By Seth Ogilvie, Idaho Reports
Bob Sojka has had a complicated month. Lately, he and the Democratic Party have had two particularly interesting moments.
The incidents both involved influential female leaders.
Sojka is the State Committeeman for the Twin Falls Democratic Party. At a Sunday picnic sponsored by the party, gubernatorial candidate Paulette Jordan made an appearance.
According to the Times-News, Sojka told the crowd “this is the prom,” referring to the event, “and the prom queen is here,” referring to Jordan.
At the Idaho Democratic Convention Sojka walked to a microphone and told several women and people of color “we deserve an apology.”
Sojka’s demand came after he argued with one of the organizers of Boise’s immigration rally. Thousands of people marched to the steps of the Idaho Statehouse to demand changes to the current immigration policy in the wake of child detention and family separation.
The majority of people at the convention supported the protest but not necessarily their goals. The rally happened just hours before Sojka’s demand.
The Sojka “prom queen” statement could quickly be written off as an innocent comment of an older white man not realizing how it might come across, but that’s the point. Sojka didn’t have to merge his theoretical embrace of diversity with its reality. He didn’t have to unite his support of the protests with what he would be supporting.
A prom queen is traditionally elected based on two criteria, popularity or beauty. Their duties consist of getting their photos taken and serving as an emblem for a high school. They are not vested with or expected to perform any significant responsibilities, nor are they elected for their ability or their character.
The prom queen and king also reinforce strict gender roles. The crown confers that the recipient is either male or female other options are not available.
We reached out to Bob Sojka multiple times over the last month. He has not returned any messages.
Twitter, however, had no problem commenting.
“I think that it’s a pretty superficial term for a woman that has held office,” Caitlin Copple Masingill, a precinct captain for the Idaho Democrats told Idaho Reports. “This was something to call out.”
Copple was concerned about the repercussions of a statement like this. “It takes a woman being asked an average 12 times before they’ll agree to run,” Copple said. “I think this will make them more hesitant because, with comments like these, it’s that much harder to be taken seriously.”
Sojka may not have realized how the comments would come across, but he had to have had an intention of saying it. We have found no instances of Sojka referring to A.J. Balukoff, Keith Allred or Jerry Brady as the prom king.
He could have said the next Governor of the State of Idaho (a fairly common practice). He could have said the parties leader, he could have even said the new Idaho matriarch if Sojka was determined to inject gender, but he didn’t.
That brings us back to the idea of the emblem. For a straight white man in Idaho, it’s easy to like the idea of diversity. It is easy because, for many Idahoans, it’s theoretical. It’s not uncommon for people in Boise, a supposed hotbed of liberalism, to go an entire day without knowingly talking to a person of color or a person from the LGBTQ community.
Without familiarity, it’s easy to transpose one’s ideas, values, and desires onto the blank canvass of that other individual. A Native American woman can be perceived as the same as that straight white man as long as they stay theoretical, as long as all of their hopes, dreams, values, and abilities remain unknown.
Conversely, people can be vilified without familiarity. We’ve seen it throughout history in racist or xenophobic ideology.
At the Idaho Democratic Convention Jennifer Martinez introduced an amendment to the Democratic body that would support the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The debate was heated. The majority of the people in the room wanted to support the protests going on that same day. They didn’t want children separated from their parents. They knew the compassionate, and moral thing to do was to stand up for these families, and they wanted to be on the side of the protestors, but the demonstrators had aims.
They did not support what Martinez, one of the event organizers, said was the aim of the protests.
Their aims were the abolition of ICE and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). These aims were not popular with the majority of the people in the room. The protest like the prom queen would be more appealing for some without the ideological baggage.
An argument broke out at the convention. One side wanted to support the protestors, but not the aims to abolish ICE and CBP. Sojka joined that side. The others claimed you couldn’t support a protest without supporting the goals of the rally.
After several minutes of debate, Martinez’s amendment died.
Jessica Chilcott took the microphone after the vote. “We had a chance to be an ally to communities of color, and we rejected it. If we’re going to, as a room full of white people claim that we’re allies for people of color, we should try to act like it.”
Chilcott put a spotlight on the issue Democrats in Idaho are facing. Being theoretically in favor of diversity is different from accepting diversity for what it is.
The Idaho Democratic party has always marketed itself as tolerant, accepting and as a big tent. The Democratic party has always promoted diversity, but this year diversity has had a voice, diversity had ideas, and diversity had goals.
Woman and minorities have taken up the highest positions in the party.
At the Democratic convention, delegates learned that being in favor of the idea of protests is different from being in support of their goals.
This year diversity walked into the convention and started yelling inside its walls. The diversity could no longer be theoretical, and for some, that was not what they wanted to hear.
Sojka pounced on this moment. He demanded an apology from Chilcott. He claimed Chilcott and the others arguing with him did not understand what was in his heart. “We’ve been doing things that she has absolutely no freaking knowledge of,” said Sojka.
Chilcott responded, “we don’t get to decide what they want.”
I reached out to Sojka shortly after his comments to find out what they had “absolutely no freaking knowledge of.” He has not returned my request for comment.
Idaho Reports has also reached out to the Jordan campaign who also has not returned my request for comment.
Chilcott had little doubt what the performance meant. “There have been ongoing concerns voiced by communities of color, both locally and nationally, about how the Democratic Party expects their support without doing its best to address the issues faced by those communities,” Chilcott wrote Idaho Reports. “What I felt was happening was more performative allyship. If we will not boldly work to dismantle an abusive, racist system, what good are we as allies?”
Another delegate at the convention put it much more bluntly, looking across the floor to where Sojka had just demanded an apology. “We all need to check our privileges,” she said. “Especially the white men.”
Correction: A previous version of this story identified Bob Sojka as the head of the Twin Falls Democrats rather than the State Committeeman.