When Washington state Rep. Matt Shea looks out before him, he sees a mostly male crowd in militia T-shirts smiling back. Gathered across an expanse of suburban grass, they hold yellow Don’t Tread on Me flags. A handful carry AR-15s and are dressed in tactical camouflage vests loaded up with ammunition. It’s a hot August Saturday at a public park in Spokane, Washington. Wildfire smoke blurs the sun.
“I’m gonna speak from the heart today,” Shea says into the microphone.
Here, despite being the only one in a blazer, this state legislator is just Matt: Matt who places a hand on a man’s shoulder, Matt who bows his head in prayer moments before stepping to the mic, Matt who tells one man, “Be blessed,” as they part ways.
“Our hope is not in man, our hope is in Jesus Christ. Can I get an ‘amen’?”
(He gets an amen.)
I’m on the ground at the “Liberty or Death” rally — a protest of 100 or so people aiming to draw attention to a package of state gun-control measures under consideration, ones this crowd sees as a clear sign of government tyranny.
A man holding an AR-15 pushes a stroller with one hand through the crowd, stopping next to me as his kid reaches a fat fist for a sippy cup just inches from the gun’s barrel. All around, people wear T-shirts and fly flags bearing eagles and declaring that “Free Men Don’t Need Permission” to bear arms. The mood here — through the messaging and the speakers and the literature being sold at tables — is that there is a problem in America, a sickness, a disease only these people have opened their eyes wide enough to see.
Shea, 44, tells the crowd that, as a “student of history,” he knows how the common theme of both Marxism and tyranny is “always to disarm the people.” They nod along. He mentions his military service (he served in both Iraq and Bosnia), but stays away from his expensive education at nearby Gonzaga University.
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“All right, I’m gonna get a little fiery,” he says, a lilt under his words.
He directs his gaze toward a few reporters and yells, “I’m tired of the media! And I’m tired of those on the left saying God-given inalienable rights don’t seem to matter.”
“Let’s hold ’em accountable!” a guy from the crowd yells.
Shea agrees. Yes, let’s, he says. “Let’s call it out publicly! They’re the ones defending tyranny!”
“A lot of people in the media, some people even here today have come out publicly and tried to smear other people, OK? Tried to tell in the media that certain individuals are not who they say they are. Try to smear them without any facts,” he says. He’s spitting his words now. “And I want to tell you something about that: We can’t become those dirty, godless, hateful people.”
In the weeks after this moment, editorial boards around the state will question how Shea — chair of the state Republican caucus — saw no consequences for these words. “Spokane lawmaker gets free pass on press-bashing. Why?” asked a Tacoma editorial. Even Washington Gov. Jay Inslee tweeted that Shea’s words “should disqualify him” from his role on the legislature’s public-records task force.
But Shea — a five-term elected official now running for a sixth — rarely sees any blowback for the things he says or for the fact that in his nine years in office he has allied with some of the most high-profile conspiracy theorists and anti-government extremists in the American West: from Cliven Bundy and his sons to a neo-Confederate Idaho preacher to the head of the Oath Keepers, an extremist group that believes “the United States is collaborating with a one-world tyrannical conspiracy called the New World Order.”
“I don’t think that the extent of [Shea’s] connections are widely known,” says Rep. Marcus Riccelli, a three-term Democrat in the state legislature who represents Spokane. “It’s a real statement of the Republican Party that someone with his extreme views has risen in the ranks of leadership.”
Long before President Trump deemed the press the “enemy of the people,” Matt Shea was refusing to speak with the media and airing his concern over conspiracy theories like FEMA camps with InfoWars’ Alex Jones. Shea also organized the Spokane chapter of the anti-Muslim ACT for America, which the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies as a hate group. And for the past few summers, Shea has spoken at a secretive religious community run by a man who was a foundational figure in the Christian Identity movement, which, according to the Anti-Defamation League, believes white Europeans to be the lost tribes of Israel and considers Jews to be the offspring of Eve and Satan.
