization takes over 90 percent of the [committee] population,” Rasmussen says, “you’re going to have cracks in the model. Everyone is expected to swear allegiance to the state party’s platform. They’re pretty strong about that. But there’s diversity of thought in our party.”

Some platform stances, he stresses, are nearly unanimous in consent.

“We’re against the pernicious racism that goes on,” he says. “Hating black people or people of other races is not what we’re about. Loving your culture is not being racist. Insinuating that if somebody loves their country or loves their culture makes them a racist — that’s wrong. It’s disingenuous, and it’s wrong.”

He admits, however, that the rise in racially charged rhetoric within the party gives the Hayden resident and others in his sphere pause.

“I do know through the grapevine,” he concedes, “there are some Republicans who are concerned.”

That concern was silenced April 25 during what should have been a routine KCRCC monthly meeting but instead slid the Kootenai County Republicans under another microscope, launching their second controversy for the week.

• • •

That evening, during the meeting at the Kootenai County Administration Building, a Post Falls resident and bride-to-be named Brittany Pettibone appealed to local Republicans for help.

Pettibone did not respond to a Press interview request. A YouTube activist with more than 120,000 subscribers, she promotes alt-right theories on her channel while occasionally appearing on videos with her fiancé in Europe. These theories include claims that most Muslims proliferate Sharia law; Idaho representatives have repeatedly introduced anti-Sharia bills to the legislature, a tactic critics say is designed to stir anti-Muslim fears.

Her videos also promote the international anti-immigration movement Generation Identity, which urges ethnopluralism. The movement, according to Southern Poverty Law Center, is shaping the new dialogue of American hate groups with anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Pettibone, as she explained to the committee, plans to wed her Austrian fiancé, Martin Sellner, this summer in Idaho. Sellner is a fellow right-wing activist who founded “Identitäre Bewegung Österreichs,” the Austrian branch of Generation Identity. Sellner and Pettibone both claim his Electronic System for Travel Authorization has been restricted, denying him entry into the United States.

Neither Sellner nor spokespersons from the United States Department of Homeland Security responded to Press interview requests.

Sellner’s travel rights were restricted, he has said in interviews with other news organizations, because of an Austrailian named Brenton Tarrant.

Tarrant is an anti-Muslim, alt-right white supremacist who wired a financial donation to Sellner’s political organization. Tarrant made this donation at some point before March 15, when he allegedly drove to two mosques in the city of Christchurch, New Zealand, and livestreamed on Facebook as he allegedly shot and killed 51 worshippers, injuring 49 more and leaving New Zealand citizens reeling after the worst mass murder in their history. He is currently charged with murder.

“I was, of course, shocked,” Sellner insisted in a March 27 BBC interview. “I couldn’t believe it. I was in disbelief. Very soon [after the Christchurch massacre] I realized, no, it was the shooter ... I had nothing to do with this attack.”

Austrian police, already investigating Sellner’s financial records, raided his home in late March. He and Pettibone both claim his travel rights to the United States were since revoked for political reasons. Pettibone asked the KCRCC to use their influence to urge Homeland Security to reinstate the Austrian national’s travel privileges immediately.

Rasmussen was present for that vote, one he equivocates when describing its tone.

“It was a voice vote,” he says. “It was unanimous in voice vote. Some refrained from voting; they said they weren’t familiar enough with the issue to feel comfortable voting one way or another. But there was no opposition vote at all. Everyone who [cast a vote] voted ‘yes.’ And it was a strong ‘yes.’”

The KCRCC, an organization that routinely films and posts its monthly meetings on its website, posted but later took down the two video clips specifically highlighting Pettibone and the vote. In a statement to the Press, Regan said posting those videos violated the organization’s own communication protocol policy, and that the videos were removed when the error was detected.

