The Conquest of Northern Idaho

From Orange County to Coeur d'Alene


The High Country News has published an interesting article headlined "How right-wing emigrants conquered North Idaho." It's about a process comparable to the influx of hippies who pushed Vermont to the left a few decades back, or the effort by the libertarians of the Free State Project to do something similar in New Hampshire. In this case the migrants are conservative Republicans of the old southern California variety—indeed, many of them used to live in southern California—who have moved to Kootenai County, Idaho, quadrupling the place's population and transforming it into "the most Republican county in the most Republican state in the nation." (You can debate that status, but let's stipulate that it has few rivals for the title.) The piece is locked behind a paywall, unfortunately, but this should give some of the flavor:

Southern California was struck by a series of disasters in the early 1990s—a recession, an earthquake, race riots—that together marked the beginning of an exodus. Between 1992 and 2000, excluding birth and death rates, California lost 1.8 million more people than it gained; collectively, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Arizona gained 1.4 million more than they lost. More than half of the immigrants to Idaho in that period came from California. Of the top four counties that lost emigrants to Kootenai, three were in California—San Diego, Los Angeles and Orange.

Like many other mass movements, this one spread by word of mouth. In 1990, the Coeur d'Alene Press reported that one Orange County family had convinced "half its neighborhood" to relocate to Coeur d'Alene. A pastor told me that "whole (evangelical) ministries" came north together. By the end of the 1990s, more than 500 California police officers had retired to North Idaho, among them Mark Fuhrman, who committed perjury in the prosecution of O.J. Simpson. One officer told the Los Angeles Times that he left Anaheim because "the narrow roads got wider, orange groves became tract homes and street gangs became too numerous to count." He went looking for "another Shangri-La," and found it in Kootenai County.

Indeed, as the county's population soared above 100,000, it began to look less like Idaho and more like suburban California. The prairie was paved with curling cul-de-sacs and gridded with Starbucks, Del Tacos and Holiday Inns. The old Potlatch Mill on Lake Coeur d'Alene became a golf course, and another mill site, just past the outflow into the Spokane River, became an office complex and parking lot….

Pundits predicted that Californians' migration to places like Kootenai County would have a moderating effect on the politics of the Intermountain West. The newcomers "are finding work in jobs unrelated to the traditional timber, mining and agricultural fields," observed Timothy Egan, a Western correspondent for The New York Times, in 1993. Egan suggested that these "lifestyle refugees" would cause an "environmentalist tilt in the (Western) electorate." But he overlooked a key detail: The counties from which these refugees came were the most conservative in California. They were, in fact, the birthplace of modern American conservatism—home to the John Birch Society, early evangelicalism, the 1978 tax revolt that led to property-tax limits in Proposition 13, and two years later, Reagan's election to the presidency.

When California's conservative bulwarks faltered in the 1990s under the weight of rising taxes, stricter regulations, Mexican immigration, and the state's steady liberalization, conservatives went looking for what they believed they had lost. Many told me that Kootenai County became their idea of "God's Country"—an American utopia, a refuge from "a world turned upside down."

I don't find the new arrivals' agenda all that attractive—Mark Fuhrman is not my idea of an appealing poster boy, and whatever libertarian instincts the immigrants may have on guns and taxes are mixed with far-from-libertarian notions about a state-enforced moral code. But setting aside the specifics and looking at the larger pattern, is it a good thing that a corner of the country can take on such a strong ideological shade?

The article's author, Sierra Crane-Murdoch, isn't enthusiastic: She worries that "counties, red and blue, where the majorities' values are reinforced in every facet of local government" are becoming echo chambers "where it's easy to forget the way the other half thinks." But her story ends with a local pol making an exception to his love of lower taxes, pitching a school bond to the sorts of activists who spend their days purging RINOs, and helping the measure pass with 72 percent support. Whatever else you might say about that, it does not suggest an electorate unwilling to consider other points of view.

At any rate, the piece is a good read. I'll leave you with one more quote from it, in which Tina Jacobson, formerly of the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee, offers what may be the best excuse a political figure has ever given for leaving office: "She told me that she wanted more time to work on her novel, a paranormal romance about an ambitious anti-tax crusader who is elected to the Idaho Legislature and falls in love with a ghost."

Bonus link: "The Western Lands."