Idaho Falls, Idaho--

In Idaho it's time to come down from the high country. Snow levels will soon descend below 7,500 feet. As September temperatures in the Snake River Valley plunge overnight into the 40s, it's also time to consider what the warm months of summer brought us. Mostly, what summer brought was hot air, media foolishness traditionally associated with the "dog days" of August, and some interesting public responses to militia initiatives.

Politicians testing the winds of popular thinking about the militia movement in Idaho and Montana have discovered something important: A lot of people, at least in Montana, don't like the militia movement. A poll taken by a newspaper in the Big Sky country shows 68 percent of those asked said they are "actively opposed" to the views of the Militia of Montana. Only 20 percent expressed sympathy for these views.


Idaho's politicians who have flirted with the militia movement might consider taking a page from Montana's book. So far two have. Idaho Lieut. Gov. Butch Otter and Secretary of State Pete Cenarrusa have now put at least arm's length distance, politically, between themselves and Samuel Sherwood, head of the Blackfoot, Idaho, United States Militia Association.

Last winter both considered the militia group a new source of political activism, and courted them with speeches tailored to miltiia views. All this changed for Otter with the Oklahoma bombing, but not so for Al Lance, Idaho's elected attorney general. Lance told the Idaho Falls Post Register last May he thinks the militia are still a viable political force in the state and publically offered to "mend fences" with them, provoking a storm of criticism.

Cenarussa, who has worked the political fringes of Idaho politics for years, is now concentrating on the 10th Amendment movement, an effort to give back federal lands to states. However, he is not travelling around the state with militia leader Samuel Sherwood anymore.

Perhaps these and other Idaho politicians can take a lesson from the experience of the Idaho Citizens Alliance (ICA) at the Eastern Idaho State Fair, which took place in Blackfoot, Idaho, in September. The ICA last year lost a statewide referendum which was modeled after the Oregon anti-gay initiative.

Now the ICA is back not only with a new anti-gay measure, but also an anti-abortion plank and one promoting various education reforms, including prayer in the schools and public tax vouchers for private schools. The ICA says it is not a hate group, but their presence generated plenty of heat. After setting up a booth on the fair grounds, ICA activists were cursed, spit upon, and accused of being hate mongers by many attending the fair.

It's important to note that Blackfoot is the home of the United States Militia Association. ICA recently announced an alliance with the militia to collect signatures on its ballot initiatives. Someone forgot to tell the ICA that extremist politics in Idaho are getting a bad reputation. One woman said, after telling an ICA organizer to go to hell, that "these people are like unpopped kernels of popcorn--they're greasy, oily, hard as rocks, and no one want's anything to do with them because they're completely useless."

In response to a continuing stream, literally and figuratively, of vitriol, ICA organizers closed their booth on the fairgrounds and settled for a roving leafleting campaign outside the fair gates which offered the option of escape from outraged passersby.


Ostriches and emus are this year's exotic animal at the Eastern Idaho State Fair. The presence of the birds brought forth comments pro and con about the ICA and its political program. While Senator Larry Craig was not long at the fair, he's also not afraid to stick his neck out.

Last spring Craig said law enforcement agents of federal land management agencies should turn in their guns. This remark caused no small amount of controversy and gave the senator what amounts to ostrich-class egg on his face with law-and-order types. Craig now says he is "reconsidering" his stand on the issue. Craig, who's shoot-from-the-lip style gets him into catastrophic trouble when he's not fully briefed, seeks protection from accountability in ambiguity.

There is nothing to wonder about with U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth, R-Idaho. Her idea of arm's length distance from extremist groups is about the space between two kids riding horses side-by-side on the same merry-go-round. She's as comfortable with the fringes in Idaho as the trim on a buckskin coat. Chenoweth also got ostrich egg on her face, but instead of Blackfoot, Idaho, she had to go all the way to Texas for this to happen.

A visit to a Wise Use conference in Austin, Texas, on September 1 made her the center of attention over militia links. Texas property rights organizers, who were working another agenda, were outraged at being tarred with the militia brush, and said so to the press. There are few federal lands in Texas. The Wise Use movement in that state has a completely different focus than its counterpart in Idaho. These are a group of cattle ranchers (and land speculators) who worry about the price of beef rather than imagined threats from "black helicopters" on patrol to enforce the Endangered Species Act. The conference organizers said they realized they'd made a big mistake inviting Chenoweth, who brought with her excess baggage that no one else wanted to carry.


