SANDPOINT — The first time Idaho House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, spoke in Sandpoint in 2013, five people showed up — and one left before the meeting was over.
At Saturday's "pizza and politics," hosted by the Bonner County Democrats, about 130 people crowded into Sandpoint Community Hall. While some key issues, such as immigration, education and climate change, Erpelding pointed out the growing numbers after several questions revolved around growing the Idaho Democratic party.
One woman from Minnesota said she has a "sense of hopelessness" about Democratic politics in Idaho and asked what advice Erpelding has to address it. He said the party is growing, and pointed to a theory by a German psychologist whose theory about concentration camps broke down to the question, "who survived and who didn't survive?" What he found was those who didn't survive were those who lost hope.
"We take and we put our energy, and if it's only a little bit of energy, if it's only a smidgen of energy that we have left at the end of the day, we use it in a productive way," Erpelding said. "We don't feel pressure to overexert ourselves; we commit to the issue that we care about."
As for some of those issues, one attendee prompted Erpelding to explain House Bill 76, which she said would target immigrant families. Erpelding said it is a bill that is not needed and, while it's billed as an anti-immigrant bill, it profiles Latino communities in the southern part of the state where large farming communities use immigrant labor. If someone were to be pulled over for a minimum of a misdemeanor offense, they could be asked for their immigration papers if the bill were to pass and become law.
"The challenge with this bill is immigration is a federal issue and our police have to have positive relationships within the community in order for victims and witnesses to come forward," Erpelding said. "... What this bill will do is instill fear in the Latino community of southern Idaho, and will instill fear in other parts of Idaho where you have immigrant workforces, and it will not accomplish anything."
"Is it true that the Idaho Legislature is trying to stop teachers from teaching anything about global warming?" asked one attendee, Bob Evans.
Erpelding said the House is, for sure, tinkering with State Department of Education rules that are specific to climate change.
"What they did, is they voted to strike five paragraphs from science standards that included references to climate change, using this odd, odd argument that we need to teach both sides," Erpelding said, adding that most teachers do teach both sides.
He said "climate change is happening," and the majority of scientists agree that it is being contributed to by humans and the burning of carbon fuels. He said there may be a question of how much humans are contributing, though. His hope, he said, is that the Senate Education Committee doesn't "tinker" with those rules and suggested those in the audience call the SEC and tell them they support the rules as written.
Another man asked Erpelding where his "glimmers of hope" are in the Legislature, which Erpelding said there are some good things being worked on. One in particular is a bill that advocates rural teacher recruitment in districts where it is difficult to find and retain young teachers. If passed, the bill would give teachers in rural districts $3,000 per year for four years to be applied toward student loan debt. The idea, Erpelding said, is that they will stay for four years and during that time, they will meet the "love of their life," buy a house, have kids and stay in the area. He said $5 million per year would fund 140 teachers into rural communities.
"That's the type of thing that gives me hope," Erpelding said.