From Ruby Ridge to Matt Shea, eastern Washington struggles to shake far-right extremism
Residents of eastern Washington and northern Idaho have long tried to rid the region of its reputation as a haven for white supremacists, dating from the Ruby Ridge standoff in 1992 and the breakup of the Aryan Nations in the early 2000s.
A foundation converted the site of Richard Butler’s Aryan Nations headquarters north of Hayden, Idaho, into a “peace park.” Around Spokane, Wash., religious leaders organize monthly vigils to oppose white supremacy and Christian dominionism, an ideology that seeks to impose biblical law.
But now the deeply conservative region’s ugly reputation has reared back into view, with the release of an investigative report Thursday on Matt Shea, a far-right Washington lawmaker with ties to white supremacist groups. The four-month investigation, commissioned by the state House, found that Shea had engaged in “domestic terrorism” as an organizer of the 2016 armed takeover of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.
The report also concluded that Shea, a lawyer first elected in 2008, helped plan and direct two other acts of political violence against the federal government, and said he had used his prominence in the so-called “patriot” movement to dispatch militia members.
The area next to the Idaho state line that Shea represents is part of a region that leaders of the white power movement have tried to establish since the 1970s as a homeland that separatists could seize, populate and defend. White supremacists including Butler promoted a “Northwest Territorial Imperative,” encouraging supporters to migrate to the inland area of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and western Montana to establish a white ethno-state.
Randy Weaver, a white separatist from the Midwest, joined the migration in the 1980s with his family, whose cabin in Boundary County, Idaho, became the site of the Ruby Ridge standoff, in which a federal marshal and Weaver’s wife and son were killed. Separatists saw the Northwest as a predominantly white area largely free of African Americans, Jewish people and resistant politicians, said Kathleen Belew, a University of Chicago assistant professor of U.S. history and author who has chronicled the white power movement.
The surge of activism continued in the 1990s and persisted through the Malheur occupation, abetted by leaders of the Christian Identity movement, which calls on followers to clear the world of nonfaithful people before Christ can return, Belew said. Shea gained national attention last year when he distributed a document along those lines called “Biblical Basis for War,” condemning abortion and same-sex marriage and calling for all males who “do not yield” to biblical law to be killed.
Until the investigative findings became public this week, many of Shea’s fellow Republicans had continued to support him or looked the other way. On Thursday, the leader of Washington’s House minority caucus, J.T. Wilcox, said he had suspended Shea from the caucus and stripped him of his legislative committee posts.
The abrupt moves surprised Democratic leaders, who had expected Republicans to dig in, and raised the possibility that the House could summon the two-thirds vote necessary to remove Shea from office — something that has occurred only once, in 1933, after a lawmaker convicted of statutory rape was expelled from the chamber.
“He should resign,” Wilcox wrote in a tweet. “He cannot use House Republican staff, he cannot meet with the caucus, his office will be moved.”
Wilcox said the report had been referred to the U.S. attorney’s office in Seattle and the FBI. In an interview Friday, Wilcox said the report persuaded him that Shea had crossed the line from expressing his views, as protected by the 1st Amendment, to putting people at risk of injury or death.
“I went from defending political speech to standing up for the hundreds of innocent law enforcement agents who had been put at risk at these armed confrontations that Rep. Shea had been part of planning,” Wilcox said.
Shea, 45, hosts a “Patriot Radio” talk show on the American Christian Network. He rarely talks with reporters, and did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
As the Los Angeles Times reported in November, Shea wants eastern Washington to secede and form a 51st state called Liberty embodying his style of Christian values. He describes the United States as a Christian nation under siege, threatened by Islamists and Marxists and their local sympathizers.
Shea wrote in a Facebook post Thursday that he would not step down.
“Like we are seeing with our president, this is a sham investigation meant to silence those of us who stand up against attempts to disarm and destroy our great country,” Shea wrote. “I will not back down, I will not give in, I will not resign.”
Expelling Shea would require nine Republicans to vote with all Democratic House members. Wilcox said that his party members had not yet had enough time to review the report and consider such a vote, and that the decision might best be left to voters in November.
“There’s 130,000 people in his district that chose him, and they should be the ones who decide how they should be represented,” Wilcox said.
Some of Shea’s fiercest opponents in his home district also have qualms about the prospect of removing him from office.
“The voters who elected him need to wake up and put someone with true honor in that position,” said Beva Miles, chairwoman of Republicans of Spokane County, a comparatively moderate group that is distinct from the Spokane County Republican Party.
Miles is one of several moderates who have worked to resist Shea and wrest control of local political offices from far-right leaders. Last month, voters in Spokane Valley, a suburb of Spokane and the largest city in Shea’s district, defeated two City Council members aligned with the lawmaker, ending their majority on the council.
But Miles said that Shea and his backers had managed over several years to install supporters at many levels of local government — indicating that support for far-right causes remains strong across the region. She said that if Shea were expelled, loyalists could find a way to elect him, or a proxy, to the seat.
The region that has elected Shea six times still struggles to shake its dark past, said Eric Ward, executive director of Western States Center, an organization based in Portland, Ore., that counteracts racist and anti-government groups. Ward called the Republican leadership’s stance a “welcome surprise” of a kind that he had not seen in any other state.
“It is a growing example of the Republican leadership in Washington state dealing with elements within its party that are promoting violence,” Ward said. Last year, he noted, the chairwoman of the Spokane County Republican Party resigned after a video surfaced showing her defending a white nationalist.
Tina Podlodowski, the Washington State Democratic Party chairwoman, said Republicans had looked the other way for years while relying on Shea for political support and hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions.
“The GOP conveniently didn’t do anything about it in an effort to try and gain a majority in the Washington state House,” Podlodowski said. “Matt Shea has been part of organizations that have sent death threats to many people in this area, and there are so many things about him that are not even in this report.”
In a tweet Thursday, Washington’s Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee wrote, “There is no place in Washington for hate or violence, especially from those who have been elected by the people. This report is disturbing and these actions should be unacceptable to Washingtonians of all political parties.”
The report said that Shea had planned, engaged in and promoted three violent standoffs against the United States, including a 2014 standoff in Bunkerville, Nev., where he helped summon about 1,500 armed militia members. In 2015, he summoned patriot movement followers to join him in Priest River, Idaho, to participate in a standoff against federal agents, the report said.
Shea founded and led an organization called the Coalition of Western States, which helped Ammon Bundy plan and lead the Malheur takeover, the report said. Leaders of the coalition, known as Cows, include Michele Fiore, a Nevada state assembly member who also supported the standoffs.
Shea also led a group of state representatives from Washington, Idaho and Oregon to Burns, Ore., where they met on Jan. 9, 2016, with county law enforcement officials, according to the report. At the meeting, the lawmakers gathered information on law enforcement strategies that Shea then disclosed to Bundy, the report said.
The report concluded that Shea likely continues to pose a “present and growing threat of risk to others” through political violence, saying: “It is more probable than not that Rep. Shea is likely to plan, direct and engage in additional future conflicts that could carry with them significant risks of bloodshed and loss of life.”
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get the day's top news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.