Election night 2016, and the surprising victory of Donald Trump, was a triumph for state Rep. Matt Shea.
The Spokane Valley Republican hosted a party at a local conference center, where he and supporters celebrated deep into the night.
Standing onstage behind a Trump-emblazoned lectern and in front of a giant American flag, Shea shouted, “It’s our turn now,” recalled Jay Pounder, a longtime Shea confidante who was working security that night. Shea pumped his fist, Pounder said, and “it felt like he was inciting the anger of the people.”
Shea’s supporters blew a ram’s horn in celebration, said Tanner Rowe, who was also hired by Shea to work security that night.
Shea called Trump’s victory “a repudiation of the policies of tyranny” and “a refounding” of America.
Three years later, Shea is the subject of a bipartisan House investigation into whether he has promoted political violence, prompting speculation it could lead to his expulsion from the House. Droves of Spokane-area officials — including fellow Republicans — have called for his resignation. A torrent of media coverage has linked him to Christian extremist movements.
As his political problems mount, the roots of much of that turmoil can be traced back to that triumphant election night in 2016, when two allies who had been sympathetic to his cause decided that something about Shea just didn’t feel right anymore.
Shea is one of a handful of very conservative figures who have been emboldened by Trump’s election but whose long-held views have also come under increased scrutiny.
The Faith Action Network, a statewide interfaith advocacy group, called for Shea’s removal from office last month.
“In the realm of religion or the realm of politics there have always been extreme viewpoints,” said the Rev. Paul Benz, the group’s co-director. “But I think, obviously, it is just much more visual in front of us with the current person in the White House and views like Rep. Shea has, it emboldens them, they feel a certain amount of freedom.”
Drawn to Shea’s politics
Shea has frequently hired security for public events, something that is uncommon among Washington’s part-time, citizen legislators. Often that security was Pounder, Shea’s aide, friend and opposition researcher for several years. Pounder hired Rowe to help him out on election night 2016.
Both men were drawn to Shea’s politics. They’re both conservative, describe themselves as libertarians and liked Shea’s positions on the Second Amendment, property rights and lower taxes.
But both were troubled by things they saw that night. Shea’s fist pump, his declaration that “it’s our turn now,” didn’t sit right with Pounder.
“The tenor of the entire room changed from joyful election to angry, almost vengeful,” he said. “Almost like a mob mentality.”
Rowe interpreted the ram’s horn as an Old Testament symbol: Either celebrating victory or commencing battle.
Both men thought the events of the night were odd, but neither acted on their concerns right away. They talked to each other, went about their lives and slowly, as time passed, became more and more troubled about Shea and how he was using his public office.
Almost two years later, on the eve of the 2018 election, the two released a document that Shea had been distributing entitled “Biblical Basis for War,” a four-page, bullet-pointed outline for what looks like a holy war.
“War is a fact of life,” it says. “God is with us and the battle is his.” It lists “qualifications of a warrior” and “exemptions from service,” which include newlyweds, farmers and priests.
The document laid out the “rules of war.”
“Must surrender on terms of justice and righteousness: Stop all abortions; no same-sex marriage; no idolatry or occultism; no communism; and must obey Biblical law,” it says.
“If they do not yield,” the document continues, “kill all males.”
Shea called the document a summary of sermons and part of a discussion of the history of war. Pounder and Rowe say that’s not true.
The leaked document began a series of disturbing disclosures about Shea, revealed in the local and international press, that’s led to the legislative investigation, supported by Shea’s Republican colleagues in the House. The House is paying a former FBI agent $120,000 to look into Shea’s involvement with groups that “promote, engage in, or plan political violence,” the contract for the investigation says.
The state Democratic Party; the Republican sheriff of Spokane County; the mayor, police chief and police union of Spokane; and a statewide religious coalition, among others, have all called for Shea’s removal from office.
Shea, who regularly shares his views through speeches and his own podcast, rarely speaks to media outlets. He did not respond to interview requests from The Seattle Times.
A new state of Liberty
Shea, a personal injury attorney and Iraq war veteran, was first elected to the Legislature in 2008 and has been reelected, handily, every two years since.
He quickly took on a leadership role among House Republicans. His colleagues chose him as their assistant floor leader in 2010, a role he’d serve in for seven years, until he was bumped up to caucus chair in 2017, the third-highest ranking House Republican.
From that position, he led the party’s private strategy sessions and helped set the party’s agenda. Along the way, he’s had some legal trouble.
A decade ago, a judge granted his ex-wife a protection order after she said he treated her “as a possession” and was physically and emotionally abusive, according to The Spokesman-Review, allegations Shea denied. In 2011, Shea pulled a gun in a road-rage incident and was charged with having a loaded gun without a concealed-weapons permit.
