SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - White supremacist Shaun Patrick Winkler, a convicted batterer who once worked for an Aryan Nations leader, wants to add an unlikely notch to his spotty resume -- sheriff of Idaho’s Bonner County.
He is vying for the Republican nomination for the post in a three-way race that will culminate in a May 15 primary, and a local party leader has likened his prospects at victory to the chances of “hearing a dying calf in a windstorm.”
Local Republicans have expressed embarrassment by the bid, human rights groups are outraged, and others worry the run -- and the negative attention it garners -- will hamper efforts to dispel an image that the northern Idaho region is a haven for hate groups and extremists. “We haven’t been able to shake that stereotype of white supremacists, and it’s really unfortunate and unfair,” said Janice Schoonover, co-owner of Western Pleasure Guest Ranch in the town of Sandpoint. “This just stirs the pot and makes us seem like something we’re not.”
Northern Idaho, where Bonner County is located, was at the center of at least two major moves to establish a “white homeland” during a nearly 30-year period that ended in the early 2000s, a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center shows.
Winkler, 33, was a key staffer for the late Richard Butler, the leader of Aryan Nations, a neo-Nazi group based in northern Idaho until a lawsuit by the Southern Poverty Law Center forced the sale in 2001 of its compound near Hayden Lake in Kootenai County, adjacent to Bonner County, the center said.
The enclave Butler established in the mid-1970s became the gathering grounds for leaders of like movements, including the Ku Klux Klan and Posse Comitatus. The area also attracted a pair of California millionaires who established the racist 11th Hour Remnant Messenger ministry in the Sandpoint area of Bonner County in 1995.
Winkler told the Bonner County Daily Bee earlier this month he was motivated to seek office because of increasing federal reach into Bonner County. His two opponents are the incumbent sheriff and another man who is a police officer.
In January, Winkler identified himself as a member of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and picketed a Martin Luther King Day celebration for school children at North Idaho College, said Tom Carter, executive director of the Human Rights Education Institute in Coeur d‘Alene, the Kootenai County seat. “He got out his little magic markers and wrote hateful things on cardboard and paper,” Carter said. That came a year after Winkler and a handful of followers demonstrated at taco stands to target Latinos in Coeur d‘Alene, an affluent city of 44,000, said Tony Stewart, founding board member of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations.
Attempts to contact Winkler, of Priest River, were unsuccessful.
Cornel Rasor, chair of Bonner County Republicans, said the fiercely independent area supported Winkler’s right to say what he believes. But local Republicans were embarrassed by his affiliation with their party, which wins most elections. “I don’t know the man but I‘m guessing he’s doing this to make some sort of statement,” Rasor said, adding that the party typically endorses a candidate after the primary. Civic groups and business leaders in Sandpoint, the Bonner County seat, said the coming election has once again turned the national spotlight on the Idaho Panhandle for all the wrong reasons. Corrie Greene, operations director of the Greater Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce, said an area that once depended on logging to fuel its economy has since come to rely on outdoor recreation, a thriving arts culture and its growing reputation for regional cuisine. “That association (with white separatists) is ancient history; it’s not even an issue up here,” Greene said.
Yet members of the Kootenai County Constitution Party called on Christians in June to attend a protest of a sculpture of a Hindu deity on street-side display in Coeur d‘Alene, calling the statue of Ganesha, a multi-armed Hindu god with an elephant head, “an abomination.”
Brenda Hammond, head of the Bonner County Human Rights Task Force, described Winkler’s sheriff bid as “a wake-up call.” “We know that all of the people who think like Shaun Winkler haven’t gone away,” she said. “We will ensure people know what he stands for - and he’s been very open about that.” Idaho has few requirements for sheriff candidates, and even convictions on battery and intimidation accusations do not preclude Winkler from running. To qualify, a candidate must simply be 21 or older and must have lived in the county for a year preceding the election, according to state law.
Editing By Cynthia Johnston