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Trouble in the Hart-land

Embattled lawmaker faced rude awakening

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The city of Hayden doesn't look like much from U.S. Highway 95--nothing more than the northern-most appendage of a sprawling strip that has become the Spokane-Coeur d'Alene corridor. Visitors tool past posh suburban developments with street names like Stratford Drive, Whispering Pines Road and Canticleer Court. McMansions abound as Hayden turns into the City of Hayden Lake, dominated by the Avondale Gold Club and Hayden Lake Country Club.

This is Phil Hart country. With an official population of just more than 9,000 residents, Hayden is the biggest city in Idaho's recently redrawn Legislative District 2, and while Rep. Hart lives in nearby Athol, it's in Hayden that he has to lock up enough votes to hold onto his 2B seat for a fifth term.

It may be the GOP lawmaker's biggest challenge yet. While his staunch libertarian and "constitutional" stances have made him a hero of the far-right wing, Hart's political baggage looks to be weighing him down.

First there was the messy business of Hart's alleged theft of state-owned timber back in 1996, then the matter of his procedural wrangling to get out of paying more than $500,000 in back income taxes and fines. Though Hart maintains that his refusal to pay up is a stance against what he calls unconstitutional taxation, both issues resulted in ethics hearings in 2010 that led to his being booted off the House Revenue and Taxation Committee.

Now, with the U.S. District Court's ruling that legislative immunity won't protect Hart from paying the piper, the bad (and weird) news keeps piling up. On April 2, Hart found himself in the middle of a crime scene when he was awakened by sheriff's deputies while sleeping in his car at a Latah County rest area where a 28-year-old Princeton woman was shot by an apparent stalker. Hart claimed he slept through the incident.

Bedeviled by so much drama, Hart's former image as a Samuel Adams-style anti-federalist firebrand is for many voters morphing into something of a Don Quixote character--sans the noble intentions.

Indeed, though Hayden may be Hart country, it's hard to tell during a pre-primary drive around town. On some streets, every third house boasts a "Ron Paul for President" yard sign. Notably absent are Phil Hart materials. His challenger, Democrat Dan English, meanwhile, looks to be getting his message out.

English, a respected former Hayden city councilman, served as Kootenai County clerk and a member of the local school board. Political wonks are beginning to suggest that this election may be the first in 18 years in which a Democrat has a shot in the district.

But English isn't the only contender for Hart's seat. Ed Morse (a real estate appraiser), former Republican Rep. Ron Vieselmeyer and local firefighter Fritz Wiedenhoff have also thrown their hats in the ring to challenge Hart in the Tuesday, May 15, GOP primary.

That is far heftier competition than Hart is used to. First elected with 60 percent of the vote in 2004, Hart won again (2006) and again (2008) and again (running unopposed in 2010).

What's more, Hart is also among the targets of a newly created group of prominent Republicans seeking "reasonable" GOP candidates.

Calling itself the North Idaho Political Action Committee, the group made up of area business leaders and former political power brokers, has made no secret of its desire to cull lawmakers like Hart from the Republican establishment--in fact, the group formally endorsed Morse for Hart's seat on April 5. Hart's biggest political liability among many voters is that his agenda seems to be himself.

At least that's the temperature of much public discussion, including comments on the Coeur d'Alene Press website, where opinions seem split: one camp maintains that Hart remains an anti-tax crusader, and the other holds the view that while Hart may be fighting the good libertarian fight against unfair taxation, he has lost the moral high ground.

As one commenter wrote: "These latest cases are about what level of tax Hart has to pay. It has nothing do with any others' liability, this time it's personal. Time to pay up."

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