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After The Occupation, Oregon Sees A Rise In 'Patriot' Candidates

Amanda Peacher/OPB
B.J. Soper, with the Pacific Patriots Network, speaks into a megaphone during a protest in Burns, Oregon supporting the militant occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January.

The occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge ended more than three months ago, but the rhetoric of the occupiers is showing up in a number of candidate campaigns this primary season.

Many of those candidates are part of the self-described “patriot” movement, which includes groups like Oregon III% and the Oath Keepers, all part of the Pacific Patriots Network. Many of the more than a dozen patriot candidates share some of the ideology and values of the leaders of the occupation of the Malheur refuge and filed to run for office after the occupation began.

The patriot movement has seen a rise in participation on social media and, some groups report, in membership since the occupation. The primary will be an interesting test of whether that rise translates to the election of similarly leaders.

Patriot Ideology

Their campaigns often emphasis defending the U.S. Constitution. They believe the county sheriff has the ability to enforce or not enforce state and federal laws based on if he or she believes they’re unconstitutional. Some of the candidates for county sheriff positions, for example, say they’ll follow the lead of other sheriffs who refuse to enforce Oregon’s background check law for gun purchases.

They also tend to promote a limited federal government and support the idea that federal lands should be under local control. But not all patriots are supporters of the refuge takeover. While many of the patriot groups in Oregon protested the shooting death or Robert “LaVoy” Finicum and agreed with the mission of the occupation, they did not support the actual takeover of the refuge facility. The PPN were the original organizers of the Jan. 2 rally in support of ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond, who they said were wrongly sentenced to a five-year prison term for arson on federal lands. But PPN leaders said the occupiers hijacked the rally by overtaking the federal facility. During the occupation, the PPN was active in Harney County, trying to position themselves as sort of a buffer between the occupiers and law enforcement.

At Least 15 Candidates Reflect Patriot Movement Values

Perhaps the best-known candidate sympathetic to the patriot movement is Bruce Cuff, who is running for governor and supports the transfer of federal lands to state control. He’s spoken at rallies protesting the shooting death of Finicum.

Joseph Rice, one of the founders of the Pacific Patriots Network, is running for Josephine County commissioner. Rice agrees with many of the broader patriot movement goals but also wants to build up a county-wide community neighborhood watch program managed by sheriff’s deputies.

Most of the patriot candidates are running at the county level in rural Oregon, in seats for commissioner, county judge, county sheriff, which isn’t surprising given the movement’s emphasis on local control. There are at least 15 such candidates running in the primaries across the state, which is more than in past years. Not all belong to patriot organizations, but their campaign goals often reflect those of the occupiers.

In Baker County, for example, county commission candidate Kody Justus supports the transfer of federal lands to local control: “The citizens of Baker County are fine stewards of the land and resources,” he said in a campaign video.

Harney County judge candidate Tom Schaefer references the U.S. Constitution often in his campaign speeches and said that local collaborative efforts with the federal government have failed the community.

“I think we need to push back with every opportunity and every bit of leverage that we have against these federal agencies that are strangling us,” he said.

Many, but not all, of these candidates filed to run for election after the occupation began. But some, such as Crook County judge candidate Craig Brookhart, filed long before the takeover.

The occupation wasn’t necessarily the catalyst for Rice or any of the other candidates. “But I think it’s drawn attention; people have started to read; they’ve started to research,” Rice said. “I think people are really paying attention, and they’re concerned.

What We Might Expect If Elected

Many patriot movement candidates say that they will push for more local say in federal land management policies, and they often point to “coordination” as a tool to do so. Coordination is a provision in two federal environmental policy laws that require agencies to coordinate with local governments in land-use planning.

Some also say they’ll push for more economic development policies that include natural resource exploitation and tax breaks for businesses. Many also say they protect individual property rights as well as the Second Amendment.

Rice said the growth in candidates is a reflection of widespread disillusionment with federal agencies.

“We’re frustrated, we’ve attempted through indirect and direct means to have discussions, but we’re ignored,” he said. “So we’ll go for positions to represent the citizens and their concerns and complaints.”

Copyright 2016 Oregon Public Broadcasting.