Then there are the accusations about Shea’s temper. His first wife accused him of abuse, saying in divorce filings that she “belonged to him as a possession,” “could not get out of bed before him,” and that during two arguments “he grabbed me hard enough to leave bruises on my arms.”
She also said Shea believed he would one day be president of the United States, that he would be assassinated and that he “predicts a civil war.”
In 2012, Shea faced a firearms charge after he allegedly pulled a loaded gun from his glove compartment during a road-rage altercation. He was charged for having an expired concealed-weapons permit (it was later dropped; he reportedly made a deal with prosecutors for it to be dismissed if he went a year without breaking the law). Later, when his Democratic opponent reminded voters of the incident in campaign mailers, Shea retaliated by posting pictures of himself to Facebook in front of her home, listing the nearest intersection.
And yet he was re-elected that year with 56 percent of the vote; in 2016, he won with an even bigger margin, 64 percent.
“What I hear from people is, ‘We don’t care about his character, he votes the way we want him to,’ ” Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich tells Rolling Stone the afternoon before the park rally. Knezovich endorsed Shea in 2008 and 2010, but hasn’t since. “I should have stuck with my gut,” he says. “When I first met him I had this bad vibe about him.” Shea and Knezovich have feuded in the ensuing years, most notably when Shea alleged a local sheriff’s deputy’s gun was used in a triple murder. (Shea is being sued for defamation for those remarks.)
But the Spokane County GOP still endorses Shea (the group did not return e-mail requests for comment), and even U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers — the highest-ranking Republican woman in the House who is in a neck-and-neck race this fall — has accepted his endorsement.
Riccelli says Shea’s constituents might simply not know about his history, though the weekly paper here has been covering him for years. But “no one takes left-leaning sectors of the media very seriously here,” Knezovich explains. “Matter of fact, you’re kind of viewed as the enemy.”
For several years, Shea has proposed the same initiative in the Statehouse: A place named “Liberty” — a 51st state that would sever the rural, arid and deep-red eastern half of Washington from the urban, forested, blue coastal region. A place where God and guns won’t be regulated. A place where Shea says, consequently, there will be more freedom.
It might come as a surprise that a legislator in the famously progressive Northwest could have a career espousing far-right fringe ideas. But that image of the region is partially driven by media coverage, says Cornell Clayton, director at Washington State University’s Thomas S. Foley Institute of Public Policy and Public Service. “Within the state there’s what we call the Cascade Curtain. Everything on the west side of the state votes blue, and the east side of the state tends to vote red,” Clayton says.
The big exception is Spokane, a city that in the 2016 election was a bright island of blue in a field of red. Spokane has become a haven for people priced out of the Northwest’s larger cities, a place where artists, writers and musicians can live comfortable lives. Even so, all over the Northwest, it’s regarded as a backwater bastion of right-wingers and members of the Patriot movement, which the Anti-Defamation League describes as a set of groups “whose ideologies center on anti-government conspiracy theories.” Shea represents nearby Spokane Valley, a 98,000-person city with no discernible downtown — whiter, richer and more educated than the state average — extending almost all the way to the Idaho border.
People have been talking about hacking off the eastern part of Washington — from the Cascades to Idaho — since at least 1915. But recently, creating a bastion of God-fearing, gun-toting, canned-food eating whiteness where conservatives can survive the End Times has been embraced by survivalists and dubbed the American Redoubt — an idea that’s gained enough interested parties to demand an actual corner of the real estate market. Though Shea’s Liberty idea hasn’t gained much traction in the Statehouse, it’s red meat for anti-government extremists at a time when some Americans really are viewing this area of the country as the last remaining holdout for the type of America they think can be great again.
Knezovich, who recently produced a three-part podcast about white supremacy in Eastern Washington and North Idaho (no one calls it Northern), reminded me that there’s an old strain of hate that runs through the veins of this region. A big part of his job as sheriff, he says, is dealing with white nationalist groups — Identity Evropa, the Ku Klux Klan, militias and holdouts from when Aryan Nations was headquartered over the border in Hayden, Idaho.
