Judy in Montana

Bottom-Up Power
Laura Flanders

This article is adapted from Laura Flanders’ new book, Blue Grit: True Democrats Take Back Politics From the Politicians (The Penguin Press).

An odd thing happens on the way to an American election. For months politicians talk about the importance of voters, voting and the power of majorities. Then on election night–wham–suddenly the only person who matters is the candidate. Thanks to media that cover elections as if they were races, all the attention goes to the horses; there’s little left for the people in the stands. Consider what happened in the wake of the Republican rout in the 2006 midterm elections. Just days after election night, the Sunday-morning TV talk shows were in full gallop, training attention away from the hordes of people and the organizing that had just flipped both houses of Congress and focusing instead on the few politicians who might be expected to run for President.

The brighter the spotlight on the candidate, the dimmer the darkness that falls on everyone else. Take Montana. The first Democrat to win the governorship in sixteen years, Brian Schweitzer, sparked breathless talk about a “Montana Miracle” when he won office in 2004, the same year that Democrats gained power in both chambers of state government after twelve years of GOP dominance. The national public heard more about Schweitzer’s bolo tie and boots than they did about his politics–but no matter, when his protégé Jon Tester pulled off a nail-biter win in the Senate two years later, Democratic hopes rose even higher. Maybe the Montana magic will rub off and herald Democratic victories across the West.

When the Democrats hold their national convention in Denver in 2008, Schweitzer and Tester are bound to be headliners. “The future is wearing a turquoise bolo tie wrapped around the open collar of a blue-and-white-striped button-down dress shirt,” began a typical article on Schweitzer in Salon. Tester, an organic farmer with a big frame and a flattop haircut, has stimulated similar style-over-substance talk. But the big men are not all that’s going on in the Big Sky state. To talk about a one- or even a two-man miracle is to ignore what’s really interesting about politics in Montana. As two local feminists, Judy Smith and Terry Kendrick, put it in their essay “Revisiting the Montana Miracle,” “rather than a miracle [what happened in ’04] was closer to a perfect storm.” As I discovered during my travels out West last spring, what’s been happening there may indeed have lessons for national Democrats–but not if the analysis stops with the candidates.

The day I arrive in Missoula, in March 2006, I meet a bright, blond athlete named Betsy Hands. As we drive around town, Hands tells me she is a former Peace Corps volunteer and environmental scientist who spent years in various African countries and once led wilderness trips for Outward Bound. She is program director at homeWORD, a community housing organization that helps low-income women and families buy affordable homes. She’s also a competitive telemark skier and, oh yes, she’s running for office, a seat in the State Assembly. “Somebody’s got to step up, and why not me?” Hands tells me cheerfully. It’s an attitude I hear a lot in this state.

On March 8 at the Missoula Women’s Day Potluck, trestle tables sag under the array of food. A cheerful noise spurts from a childcare room next door. Around the hall, women’s groups working on violence, healthcare and workplace discrimination are scattered about. What they have in common, I gradually learn, is that they are all members of something called Montana Women Vote, a coalition of ten statewide women’s organizations focused on increasing women’s participation in elections and encouraging women to run for office. This isn’t presidential election season; it’s eight months before a Congressional midterm race, yet on just about every table there is something about voting, a flier for a fundraiser or an invitation to attend a training for candidates. Voter registration forms are everywhere.

“The thing I often say about electoral politics is that I never thought I’d find myself doing it,” Judy Smith told me the next day. Smith is a longtime activist and a founder, with Terry Kendrick, of Montana Women Vote. “I was part of that radical contingent in the 1960s and ’70s which thought that electoral politics was not something that would make real change,” continued Smith. Her beliefs haven’t changed that much, but the possibility of affecting policy-makers through movement pressure has. In 1994 the Democratic Party in Montana found itself in the same fix that national Democrats woke up to in 2002: Out of power in both houses of the legislature and the governor’s mansion, “we were out in the wilderness, lost, trying to figure out why we were lost,” Tester’s state director Bill Lombardi, a longtime Democratic consultant, recalled. Montana was once a comfortably Democratic state that had only returned one Republican to the Senate in its history, but its demographics and its economy had shifted such that a whole lot of traditional Democratic voters (women, blue-collar workers, low-income urban dwellers) had abandoned the Democratic Party, or the state. Republicans, meanwhile, were reaping the benefits of years of investment in Western states by the organized right, including the Christian Coalition and the corporate-backed Wise Use anti-environmentalist movement. In 1994, the year that swept Newt Gingrich to power, Montana Democrats won just thirty-three of 100 seats in the State Assembly and nineteen of fifty in the Senate.

Local women’s groups, like homeWORD, had no allies left to lobby. “Instead of running into that wall over and over, we had to crack that wall open,” said Smith. And they weren’t the only ones who felt that way.

For most of the past 150 years, Montana was a mining and timber-run state. Pit-head derricks still rise above the dusty streets of Butte, once called “the richest hill on earth.” Next to the mines today lurks a huge lake of acid-laced water, part of the nation’s largest Superfund site. With the decline of mining and logging, an environmental movement has grown up that’s part conservationist, part hunters and fishers and part citizens concerned about the toxins in their water. By the end of the 1990s, as Theresa Keaveny, executive director of Montana Conservation Voters, explains it, good environmental laws passed in the 1970s “had been gutted, and just working on lobbying and rule-making wasn’t enough. We realized we had to change the policy-makers, and that demanded a political response. We had to elect people.”

Read the rest here.

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