In This Red State, Progressives Are Taking Matters Into Their Own Hands

Amateur activists, sick of being ignored by the GOP, are fighting to cover the uninsured.

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho ― It’s a lonely feeling being a progressive in the deep red state of Idaho, but Amy Pratt is finally ready to channel her frustrations into taking action she believes can improve the lives of her fellow Gem State residents.

In a state that’s been run by Republicans since the 1990s and that hasn’t gone for a Democratic presidential candidate since President Lyndon Johnson’s landslide win in 1964, Idahoans like Pratt are tired of feeling ignored ― and they’re banding together in living rooms and libraries and Facebook groups across the state.

The activists are focusing on an issue they think can bring Idahoans together: skirting their GOP-led legislature to make Idaho the next state to adopt Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion.

“My entire life, I’ve been watching the lack of care for people,” said Pratt, a 47-year-old bus driver. In her view, the state’s political leaders put money “in their own pockets for everything, and I have been waiting for a revolution, of a sort.”

She spent the cold winter weekends knocking on doors in her conversative hometown of Idaho Falls trying to persuade her neighbors to play a small part in that revolution.

Pratt is a volunteer for Reclaim Idaho, a tiny grassroots operation with a single paid employee and a mission to give Idahoans an opportunity to vote on a ballot initiative in November’s elections to expand Medicaid to working adults.

“To have hope, victory doesn't have to be certain. It doesn't even have to be probable. To have hope, victory just has to be possible.”

- Luke Mayville, Reclaim Idaho

From March 11-13, HuffPost traveled across southern Idaho along the path of the Snake River from Idaho Falls to Boise with stops in between in Pocatello and Twin Falls.

In those southern Idaho towns, organizers, volunteers and first-time political candidates got together to carry out an ambitious quest to overrule the elected Republicans who run the state and haven’t taken action to help the uninsured.

The very fact that this campaign exists is evidence that Idaho’s government isn’t working the way it should, said Pat Tucker, who is trying her hand at elected politics by running for a local state House seat. “People are frustrated,” she said. “People are feeling personally the consequences of not being represented, of not being heard, in their own lives.”

Deep Frustration

These activists, most of them new to politics, spoke of being inspired by the opportunity to make positive change in their communities. Some spoke of being driven to act by the election of President Donald Trump. But they all lamented the feeling that their government doesn’t care what they want.

Like liberal activists mobilizing around the country on a variety of issues, taking action is making these Idaho volunteers feel less alone and more empowered.

“I didn’t think most of us realize how many out there feel the same way, and I found that knocking on doors,” Pratt said. “I hope this spurs more throughout the state, I hope this spurs more throughout the country.”

An estimated 78,000 uninsured people would be eligible for health coverage if Idaho, one of the 18 states that hasn’t opted into the Medicaid expansion, accepted federal dollars available through the Affordable Care Act to participate.

Nine percent of Idahoans lack health coverage, the same as the national uninsured rate. For 18 years before getting a new job in 2017, Pratt was one of them. “I can go out there and sell this. I can go out there from experience,” she said. “The fact is, everybody knows somebody who falls into the gap, and everybody has a story like this.”.

Luke Mayville and Garrett Strizich, both 32, natives of Sandpoint in the far north of Idaho, founded Reclaim Idaho last year because they believe state legislators are out of touch with what their constituents actually want.

The GOP Rules Idaho

Idaho is a Republican stronghold. Trump won 59 percent of the presidential vote in 2016 to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s 28 percent. The state hasn’t had a Democratic governor since 1995 and the GOP has had control of both the state House and state Senate since 1992. Democrats make up just 11 percent of the state’s registered voters, compared to 50 percent registered as Republicans.

Idaho has an unusual relationship with the Affordable Care Act.

The state hasn’t taken up the Medicaid expansion and recently tried to allow health insurance companies to sell policies that ignore key aspects of Obamacare, chiefly its ban on charging higher premiums to people with preexisting conditions.

