Rural Oregonians are ready to bolt for Idaho after nearly two months of daily protests and rioting in Portland.
Move Oregon’s Border for a Greater Idaho, a group that seeks to take eastern and rural counties out of Oregon and put them into Idaho, reached a milestone Saturday. It announced that volunteers have collected enough signatures to place the initiative on the November ballot in Wallowa County, Oregon.
Fueling the separatist effort: Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s coronavirus shutdown and the escalating protest violence in Portland. Police declared a riot Saturday night after hundreds of activists attacked the North Precinct and ignited a fire inside the Portland Police Association office.
“We want to move the border because the political atmosphere in Oregon is getting too intense,” Michael McCarter, president of Greater Idaho, said in a release. “We’ve seen political violence in Portland and Eugene this year and it could get worse. Instead of fighting, Oregon could let citizens in each region of the state choose which state’s governance is more suitable to them.”
Such border-shifting movements are long shots at best — no state has done so since West Virginia left Virginia in 1863 — but the inability or unwillingness of Portland authorities to quell the unrest has created a political climate in which the old rules no longer appear to apply.
The Department of Homeland Security sent in officers last week to protect federal buildings such as the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse, which has been covered repeatedly with graffiti and vandalized, but Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has made it clear that the Trump administration’s help is unwelcome.
“What they are doing is, they’re sharply escalating the situation,” Mr. Wheeler said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “Their presence here is actually leading to more violence and more vandalism. And it’s not helping the situation at all. They’re not wanted here.”
The mayor, who faces reelection in November against a pro-Antifa candidate, has directed police to keep federal officers out of the Portland incident command. He said protesters “are literally being scooped off the streets in unmarked vans” by federal agents.
“We haven’t asked them here. In fact, we want them to leave,” Mr. Wheeler said.
Even so, he has been rebuked by elected officials such as Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty. On Saturday, she blasted the “federal occupying force” and the police bureau’s “aggressive clampdown of peaceful protest.”
“I demand action right now,” Ms. Hardesty said in a statement. “Mayor Wheeler, if you can’t control the police, give me the Portland Police Bureau.”
Meanwhile, President Trump kept up the pressure Sunday on officials in the city, which has become the center of national protest violence since the dismantling two weeks ago of Seattle’s occupied autonomous zone.
“We are trying to help Portland, not hurt it,” Mr. Trump tweeted. “Their leadership has, for months, lost control of the anarchists and agitators. They are missing in action. We must protect Federal property, AND OUR PEOPLE. These were not merely protesters, these are the real deal!”
That said, the protests are making inroads. Since they began, Portland Police Chief Jami Resch has stepped down, clearing the way for a Black successor, and the Portland City Council voted to slash police funding by $15 million in response to calls to “defund the police.”
At a Friday rally and vigil outside the federal courthouse, activist Lilith Sinclair drew cheers from the crowd of about 200 and other speakers, including clergy, when they said she was “organizing for the abolition not just of the militarized police state, but also the United States as we know it.”
Meanwhile, the Portland Police Association executive board issued a vote of no confidence July 8 against the City Council, saying “our officers have endured weeks of rocks, bricks, bottles, mortars, and other objects hurled at them with hate.”
‘Let our people go!’
Against such a backdrop, the idea of 17 counties breaking off from Oregon and joining Idaho seems a lot less radical than it once did.
After launching last year, Greater Idaho is collecting signatures in 15 of those counties for ballot measures that direct local officials to participate in negotiations on redrawing Idaho’s state line, a process that has been hampered by the statewide shutdown by Ms. Brown, a Democrat.
The organization filed a lawsuit June 30 in federal court to reduce the number of required valid signatures, arguing that the stay-at-home order has hampered the ability of volunteers to meet the Aug. 5 petition deadline on county ballot measures. A hearing is scheduled for Monday.
“This lockdown has hurt our ability to collect signatures,” Mr. McCarter said. “We’ve got volunteers in every single county that has our petition. We would have filed this suit earlier, but we were hoping the lockdown wouldn’t last this long.”
He has reason for optimism. Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Michael McShane ordered the state to reduce by 50% the signature threshold for Politicians Not People, a statewide ballot campaign, and extend the deadline from July 2 to Aug. 17, citing the state lockdown.
Oregon Attorney General Bev Clarno filed Wednesday for an emergency stay on his order.
In three counties — Jefferson, Union and Douglas — he said volunteers have collected more than half of the required signatures but need an extension to meet the deadline. Other counties lag further behind.
Then there’s Sherman County, which requires only 60 valid signatures to qualify. “We hope some volunteer will knock that one out,” Mr. McCarter said.
Greater Idaho is nothing if not grassroots. Although he estimates that the movement has 9,000 volunteers, Mr. McCarter said nobody is paid, and the campaign has none of the “corporate money necessary to send mass mailings of petitions to citizens.”
The effort does have the support of some Oregon Republican legislators. Idaho Gov. Brad Little, a Republican, has said he would welcome any would-be Idahoans from Oregon, although he said the movement has a long way to go given that both state legislatures and Congress would need to sign off on redrawing the state lines.
For Mr. McCarter and others, however, the attempt is worth the trouble. They say the concerns of rural Oregon have been ignored or dismissed as political power concentrates in the increasingly left-wing population centers of Portland and Eugene.
“Our message to Oregon’s state political leadership is: let our people go!” Greater Idaho said in a statement on its website. “Your counties have different goals, different values, and different economies. Your primary voters will be glad to get rid of ‘Trump-voting low-income counties.’ Let us be governed by a state that understands us. Please negotiate a deal with Idaho.”
• Alex Swoyer contributed to this report.