In a separate statement posted on the KCRCC website, Regan states the following: “To be absolutely clear, the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee condemns all forms of racism and bigotry. The Kootenai County Republican Central Committee also condemns all forms of political violence and intimidation practiced by groups like Antifa, Indivisible and Reclaim Idaho, including publishing personal information (doxxing), intimidating employers, preventing the exercise of free speech, violent protests, property destruction and physical assault.”

Antifa is a far-left, militant, anti-fascist movement that has organized counter-protests, some of which have turned violent. Indivisible and Reclaim Idaho are political organizations that raise awareness for issues that run parallel to the Democratic platform.

Regardless, the headlines won’t stop, whether from the Spokesman-Review or the Seattle Times or Business Insider or HBO’s Vice News: “Kootenai County GOP Urges Feds To Let Austrian Nationalist Into US To Marry Alt-Right YouTube Pundit,” “Kootenai County GOP Backs Austrian Nationalist’s Travel Plan,” “The Idaho GOP Is Helping An Alt-Right YouTube Star Marry Her Austrian White Nationalist Boyfriend,” and so on.

• • •

John Goedde sits down in Calypso’s, across the street from the Press office, trying to steady an overfilled cup of black Americano onto our tabletop. He fidgets restlessly in the most comfortable chair in the coffee shop. No part of him appears comfortable with this interview.

He’s been uncomfortable with his Republican Party in quite some time.

“I’m a fiscal conservative,” he tells me. “I believe in making your own way in the world. That’s why I’m a Republican.”

Goedde spent the better part of two decades as a Republican precinct committee member in Kootenai County and a school board trustee before finally serving 14 years in the Idaho Senate. He joined the Republican Party during the Ronald Reagan era.

“At that time,” he recalls, “there was a threat from a group of people who embraced Ron Rankin. More moderate people were recruited to run against those who supported Rankin, and I was one of them.”

Rankin was an anti-tax conservative who steered Idaho to the right before breaking off into an independent movement. As a county commissioner, he successfully maneuvered to make English the county’s official language.

“I don’t think my positions have changed,” Goedde says. “I’m still a fiscal conservative. I still believe we should take care of ourselves. But I think, back then, Republicans were able to respectfully debate, disagree and still be Republicans. You didn’t have to agree with everything 100 percent of the time, and I don’t think that’s the case anymore.”

The former state senator sees the party’s troubles as one of leadership, not policy.

“The leadership of the Republican Party in Kootenai County has moved away from mainstream Republicans,” he says. “People elected to the central committee drive the engine. They’re leaning far to the right, and that becomes the public perception of the party in general. I don’t think they represent mainstream Republicans.”

Goedde sees the potential for a split that leaves conservative voters in a bind.

“The ultimate danger is if the general populace sees the party as extreme right, they’re going to start electing Democrats,” Goedde predicts. “I don’t know if you can characterize that as a danger in general, but it’s a danger to Republicans.”

He says the time for a party change is coming.

“If mainstream Republicans are not represented well on the central committee,” he warns, “then it’s like beating your head against the wall...You gotta get involved. Be in a position of influence to the central committee. Either run for committee seats, or just attend committee meetings. And vote. Support candidates who are mainstream.”

As for the headlines, Goedde responds with unequivocal resolve.

“Three of my four grandparents were immigrants,” he tells me. “Immigrants can embrace this nation and become good citizens. My grandparents immigrated legally. I don’t have a problem with anyone who immigrates legally. I do have a problem with illegal immigration. I think it’s important they go through the process, but I don’t think they’re bad people, by any means, and we shouldn’t demonize them.”

“I think what [Shea is accused of] is absolutely wrong, if he’s done it,” Goedde adds. “It’s absolutely wrong to perform background checks on people. It’s an abuse of power. You shouldn’t crucify someone for one sin, but it does not reflect well on the Republican Party.”

Whether Goedde is right or wrong about the image of North Idaho conservatives, he, Rasmussen and the two men at that table in Starbucks all make the same point. Things have changed.

• • •

Craig Northrup is a Press reporter. Email: cnorthrup@cdapress.com

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