In 2011, authorities discovered a bomb planted by a white supremacist on the route of Spokane’s Martin Luther King Day parade. At the time, I was the Spokane weekly paper’s music editor — but stories about white hate groups would seep into that world, too. Punks told me about shows in the ’90s flooded with skinheads dressed in their trademark red suspenders and combat boots tied with red laces. Spokane is where I first learned about Ruby Ridge, a 1992 Idaho standoff between the Weaver family — separatists with Christian Identity beliefs — and U.S. Marshals. It ended in three deaths and further fueled anti-government ideas in the region.
“There’s a deep divide within the Spokane County Republican Party between its mainstream wing and its more constitutionalist wing,” Clayton says. “The constitutionalist wing is heavily influenced by Christian nationalists and some white-supremacist elements…they have a particular view of the Constitution and it’s all steeped in this idea of liberty. It’s anti-statism. It’s anti-government.”
Even if Shea is representative of that extremist arm of the local GOP, he must be effective if he keeps getting voted in, right?
“There’s a difference between being successful as a legislator and creating policy,” Clayton says, “versus being a successful politician who is symbolic of certain issues and represents policies a minority wants.”
I ask Rep. Riccelli, and he says Shea isn’t touting Liberty in the hallways of the Statehouse. “He’s not this person 24-7,” he says. Riccelli has worked with Shea on some issues, but he emphasizes that Shea’s personality in the capitol and his personality at rallies is very different. “Who is Matt Shea, really?” he asks.
If you ask Knezovich, he thinks Shea “wants to see everything fall apart so they can have their endgame, which is their own little enclave.”
Does Shea really believe all this stuff? The conspiracy theories, the doom and gloom?
Knezovich looks me in the eye: “I think he has become it.”
Surrounded by men in boots and cowboy hats, on a blue-skied day in the spring of 2014, Shea stood in a patch of dust and gravel, speaking toward a camera.
“This is a war on rural America,” he said. Behind him, American flags unfolded in the wind.
Shea had driven to Bunkerville, Nevada, to support rancher Cliven Bundy, but also to announce the debut of the Coalition of Western States (COWS) — a group of politicians and activists hoping to see federally managed public lands transferred back to state hands.
Bundy had neglected to pay 20 years’ worth of fees to the Bureau of Land Management, required to graze his herd on the federal lands around his ranch. After Bundy defied several court orders to pay up, BLM agents came to repossess his cattle — and they were met by hundreds of Patriot movement protesters who’d come to Bundy’s side, many carrying long guns on horseback, and several in sniper positions on a nearby overpass. Outnumbered, the federal agents backed away — and the Patriots called it a victory.
By December 11th, 2015, press releases on COWS letterhead (listing Shea as its chairman), declared support for two Oregon ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond, who were being resentenced to prison time for igniting fires on federal land. “This bureaucratic terrorism must stop,” the release read. (The Hammonds were pardoned by Trump in July.)
Less than a month later, Shea visited the Bundys during yet another standoff, when Bundy’s sons, Ammon and Ryan, led a 41-day armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, during which a man was killed by police.
Oregon Public Broadcasting reported that COWS might have even been involved with the planning of the occupation and that the group negotiated on behalf of the occupiers.
“COWS had been a party to the planning in some degree,” retired Harney County Judge Steve Grasty tells me. “I don’t know if that was a lot or a little.” Grasty says Shea and several other legislators demanded to meet him at the courthouse during the first days of the occupation. “They never, ever disclosed they were part of this,” he says. “They had relationships with Bundy prior to the occupation. Never disclosed that.
“I don’t think in my 18 years of office I ever asked anyone to leave my county,” Grasty says. “I said, ‘You guys need to get out of here. You’re adding credibility to them.’ ”
The Bunkerville standoff and the Malheur occupation, in some ways, seem to have given Shea a new audience beyond his district. By June of 2016, at a place called Marble Country, a religious compound in the far northeastern corner of Washington, Shea was in the spotlight.