In 2017, he was sued for defamation after Shea said a Spokane County sheriff’s deputy had provided a gun used in a triple murder. Shea has long had a running feud with the Spokane County sheriff. The lawsuit was settled out of court this year for undisclosed terms.
Since 2013 Shea has run his own “Patriot Radio” podcast, releasing regular episodes with guests ranging from preachers to retired military officers to 9/11 truthers to Tim Eyman.
Each episode, Shea says, is in the “legacy of Dr. Stan Monteith,” a longtime conservative radio host who crusaded against fluoride in drinking water.
On the podcast, Shea rails against his political opponents, calling Democrats terms like Marxists, Islamists and the counterstate, and saying they follow a “Maoist insurgency model.” He warns against the “de-Christianization” of the U.S.
“There’s this idea that Christians should be pacifist,” Shea said on his podcast this summer. “There really is nothing further from the truth.”
In some ways, he’s legislated much in the way you’d expect a staunch Christian conservative to legislate. This year, he sponsored bills to ban abortion, repeal vast swaths of Washington’s gun regulations and repeal the state’s Growth Management Act.
His bill to boost hemp production in Washington passed both chambers of the Legislature unanimously this year.
But he’s better known for his quixotic attempts to cleave Washington in half at the Cascades, forming, out of Eastern Washington, “the new state of Liberty.” He’s introduced legislation to create the new state each year since 2015.
At a rally in Olympia this spring, Shea spoke in revolutionary terms about splitting Washington in two.
“I would rather die and fail in the pursuit of freedom and liberty than live in the bondage of tyranny,” he said, standing in front of a new proposed state flag — a falcon, wings spread, clutching a broken sword and broken chains in its talons.
“We are going to see Liberty state in our lifetime and it’s going to be us that’s going to do it,” he said.
It took Rowe and Pounder nearly two years after election night 2016 before they took action against Shea. Along the way, they learned more and more about his philosophy and his associates, and became more and more unnerved.
“I decided I was going to stay on the inside, see what are these guys up to,” Pounder, who works at a small Christian college, said. “So I stayed active, almost undercover if you will, gathering information, just kind of piece-by-piece.”
Rowe — who has an image of a minuteman loading a rifle tattooed on his arm, next to the text “Don’t tread on me” — remembers flyers from a 2017 event to promote the Liberty state push. The flyers intermingled Bible verses with policy proposals such as banning same-sex marriage, he said.
“It wasn’t even about liberty,” he said. “It was about liberty for Christians and people need to live by Christianity.”
He started reading more about Shea and learned that he was a regular speaker at the Marble Community Fellowship, a small church and community near the Canadian border, about two hours from Shea’s hometown.
The church has also hosted speakers like John Weaver, a Georgia pastor who has preached against interracial marriage and defended slavery.
“I found it all very strange,” Rowe said. “Like, incredibly strange. Why would you have a guy like John Weaver at an event up in Northeast Washington, and, you as a legislator, why would you speak at that same event?”
When Shea celebrated Trump’s election on his podcast in 2016, his first guest was Barry Byrd, the founder and pastor at Marble.
When Pounder showed Rowe the “Biblical Basis of War” document, which he’d found going through old files, he said it shouldn’t be taken lightly.
They decided to leak it just before the 2018 election, hoping it would have maximum political impact. Shea was reelected, but his Republican colleagues chose to bump him from his leadership role. And it began a string of damaging disclosures of documents Pounder had saved from this time working for Shea and that he now wanted Shea’s constituents — and the world — to see.
In May, Pounder leaked a string of text messages in which Shea offered to conduct background checks on progressive activists after his confidantes proposed “psyops” and violent attacks against their political opponents.
“He’s a paranoid guy,” Pounder said, describing how Shea would make them sit on their phones during meetings to prevent anyone from listening in.
In August, The Spokesman-Review reported on leaked emails in which Shea pushed Pounder to buy GPS devices that they could use to track opponents.
And less than two weeks ago, Pounder posted a document entitled “Restoration,” which he said Shea wrote and which appears to be a blueprint for establishing a Christian state following a civil war or secession. There are instructions on establishing hospitals and morgues and decentralizing water, sewer and electrical utilities.
“The worship of the Judeo/Christian God will be fostered and encouraged by government,” it says. “Implement a severe penalty for those seeking to remove public religious expressions.” It calls for capital punishment for, among other things, sodomy.
Pounder says he’s still fond of Shea but that the legislator is “really mixed up” and believes in a “weaponized version of Christianity.”
“I appreciate his views on less taxes, on water rights, I still appreciate his views on the Second Amendment, religious freedom, I totally respect those things,” Pounder said. “But I didn’t realize there was this dark theology.”