The moderator was polite enough not to make it Question 1. But, oh, it was coming.
This face-off in Hailey, Idaho, wasn't a typical debate night. Beforehand, incumbent state Sen. Michelle Stennett, a Democrat, had sought assurances for her safety, fearing riled-up supporters of her Republican opponent, Eric Parker. He, in turn, posted guards outside to avoid a ruckus like the one at a recent GOP picnic. That time, a heckler interrupted Parker's speech to call him a domestic terrorist.
The precautions all go back to what Parker calls "the elephant in the room" in his bid for state office, namely that federal authorities consider him an anti-government extremist who belongs in prison. Instead, Parker beat felony charges twice, now leads one of the best-known militia groups in the mountain region, and is currently on the ballot in a rare purple district in bright-red Idaho.
That trajectory – and the alarm it's raising in some Boise political circles – finally came up in Question 8, after property taxes and gun control: "Mr. Parker, in the past you've pled guilty to breaking the law at the 2015 showdown between the Bureau of Land Management at the Bundys' ranch in Nevada."
If elected, the moderator continued, would Parker uphold his oath to follow all laws, even if he disagreed with them?
Parker, in a navy suit with his long hair tied back, listened with a slight smirk, then started his answer with a correction: "It was 2014."
Six years ago, during the armed standoff in Bunkerville, Nev., Parker, then a 30-year-old electrician, stood on a bridge along with other right-wing supporters of the local Bundy family's fight with the government over grazing rights. Below, in a dry riverbed, heavily armed authorities watched the demonstrators. As tensions rose, Parker dropped to his belly, stuck his rifle through a gap in a concrete barrier and leveled his weapon at the officers.
That life-or-death moment on the bridge was captured in a photo that's been described as the most iconic image of the anti-government movement in the past 20 years. Prosecutors and much of America took one look at Parker prone with a semiautomatic rifle and saw an act of domestic terrorism. To the far-right "patriot movement," however, Parker was an antihero, a legend. The bridge photo appeared on T-shirts and in memes with captions like, "You give peace a chance. I'll cover you."
The mythos was cemented when the government's prosecution of Parker collapsed in 2018, with two federal trials culminating in a plea agreement on a single misdemeanor; a raft of felonies vanished. The infamous "Bundy Ranch sniper" walked, emerging from lockup with the swagger of a man who faced 100 years in prison and instead got a second act.
At the debate Sept. 17, Parker reminded Idaho voters that he is guilty only of a misdemeanor obstruction charge, "the same as jaywalking." He said he'd take two more to stand up for the First Amendment. Parker pledged to follow the law, but then added a little wiggle room.
"An unjust law is an illegal law per the constitution," he told the audience.
For the past year, NPR has followed Parker's political evolution as he joins a wave of patriot movement figures seeking – and sometimes winning – public office. These days, the guy in the photo with a rifle is the guest of honor at a fundraiser at the lieutenant governor's house, accepting a check from the state GOP chairman.
But Parker's attempt to straddle two worlds is becoming increasingly complicated. The far-right militia threat has emerged as a feature of this election season, with warnings of voter intimidation, violent clashes at statehouses and protests, and an alleged plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan.
If it was hard for Parker to shed the "domestic extremist" label before, it's now impossible. As part of its efforts to curb militia-style organizing, Facebook recently wiped out accounts associated with Parker, his campaign and his group, the Real 3%ers Idaho. Parker, incensed, likened the ban to "communist China."
"We've had to kind of completely change the way we do things because of the Facebook censorship," he said.
Meanwhile, Parker is taking heat from within the militia movement, too.
In July, Idaho County authorities invited the Real 3%ers Idaho to look at evidence in hopes of preventing unrest over a deputy's shooting of a far-right activist, Sean Anderson, in a traffic stop. After Parker's group reviewed video and a 911 call, he issued a statement affirming that the shooting appeared justifiable under the circumstances.
Some right-wing activists saw this as a betrayal. They held a rally where, according to The Lewiston Tribune, Anderson's wife ripped up the 3%ers' statement and said of Parker: "How dare you elevate yourself to see that information before me."
Parker said he won't be cowed into groupthink. He considers himself a true-blue "constitutionalist," a holdout against the overt white nationalism that has crept into other patriot factions. Parker said he's already kicked out several members, some for racism and some for going to "fight antifa" in Portland, Oregon: "We don't do 'Gangs of New York' in my organization."
When asked about rumors that he's Latino, Parker said he has Hispanic and Irish ancestry but that he loathes "identity politics" and writes in "American" on forms that list racial categories. He said his opposition to white nationalists is about his principles, not his background.
Unlike many on the right, Parker doesn't disparage leftist protesters as a whole. In the black-clad antifa activists, he said, he recalls his days as a mohawk-wearing youth scrapping with neo-Nazis on the streets of Phoenix. Inked on the same arm as a big 3%er logo is a vestige of his punk phase: A Black Flag tattoo.
