MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Thirty-five-year-old Matt Marshall runs a nonprofit. He serves on the school board. Through his group, the Washington 3%, he's challenging perceptions of the far-right militia movement; or he was, until a domestic terrorism scandal became a test of his political ambitions. NPR's Hannah Allam has more from Washington state.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK, who's got the ranchero?
HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: Matt Marshall sits at a cafe in McKenna, a rural area outside of Seattle. It's the eve of a rally he's been planning for months. He writes last-minute notes in a book his daughter gave him for Christmas. In black marker on the cover, she's drawn the logo of the Washington 3%, her dad's militia - except he doesn't like it when you call it that.
MATT MARSHALL: We're absolutely not paramilitary. We're a nonprofit corporation.
ALLAM: A nonprofit corporation, one that happens to be aligned with the patriot movement. That's a loose network of militias and self-described constitutionalist conservatives. They share the goal of limiting federal powers. Typically, they all get lumped together under one label - anti-government extremists.
MARSHALL: The narrative is we're an all-white man, Christian, dominion type, crazy, out there, far-right militia.
ALLAM: Marshall has been on a mission to change that image. First, he registered the Washington 3% as an independent nonprofit corporation. Next, he ran for the local school board. Instantly, headlines focused on the militia angle. Marshall was frustrated.
MARSHALL: We're stuck in the middle. So the true neo-Nazis hate us, which they should because we hate them, too. And the far left, who we don't have any problem with, hate us because they believe that we're neo-Nazis.
ALLAM: But Marshall won that seat on the school board. The victory was bigger; it was a ticket into the mainstream. Maybe Matt Marshall could separate his group from the extremist fringe. Then came the other Matt, Matt Shea.
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CHRIS HAYES: Inquiry finds state lawmaker engaged in domestic terrorism - that's a pretty memorable headline.
ALLAM: A report commissioned by Washington state lawmakers tied Representative Matt Shea to three armed standoffs with the government. He's also accused of advocating, quote, "biblical warfare." Shea became a pariah to his party, and he lost his committee post. But he refuses to resign. Here he is last month speaking to supporters.
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MATT SHEA: Seattle Times said that calling Matt Shea a domestic terrorist has actually made him more popular.
SHEA: I love that. And the fact is, they're trying to label us all domestic terrorists.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: No.
ALLAM: Matt Shea might not have many friends left at the Capitol, but he's got a friend in Matt Marshall, along with many other supporters linked to militias throughout the region. Marshall says the claims against Shea are sensationalized. He knows he's gambling with his political future by standing up for Shea, and he thinks it's a safe bet.
MARSHALL: They can try to marginalize us as extremists all they want, but we're much more mainstream than they realize. And this is just proof that everybody is completely out of touch with the actual voters of the state.
DAVID NEIWERT: They never miss a trick (laughter). They're always finding new venues and always finding new ways to present themselves.
ALLAM: David Neiwert is a Seattle-based writer and researcher who's spent years tracking the mainstreaming of far-right groups in the Pacific Northwest. He says he's not buying the militia makeover.
NEIWERT: They can put the mask on for a while, but eventually it has to come off, and they always reveal who they are. I think that they often tell us who they are, and we just have to listen.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Woo-hoo. It's rally time.
ALLAM: It's rally day. Busloads of supporters head into downtown Seattle to hear what Matt Marshall has to say. They know police and anti-fascist protesters are already at the site. A 3% member gives a quick safety briefing.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: No chit-chatting. Do not engage Antifa. Don't talk to them. Don't look at them. Watch your backs, and stay as close as you can in a group.
ALLAM: As soon as the buses arrive, the protesters start to chant.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Hey, right wing, you better run. You better hide. We're all united on the other side.
ALLAM: Marshall steps up to the mic.
MARSHALL: People want to know what the Washington 3% stands for politically. It's very simple. We aren't right; we aren't left.
ALLAM: He holds up a copy of the Constitution.
MARSHALL: This is what we use. This is the Constitution of the United States.
ALLAM: Across the street, protesters try to drown him out.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Hey, hey, ho, ho - the 3% have got to go. Hey, hey, ho, ho - the 3% have got to go.
ALLAM: But the only place Matt Marshall plans to go is to the Capitol. A few days after the rally, he announced his next big move - he's running to be a state lawmaker.
Hannah Allam, NPR News, Seattle.
(SOUNDBITE OF JEAN-BENOIT DUNCKEL AND JONATHAN FITOUSSI'S "MIRAGES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.