BOISE — In December, a group calling itself the “Idaho 97%” formed a coalition to oppose anti-mask demonstrations amid a heated public debate over coronavirus safety mandates. Then just a loose organization of petitioners, the Idaho 97 Project now is a limited liability company, with a director and a mission: to oppose political extremism and disinformation while supporting candidates for public office.
Launched last week, the organization is led by Executive Director Mike Satz, a licensed attorney and former Naval officer who previously was associate vice president of the University of Idaho, Boise. The Idaho 97 Project, self-described as a political advocacy group, seeks to work across party lines to counter extremism and support “good leaders,” Satz told the Idaho Press in a recent phone interview.
“We want to see strong governmental institutions, and we want to see ethical government leaders,” he said. “If a leader in Idaho is not behaving ethically, or a leader in Idaho is trying to undermine a governmental institution, we’re going to stand up to them and we’re going to point it out.”
Satz says the group is nonpartisan — it promotes shared values among Republicans, Democrats and Libertarians such as a strong economy, jobs, working roads and education — but most often the type of extremism the group opposes comes from the political right. As an example, Satz points to “political choices,” as opposed to science-based decisions made by local leaders during the pandemic.
Another example is recent legislation by Republican lawmakers that sought to strip the governor of their executive powers during an emergency, Satz said. And another is a conservative movement to punish Boise State University for its diversity programs — an example of legislators imposing their “personal view” on a public institution, Satz said.
“Both of those examples are highly unconstitutional and highly inappropriate for a Legislature to engage in,” he said. “That is just really problematic, and it’s really destructive to the fabric of our state.”
Late last year, as Central District Health considered whether to enact mask mandates in four counties, hundreds of anti-mask advocates organized a protest that forced the health district to cancel its scheduled board meeting.
Concurrently, Nathaniel Hoffman and Emily Walton, founding members of the Idaho 97 Project, organized a counterprotest — involving hundreds of signs supporting the proposed health order placed outside the Central District Health office — as well as a petition calling for “sensible public health measures.” The petition garnered more than 11,500 signatures, while the mask mandate ultimately failed to pass.
In a joint phone interview alongside Hoffman, Walton told the Idaho Press that after the anti-mask protest she wondered whether Idaho is “a state run bylaws or by a mob.” Then, she tweeted out the petition and received hundreds of supportive replies.
“It just seemed like it was time to step up and make a statement that that is not an OK way to act in our society,” she said. “It was clear that there’s a real appetite for this. People all over the political spectrum except for the far- far-right are very concerned about where things are headed.”
Idaho 97 Project’s name is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Three Percenters, a right-wing militia group with ties to the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection. Walton doesn’t mince words describing her aversion to the group: “The Three Percenter militia thinks they can step up and pull their guns out and make everyone comply with their own political ideology, and they sure do try, but that’s not appropriate,” she said.
Hoffman and Walton have little to say about extremism on the political left. Radical, conservative-instigated conflict that led to the formation of the Idaho 97 Project — “brazen, rude and unlawful,” Walton called it — is incomparable to protests over racial inequality, led by politically liberal groups in the previous year, they argued.
Satz, on the other hand, finds one common trend to oppose: Political protests at the homes of public officials. “That’s a problem we’re seeing across the board, left and right, and these are things that we would like people to stop,” he said. Last year, several such protests occurred, some led by conservative groups such as Ammon Bundy’s People’s Rights while others were organized by Black Lives Matter, which picketed the homes of Boise City Council members during a controversial policing budget debate.
Jeffrey Lyons, an assistant professor of political science at Boise State University, whose research focuses public opinion and political behavior and psychology, doubts the Idaho 97 Project will be embraced by Idaho Republicans. Particularly, what the group chooses to label as “extremism” may put it “on pretty rocky footing with a majority of the state,” Lyons said.
Some things can undoubtedly be labeled extremism — January’s U.S. Capitol insurrection, for example — but discussions about the governor’s executive powers relative to the Legislature’s powers “are pretty well within the norms of our democracy,” and many states have approached similar issues, Lyons said.
“Some of these things mentioned are fairly common beliefs among Republicans, so it really depends on how we define extremism,” he said. “I don’t think there is any easy answer to that question, extremism is probably largely in the eye of the beholder.”
Earlier this year, Lyons, along with his colleagues in BSU’s School of Public Service, released the results of an annual survey that identified Idahoans’ public policy preferences. The results showed Idaho residents across party lines agree that education and a strong economy are top priorities, but Republicans and Democrats “just don’t agree on how to get there,” Lyons said.
“There certainly are shared values across party lines, and (the Idaho 97 Project) note(s) some of these, but Republicans are not going to focus on those, they are going to hear that they are extremists,” he said.
Idaho 97 Project is funded by its supporters, Satz said, at the “grassroots level.” But it likely won’t stay that way. Satz currently is wooing civic and business leaders, searching for larger funding sources.
When asked why Idaho 97 Project launched as an LLC, Satz said the corporate form offers more “flexibility” than nonprofit status. Due to their favored tax standing, nonprofits are prohibited from participating in political campaigns on behalf of candidates, an activity the Idaho 97 Project will pursue.
Additionally, as a private company, Idaho 97 Project can “protect the safety” of its supporters, Satz said.
“In this toxic political environment there are a lot of leaders” and their supporters who “retaliate against” and “threaten” people who disagree with their beliefs, Satz said.
Looking ahead, Idaho 97 Project volunteers from across the state will be meeting virtually each week to discuss priorities. The group’s core values are “courage, safety and voice,” and its mission includes “fact-based action and media messaging.”
Among its first media messages was to announce Idaho 97 Project was calling on the Idaho attorney general to investigate Ada County Commissioner Ryan Davidson, a Republican, who last week requested that a judge grant Ammon Bundy access to the Ada County Courthouse despite Bundy flouting the courts’ COVID-19 safety protocols.
Hoffman, a former journalist, said Idaho in the national news is “mocked,” and its politics are labeled as “far-right.” The Idaho 97 Project aims to change that, he said.
“We want to change the image of Idaho to be a place with sane politics,” he said.