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Political Spotlight on Sun Valley

The resort area is used to famous visitors -- and even to John F. Kerry -- but his Secret Service and media entourage is causing an unusual stir.

March 23, 2004|Eric Slater | Times Staff Writer

KETCHUM, Idaho — The paragliders lifted silently off Bald Mountain, great birds of red and yellow in a blue sky, sailing over skiers on slopes lighted almost unimaginably bright white by the afternoon sun. Near a ski lodge, a man pedaled a green bicycle, his young son on the handlebars. Two brown dogs wrestled in the snow.

It was all so much colorful nirvana, except for the spooky black Suburbans and the guys with the guns.

"All the Secret Service -- it's weird. It makes me kind of nervous," saleswoman Rachel Wolfe said quietly as presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry made his way out of Paul Kenny's Ski and Sports over the weekend, a snowboard slung over his shoulder.

"The local celebrities, like Demi Moore, Bruce Willis -- everybody knows them. It's no big deal," the 23-year-old added. "This is different. And it's going to get worse."

The Massachusetts senator was making the first visit to his mountain home since the Secret Service began providing him protection last month. And as often happens every four years to a small community somewhere -- such as Crawford, Texas, when George W. Bush emerged in 2000 as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee -- this area in south-central Idaho is getting its first feel of how life would change if Kerry wins the White House.

"One of his security guys yelled at me" for getting in Kerry's way on the ski slopes, 14-year-old Matt Trabert grumbled Saturday. Trabert turned to friend Brad Alvarez and said: "Wouldn't that be funny if he fell?"

"Yeah, wouldn't that be funny if he did a total face plant!" Alvarez said.

Nestled into the Sawtooth Mountains, Ketchum -- the main town in the area best known as Sun Valley -- is home to 3,003 people. The place offers skiing, fly-fishing, backpacking and solitude. The nearest city of significant size is 90 miles west, and Boise isn't so large.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger visited the area recently. Actors Clint Eastwood and Jamie Lee Curtis are fixtures, as were Clark Gable and Errol Flynn in the past. Writer Ernest Hemingway spent his last years here, and the home where he committed suicide in 1961 and his gravesite lure literary-minded tourists.

Established in 1936 by railroad scion Averill Harriman, Sun Valley was the first U.S. ski area developed as a vacation destination rather than just a place to schuss. It also featured the world's first chairlift. But unlike ski towns such as Aspen, Colo., the community has long shunned the spotlight. Its famous inhabitants and visitors have been expected to check their egos, and entourages, upon their arrival.

"Famous people are welcome, so long as they don't act like famous people," said the longtime owner of one restaurant, who asked not to be named.

When a Kerry staffer phoned the Warm Springs ski resort to give a heads-up that the senator would be arriving, accompanied by a passel of reporters, the staff member was told brusquely that they could expect no special treatment.

Kerry can leave behind his ego, but has little choice about an entourage. He whittled down his staff for the weeklong vacation, which ends Wednesday. And the press corps -- 100 strong at the height of the primary season -- has shrunk to about 16 here. The Secret Service, however, decides for itself how many agents to have on hand.

For now, the detail protecting Kerry is relatively small. But it will grow after Kerry's expected nomination at the Democratic National Convention in July, and it will explode if he becomes president.

Kerry has thus far been granted a fair amount of understanding here, both because his was a semifamiliar face before the campaign and because the area is one of just a handful of places that tends to vote Democratic in this overwhelmingly Republican state.

Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, has kept a home in Ketchum since 1966 -- she and her late husband, Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.), had a 15th-century Scottish barn shipped to Idaho and remodeled. The house, one of five she and Kerry own, is worth $4.9 million, and the two have visited frequently since they married in 1995.

Teresa Kerry's connection to the area is especially strong. She gave $750,000 to help overhaul emergency medical services in the area, funded a Latino voter registration effort and a study on lowering drug costs, and donated to more than two dozen Democratic state legislative campaigns in the last five years.

The couple's comings and goings used to pass mostly unnoticed. Now, they make the front pages of papers across the rural state. Television cameras are set up near the main Warm Springs chairlift, and the camera crews are notified by cellphone when Kerry is making his way down the mountain.

Local law enforcement officials have occasionally, and briefly, blocked off streets for the Kerry caravan. With spring break in full bloom, one hotel bumped some guests with reservations in order to house Secret Service agents.

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