Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Montana madness

I mentioned the other day that my recent reconnaissance in Montana and elsewhere had produced some disturbing data, particularly regarding the way right-wing rhetoric is trending.

What I neglected to mention is that Montana in particular is, at the same time, showing signs of hope for rural progressives. This is a winnable fight, if we can ever convince our urban-centric political colleagues to listen up.

Right after the election, I laid out the need for developing a rural strategy if progressives really want to turn the current electoral trend around. Democrats need to become a national party again.

The key, as I said then, is not to surrender on core issues, but to begin fighting back and countering the pervasive right-wing propaganda in rural districts, both by words and by actions. The latter is particularly key, since Republicans have been harming rural dwellers in ways that can be easily demonstrated, particularly by counter-action.

David Sirota recently had a piece in Washington Monthly profiling Brian Schweitzer, the new governor of Montana. He's a Democrat. And he won by adopting precisely that strategy.

The issue that Schweitzer used to drive a wedge between Republicans and their rural base was a simple one: land and stream access for hunters and fishermen. As Sirota explains:
To understand why hunting and fishing is such a big deal in Montana, consider this: The state has a population of 971,000; in 2001, 723,000 of them fished, hunted, or watched wildlife, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey. Though the state has plenty of land for hunting and fishing, the residents don't take kindly to any effort to restrict their sporting pursuits. Yet throughout the Mountain West, Republicans, working with conservative think tanks, have pushed privatization and property-rights regulations that have the effect of doing just that. In the late '90s, for example, the Montana Republican Party platform, along with Brown's running-mate, Rep. Dave Lewis, tried to restrict the state's treasured Stream Access Law, which demands private landowners allow non-commercial anglers to fish on streams crossing through their property. The legislature also attempted to sell off large chunks of state land, much of it prime hunting territory. Some outdoorsmen became worried that the state's deficit woes would be used as a Republican rationale to reduce spending on public land management programs and sell off even more valuable hunting real estate.

Working with a local outdoorsmen group in Gallatin County, which includes Bozeman, Schweitzer drafted a 9-point plan to protect cherished hunting and fishing access rights on public and private lands. Among other things, Schweitzer called for keeping public lands in the state's hands, for spending more money to maintain them for hunters and anglers, and for using fees from hunting licenses to buy easements from private property owners to give sportsmen easier access to fields and streams. He unveiled this plan at a town hall meeting of conservative hunters and fishermen in Bozeman, to happy applause. Randy Newburg, a Republican who heads the Headwaters Fish and Game Association in Bozeman, effectively endorsed Schweitzer, calling access a "special" issue, and accusing Republicans in Helena of trying to "sell it off to the highest bidder."

The beauty of the access issue was three-fold. First, it helped Schweitzer make inroads with the constituency of outdoorsmen that is normally Democrat-averse.

Second, it let us speak to both left-leaning environmentalists, who wanted public lands and wildlife herds maintained, and right-leaning outdoorsmen, who wanted a place to recreate and a steady population of game to hunt. This was especially important because we did not want to alienate the enviros who would be out in force on election day to vote against an initiative to permit cyanide leach mining. Stern, who had a deft sense of strategy, once pointed out, "Hunters can be some of the biggest environmentalists around, even though they don't think of themselves that way and would never in a million years label themselves that."

Third, it was an issue that would ultimately help us tie Brown in Republican-leaning Gallatin County, one of the fastest growing counties in America. Like other Rocky Mountain exurbs, Gallatin had seen an influx of new residents looking to live in an area with outdoor recreation. Targeting these new residents and making them Democratic voters early were key not only to the election at hand, but also for building a majority for the long haul.

There are similar issues that can be used to dispel the conservative stranglehold on rural political life: the demise of the family farm; corporate timber giants' job-reducing measures and resource mismanagement; the gutting of the rural infrastructure; destruction of hunting and fishing habitat. And that's just for starters. For nearly every rural locale, there is a menu of opportunities.

It is important to remember that this has to be done by candidates who who can demonstrate they share rural dwellers' real values: hard work, honesty, decency, forthrightness, integrity. They also have to be genuine; a few years ago, Idaho Democrats ran as their candidate for the U.S. Senate a man from the East Coast who claimed residence in Sun Valley. Nice fellow, and an avid fly fisherman, but he wasn't from Idaho and gave little sign he had any more than a peripheral connection to the people who live there. He got creamed, of course; but even worse, he underscored the perception in the state of Democrats as the party of urban elites.