Similarly, he rejects the blanket labeling of Black Lives Matter as a terrorist organization ("Welcome to the club!"). He said the police killing of George Floyd was indefensible and he acknowledges systemic racial inequalities. But he repeated right-wing chestnuts about "looters and rioters" taking over the protests.
Parker said his second-in-command passed out 100 cheeseburgers at a Black Lives Matter event in Boise, along with a request for protesters to remain peaceful.
"If you're going to occupy and you're not going to leave, that's great. But if somebody is throwing a brick behind you, take them out," Parker said. "Clean your own house. You have to."
Isn't that a little rich coming from the guy whose idea of peaceful protest landed him on domestic terrorism lists?
"When I was laying on the bridge looking through that crack, I was very much watching my own side," Parker said. "Because if somebody threw a brick at one of those federal agents and they started shooting people, it would've been our fault."
These says, Parker is watching his side again. Dialogue, he said, is a hard sell in this combustible moment. Lines are hardening. There's little appetite for de-escalation.
"It's not a popular stance to say that we can affect change in the system. Most people don't believe that. Especially in the crowds we see. Everybody's pretty done with talking, if you were to ask them," Parker said. "I think that means it's even more important that somebody's talking."
Extremism analysts warn against viewing Parker as some kind of statesman of the anti-government world, saying it risks promoting the myth of a "neutral" or benign militia. Even if the Real 3%ers Idaho didn't participate as an organization, analysts note, members have been spotted among the armed demonstrators pushing their way into the capitol in Boise or joining a vigilante mob up north in Coeur d'Alene.
Parker doesn't dispute that his 3%ers have turned up at those events. He disapproves, he said, but his bigger concern is the off-camera threat, the unseen mobilizing he's hearing about in other parts of the state. Whispers of offensive operations in a movement that traditionally asserts itself as a defensive, patriotic force. He wouldn't divulge names or any details, but Parker said he's made personal pleas for restraint.
"Those groups out there I do not make excuses for," Parker said. "I've literally tried to proactively take my own time to search out who's in charge and tell them, 'As the guy in the picture that holds some sort of sway, I guess, to listen, man, it's going to get crazy. And you have a responsibility.'"
After lockup, an opportunity
At the Idaho statehouse one Tuesday in January 2018, Republican state Rep. Dorothy Moon glimpsed a familiar face in the visitors' gallery.
"Mr. Speaker, I'd like to introduce Mr. Eric Parker," Moon said on the Capitol floor.
Moon praised Parker for "everything he's done for the citizens of Idaho and in Nevada." She and several other conservative lawmakers then applauded, according to video from Idaho public media, until the speaker said, "House will be in order."
Upstairs in the gallery that day, Parker was stunned by the welcome. He said it was his first inkling that his actions in Nevada – which made him radioactive in polite society – might yield political clout. He saw a path to legitimacy. Power.
"When I came home, I didn't go put on camouflage and start running around the woods practicing for some war," Parker said. "I realized very quickly that policy and policymakers is where we affect real change."
Parker's release coincided with a tumultuous era for Idaho's Three Percenters, named for the nationwide movement based on the debunked notion that just 3% of colonists fought in the American revolution. Embezzlement accusations against a top leader led to the implosion of Idaho's biggest Three Percenter faction, which Parker was part of forming right after the 2014 standoff.
By the time Parker emerged from his 18-month detention, he said, the Three Percenters had atomized into more than a dozen smaller groups fanned out across Idaho. With name recognition from the Bundy ranch and street cred for beating federal charges, Parker was uniquely positioned to lead a new era.
"After the acquittals, there was an opportunity for kind of a rebirth," Parker said.
Parker bristles at being called a paramilitary or militia leader; he sees it as overseeing a statewide network promoting "self-reliance and civil defense." Rebranded as the Real 3%ers Idaho, the organization vacuumed up at least eight disparate armed groups across the state, amassing a paramilitary force that made extremism researchers take notice.
His entry into politics earlier this year drew deeper concern. Even if Parker is a long-shot candidate against a popular, longtime incumbent, the experience gives his ideology a bigger platform, potentially drawing recruits through his boots-to-suits transformation.
"Over the past year, we've seen Eric Parker work to enter the mainstream in some ways. He sort of put down his camo, put on a suit and tie, he's running for office," said Lindsay Schubiner of the Western States Center, a Portland-based civil rights nonprofit that tracks militia activity in the region.
No matter how measured the political speech, she said, there's always the implicit threat of violence.
"Parker is still the leader of an armed paramilitary movement that is not accountable to any civil or government authority," Schubiner said. "That's incredibly dangerous."
Extremism analysts say Parker is representative of the nuances that often get lost in public discourse about "militias," now a catchall term that runs the gamut from organized groups like the Real 3%ers to pop-up bands of like-minded friends.
