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Idaho’s Anti-Lockdown Lieutenant Governor Has Gone Rogue

‘ONE HEARTBEAT AWAY’
Janice McGeachin has been openly undermining the governor’s stay-at-home order.

Justin RohrlichMay. 25, 2020 4:34 AM ET

When the Republican governor of Idaho issued a plan to safely reopen businesses in the state, he ordered bars to stay closed until at least June 13. Last weekend, in defiance of those guidelines, Idaho’s lieutenant governor—also a Republican—reopened the tavern she owns with her family in Idaho Falls.

A few days before reopening The Celt Pub and Grill, Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin penned a scathing op-ed in which she slammed Gov. Brad Little’s oversight of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“As Lieutenant Governor, I am one heartbeat away from the governor’s chair,” McGeachin wrote. State residents, she added, were “sidelined and left to watch silently as the government closed Main Street by unilaterally deciding which businesses were ‘essential’ and which ones were not.” 

The definition of “essential” workers came from the White House, not the statehouse, but that was lost in the remarkable animosity between Idaho’s top leaders. According to the Idaho Statesman, McGeachin and Little have not spoken in weeks. 

As the country enters its third month of lockdown amid a slumping economy, right-wing protesters often funded by a network of deep-pocketed conservative groups, have called for states to be “liberated” from a patchwork of measures meant to slow the spread of COVID-19. But public health experts warn that reopening prematurely will only make things worse. Weeks after it reopened, Texas has experienced a surge in COVID-19 deaths.

A majority of Americans, on both sides of the aisle, say the nation is reopening too quickly, but among politicians the dispute is largely split down party lines. In Georgia, the Democratic mayors of Atlanta, Savannah, and Albany are opposed to Republican governor Brian Kemp’s reopening plan, saying it is too early. The Democratic mayor of Des Moines, Frank Cownie, has criticized Iowa governor Kim Reynolds, a Republican, for the same reason. 

However, the feud between McGeachin and Little is playing out among two conservatives in a deep red state. Idaho state representative Greg Chaney, a Republican who has been openly critical of McGeachin’s position on reopening, told The Daily Beast he hasn’t seen anything like it in his lifetime. 

“This particular administration has been in office not quite two years, and so their working relationship is relatively new,” said Chaney, “but historically I can't recall a similar example, even [back in the 1980s] when we had a Repubiclan lieutenant governor and a Democratic governor.”

In Idaho, the governor and lieutenant governor are elected individually. Little clinched Idaho’s 2018 Republican gubernatorial primary with 37 percent of the vote; McGeachin won with 29 percent. They both were voted into office with 60 percent of the vote in the general election.

Neither responded to requests for comment for this story.

The day after Little’s broad stay-at-home order eased earlier this month, McGeachin attended a “Disobey Idaho” protest outside the state capitol building. “Disobey Idaho” was organized by the Idaho Freedom Foundation (IFF), a right-wing group backed by the conservative State Policy Network. In a blog post, Wayne Hoffman, the IFF’s executive director, told followers that the state, country, and economy “are in a death spiral, inflicted by our elected officials and their teams of ‘health experts.’”

Following her appearance at the demonstration, McGeachin flew to the town of Kendrick with Idaho GOP chairman Raul Labrador to support the reopening of the Hardware Brewery, a local brewpub, which authorities said was restricted from opening until mid-June. A week later, the Idaho State Alcohol Beverage Control Bureau warned the establishment that its liquor license could be pulled if it continued to violate the governor’s order by staying open. 

McGeachin accused Little of abusing his power to “harass and intimidate private businesses.” Hardware Brewery co-owner Christine Lohman took it a step further, comparing Idaho under Little’s leadership to Nazi Germany. 

The brewery has remained open, contrary to state orders, Lohman told The Daily Beast. She said she is unsure if the business will be fined or penalized, but that she has been in touch with the Idaho Department of Health about safety guidelines. The establishment has “met them on some of it,” including canceling events and using paper plates and disposable cutlery, Lohman explained, but said they’re still “trying to work on the social distancing.”

“I don’t have so much of an issue that they want us to do it, but I don't think private businesses should be told by the government to police the public,” she continued. “Our public are critical-thinking adults, for me to say, ‘I need to check your temperature,’ or that only six people can sit together although eight or 10 came in together... I say, ‘When is it going to stop?’”

Lohman and her husband have depleted their retirement savings in an attempt to keep the brewery’s lights on, she said. Little, however, “has not lost his check, he has not lost his medical.”