But it’s also the most conservative state to establish a state-run health insurance exchange, Your Health Idaho. Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter has proposed health care reforms that would extend coverage to some of those who’d qualify for Medicaid under an expansion, but legislators haven’t acted on them. That’s despite a unanimous 2012 recommendation by Otter’s hand-picked Medicaid expansion working group that the state expand the program.

All of those obstacles doesn’t mean Mayville and Strizich are crazy for trying to make Idaho the latest state to take up the Medicaid expansion, which would make health benefits available to anyone earning up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level (for a single person, the 133 percent figure is about $16,000).

According to a survey conducted by Boise State University in December, 71 percent of Idahoans support closing the so-called Medicaid gap, with just 22 percent opposing.

The gap refers to a quirk in how the Affordable Care Act was implemented. As written, the law envisioned a nationwide Medicaid expansion for those under 133 percent of poverty, and also made tax credits available to people whose incomes are above the poverty level, which is about $12,000 for a single person.

But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that states could opt out of the Medicaid expansion, leaving those with incomes between those two thresholds with no source of coverage. In states like Idaho, they’re effectively too poor for Obamacare.

Pratt was one of about 20 volunteers who got together for a meeting in Idaho Falls March 11 that transitioned into a celebration complete with guitar and banjo players. They gathered at a restored early 20th century house that Tucker, its owner, converted into a children’s art gallery to honor her daughter, Cady, who died in 2002 at 11 years old in a car crash in neighboring Montana.

Local elections, mostly for bonds and levies to fund schools, were coming on March 13, and Reclaim Idaho planned its biggest one-day effort to date. Mayville said the goal was to collect 10,000 signatures on Election Day.

As the evening wound down, the crowd heard from Mayville, who traveled back to Idaho with his wife, Elena Mayville, from their home in New York City. (The couple is planning to relocate to Idaho eventually.)

“There’s one thing that they really underestimated when people were skeptical of this campaign ― and this is something that we saw early on. They underestimated how much hope people have all over this state,” Luke Mayville said. “To have hope, victory doesn’t have to be certain. It doesn’t even have to be probable. To have hope, victory just has to be possible, and it has to be a victory that’s worth fighting for.”

Meeting For Coffee and Activism

Smaller gatherings on March 12 at Pocatello’s bohemian Bru House Galilei coffee house in the shadow of a vast mountain range and at a private home in a quiet Twin Falls neighborhood brought out handfuls of activists making plans for Election Day.

Volunteers in Pocatello, including Chris Stevens, a retired school teacher who’s also mounting her first-ever political campaign by running for Bannock County Commission, laid out cookies and crudités and talked strategy.

In Twin Falls, Democratic state Senate candidate Deborah Silver, who lost a state Senate race in 2016 and the state treasurer race in 2014, hosted a meeting in her home.

On March 13 in Boise and its suburbs, volunteers met in coffee shops to check in, collect materials and share stories. Aaron Swisher, one of two Democrats vying to challenge U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson (R) this November, stopped by to lend support. It’s Swisher’s first political campaign.

The obstacles to success are real, and not just because of Idaho’s conservative political base.

The state doesn’t have a history of successful ballot initiatives and referenda. In order to get Medicaid expansion on the ballot, Reclaim Idaho has to get 56,000 signatures, which would meet the threshold of 6 percent of the state’s registered voters. But under the law, they have to meet the same 6 percent threshold in 18 of Idaho’s 35 state legislative districts. They have until May 1 to submit their petitions.

That means they have to campaign in the reddest parts of Idaho. It also means they have to spread out across a state that’s the 14th largest by area and sixth-least dense by population. At least the Medicaid Mobile, which broke down during a stop in Hailey last month, is up and running again.

Jeffrey Young

Disappointment, With A Side Of Optimism

Election Day didn’t meet Mayville’s highest expectations. Mostly in the Boise suburbs and in Lewiston, on the border with Washington state, about 200 volunteers collected 5,000 signatures, half of what he wanted.

