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Battle at the Ballot Box

How partisan politics rocked a northern Idaho school board race

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Bonner County is a little big place. At almost 2,000 square miles, it's a bit larger than Delaware but its population of 41,500 is about 4 percent of The First State. Located in the far northern panhandle of Idaho, encompassing lakes, rivers, mountains and forests, Bonner County has long been as much a tourism haven as it is a political hotbed.

Controversy grows as dense as the trees in Bonner County and the regional tendency toward outsized ideological contests played out in the run-up to the May 16 election in the hitherto humdrum race for a handful of seats on the Lake Pend Oreille School District board of trustees.

"There were three out of five seats on the board of trustees available and they were all contested," said Gary Suppiger, a 63-year-old longtime county resident who has volunteered for a number of school-, Catholic- and scout-related causes. "There was a slate of candidates, including myself, that supported the school district and a slate of candidates, including my opponent, that did not support the school district."

Suppiger, who holds a Master's degree in forestry from Duke University and owns a forest products company in Bonner County, ran the tightest LPOSD race, besting opponent Richard Miller by 76 votes for a seat representing residents in the southern portion of the district.

"In Bonner County there is an ultra-right group—they've been named the Redoubters—and what they are is anti-tax activists. [It's] a very conservative cause, but they were formidable opponents," Suppiger said. "They're articulate, they're intelligent and they're organized, and they have resources and they have support. Specifically, their greatest support was in my zone."

According to Bonner County election officials, 21.5 percent of registered voters in the Lake Pend Oreille School District turned out for the May election—compared to 18.7 percent in 2015 and 7.5 percent in 2013. Not only was every vacant seat contested this year, but every race was contentious.

Former Bonner County Commissioner Cary Kelly, 75, who prevailed over his opponent by a margin of about 85 percent, said the heat in the election stemmed from forces far larger than school budgets.

"[Voters in the district] saw the handwriting on the wall and said, 'Hey look, we better get moving, we better turn out, we better make sure everybody knows what's at stake here,'" he said. "They had a really big—for a school election, which normally goes by unnoticed—turnout for this election. I think that's why it became somewhat controversial in the sense that for once they really had two sides."

Those sides were deeply divided based on two previous elections: one in August 2016, when a $50 million facilities levy was defeated handily, in large part because of opposition amplified by the Redoubt News website and assorted online communities; and the other in March, when a $17 million supplemental school levy was overwhelmingly approved. (Redoubt News did not respond to a request for comment on the race.)

How candidates voted on the March levy was the central factor in the school board election. Kelly, Suppiger and Lonnie Williams—the latter a 32-year-old graduate of Sandpoint High School—represented the "yes" vote. Miller, a 23-year Bonner County property owner and woodworker whose daughter graduated from SHS; Anita Perry, a 70-year-old former business manager in California, active Bonner County Republican Party volunteer and frequent Redoubt News contributor; and Victoria Zeischegg, a 62-year-old fellow California transplant who manages a health and wellness website and volunteers for several community and Republican Party groups, made up the slate of "no" candidates.

The school board election, Kelly and Suppiger agreed, was an effort by the anti-tax crowd to gain control of the purse strings.

"It was more philosophical than practical," Kelly said. "People on the school board normally support the school. They have kids in school; I mean, they want to support the school. Well, these three didn't. It wasn't the fact that they wanted to improve the school system or had kids in the school system—my opponent had no children [in the schools]. ... It was more, 'We're against more spending, we think there needs to be more transparency, we're not sure what's going on, we didn't support the levy... just kind of naysayers."

Miller and Zeischegg pushed back at being characterized as Redoubters (Perry did not respond to a request for comment, but told the Spokesman-Review in early May that the Redoubter label "is a mystery to me" and she's "not quite sure what they mean by 'Redoubt movement.'")

"My observation has been that more citizens have been questioning how taxpayer money is being spent by the Lake Pend Oreille School District, and many taxpayers feel that the district has not clearly answered those questions," Zeischegg wrote in an email. "This school board election was the first in my memory that the policies and budget of the district were being challenged, and that is why the election was so unusually heated. The so-called Redoubt movement only played a part in that it was used as a label to discredit some of the candidates."