In anything-goes 2020, Parker is not extreme enough for militia compatriots who are open to working with Proud Boys, white nationalists, or the "boogaloo bois" calling for violent revolution. And among the old guard, there's wariness about the spotlight he draws to the movement, said Amy Cooter, a Vanderbilt University sociologist who studies right-wing militia groups and has interviewed members for years.
"A lot of those folks at least respect what he's trying to do, even if they don't always agree with how he goes about that or his public messaging," Cooter said. "Sometimes they see it as a bad thing to have too much attention drawn to yourself that way. Sometimes they kind of construe it as somebody – again, using their words here – getting bigger than their britches."
Behind the scenes, Parker said, the attention was no prize. His wife, Andrea, mother of their four children, lost her job because of his trials. When she'd drop the kids off at school, Parker said, other parents would gawk and whisper.
For a while, Andrea pleaded with her husband to leave town and start over somewhere new. Parker said moments like the applause at the Capitol helped to convince her that they still had supporters. Not only were people listening, Parker reassured her, "they were understanding."
So, the family stayed put.
"It didn't click right away, but something started to form in my head. That we had an opportunity that we were either going to use or not use. And I hate passing opportunities," Parker said. "We checked it out and we tried, and we saw how far we could get. We realized we could get pretty far."
Parker the politician
At dusk one recent Friday, hundreds of Idahoans, not a mask in sight, arrived for a big annual rodeo in rural Gooding County, a red part of the purple district Parker seeks to represent.
"Pocket Constitution?" Parker asked families on the way in, handing out miniature copies. "I'm running for state senate..."
Months after insisting that his only political ideology was "Three Percenter," here was Parker campaigning as a Republican, at an official Republican booth, to the consternation of some in the party who see him as a libertarian interloper.
"There's definitely people who will never be fans of mine," Parker said. "They don't believe I'm really a Republican. Which is, you know, that's fair. I'm not like any other Republican."
Tom Luna, chairman of the Idaho Republican Party, said he tells members who are skeptical about Parker to go talk to him, to "get their own comfort level." Luna said that's what he did, and he came away convinced that Parker wasn't a threat. He said the party "would never support a domestic terrorist for office."
"In Idaho, the Republican Party is very diverse. As party chairman, my No. 1 goal and responsibility is party unity," Luna said. "When we have a candidate that wins a primary, we support our candidates."
Luna said he donated $500 to Parker's campaign; the state party gave him another $500.
"I personally gave money to Eric because I think he does have a future," Luna said. "I think he can win that race, and I am personally comfortable with how he's explained his previous involvement and actions."
Among Idaho Democrats, there was some surprise that Stennett, who's held the seat for a decade, would validate Parker's run by agreeing to debate him that evening in Hailey. The inference was that it was beneath her.
In an interview with NPR, Stennett said that it's a mistake to describe her district as "a blue bubble" or to pretend that Parker doesn't have pockets of support. Stennett said she agreed to the debate because she's committed to serving all constituents.
"I don't feel like adding more fear or anger or vitriol to it deescalates anything," Stennett said. "So we walk in with our own truth and our own message. I'm not going to do this in a fearful fashion and have been given no evidence that I need to be."
As for Parker's history, Stennett said politely, "That's his to own, not mine to own."
What critics don't get, Parker said, is that he's not ashamed of his conduct during the standoff. In fact, he's proud of it. He shrugs off politicians and reporters who want to "go back to 2014."
"I haven't hidden it throughout the whole campaign. I lead with it," Parker said. "I was indicted by the federal government. I do believe what I did was right. That's why I'm here."
A flash of the firebrand Parker comes out when he's reminded that, no matter the legal outcome, everybody saw him with a gun on the bridge looking poised to shoot at federal agents. On what planet does that guy deserve to be elected?
"Just because a picture might look a little scary to folks in Jersey doesn't mean that, out West, we won't do it," Parker said. "'Constitutionally protected conduct,' is what one of those jurors said to my lawyer."
At the rodeo in Gooding, Parker was no pariah. He got a glare or two from cops in line at a food truck, but otherwise was greeted warmly, often by name. He stepped away for a few minutes to privately console a woman who approached him, the mother of a 3%er who had died of an overdose.
Several people mentioned that they'd seen Parker's signs in town and wished him luck. One voter instantly recognized the name but looked confused about his run for state senate.
"On which ticket? Republican?" the guy asked, visibly shocked.
"Yeah, yeah," Parker replied with a grin.
The most enthusiastic reaction came from a bearded man who appeared to be in his 60s. He declined to give his name but said Second Amendment issues were driving his vote. In Parker, he said, maybe there was a chance for conservatives to finally tip the scale in a district long dominated by the Democrats in Sun Valley.
"Eric Parker! You bet!" the man said. "I support you."
"I appreciate that," Parker replied. "I think we're going to do it this year."
"I hope you do," the man said. "I hope you do."
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