Full slate of Legislative District 1 candidates faced off at May 3 forum

By Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

Despite a sparse crowd of about 50 attendees, all 10 candidates in the primary races for Legislative District 1 — including the lone Democratic contender — gathered May 3 in the Sandpoint High School auditorium for a two-plus-hour forum. During the event they described their various backgrounds and addressed issues ranging from tax reform to so-called “critical race theory” to what can be done about the crunch on labor and housing in Idaho.

The most contentious of the races featured at the forum — sponsored by the Sandpoint Reader, sandpointonline.com and KRFY 88.5 FM — was between Idaho Senate candidate Scott Herndon and two-term incumbent Sen. Jim Woodward, R-Sagle.

That contest has featured a level of rhetoric and election pamphleteering unprecedented in local elections, with the majority of the most-heated materials coming from Herndon’s camp, which as previously reported has engaged the services of a high-profile Nevada-based conservative political consultancy and campaign operations firm.

Throughout the forum, Herndon jabbed at Woodward on a range of topics, including claims that the latter supported driver’s licenses for “illegal immigrants,” voted in favor of federal funding for programs that would have introduced critical race theory into Idaho school curricula, approved of requiring businesses to provide 12 months of birth control for employees and voted for a measure “letting boys play in girls sports.”

Woodward kept his responses to questions from the audience focused on his past and continuing work in the Statehouse on issues such as education and infrastructure funding, as well as tax reform. 

The only swipe Woodward directed at Herndon came in his closing remarks, when he pointed out that despite the latter’s frequently expressed opposition to the state taking federal dollars, Herndon availed himself of government financial support during the pandemic. A subsequent search of the Transparent Idaho database (idahorebounds.opengov.com) shows that Sagle-based construction company Herndon Inc. — with Scott Herndon as registered agent, according to the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office — received $10,000 from a CARES Act small business grant administered by the COVID-19 recovery program Idaho Rebounds.

“[Herndon] rails against federal money and then takes that federal money,” Woodward said.

On the alleged “driver’s-license-for-illegal-immigrants” legislation, Woodward said the measure in question was to establish a working group to examine the problem of property damage caused by unlicensed and uninsured drivers — some of whom may be undocumented workers — and explore whether or how to extend driving privileges to those individuals.

Herndon described that as rewarding illegal behavior — reading aloud from the text of the legislation, in which undocumented workers were referred to as “essential” to a number of vital industries — while Woodward rebutted that the working group would be beholden to the Constitution.

Answering a question about critical race race theory and whether it is present in Idaho schools, Woodward pointed out that he voted for the 2022 legislation withholding funding from educational institutions that employ CRT curriculum, but that “I do not know of any cases that have arisen in Idaho.” Meanwhile, he added that curriculum is set at the local level to keep such decisions “as close to home as possible.”

Herndon pushed back, arguing that Woodward initially voted in favor of a $6 million federal funding package that he alleged contained CRT materials and that is in fact the Legislature’s constitutional obligation to sometimes step into curricular decisions.

Woodward rebutted, claiming the $6 million in funding came from the Trump administration and was intended to help early-childhood school readiness and would not have dictated curriculum.

While the Herndon-Woodward Senate race has been the most headline-grabbing, by far the largest field of candidates is for the House 1A seat, which is now open after redistricting in 2022 moved current-1A Rep. Heather Scott into Legislative District 2. 

Though only invited to provide an opening statement, uncontested Democratic candidate for House 1A Steve Johnson said he believes in “local issues,” including property tax reform to ensure that residents aren’t “taxed out of our homes.” He also encouraged attendees to support the Quality Education Act initiative measure to fund public schools.

Leading off the five Republicans vying for the seat, Sagle gun store owner Stephen Hutchings highlighted that Scott has endorsed him and vowed to “continue representing the folks in this district the way Heather did.” 

Adam Rorick, a retired law enforcement officer, said he is seeking the House 1A seat in order to oppose the “left socialist machine” that he claimed has destroyed communities elsewhere and is “in full force here in North Idaho” — to which he moved full-time about a year ago to enjoy “a nice luxury life of peace and quiet.”

Mark Sauter, who comes from a long background in the fire services, including with the Selkirk Fire District, said his priorities in the Legislature would be job retention and growth, holding down regulations to give employers the freedom to expand in areas such as tech and manufacturing; investments in infrastructure; protecting the state’s water resources; supporting Idaho police, fire and EMS services; and helping secure the southern U.S. border. He also promised a “comprehensive look at the tax system,” including property, fuel, sales and grocery taxes.

Builder and business owner Travis Thompson noted that he is the only candidate in the district who was actually born and raised in Bonner County, and told attendees that he would serve local constituents, rather than special interest groups in Boise.

“Some people say I’m too honest for politics; I like to say politics isn’t honest enough for me,” he said.