“The lieutenant governor has more stones than the governor,” said Lohman. “Brad Little has acted like a Democrat through this whole thing, and the people know it. These are people who want their freedom. This is the perfect time for America to fight for its civil rights.”

McGeachin, 57, was a delegate for Donald Trump during the 2016 Republican National Convention, and vice-chair of Idaho’s statewide committee to elect Trump. Her 2018 campaign website for lieutenant governor, which is still active, boasts a photo of her in a MAGA hat alongside Donald Trump Jr., under the headline: “President Trump Keeps Making America Great Again!” 

Born in New Mexico, the staunchly anti-abortion McGeachin is Idaho’s first female lieutenant governor. In addition to The Celt, which opened in 2012, McGeachin and her husband operate a successful auto transmission business. Last year, on the 24th anniversary of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City by white supremacists, McGeachin administered an oath at a rally hosted by a right-wing militia called the Real Three Percent of Idaho, which the Southern Poverty Law Center says is part of an “extreme anti-government” movement. A month earlier, McGeachin was photographed posing with far-right militia members in what appeared to be a message of support for Todd Engel, who is currently serving a 14-year sentence for his part in an armed confrontation with federal agents.

The escalating conflict seen now between McGeachin and Little is “emblematic of the same chaotic approach to the pandemic we are seeing at the federal level,” Craig Holman, a government affairs expert at the watchdog nonprofit Public Citizen, told The Daily Beast.

“Though Trump and Pence are more or less in agreement, the constant contradicting of senior health officials by Trump has rendered the government's response to the pandemic listless at best,” said Holman. “Fortunately for some states, Trump has now decided to turn over control of the pandemic policies to the states. However, for Idaho, the state response will be as divided and chaotic as it has been at the federal level.”

As a business owner, McGeachin clearly has a financial stake in reopening, though she has pushed back at the idea that her family broke any rules by re-launching dine-in and drink-in service in mid-May.

Under the state order, bars don’t reopen until May 30, but McGeachin said in a Facebook post that The Celt is a restaurant and was allowed to reopen earlier. But she also put The Celt in the same category as Hardware Brewery, which has already been cited for breaking the rules.The Celt says it is taking precautions: operating at 50 percent capacity; capping parties at six people; using paper menus. But while employees are required to wear face masks during their shifts, customers are not

That endangers staff as well as other diners in the space, said Luisa Franzini, chair of the School of Public Health at the University of Maryland, College Park.

“There should be social distancing, wearing of masks, and so on,” even for outdoor dining, Franzini told The Daily Beast, adding that she believes indoor dining remains unsafe. “I haven't found two jurisdictions that have the same policy. It makes you feel that your health and safety are really dependent on where you happen to live.”

An employee who answered the phone at The Celt told The Daily Beast that staff members were instructed not to speak with reporters.

Idaho has more than 2,400 confirmed cases of COVID-19 to date.

In some parts of the state, the rate of COVID-19 infections has been low. Of Idaho’s 44 counties, 11 haven’t had a single case, Greg Chaney explained. Yet, he said, Blaine County, where the Sun Valley ski resort is located, at one point exceeded the per capita infection rate of any other place in the country, including New York City—the “hottest spot” in the U.S. 

“I think it’s understandable to express disagreement, or even frustration, given everything that’s going on,” Chaney said, “but I think it’s important that we all look for constructive ways to express that. “While we’re in the heat of the moment, trying to get people to work together to address what’s happening, it’s certainly poor timing to undermine the governor in charge.”

“Governors across the country have proven themselves to be real leaders during this time, particularly given the dearth of strategy from the White House,” adds Democratic strategist Andrew Taverrite. “I would think Idahoans—like the rest of the country—are looking for science-based information rather than political fights right now.”

McGeachin’s stance on reopening doesn’t much surprise Deborah David-Simonds, a retired RN living in Idaho Falls.

David-Simonds notes that while McGeachin has actively encouraged Idahoans to disobey Gov. Little’s stay-at-home order, Little has taken a “thoughtful approach” to reopening. He has listened to advice from state health officials, further drawing criticism from the right, David-Simonds told The Daily Beast. She sees the issue as a health concern, nothing more, and can’t comprehend “why masks are seen as a violation of someone’s constitutional rights.”

And although business closures have taken a great toll on people’s finances, Luisa Franzini urges people to consider the bigger picture.

“Of course there is individual freedom, but the freedom ends when your freedom starts hurting someone else,” she said. “In the case of an epidemic, it’s justified to put some restrictions on people, and some just ideologically are not accepting that.”

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