What It's Like To Live In A Small, Rural, Politically Divided Town Politics in Haines, Alaska — population 2,500 — has grown intensely bitter lately, reflecting the volume and heat of national politics.
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What It's Like To Live In A Small, Rural, Politically Divided Town

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What It's Like To Live In A Small, Rural, Politically Divided Town

What It's Like To Live In A Small, Rural, Politically Divided Town

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

If you should fly into Haines, Alaska, you'll be on a propeller plane so small that your pilot will call the roll.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Melissa.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mary.

MARY: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Joseph.

JOSEPH: Right here.

INSKEEP: Just 2,500 people live in Haines, but lately, this idyllic town surrounded by water with snowy mountains and lush, green forest beyond has been roiled by a political battle because a group of residents wants to recall more than half the members of the local government. NPR's Melissa Block was on that little plane. You heard her name called out. She was visiting Haines for her series Our Land.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: We've gathered a small group together in this small town to talk about what's going on; among them, one of the targets of the recall effort and...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Hey, Shane.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Hi, Shane.

BLOCK: ...One of the men who's circulating the recall petition.

SHANE HORTON: I have a petition to get rid of you out in my truck if that would help, but no (laughter).

BLOCK: That's Shane Horton. He owns a motel and drives a snowplow. I ask him, so what's the deal with all this division?

HORTON: (Laughter) Well, this is kind of like a family. It's typical of a very dysfunctional family. There is little but dissent around here for the most part.

BLOCK: Sitting right next to Horton is Heather Lende, a writer and one of the targets of that recall. She was just elected to the Borough Assembly last fall. And when she heard that some in her community were trying to oust her...

HEATHER LENDE: I felt like - this has never happened to me, but it was the closest thing I've had to feeling like I've been married for 34 years and suddenly my husband cheated on me. It was heartbreaking.

BLOCK: And social media makes it worse, Lende says. People in Haines are saying things online they wouldn't dare say in public in such a small town. Haines Tormey chimes in. He shares a name with the town where he grew up.

HAINES TORMEY: It's a pretty hot political climate here. It's like a - it's like a petri dish (laughter).

BLOCK: Tormey is a mechanic and a commercial fisherman. At 34, he's the youngest of the group. He moved away from Haines but recently decided to move back with his wife and four kids. It's a different place than he remembers - angrier, louder.

TORMEY: Haines is following footsteps with what's happening in our country, I think. The rhetoric and the volume has been turned up.

BLOCK: That gets nods of agreement around the room. So what's the root of all the contention? People erupt over local issues like a harbor expansion or who should be the new borough manager. But it's about more than that - old-timers versus newcomers, to some extent; also people who want resource development, like mining or logging, against the greenies, environmentalists who stand in the way.

HORTON: One of the things that makes ornery, bitter old farts like me is that I came here and was doing this...

BLOCK: Shane Horton again.

HORTON: ...I was doing construction and dirt work involved with the timber industry. And that went away, so I went into doing something else, and then that gets blown out of the water. How many times can I get told to completely start over because what I am doing is now not acceptable?

BLOCK: Maybe it's a question of who are we now? What's our identity in this place that's changing? Dave McCandless, a family physician in Haines, has seen these same tensions in other places he's lived.

DAVE MCCANDLESS: I think we're actually hardwired to judge things around us and decide if somebody is one of us or one of them. But once you decide somebody is one of them, it's really easy to, you know, switch over and say, well, if I disagree about this, maybe I disagree with them about everything. And suddenly, I can't find any common ground.

BLOCK: That common ground has been elusive in Haines lately. But Heather Lende says despite the recall effort against her, she's optimistic. She's a liberal and has very close friends who are Trump supporters.

LENDE: I'm not going to lose a friend over who ever votes for someone in the national election. And maybe that's the lesson that can come from Haines for the rest of the world. I mean, we've lived with divisiveness for a long time, but it's like, is it worth losing a friend over? I don't think so.

BLOCK: And Dave McCandless, the doctor, says this dissension, it's normal in small-town Alaska. He sees it every year. Anger builds through the long, dark, winter months.

MCCANDLESS: And February, March, April is when people kind of fall apart. The holidays are over, and it's a long time till spring.

BLOCK: Shane Horton laughs, yeah, that sounds about right.

HORTON: When I first came to Alaska, that was basically a kind of a joke is that about March there was a whole slew of divorces and screaming arguments and everybody switched. It was like a dance party. You just kind of switched partners around, traded vehicles, bought a new truck, ended up with a new wife, and then everybody took off and struggled through another year again. I didn't participate in most of that but...

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Except for the truck maybe.

HORTON: It went on that way an awful lot, and it was just because people are nuts when they get through with a long winter.

JOANNE WATERMAN: Spring breakup.

BLOCK: That's Joanne Waterman. She's just retired from working at the ferry terminal.

WATERMAN: We will go through these times. We will fight. We will scrap. We'll go to the bar and have a beer together, and we'll bounce back, and we'll be different. But, you know, we'll still be a community that at the base of it, at the heart of it, we love each other.

BLOCK: But remember Haines Tormey who moved back here with his young family? He's rethinking that decision.

TORMEY: All the time because I'm scared that it's never going to stop, and I don't think it's a healthy way to live.

MCCANDLESS: I guess what I really want to do is reassure you.

BLOCK: Dr. Dave McCandless wants Haines to know this...

MCCANDLESS: What you're seeing, this tension and this turmoil and all that, it's all happened before. This country has been full of that just like the town is full of it. But what will change is your way of thinking of it. OK? You'll come to grips with that. Three years from now, we'll be arguing about something else just as feverishly, and we won't be able to remember what this was.

BLOCK: But there will be something else that you'll be arguing about.

MCCANDLESS: Oh, trust me.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Melissa Block, NPR News, Haines, Alaska.

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