Marble Country was established in the 1990s by Barry and Ann Byrd. Barry Byrd was one of 14 signers of “Remnant Resolves,” a foundational document of the Christian Identity movement, signed by some of its most prominent figures. The document is “about this notion that America was intended to be Christian and needed a proper Christian government,” Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League, explains.
It’s written in “Remnant” that “the right to defend one’s life, liberty and property is a God-given right, supported by scripture,” and anyone who prevents the arming of men is “an enemy of God’s people.” In addition: “Aborticide is murder. Sodomy is a sin against God and nature. Interracial marriage pollutes the integrity of the family. Pornography destroys the purity of the mind…and defiles the conscience of the nation.”
On the final page, there’s a black-and-white portrait of the document’s framers. Barry Byrd, tall and gangly, is in the back row of the photo, in front of a banner that reads, “We are Israel.”
Pitcavage tells me that well into the 1990s, Christian Identity was one of the most active segments of the white supremacist movement. “Christian Identity was huge. There were whole Klan groups that were Christian Identity. There were whole Neo-Nazi groups that were Christian Identity. The Aryan Nations was a Christian Identity group. If you look at many of the violent acts and plots of white supremacists in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, over and over you will see they were acts of Christian Identity.” But by the 2000s, its leaders started to die off.
“A lot of people who are Christian Identity live in rural and remote areas, they are more reclusive — people like the Weaver family. They receded back into the woodwork,” he says.
In the past couple of decades, “Christian Identity has been a lot quieter. It’s been smaller, less organized and less active than it was for much of the past 30 or 40 years,” Pitcavage says. “But it hasn’t disappeared entirely.”
A lot can happen in 30 years, he notes. There’s no proof beyond the 1990s that Byrd — who Shea has appeared alongside for at least three years at Marble Country — still subscribes to Christian Identity beliefs. (The Byrds didn’t return multiple e-mails and calls for comment.)
For the 2016 God and Country festival (where Shea hosted a special, invite-only meeting with the Byrds), Ann Byrd explained in an e-mail to invitees that it was “largely focused on building a Resistance to the globalists’ relentless assault on our liberty in the United States.” Shea gave a workshop for kids: “An exercise in field skills for youth, including (but not limited to): field strip and reassemble assigned weapon; orienteering, field dressing wounds, following orders, PT, shooting skill, etc.” After dinner, he gave another workshop called “Going Underground.”
One source I spoke to, who grew up at Marble and asked to remain anonymous due to fears about safety, said the group has taken a particularly apocalyptic turn recently: “Their whole thing is, ‘The world is evil and the government is evil.’ [They want] to get back to Puritan America.”
And establishing Liberty, the source says, is central to their plans: “They have a Constitution. They have a song they have their kids sing now.… They are 100 percent on board and they think it’s going to happen soon.”
Another source, who attended the festival this year, had a pocket-size recorder and sent me audio of Shea’s speeches. This year, he really only talked about one idea: Liberty.
Shea told the crowd that KXLY — a TV station in Spokane — did a survey about the 51st state of Liberty. “They shut it down because 73 percent of the people out of 8,000 people that had weighed in were in support,” he said.
“It was a Facebook live poll,” a news director there tells me. Not exactly scientific polling.
At the end of his speech, Shea showed the flag he’s selling for the proposed state: An osprey, with wings outstretched, flying toward the viewer, broken shackles in its talons symbolizing Liberty’s liberation from Seattle.
Back at the rally in Spokane, after Shea thanks the crowd for listening, I walk up to him and introduce myself as a journalist. Shea’s eyes jump wide. He asks what my slant is.
I tell him no slant, that I’ve been reporting on the Patriot movement and the actions of people associated with the Bundy family for the past two years, and now I want to write an article about his affiliations with them. And this Liberty idea.
To my surprise, he agrees to talk, but not right away — after all the speakers are finished, out of respect.
