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BOISE, Idaho—Far-right agitator Ammon Bundy’s emerging bid to become the next governor of Idaho faces a peculiar roadblock: he is currently barred from entering the state Capitol where he would ostensibly need to conduct official business after being arrested there twice within 24 hours.
But his campaign, teased in the filing of paperwork last month if not yet official, is anything but a joke.
These days, Bundy—who along with his father Cliven became national icons of far-right resistance in the Obama era—is perhaps best known as the founder of the “People’s Rights” network. Since last spring, the group has led rowdy protests outside the homes of elected officials. In a move that foreshadowed the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, the group stormed Idaho’s own Capitol building last summer.
The tactics are pure political intimidation, Bundy’s opponents have charged. Now, his seeking elected office is rattling some Idahoans, who say a campaign represents another step toward legitimizing anti-democratic tactics on the right.
Either way, it could get ugly.
“I’ve got a phone number for a Boise Police liaison,” Lee Joe Lay, a People’s Rights organizer for Boise, told The Daily Beast, conceding even he was worried about someone taking the movement’s message too far. “If we find someone out there that’s locked and loaded and ready to do this, I make that call.”
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The inauspicious beginnings of People’s Rights came at a poorly-attended meeting on March 26, 2020, in a drafty warehouse in the sleepy town of Emmett. Ammon Bundy, clad in his trademark black cowboy hat, blazer, and jeans, addressed a few dozen people in front of a neglected batting cage, urging them to band together to defend their rights.
The mood in the warehouse was restless and angry, with the crowd outraged by Idaho’s early pandemic restrictions, quoting and misquoting America’s founding documents while throwing around words like “tyrants.”
Bundy told them they needed to take that anger into the streets.
"It’s not calling up my legislators and saying, ‘I don’t like this, I think you should vote this way,’” he said. “That’s not what it is. It is all of us going to the governor’s house and saying, ‘You will not do this. We are not OK with it.’ We are going to his house, we’re going to go to this director of Health and Welfare’s house."
In his talk that day, Bundy suggested that even if 150 million Americans died from the pandemic, it wouldn’t justify government restrictions on gathering.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Bundy defended the tactics and said People’s Rights would continue protesting at public officials’ homes.
“Someone who goes into the public square and becomes a representative or official, that’s what they should expect,” he said. “What we’re lacking, in my opinion, is that personal accountability in public officials.”
The bravado has worked. Fueled by backlash to anti-COVID measures, People’s Rights has grown to upwards of 40,000 people with branches from coast to coast, according to extremism experts. The group is organized so that it can mobilize members at short notice. And increasingly, local officials are on the receiving end of those calls to action—with their homes in the crosshairs, just as Bundy insisted.
In December, while Diana Lachiondo was attending a county health meeting, she received an urgent call from her 12-year-old son. Demonstrators were banging on her front door, blowing air horns, shouting about “tyranny,” and live-streaming the incident on Facebook while her children hid inside.
Lachiondo, a Democrat, was a commissioner in Ada County, Idaho, where she and other elected officials were tasked with setting public health rules, including a mask requirement in public spaces. Those rules, and the officials who passed them, attracted the ire of the People’s Rights network.
“I do believe it’s an escalation,” Lachiondo, who is no longer a commissioner, told The Daily Beast of the demonstrations outside her home. “I’m a fourth-generation Idahoan. Been here longer than Ammon Bundy, I’ll tell you that. I have never seen people treat each other the way we have in the past year.”
Some protesters on the left angry at police brutality, systemic racism, and other issues have petitioned officials at their homes in protests over the last year. But People’s Rights members justify their uniquely hyper-aggressive demonstrations by vaguely—and without evidence—accusing their targets of depriving them of liberty.
“If you don’t violate the law, I suppose you can expect peace, but all of the people we’re talking about are law violators,” Lay, the People’s Rights organizer, told The Daily Beast. “They have instructed people to violate our constitutional freedoms.”
Boise’s COVID-19 measures, as approved by Lachiondo and others, have not been found by any court or other actual authority to violate the law or the Constitution.
Demonstrators from People’s Rights targeted Lachiondo three times, she said. Elsewhere in Idaho, the group demonstrated outside the homes of Boise’s mayor, of a police officer, of a judge who was acting as a mediator in one of Bundy’s criminal cases, and of a Republican lawmaker who proposed legislation to bar protests at private homes.
The lawmaker, Idaho Rep. Greg Chaney, later tweeted a picture of items left behind at the protest: a torch, a pitchfork, and a stuffed animal wearing a “Chaney” shirt and hanging from a rope around its neck.
