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‘Back to a traditional Idaho’: Sandpoint mayor announces run for governor

Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad announced he will run for Idaho governor in 2022 as a Democrat. (Courtesy of Elle Casner)
Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad announced he will run for Idaho governor in 2022 as a Democrat. (Courtesy of Elle Casner)

Democratic candidate says he will stand up to extremism and fight for education funding

Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad has announced his intention to run for governor of Idaho as a Democrat, and while he knows it’s an uphill battle in a state with a Republican supermajority, Rognstad says he has plenty of practice building coalitions in an ideologically diverse area of Idaho.

Like the time he worked with far-right legislator Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, and the Kalispel Tribe to help stop plans tobuild a silicon smelter near the border town of Newport, Washington, out of concern for air quality in the North Idaho panhandle.

“(Scott and I) don’t see eye-to-eye on pretty much everything, but this was one thing we could see eye-to-eye on,” Rognstad said.

That will be his philosophy as a candidate — to find areas of agreement and common values and focus on what can be accomplished together based on that.

Rognstad made his announcement in Lewiston on Monday afternoon. He is the second Democrat to announce intentions to run for governor, along with Melissa Sue Robinson, a transgender woman who is running as an advocate for LGBT rights and ran for Nampa mayor in 2009, 2013 and 2017. On the Republican side, Gov. Brad Little has been fundraising for reelection but has not yet officially declared he will run again. Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin announced she would run for the post as a Republican over the summer, along with Ed Humphreys, Ammon Bundy and Steve Bradshaw. Republicans Lisa Marie, Cody Usabel and Jeff Cotton have also appointed treasurers for a campaign.

John Dionne and Robert Dempsay have appointed treasurers as unaffiliated candidates, as well as Constitution Party candidates Pro-Life and Chantyrose Davison.

North Idaho mayor says he has seen extremism up close

Rognstad was born and raised in Lewiston and graduated from the University of Idaho, and he lives in Sandpoint with his wife and two children. His career in public service began in Sandpoint in 2007, and he served in various areas of the city government, including City Council president, until he was elected mayor in 2015. Rognstad was re-elected in 2019, making him only the second Sandpoint mayor to serve two terms in the city’s history. He is also a board member of the Association of Idaho Cities and the Bonner County Economic Development Corporation.

In prior years, Rognstad said he considered running for Idaho’s first congressional seat, which is occupied by Rep. Russ Fulcher. But in the past two years, so much has changed with the COVID-19 pandemic that he sees a greater need in the governor’s office.

“There’s some things Gov. Little has done right, but a lot of what’s being lost is really at the core of what Idaho is all about,” Rognstad said.

The cornerstones of Rognstad’s campaign will be family, community and freedom, and bringing those values back in the wake of the pandemic, he said.

“When I think about families, to me it’s really catastrophic the way that the COVID response has been politicized, and it really concerns me, because I see families as one of the fundamental values of Idahoans in particular,” Rognstad said. “… It’s kind of been a ‘me first’ approach to COVID, and I think that’s really unfortunate, and it really doesn’t represent the value of families.”

Rognstad said right-wing extremism has grown because of Idaho’s one-party dominance, as primaries force Republican candidates further to the right ideologically to win. He said he watched extremism play out in downtown Sandpoint over the summer in 2020, when local students held a Black Lives Matter protest and agroup of heavily armed individuals came to the protest based on a rumor that members of anti-fascist, or “antifa” were being bussed in to the area.

“I’m certainly a candidate who can bring people together across differences, but there’s also a time to know when to stand up for community values, for family values, for public health and safety, for public welfare, and I’m the candidate that has enough experience and understanding to be able to recognize when to use my discernment to know when to collaborate and to know when to take a strong stand,” Rognstad said. “I’m going to be the candidate that’s going to stand up for people in Idaho that feel threatened by this level of extremism.”

Idaho gubernatorial candidate would focus on local control, education funding

Rognstad said he has also been bothered by the attempt to limit ballot initiatives that was passed by the Idaho Legislature and signed by Little in the spring and later struck down by the Idaho Supreme Court. That action was a fundamental threat to democracy in Idaho, he said.

He is also troubled by limits on local governments placed through legislation such as House Bill 389, which was passed in the last days of the regular 2021 legislative session and placed a limit of 90% on tax revenue that could be gained from new construction and limited a local government’s total budget increase for a year to 8%.

The city of Sandpoint is expected to grow by at least 35% in the next two years, Rognstad said, while nearby Ponderay is expected to grow nearly 50%.

“It puts us into a budgetary catastrophic situation where we are not able to meet our basic levels of service that are expected from our residents,” he said.

Education, affordable housing and the protection of public lands will also be top priorities for Rognstad, who said Idaho keeps falling further behind on education. Without significant investments, he said, the state will see a shrinking tax base and a lack of qualified workers.

There are many areas that could be improved across the state, Rognstad said, and he hopes to have the opportunity to accomplish them by building bridges with people from all sides of the political spectrum.

Rognstad also led an effort to assemble a workforce housing task force earlier this year to brainstorm ideas with area business leaders and others to try to build more workforce housing in the Sandpoint area.

Overall, Rognstad said he knows the odds are stacked against his candidacy as a Democrat, but he hopes people will consider a change.

“Voters have to just recognize if we keep voting the way we’re voting, we’re going to keep getting what we’re getting,” he said. “I can take us back to a traditional Idaho where we bring traditional values back into focus and we have checks and balances in the state leadership level.”

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state.