Even though Schweitzer is making great strides in Montana, he faces a continuing uphill battle, in no small part because the Republican Party in Montana is so entrenched and remains so powerful. More to the point, the GOP in Montana is becoming increasingly extremist in its orientation.

This has not exactly been a secret in Montana. There have been Republican legislators with militia/Patriot associations, from nearly every part of the state. This strand of GOP politics remains alive and well; take, for instance, the Bozeman legislator who is proposing to require a death certificate be issued for all abortions.

One of the most interesting of these figures is a fellow named Rick Jore, who hails from Ronan, the Mission Mountain/Flathead Valley reservation town where I spent the better part of one summer (in 1988) editing the local weekly paper. Jore's constituency is the extreme right wing whites who tend to form a substantial bloc in western Montana, including the Flathead. (See my previous report on extremist activity in the valley.)

Jore held his seat in the Legislature from 1994 to 2000, always as a Republican. But he maintained associations with Howard Phillips' Constitution Party for several years, and in 2000 announced he was leaving the GOP and running as a Constitution candidate. He promptly lost his seat and hit Phillips' CP speaking circuit.

Jore decided to try running again in 2004. He wound up splitting the right-wing vote, and ended up in a numerical tie with Democrat Jeanne Windham after the final recounts were held: Jore and Windham each had 1,559 votes, while Republican Jack Cross garnered 1,107 votes.

That meant the governor was allowed to make a choice between the two candidates. One big problem with that: the current governor is a Republican, who would be making a choice that would affect the incoming Democratic governor (Schweitzer). Indeed, if Windham were chosen, Democrats would control the state House for the first time in over a decade (in addition to the governorship, they also took the Senate). If Jore, the GOP would maintain its tenuous grip.

Now, outgoing Republican Gov. Judith Martz is perhaps the most unpopular governor in Montana history. (You used to be able to buy a bumper sticker in Montana that proclaimed, "My governor is dumber than your governor.") So unpopular that she decided not to seek re-election after one term. Her ineptitude was a big boost for Schweitzer as well.

Unsurprisingly, Martz picked Jore:
At a press conference, Martz said she studied the election results and found that 63 percent of the House District 12 voters favored the conservative candidates -- either Jore or Cross -- in the three-person race.

"It is my opinion that the people in that community really were looking for a conservative to serve them," she said. "I believe that was the choice of the people and that's why I chose Rick Jore."

In response, Jore said, "I was pleased and privileged that she would express the confidence in me." He said he agrees with Martz that the district ought to have a conservative representative, given how the vote totals came out.

Windham could not be reached for comment but in the past has rejected the notion that more Lake County voters cast their ballots for conservative candidates, a conservative should be appointed.

What's noteworthy about Martz's action was that it explicitly acknowledged an ideological connection between Republicans and the extremists of the Constitution Party. Usually, they are more circumspect.

A voter's lawsuit contested the outcome, though, on the basis of seven ballots that were marked for both Jore and Cross, which according to Montana law rendered their vote invalid for that race, but which were counted for Jore. Eventually, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, and Windham won the seat, which in turn gave the House to Democrats.

Now, you may recall that the Constitution Party sponsored a couple of Montana appearances by Judge Roy Moore, the fellow who raised the ruckus over the Ten Commandments in Alabama. Those appearances were also bolstered by a turnout drive from the Militia of Montana.

Travis McAdam (of the Montana Human Rights Network) explained in detail in a recent op-ed for the Helena Independent Record what the Constitution Party is: among other things, the only party that openly supported the "militia" movement:
Howard Phillips founded the national Constitution Party in 1992, combining Christian Reconstruction with themes of the militia movement. Reconstructionists believe that civil law should mirror Old Testament biblical law, meaning capital punishment should be extended to gays, lesbians, blasphemers, and adulterers. People who are not "Christian enough" could be denied citizenship, or worse, be executed. The party also promotes "New World Order" conspiracy theories similar to those of the militia movement.

(A minor corrective worth noting, incidentally: they originally called themselves the "U.S. Taxpayers Party" and changed the name to "Constitution Party" in 1999 for the 2000 election.)

Even more profound is the significance of Martz's move:
Her decision reverberates with partisan political sentiment. Wanting to keep Republicans in control of the House, Martz provided legitimacy to the Constitution Party, something the party had been unable to do on its own. For short-term political gain, Martz has allowed Montana conservatism to take another gigantic step to the right.

Brian Schweitzer, to his credit, appears poised to take advantage of this creeping extremism by making hay with it. His national peers might be wise to follow his example.

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