The protest at the judge’s home, meanwhile, attracted an interstate group whose leader is currently facing charges for a 2019 brawl in Oregon, where he allegedly pushed a woman who was later knocked unconscious. In multiple cases, members of Bundy’s group posted their targets’ home addresses online.
“As much as they’re trying to couch it within the confines of free speech, it’s clearly intimidation,” Lachiondo said. “You don’t go to someone’s home and bring an effigy of a legislator unless you’re trying to intimidate. In the case of the judge, it was just clear intimidation.”
State Rep. Brooke Green, a Democratic lawmaker who cosponsored the failed bill to ban protests outside private homes, said many of the demonstrators were known quantities among law enforcement.
“If you’re familiar with Ammon Bundy and many of his followers, these are people who’ve had criminal occasions in the past where they’ve had physical altercations with law enforcement,” Green told The Daily Beast.
The group has also led demonstrations at more public events, including its own storming of Idaho’s Capitol building in August. Bundy and approximately 200 followers burst into an ongoing legislative session, shouting about COVID-19 conspiracy theories and leaving shattered glass in their wake.
Bundy was arrested in the building the following day, barred from re-entering, and arrested again the next day when he attempted to come back. Later last year, he effectively shut down a high school football game by refusing to wear a face mask. He was arrested again for failure to appear at a court date this spring (he refused to enter the courthouse while masked) and twice more in April for allegedly trespassing at the Idaho statehouse, from which he has been banned.
He has said he is innocent of all charges.
Of course, Bundy’s fringe ties far predate the formation of People’s Rights.
“Bundy” became a household name in 2014, when Ammon’s father Cliven led a standoff against federal agents in Nevada over unpaid grazing fees for his cattle. Two years later, Ammon Bundy led his own offensive, taking over a national wildlife refuge in Oregon with a group of supporters. One Bundy supporter was killed by police when he reached for a gun at a roadblock. Although 11 of Bundy’s compatriots pleaded guilty for their roles in the 2016 standoff, Bundy was found not guilty of a slate of charges, including conspiracy to impede federal officers by force.
Observers of the far right say Bundy’s attempt to enter electoral politics—coupled with his history of dodging legal consequences—could help legitimize the strongarm tactics that first brought him notoriety.
Mike Satz, executive director of the anti-extremist group The Idaho 97, said one of his first reactions to Bundy’s potential gubernatorial run was that “this could be dangerous, that such an extreme point of view is trying to mainstream itself.”
“Normalizing this kind of behavior in our civic engagement is really the most alarming aspect to this,” Satz told The Daily Beast.
Likewise, Lachiondo argued a gubernatorial run could raise Bundy’s profile from a far-right grandstander to someone with more institutional backing.
“He’s all about attention,” she said. “The scary part is that he has support from mainstream elected officials. That’s what starts to be very concerning: when people who are elected to mainstream positions think his approach is acceptable, that’s a problem not just for Idaho, but for our democracy as a whole.”
Already, the gubernatorial race has another far-right figure: one who currently holds office.
Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin has previously appeared at an event attended by a “Three Percent” militia and posed for a photograph with two men who flashed “Three Percenter” signs while they wore shirts protesting the imprisonment of a participant in the 2014 Bundy standoff. In March, she attended a mask-burning event promoted by People’s Rights, and recently went so far as to ban mask mandates in the state while the incumbent governor was out of town. (McGeachin did not return a request for comment.)
Incumbent GOP Gov. Brad Little has yet to announce whether he will run for re-election. His opponents, however, appear to be in a desperate race to the far right.
Bundy’s activity has never been confined to one state, further raising his profile. Already, People’s Rights is involved in an increasingly tense showdown over water usage rights in Oregon and California, where a drought has pitted farmers against fishers, the latter group including Native Americans who claim seniority in their water rights. Bundy allies have recently set up tents next to a river’s headgates, raising fears that people might storm the gates and release the rationed water. A sign at the tents reportedly reads “Ammon Bundy coming soon.”
Back in Idaho, Green predicted that the home visits would continue as Bundy’s campaign and his various criminal cases proceed.
“I do believe it’s going to cause more issues in Idaho,” she said. “We haven’t even gone to the trial yet, which is going to be unfolding in the coming months. I can guarantee you that the judge and maybe even attorneys are going to face this behavior outside their homes.”
Bundy’s tactics don’t have mainstream Idaho approval, argued Lachiondo, who said that many participants were from out of state or had recently moved to the area. Despite the terror of the home visits, she added, she was overwhelmed by an outpouring of local support for her family.
“I will say, when about the fifth box of cookies arrived at our house, which my children appreciated, I was like, ‘How does everyone know where we live?’” she said. “At least it was for good.”