Voter turnout was low, even for an off-year election on relatively obscure local matters, Mayville said. The enthusiasm of the volunteers in Idaho Falls, Pocatello and Twin Falls didn’t translate into a lot of signatures.

At Boise’s Lake Hazel Middle School, Kenneth Freeman, 58, and Paula Schuelke, 71, were having a little luck getting signatures. The weather cooperated but there weren’t many voters coming to the polls during the key post-work evening hours.

Freeman has been active in progressive politics before, but his anger at Trump ― especially over net neutrality ― drove him to do more. “Trump made a leftist out of me,” he said.

Schuelke also is new to politics. Taking action lets her feel she has a say in a state where the elected leaders aren’t listening, she said. “We are so out of balance. If you are in the middle or you are a Democrat, you have no voice,” she said.

There’s a lot left to do, Mayville told HuffPost, but they’re getting there. After Election Day, Reclaim Idaho had collected 29,000 signatures, passing the halfway point. And they’ve either met or very nearly met the 6 percent threshold in as many as seven legislative districts and are within a couple hundred signatures in eight more, he said.

“That means that by the deadline we’re going to have the vast majority of signatures that we need collected by volunteers, because we’re likely to get at least 10,000 or 15,000 more in the next six weeks,” Mayville said.

So far, this has been an all-volunteer effort. Luke and Elena Mayville and Garrett and Emily Strizich aren’t getting paid. All their funding has come from small donations.

The Strizichs spent $1,500 of their own money to buy a camper van that became the Medicaid Mobile that’s been up and down Idaho over the past few months. Supporters have signed the outside of the van, making it a kind of rolling petition.

“The volume of the outpouring of volunteers has been astounding.”

- Lauren Necochea, director of Idaho Voices for Children

Influential organizations including the Idaho Medical Association, Idaho Hospital Association and AARP formed a coalition three years ago to promote Medicaid expansion called Close the Gap Idaho. So far, however, those groups haven’t pitched in to help collect signatures for the ballot initiative.

Reclaim Idaho does have support from a union-backed national organization called the Fairness Project, which helped activists in Maine win a ballot initiative to expand Medicaid last year and scored victories in campaigns to raise the minimum wage in five states in 2016.

Paid canvassers funded by the Fairness Project also has begun gathering signatures in Idaho. Mayville didn’t know how many they collected and their tally isn’t included in the 29,000 Reclaim Idaho has secured.

As the campaign continues and, he hopes, gains more traction, Mayville expects Reclaim Idaho will get more help. “More and more people around the state, organizations around the state, are seeing the momentum we have and they really believe in this cause,” he told HuffPost.

The groups that compose Close the Gap Idaho are divided on whether to assist Reclaim Idaho, said Lauren Necochea, a spokeswoman for the coalition and the director of Idaho Voices for Children in Boise. But they are taking notice.

“The volume of the outpouring of volunteers has been astounding, and they’ve made remarkable progress just using volunteers,” Necochea said. Idaho Voices for Children is weighing how it can ramp up its involvement in the campaign separate from the coalition, she said.

In the meantime, the Mayvilles, the Strizichs and their small army of volunteers will keep knocking on doors. And the warming weather creates opportunities to find supporters at places like the Boise Farmers Market, the Treefort Music Festival, and gun-control rallies planned throughout the state, he said.

For Pratt, the Medicaid expansion campaign is a chance to prove that the people of Idaho can make change, even when their elected representatives won’t. She wants to win not only because she believes in the cause of expanding health coverage, but to prove a point to the lawmakers in Boise and Washington, D.C.

“We put them in office,” she said. “We have the power.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story indicated the Mayvilles planned to move to Idaho permanently this year. While they intend to move to Idaho permanently, they have yet to set a date for the move. This story also has been updated to correct Kenneth Freeman’s age and include information about his past political activities.

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