Leaving Urban Areas For The Political Homogeneity Of Rural Towns In the last election, it became easier to see the political divide between urban and rural areas. Now, people from California are moving to northern Idaho to find people similar to them.
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Leaving Urban Areas For The Political Homogeneity Of Rural Towns

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Leaving Urban Areas For The Political Homogeneity Of Rural Towns

Leaving Urban Areas For The Political Homogeneity Of Rural Towns

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We knew there were political divisions in this country between urban and rural areas, but last year's election showed us just how stark those differences are. And one trend we're following - people of similar political stripes are in some cases seeking each other out. Northern Idaho, for example, is becoming a beacon for conservative transplants from California. Here's NPR's Kirk Siegler.

ADRIEN KOCH: We have dogs. Thank goodness they're in there, and they didn't bark.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Adrien Koch retired last summer from her job with FEMA in the Bay Area. After vacationing in the wooded mountains of north Idaho, she and her husband fell in love, and they moved here a few months later. It reminds cook of the California she knew in the '70s.

KOCH: It's kind of like a better time that's gone by, yeah. It's a much slower pace.

SIEGLER: Koch is 62 with graying blonde hair. She's sitting on the couch in her Spartan living room. The house she bought in this quiet cul-de-sac is twice as big and half as expensive as the one she had in California, but that's only one reason why she left.

KOCH: I did not feel safe.

SIEGLER: Why is that?

KOCH: Because of the crime. The crime has escalated. And the element that has moved out of San Francisco and moving farther and farther out so the farther out you go, yes, it's less expensive, but it's also more dangerous.

SIEGLER: Koch instantly felt at home in small town Idaho. She says there are a lot of like-minded Christians. And as she's gotten older, to her surprise, she's become more conservative.

KOCH: I've always been fearful of guns. However, I'm open now to learning. And the gun stores and gun clubs here in Coeur d'Alene are very warm and welcoming. They're very helpful.

SIEGLER: Cook was also struck by just how many expat Californians are here. They're everywhere - the gun shop owners, the retirees at the golf resorts. They hold seats on school boards and in local government.

KOCH: I immediately tell people, especially if they're not from California, I am not one of those people who want to change Idaho. I love it the way it is. That's why we're here.

SIEGLER: But North Idaho, at least, has changed. It wasn't always so staunchly conservative. A lot of people I talked to traced this shift back to the early '90s. That was around the time of the deadly earthquakes in California. There was a lot of racial tension after the Rodney King beating, and out migration to states like Idaho really picked up.

North Idaho's population has since doubled. And even as late as 2015, the census shows that more than a quarter of all new residents moving to the state still came from California. In the town of Post Falls, I met C.J. Buck, the owner of Buck Knives.

C.J. BUCK: So this is our manufacturing facility.

SIEGLER: They make heavy-duty hunting knives, the kind you might gut an elk with.

BUCK: We just picked up and moved. We brought about 60 people with us.

SIEGLER: They left Southern California a few years back because he says the cost of doing business there got too high. He entertained an enticing tax incentive package from Portland, Ore., but they settled on Idaho.

BUCK: We looked at Idaho as not having a major metropolitan area. That would mean as a state we would stay truer to those rural understandings.

SIEGLER: What he's saying is that there's no major city like Portland or Los Angeles that would swing Idaho's politics to the left, especially when it comes to minimum wage increases.

BUCK: The beauty of Idaho is you just never lose connection. It's the people who need the jobs are the ones voting on the issues.

SIEGLER: Now, that rural vote Buck is talking about played a big role in the surprise election of Donald Trump. And if you think about the Electoral College just for a minute, it's weighed disproportionately to rural red states like Idaho. So conservative folks like Buck, if they move up to Idaho their vote has nearly twice as much impact as it did in California.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Are you ready now?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK. Welcome.

SIEGLER: One frigid night I ducked into a restaurant next to the resorts that were built recently along the shores of Lake Coeur d'Alene. Here is the monthly meeting of North Idaho's Progressive Diners. The people in this small crowd half joked that I was looking at the only Democrats left in Kootenai County. Eighty-year-old Mary Lou Reed was the last one to represent this area in the state legislature. She was ousted in 1994.

MARY LOU REED: Well, the economy changed enormously. The lumber mills are all gone. The mines are shuttered down. We do not have labor unions that are active.

SIEGLER: Reid also moved up here from California, but in 1956. And she recalls how North Idaho was once the country's top silver producer, and union Democrats ruled up until the late '80s. Now this county doesn't have a single Democrat in office. Reed says the thing that no one's talking about out in the open with all these changes is white flight out of California.

REED: We're very, very white up here.

SIEGLER: Kootenai County is 95 percent white, compared to much of Southern California today, say, where whites are now in the minority.

REED: People who move here from Southern California will never overtly say that they are racist. They'll just say we left Southern California 'cause the crime was getting to be so awful.

SIEGLER: She insists that race plays a part in some people's decisions to move up here.

REED: No question. The white flight is to flee from a multi-racial situation into one in which everybody looks the same. It's very dull.

SIEGLER: This is definitely an uncomfortable subject. Some of the transplants I met didn't really want to talk about race as a reason why they did or didn't move here. And others told me it just didn't have anything to do with it. Race and politics, it's complicated in North Idaho just like anywhere else.

ANNA OROPEZA: We don't got much time left, so.

SIEGLER: I met Anna and Luis Oropeza in their modest home in one of the new subdivisions sprouting up in the pine forests on the western edge of Coeur d'Alene.

A. OROPEZA: Looking at houses it's the first thing, I'm like, oh, there's another Californian moving to the neighborhood.

SIEGLER: The Oropezas relocated last year from California. For Anna it was like coming home. She grew up here. Her parents moved her up from Orange County in the early '90s. When they decided to move they were a little apprehensive at first. Anna is white and Lewis is Hispanic. They're raising two African-American foster kids, and one who is Latina.

LUIS OROPEZA: When I first moved up here I heard people were like, oh, you're going to get, you know, the eye or whatever, but it's never happened to me. People are just as nice as can be.

SIEGLER: The couple thinks this is a safer place to raise their kids. And they like the politics, too. Luis says Idaho is more live and let live.

L. OROPEZA: You know, the laws are just way too strict compared to up here. You know, here you can actually practice your amendments. Down there, you get really restricted. You know, and it's - a lot of people like the freedom.

SIEGLER: A gun owner, Luis says that even he was surprised when he first walked into a store here and saw someone openly carrying and it was no big deal. In California, he says, someone would call the cops right away. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

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