As I wait next to the guy with the rifle and the stroller, I see Shea whisper to a short, goateed man I recognize from the Malheur standoff. It’s Anthony Bosworth, an Iraq vet who once tried to enter the federal courthouse in Spokane with an AK-47. Bosworth sees me, too.
I watch as he walks across the grass toward a woman sitting cross-legged at the front of the crowd, live-streaming the event. She’s Shari Dovale, a propagandist who runs Redoubt News, which Shea touts as an “unbiased” news outlet. (The site runs banner ads for Shea’s campaign.) She glances in my direction and nods. A part of me expected that Matt Shea would only talk to the media if his fans were watching, and if there was an army surrounding him.
Waiting for Shea, I’m sweating through my clothes. This was less of an open-carry rally than a meeting of local militias. After the last speaker of the afternoon, the emcee says they’ve got just one more guy to add — an unplanned guest: Ted Cummings.
Cummings takes the microphone and says he’s running against Matt Shea. He’s a longtime steel worker, a part-time rancher, a Spokane native. A rural, working-class guy. In the August primary, he took 42 percent of the vote.
Shea’s jaw clenches.
“I came here today and people said, ‘Ted, you shouldn’t go down there, it’s dangerous. They won’t like what you have to say.’ And I thought, ‘what safer place could I be than here?’ ”
A lady in the crowd yells, “Yes!”
“I’m confident that if anyone assaulted me and hurt me in any way I’d have this whole group stand up in my defense, even though you disagree with me,” Cummings says.
“Absolutely,” a man says back. The rest of the crowd stays quiet.
“I believe in our government, I believe in our police force over here, I believe in you,” Cummings says. “I don’t see danger in America, and Mr. Shea seems to see fear wherever he looks.”
A lady shouts, “I stand with Matt!”
Another yells, “The media drives fear and division!”
Cummings finishes up, and the emcee takes the mic again. Here comes Matt with a prayer.
When he’s done, Shea walks my way with Bosworth and Dovale.
“Are you going to video me?” I ask her.
“Yeah, actually. I am,” Dovale says. (You can watch the whole thing here.)
Shea starts in.
“Downtown Seattle just does not represent the values, traditions, cultures and beliefs of those folks in Eastern Washington,” he says. “Downtown Seattle comes out with a carbon-tax increase, or a sugar tax, or a property-tax increase, or an employee head tax…. A lot of folks over here are having a hard time getting by — they don’t need more tax increases.”
I ask him if other legislators support the creation of Liberty. He says yes. It’s “huge.” And that the claims of racism, of anything I’ve heard, are all false about Marble Country.
He gives me the boilerplate answers that are likely what have allowed him to get re-elected time and again. On the surface, there’s nothing shocking. But scratch a little deeper into Matt Shea, and you see an extremist hiding in plain sight. A man who believes the Oklahoma City bombing was an inside job. A man who recently spoke at a conference where attendees listened to “experts” on topics like how the “Deep State” is impacting the West, and Agenda 21, a theory that environmentalism is a plot by the UN to destroy U.S. sovereignty.
“It’s concerning that people aren’t taking this kind of rhetoric seriously,” Riccelli says. “I think we’ve gotta wake up as a country and as a state and as a region to what’s around us. We gotta make sure that people who are espousing hate are stood up to.”
Later, I call Cummings to ask about why he’s running against Shea.
“My fear is that Matt Shea is going to sneak through again, because people aren’t going to understand how dangerous this man is,” he says.
So why do people keep voting for Shea?
“I think it’s a lack of awareness. When you tell someone your state representative is a fascist, they are taken aback and they say, ‘That’s crazy. That can’t be so.’ ”
As I’m leaving, the rally over, there are still guys with their guns in the park. What strikes me about the entire thing is how a militia rally can happen here, in full view of the public, and there isn’t one person protesting against it.
It reminds me of what Sheriff Knezovich said to me the day before: “The day that we stop caring about the character of our elected officials is the day this democracy is over,” he told me. “It’s the end of the republic.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Matt Shea is a four-term state representative. Shea is a five-term rep running for his sixth term. We regret the error.