Finally, Cynthia Weiss advocated for reforming the tax structure to fund state budgets through a consumption tax and promised to base her time in office on upholding the Constitution.

The House District 2A race features three-term incumbent Rep. Scott Dixon facing challenger Todd Engel. 

Dixon pointed to his past efforts pushing back against the federal government, including keeping families out of the Child Protective Services system. He also noted his work on combating human trafficking. “It’s a continued battle down there,” he said of protecting Idahoans’ rights in Boise.

Engel, who said he came to Idaho about 30 years ago from “a failed state called California,” is perhaps most well known for being sentenced to 14 years in federal prison stemming from his participation in the 2014 Bundy Ranch standoff in Nevada. He served four-and-a-half years before an appeals court overturned his conviction and he was released.

“I will literally defend your rights,” he said. “I think I’ve proven that.”

Addressing the issue of the labor shortage, Dixon described it as a problem of population imbalance, with older workers simultaneously retiring as retirees make up a large percentage of the influx of new residents. “It’s not an easy solution from the state level,” he said.

Engel focused on the lack of affordable housing making it difficult — if not impossible — to retain younger workers in the state. He also noted it was a hard problem for the Legislature to take on and suggested that some “incentives” need to be offered to keep kids at home, though did not offer any specifics.

Herndon agreed that demographics are at the root of the issue, but also that stimulus payments over the past two years have encouraged people to drop out of the workforce while also driving up inflation. He then pivoted to the suggestion that, “We’ve killed 70 million Americans who could have been in the labor force over the past 50 years, so let’s end abortion in America.”

Woodward was critical of the increase to unemployment checks during the pandemic, but said the market — however painful the process — will determine the appropriate wage level to both attract workers and get them into homes. “I don’t think the proper function of state government is housing,” he said.

Sauter emphasized vocational-technical training for high school students to prepare them for well-paying local jobs, which Rorick and Thompson both also supported. Thompson added that streamlining the regulatory and permitting processes for new home construction would increase supply and reduce costs.

Weiss said older workers “just need to be encouraged” to return to work, while Hutchings suggested that a good strategy would be to recruit outdoors-related manufacturers.

Candidates were unanimous in their condemnation of “critical race theory” curricula purportedly in Idaho schools, with several repeating the statement that CRT encourages judgment based on skin color, rather than “content of character.”

The issue has been a buzzword for more than a year, with opponents claiming that the once-obscure method of legal analysis, dating back at least to the 1980s, is being used to “make white people feel guilty about being white,” as Weiss put it.

Hutchings called the academic framework a tactic used by liberals to divide and conquer the population, while Rorick called it “a neo-Marxist socialist program.” 

Sauter said he’ll remain vigilant, but has only heard of one local complaint out of 3,900 students in the district — and that was related to a book about Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks. 

Engel called CRT an “abomination” and Dixon described it as undermining legal structures, though acknowledged that he is unaware of the curriculum being present in the Lake Pend Oreille School District.

On property taxes, the candidates were also universal in advocating for some changes — from recalibrations to outright repeal. 

Herndon called property taxes “immoral” and said the goal should first be to control spending among the more than 100 executive boards and commissions in the state. He, like Weiss, advocated for a consumption tax, such as a sales tax increase to offset repealing the property tax altogether. Woodward said the property tax system “has not worked well for us in Idaho,” and said he is working to shift school funding — currently drawn from property taxes — back to the state budget.

Hutchings said that a sales tax on home purchases should replace property taxes, while Rorick was critical of perpetual tax exemptions for big businesses coming into the state.

Sauter said the homeowners’ exemption could be indexed to inflation, averaging out home values over five or 10 years to “flatten out the price of all the homes and therefore the costs for the homeowners.”

Dixon underscored his opposition to the property tax as a whole, noting his support for a sales tax increase of nearly 2% that would replace the current property tax system. Barring that, he called for a constitutional amendment to put in place something like Prop 13 in California. His opponent, Engel, simply called property taxes the “antithesis of liberty” and said the best solution is to “get rid of the incumbents in Boise.”

Finally, when asked to provide one example of federal overreach and how they would address it, Dixon, Hutchings, Rorick, Sauter and Thompson all pointed to the 63% of Idaho lands owned by the federal government, and suggested various ways to get that land put under state control.

Herndon again said the Legislature should say “no” to federal funding and thus federal programs, which Rorick echoed by saying the state should not be taking federal COVID-19 recovery funds due to the “strings attached.”

For her part, Weiss said “we have to get our Constitution under control” by calling a Convention of States under Article V to limit the power of the federal government. Engel pointed to the incident in 2015 when federal authorities sought to confiscate the firearms of a Priest River man whose capacity was deemed diminished following a stroke. Engel, Scott, Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler and others intervened on the man’s behalf in a demonstration at his home, resulting in officials allowing him to keep his firearms.

“We had our Second Amendment in our trucks,” he said.

Listen to the full forum on krfy.org.

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