For his part, Miller bristled at the suggestion he was affiliated with the Redoubt movement, going on to characterize his stance in the school board election as one focused on financial accountability, transparency and strengthening vocational education for students in the district. He did not provide an on-the-record statement by press time.

Williams said whether or not Miller, Perry and Zeischegg identify as being associated with the Redoubt movement, their campaigns benefited from supporters of the group's agenda, which is to establish a low-tax, small-government haven for "God-fearing, liberty-loving patriots" in eastern Washington, Idaho and Montana.

"If you're allowing your henchmen to run dirty politics, you're just as guilty as the person doing it, in my opinion," Williams said, pointing to instances of what he called "outright lies" and online "smear campaigns" against himself and fellow candidates Kelly and Suppiger.

"It's no mystery, I guess to me or anybody in this area, that when you throw your hat into the ring up here, we've got this amalgamation of super, super far right-wing and pretty far left-wing all in the same area, so it gets pretty contentious," said Williams, who defeated Zeischegg by about 70 percent of the vote. "I think a big reason that it was contentious as it was, was because of our state politics right now and the country at large."

Politics in Bonner County have also been particularly rancorous in recent years, as a growing tide of new residents has brought with it a conservative, isolationist philosophy like the one touted by the Redoubt movement.

Williams agreed the normally subdued school board race drew its fire from "a combination between some of the current fervor with the Redoubt movement in this area."

"And by that I mean they're on the rise in popularity," he said. "Their message is being heard all over the place ... and what I think that we have on the national scene, which trickles into rural communities, is: 'OK, now that we have this going on in our national scene, it's OK for a lot of the folks that want to be complete isolationists to be very, very vocal about that.'"

For Kelly, who said he had numerous run-ins with Redoubters and like-minded anti-tax activists during his time as a county commissioner, the Sturm und Drang of the increasing right-wing tinge of area politics acts to drown out the real needs of the community—including in the school district.

"They just want to complain and you get very little in the way of really constructive criticism or answers to anything they complain about," he said. "Generally they're against government, bureaucracy, taxes—they're against all that. It's just a generalization and it's hard to really pin down.

"Even during the debates we had in the school election, there was very little concrete," Kelly added. "What exactly are you complaining about?'"

Kelly, Suppiger and Williams said the Lake Pend Oreille School District, despite critics' assertions to the contrary, is actually a high performing system. (Disclosure: This reporter's mother is a longtime LPOSD employee and current elementary school principal.)

With 12 schools (including three high schools and a homeschool academy) spread across a huge, mostly rural region, there are certainly problems—particularly in the area of facilities maintenance, Kelly and Williams said—but LPOSD still earns high marks. In particular, Sandpoint High School was recently ranked No. 2 in Idaho by U.S. News after Timberline High School in Boise.

"I believe the district is in a good place," said Suppiger. "I have faith in the current administration, I support the current programs and schools in our district, and I just hope to build on that success. I just want to make it better."

In the wake of the school board election, Suppiger added he hopes the influence of the Redoubt movement on local elections wanes, but he recognized the philosophy isn't going anywhere.

"I hope at least for a period of time their political momentum is reversed," he said. "I know they're not going to stop, they're going to keep coming."

Williams said he sees the possibility for some common ground to be found once the electioneering dust settles.

"There's a lot of people that are probably associated with that Redoubt movement that are totally in favor of public schools, because that's what they send their kids to," he said. "And there's parts of the Redoubt movement that I have zero problem with. If you want to move here and have 20 acres and build a house and have a garden and all those things, I would like that too. I like peace and quiet, I like self sustainability. I've got no problem with that. If you do that, then don't try to change the fabric of our community. ... Don't come in here and try to uproot all of our community programs to suit your goals. That's not how it works."

At the end of the day, Williams added, it's the job of the nonpartisan school board to do right by area kids, and success will be the best way to win over the percentage of Bonner County voters who think the district is wasting or misusing their tax dollars.

"The best way to combat, if that's the right term, that ideology of, 'No we're not going to support anything you guys [at the school district] do,' is by results," he said. "If we can continue to improve as a district and continue to succeed on a school-by-school, student-by-student basis, and continue to have high-achieving students who go on and do great things, and schools that continue to get awards on the state and national level, then the argument becomes, 'Look at what we've done by pursuing our goals and what it has done for the district.'"

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