Back in the 1990s, I served as chief of staff for a Utah member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Often, people would ask my background and I would invariably indicate proudly that I was raised in Idaho.
Their reactions were fascinating. I quickly learned that those on the East Coast basically knew three things about Idaho: 1) Potatoes, 2) It is pretty, and 3) It was home to the Aryan Nation group.
I was always disturbed by the association with a racist group but it was clear that the news coverage on that issue had deeply hurt Idaho’s image. I was very pleased when the Southern Poverty Law Center sued the Aryan Nations over the beating of Victoria Keenan and her son Jason by guards at the group’s compound in Hayden Lake. That led to a $6.3 million judgment that resulted in the seizure of the group’s compound which was sold to former Idaho Falls resident Greg Carr. Today it is a peace park.
In light of the damage that news stories can do to our state’s reputation, I’ve been watching the fallout from a recent event in the Idaho Senate.
As you probably know, three Idaho state senators -- Sen. Steve Vick (R-Dalton Garden), Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll (R-Cottonwood), and Sen. Lori Den Hartog (R-Meridian) – refused to appear on the Idaho Senate floor while a Hindu prayer was offered by Rajan Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism. Senator Nuxoll drew the most attention, stating that, “Hindu is a false faith with false gods.”
This story went far and wide. The Associated Press version appeared on ABC News, Fox News, the Huffington Post, NewsMax, the Kansas City Star, the Boston Globe, and a host of other local publications. The Times of India gave the story significant play as did other publications on the Indian subcontinent.
A group of religious leaders, including an Episcopal bishop, a Roman Catholic official, a Jewish rabbi, a protestant pastor and a Buddhist leader, asked Nuxoll to apologize.
In an interview with the Spokesman Review, Nuxoll doubled-down, saying she’d received a number of emails: “There was one from a lady who said she had lived with the Hindus. She said there was a great amount of infanticide and abortion.” Nuxoll went onto say: “I’m not going to give an apology”.
How much damage does a story like this do? I think it certainly hurts the State’s image.
I spoke with David Adler, well-regarded Professor of Constitutional Law at Boise State University and President of the Sun Valley Institute concerning the Hindu prayer scuffle.
His comments were insightful: “This adds to the cumulative damage done to the State’s image. It creates a widely-spread attitude of Idaho as backward. It’s not fair but it’s hard to shake when used by late night comedians as fodder. It contributes to the image of Idaho as a state that is intolerant of different views and different values that might fall outside the mainstream of Idaho.”
I wonder how much damage an incident like this does to our efforts to attract economic development, whether new companies or even investment for our existing enterprises? I’ve talked to several folks involved in economic development. None wanted to be quoted but the general sense I got was that these kinds of stories do hurt efforts to grow our economy. A couple opined that the impact of a single such story could do millions of dollars in damage.
I’m particularly wondering what impact this will have on efforts by Idaho companies to sell in India or to attract investment or employees from those with a background in that rapidly growing country.
Maybe this was blip that will quickly pass. I hope so. But, we definitely don’t need other officials or prominent Idahoans adding to the narrative of Idaho as a place of intolerance, whether religious or otherwise. That would just add to the fire.