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Democrats see a surge in interest, but can that create a 'blue wave' in red Idaho?

 

Idahoan Courtney Beebe has been a Democrat since she was a high school student in American Falls.

"Everyone I ever admired was a Democrat," said the 40-year-old Coeur d'Alene lawyer, who volunteered for former U.S. Rep. Richard Stallings in her youth.

Over the years, Beebe has supported the party and its values, including through donations. But Donald Trump's election motivated her to become a precinct chairwoman in Kootenai County — and to be one of about 170 delegates to the 2018 Idaho Democratic Convention, a two-day event that wrapped up Saturday on the campus of The College of Idaho in Caldwell.

"I haven't ever felt like I needed to be this active," Beebe said.

Dr. Coralyn Alexander, left and Courtney Beebe at the Democratic convention. Katy Moeller kmoeller@idahostatesman.com

The Democrats spent two days discussing priorities, updating their platform and unifying around their nominees. Major platform stances included a demand to repeal Idaho's Right to Work law; support for Medicaid expansion, compassionate immigration reform and a restorative criminal justice system; and calls for the legalization of CBD oil, medical cannabis and recreational cannabis use for people 21 or older.

Those at the convention were focused on the issues, not the long odds of getting a Democrat elected in a state dominated by Republicans. But they were encouraged by high voter turnout in the May primary and energized by local and national buzz about 38-year-old gubernatorial candidate Paulette Jordan, a Coeur d'Alene Tribe member trying to become the first female governor of Idaho and the first Democrat elected to the top spot since Cecil Andrus in 1990.

Jordan, who served two terms in the Idaho House of Representatives, handily defeated the party's 2014 nominee for governor, A.J. Balukoff, a 72-year-old businessman and longtime Boise schools trustee.

Other convention delegates, who browsed party and candidate information tables when not attending meetings, panel discussions or speeches in the Jewett Auditorium building on Friday, echoed Beebe’s urgency about getting involved in politics in the Trump era. They also cited concerns about issues such as Medicaid, education, wages and immigration.

Jordan rallied party faithful on Friday, urging them to get out in their communities and share their message of inclusivity.

"If we do not talk of it, it does not happen — we do not manifest what we need to grow," Jordan said. "All I hear is hate, from the national, from the local. And yet we have to be the party of love that saves humanity, saves society and saves our children."

Jordan said she will meet with residents of every community in the state to share that message.

The five delegates from Boundary County (plus a spouse) organize for a photo with Paulette Jordan. Katherine Jones kjones@idahostatesman.com

More than 30 percent of registered voters in Idaho participated in the May primary, the highest turnout in 16 years. Idaho has seen a surge in interest and involvement in Democratic politics, said Shelby Scott, political director for the state party.

"There's been no lull in volunteers since Nov. 8, 2016," Scott said, referencing the day of Trump's election. "And primary turnout for the party this spring was well above normal. We're seeing very qualified candidates — not only at the top of the ballot but down to the legislative and county races."

Featured convention speaker Jason Kander, 37, president of Let America Vote and a former Missouri secretary of state, told delegates that it's up to them to create a "blue wave" of newly elected Democrats.

"The blue wave is not a weather event. It's made," he said. "You have to go out and knock on doors and make phone calls and do the work."

Steve Sampson, a 41-year-old from Oneida County in southeastern Idaho, said he's been making calls, fundraising and going door to door. He's ready to do more.

"I want a Democratic Party that cares about 44 counties," Sampson said. "To make this a purple state, you have to knock on every county door. You have to turn over rocks to find Democrats."

Caldwell resident Evangeline Beechler-Lincoln, 39, vice chairwoman of the state party and senate candidate for Legislative District 10, said she believes the party is at a turning point, in part because of intensive field organizing over the past year.

"We didn't really take the typical off-year last year when it came to field organizing," said Beechler-Lincoln. "We're identifying new voters, tapping into unaffiliated voters, motivating people to get involved in campaigns through emails, Facebook messages, tweets ... We've been more present on the ground than in years past.

"I think we're going to shock some people with our success in November. I think we're going to have blown-out-of-the-water voter turnout."

Idaho Democratic Party Chair Bert Marley tends to business at the opening of the state convention. Katherine Jones kjones@idahostatesman.com

Beebe said she's received positive reaction at some doors she's knocked on the past couple of years in Kootenai County, discovering voters who are quietly supportive of the Democrats.

"They said, 'Oh, me too. I don't feel I can tell anyone,'" she recalled. "It can be socially difficult to challenge a majority group think."

Dr. Coralyn Alexander, a child and adolescent psychiatrist who lives in Post Falls, said she cut her vacation short to be at the convention in Caldwell. She said she was an unaffiliated voter who supported Bernie Sanders and last year became a registered Democrat.

"I feel like I have to speak up." said Alexander, who is passionate about health care reform and is a strong supporter of Medicaid expansion. "We need to go back to the way things were before the almighty profit governed the way we take care of patients."

Former Idaho state senator Diane Bilyeu, of Pocatello, was dressed in patriotic fashion. Katy Moeller kmoeller@idahostatesman.com

Diane Bilyeu, an 83-year-old Pocatello Democrat and a former Bannock County assessor, has been to numerous conventions since the 1960s. She was elected to the Idaho Senate in the late 1960s, and her husband, Chick, served there for two decades.

She is impressed at the party's latest crop of candidates. She was a Balukoff supporter in the primary but speaks highly of Jordan and the "rock star quality that she seems to bring."

During a lunch session Friday, she got to know lieutenant governor candidate Kristin Collum, an Army veteran who worked for two years at the Pentagon with Gen. Colin Powell. She holds a master's degree in information systems management and has worked in Boise's tech sector the past two decades.

"She's an excellent speaker," Bilyeu said. "She's probably the best speaker that I've heard today."

Kristin Collum, Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, talks to delegates at the Idaho Democratic Party State Convention. Katherine Jones kjones@idahostatesman.com

Mike Sheppard, a 65-year-old retiree who worked in the oil and gas industry, traveled to the convention with a small group of Democrats, including 92-year-old Fay Morris, from Boundary County on the Canadian border. Sheppard is a lifelong Democrat, but this was his first state convention.

He said lack of school funding in Boundary County has forced consolidation of schools and a reduction in school days from five days a week down to four.

"It's time on the local level for more people to get involved with politics," Sheppard said. "The direction that the opposing party is taking ... It's time for the Dems to step in."

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