Albion Monitor /Commentary

A Change of Season

by Dan Yurman

Things began to change after the Oklahoma City bombing

Idaho Falls, ID -- In Idaho, it's time to come down from the high country. Snow levels will soon descend below 7,500 feet; September evenings in the Snake River Valley now plunge into the 40s. As the cold winter creeps forward, it seems like a good time to reflect upon the chill settling over the militia movement in Idaho and Montana.

Last winter, the militia was viewed by many as a new grassroots political movement, and politicians courted them with speeches tailored to militia views. Rep. Helen Chenoweth -- dubbed "a poster child for the militias" by the Idaho Statesman -- was one who echoed popular militia themes, such as charges that the government uses black helicopters to enforce the Endangered Species Act.

Chenoweth wasn't alone. State politicians also jumped on the militia bandwagon, adding to the group's credibility. Perhaps emboldened by semi-official recognition, Samuel Sherwood, head of the United States Militia Association, was quoted as saying, "Go up and look legislators in the face, because some day you may be forced to blow it off." Sherwood later vigorously denied saying any such thing.

But after the Oklahoma City bombing, things began to change. Mike Batista of the State of Montana Division of Law Enforcement said earlier this month that his agency believes that membership in the militias is falling off. Batista told the Associated Press, "while meetings of the Montana group regularly drew hundreds two years ago, those numbers have dwindled to 75 or 80 per meeting if the meeting is held at all." 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. A lot of people, at least in Montana, don't like the militia movement.

Politicians learn alliances with the militia guarantees an empty bank account

Sherwood's personal credibility was damaged by an embarrassing expose by the Twin Falls, Idaho, Times-News last May, which revealed he has changed his name at least three times. More significantly, the Times-News found he lied about his military background (he claimed naval surface warfare command service including combat experience, but in reality has virtually none). Finally, despite a devout Mormon upbringing and identity, he spent years in search of spiritual salvation in a Jewish seminary in Israel -- yet counts white supremacists in Eastern Idaho among his militia supporters.

Idaho politicians who flirted with the militia, including Lt. Gov. Butch Otter and Sec. of State Pete Cenarrusa, have now put political arm's length between themselves and Sherwood. Cenarussa, who used to stump the state with Sherwood working the political fringes of Idaho politics, is now concentrating on the 10th Amendment movement, an effort to give back federal lands to states. Sherwood is left at home.

Even Chenoweth is thought to regard Sherwood as a "loose cannon," prompting one human rights spokesman to note that this characterization "has been stupifyingly obvious to most Idahoans for months, but coming from Chenoweth, it must represent a major change of heart." For Chenoweth, her close connections to the boys in khaki is becoming a political liability. At her recent visit to a Wise Use conference in Austin, Texas, the center of attention became her militia links rather than the conference program. Texas property rights organizers were outraged at being tarred with the militia brush, and said so to the press. These cattle ranchers care more about the price of beef than playing soldier on weekends. The conference organizers said they realized they'd made a big mistake inviting Chenoweth, who brought along excess baggage that no one else wanted to carry.

And perhaps that no one is coming forward to help pay off her 1994 campaign debt has made her reexamine her strange bedfellows. Most of the campaign debt is owed to her personally from loans she made to the campaign organization. Maybe Chenoweth is getting the message: political alliances with the militia guarantee an empty bank account.

Some politicos are even stepping forward to criticize the paramilitary groups. In August, Idaho State Legislator Milt Erhart (R-Boise) questioned media attention focused on Sherwood in an Idaho Statesman letter to the editor. Responding to an "I'm a tax protester too" statement from Sherwood following the gunfire-punctuated arrest of a Montana tax-protester, Erhart wrote that the only reason Sherwood doesn't pay any taxes is because he doesn't have a job. Erhart went on to say that "Sherwood is either a liar or a freeloader," and asked why the media bothers to give such a person any coverage. Erhart closed by adding, "it's time for Mr. Sherwood to get a job and provide for his family."

Sherwood answered Erhart with his own letter to the editor, which the Idaho Statesman dutifully printed. Sherwood objected to being called a "liar and a freeloader," and said that he should not be labeled as such unless proven guilty in a court of law. Also, he denied an earlier quote published in the paper that his family was living on voluntary donations of $30-40/month.

Members were cursed, spat upon, and accused of being hate mongers

But nothing underscores the change of season like the hissing and spitting contest between Sherwood's Association and the Idaho Citizens Alliance (ICA).

The ICA was the organization behind last year's state-wide anti-gay referrendum, rejected by voters. Now the ICA is back -- and 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.

At the Eastern Idaho State Fair earlier this month, the ICA set up a booth on the fairgrounds to promote their new referrendum for the 1996 ballot. Idaho citizens have long memories, and remember the discontent stirred up by last year's initiative. Idaho's majority Mormon population still count among the living those who recall religious persecution because of their faith. They are unwilling to let others resurrect the shades of intolerance regardless of the cause. ICA members were cursed, spat upon, and accused of being hate mongers by many attending the fair.

It's important to note that the fair took place in Blackfoot -- Sherwood's home turf. ICA had announced an alliance with the militia to collect signatures for the ballot initiative, but 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.

Days later, Sherwood announced he was breaking off the alliance with the ICA, claiming that his group read through the ICA's proposed ballot initiatives for 1996 on anti-gay, anti-abortion, and education policies and found "they violated the Declaration of Independence." Sherwood said his group would not support proposals that violate freedom of choice or belief in God according to one's conscience.

Sherwood's sudden respect for civil rights has left everyone scratching their heads. Human rights groups in Idaho praised Sherwood's stand, but not everyone is convinced that the ICA and the militia have had a true falling out, and suspect the two groups might secretly kiss and make up. Brian Berquist of the Idaho "No On One Coalition," who opposes the ICA's ballot initiatives, told the Associated Press he hopes the ICA split with the militia "isn't just a PR thing." He went on to say "We hope [ICA leader Kelly] Walton isn't just publicly distancing himself from the militia but that he really does believe and act as if what they are doing is wrong."

At least for now, the ICA has now joined the ranks of other Idaho political organizations -- including the right-wing of Idaho's republican party -- in deciding that the militia really are excess baggage. In railroad terms, passengers and freight that don't pay their own way are labeled as "super cargo." It is beginning to look like the militia "don't ride these rails no more" in Idaho.

Dan Yurman's reports from the High Country can be found on the Western Lands Gopher.

Albion Monitor September 18, 1995 (

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