Militia wierdness isn't playing in Montana, and perhaps in Idaho the majority doesn't buy militia politics either. Take for example an August 1 letter to the editor of the Idaho Statesman from Idaho legislator Milt Erhart (R-Boise) who questioned media attention focused on Samuel Sherwood.

The militia leader had issued an "I'm a tax protestor too" statement following the gunfire-punctuated arrest of Montana tax protester Gordon Sellner in July. Erhart said the only reason Sherwood doesn't pay taxes is because he doesn't have a job. Erhart went on to say, "Sherwood is either a liar or a freeloader," and asked why the media bothers to give such a marginal person any coverage.

Sherwood should stop rattling around in right-wing politics, Erhart said. "It's time for Mr. Sherwood to get a job and provide for his family," Erhart said.

Sherwood answered Erhart with his own letter to the editor, which the Idaho Statesman dutifully printed on August 23. Sherwood objected to being called a "liar and a freeloader," and said that he should not be labeled as such unless proven guilty of same in a court of law. He denied his own earlier statement published in the paper that his family was living on voluntary donations of $30 to $40 a month. However, he did not define his source of income.

Perhaps more interesting is that after months of trying to win a charter or some other legal authority from the state for his movement, Sherwood said that his United States Militia Association was not a militia as defined by state law, and thus he is not answerable to the Governor nor any other elected official.


Posing for Mademoiselle Magazine and ABC-TV's "Good Morning America," a group of women members of the Idaho militia lined up for the camera with their pistols at the ready on the grounds of a gun club in Jerome, Idaho. Coaching the women through their paces on the firing range on a picture perfect day was ... Samuel Sherwood. The August 21st "shoot" has the owners of the gun club fuming. The president of the gun club has denied any association with the militia.

John Weston, vice president of the Jerome, Idaho, Rod & Gun Club, said neither the militia nor the media had permission to use the club's firing range. Apparently, gun club member Mark Harkness of Twin Falls thought otherwise, and made the arrangements with militia member Bill Tuttle, also of Twin Falls. Sherwood said the session was a "national training session for militia women," but the Idaho Statesman reported the afternoon event drew more news media than militia women.

One woman remained skeptical. She told a local reporter after the event she didn't like the militia's practices. "I don't want to crawl around in the dirt with a gun at night and break my nails," she complained. However, she said she was willing to provide support for political causes including stuffing envelopes and making phone calls.

This is the second time Sherwood has staged such an event. In the fall of 1994 his "shoot" drew the same small numbers of women. This may prove that playing soldier, with real weapons, is still a "guy thing" even in the 1990s.


Idaho political leaders are wondering out loud these days if tourism and the ability to attract new business to the state will be hurt by the continuing antics of political extremists. The Governor and his Secretary of Commerce have launched a public relations campaign to try to portray the state as other than a hogoblin of potato heads with curly french fries that substitute for brains and political pragmatism.

The Governor needs to act fast. In Idaho Falls a doctor with a sought-after specialty visited town, but held off making a decision to start a practice after reading about racist incidents there over the past year. His hesitation was reinforced by the public statements of the Bonneville County prosecutor who had refused to file charges of malicious harassment against a suspect who allegedly made death threats against the head of the local chapter of the NAACP.

Later, the suspect in the death threats against the NAACP official was arrested in California on a drunk driving charge and was awaiting extradition back to Idaho on felony charges under this state's malicious harassment law. The doctor, attracted by Sun Valley skiing, decided to locate in Idaho after all.

But partisan bickering broke out between mainstream Idaho Democrats and their Republican counterparts over the state's growing reputation for extremism, crackpots, violent rhetoric, and intolerance. Both promised to make this a campaign issue in 1996.

Dan Yurman lives in Eastern Idaho about 40 miles from the Wyoming border.


E-mail reporter@eden.com

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Copyright 1995 The Progressive Populist. -- Revised October 29, 1995 --