Dennis McDonald, 63 years old, works an unusual intersection. He raises cattle and horses on roughly 30,000 deeded acres in the Crazy Mountains foothills in central Montana. He's also the leader of Montana's Democratic Party: Activists and other party leaders elected him chairman in 2005 and re-elected him this year.
McDonald has helped Montana's Dems become trendsetters. They broke a 10-year Republican lock on the governor's office and both chambers of the Legislature in 2004, then replaced incumbent Republican Sen. Conrad Burns with Jon Tester in 2006, enabling the national party to take control of the U.S. Senate.
But politics is never easy. Montana Dems narrowly lost their majority in the state House of Representatives in 2006, and recently three of McDonald's five staffers resigned to take other political jobs. HCN's Senior Editor Ray Ring caught up with McDonald between bouts on his tractor.
HCN: How has your life shaped your views?
McDonald: I'm from a failed farming family. I grew up on an old homestead in Kansas, raising grain and cattle. I have a sale bill from when my folks lost their place and had to sell the last of their livestock and equipment - I keep it and look at it from time to time. I think feeling failure within your family is a huge motivator.
I worked my way through California State College at Hayward, with summer jobs as a Teamster at a cannery, and seeding lawns for tract houses. I went to a small law school in San Francisco, and did personal injury cases, representing folks that were injured by virtue of faulty equipment or playthings like motorcycles. I gained a couple of big judgments against the Harley Davidson company - there were defects in the motorcycle frames and very serious injury cases. One young man lost his legs and an arm in a motorcycle accident. I think he would have gotten nothing because the company was trying to stonewall. We were able to achieve a lifetime annuity for this young man, but his disability got the best of him and he ended up committing suicide. ... I guess I've always seen myself as part of the underdogs.
HCN: How did you get into politics?
McDonald: I began with Sen. Robert F. Kennedy's campaign for president in 1968. I worked for him in Oakland, manning the phones, going door-to-door and ultimately organizing precinct captains over Northern California. It really was a blow when Kennedy got assassinated. And earlier that year, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and the Vietnam War - those were life-shaping times. We saw our government and our nation were off track. After Kennedy's death, I hitchhiked across the country to Montgomery, Ala., and then we marched on to Resurrection City (protesters camped on the mall) in Washington, D.C.
HCN: Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968 - a follow-up to the 1964 act - earlier that year, in response to King's death and race riots. Resurrection City was more a protest seeking economic justice, it was anti-corporation, and it fell short - you couldn't get Congress to do anything more, because liberal whites failed to back it as much as they backed civil rights?
McDonald: There weren't many white faces in Resurrection City and on that trip from Montgomery to D.C.
HCN: How did you become active in Montana politics?
McDonald: I enjoyed practicing law, but I had this deep-rooted affinity for agriculture. I like the independence and satisfaction in raising cattle and horses and feed, and it's not in an office. I bought a small ranch in California, and then I began buying ranches in Montana, and by the late 1980s I was able to make the move here full-time. At first I became active in Montana cattle politics. I was a founder of the Montana Cattlemen's Association, which today is the largest (ranchers') organization in Montana. It's not affiliated with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, because they represent the huge meatpacker corporations and international cattle feeders. Then I was appointed to serve on the (U.S. Department of Agriculture) International Trade Advisory Committee for livestock, and I toured countries in Central America and South America that produce cattle that are imported in this country.
HCN: Politically, what do the independent cattlemen need?
McDonald: We need an opportunity to differentiate our product from the rest of the world - country of origin labeling (on beef in grocery stores, which is an ongoing battle in Congress). Cheap foreign beef can be acquired and sold in the same package as our beef - it's fundamentally unfair. The other thing we need is competition in the marketplace. Presently we have four major meatpackers that process 85 percent of the cattle in this country, and they get together through collusion and otherwise to manipulate the market to the detriment of the grassroots producers. We need the packers having to bid against each other.
HCN: I'm surprised Democrats nationally haven't pushed those kinds of working-class economic issues, above all - and there are plenty of those issues for people who are not in ag. What do you think?
McDonald: It's the party's roots, and we need to get back to it. It's what we're doing here in Montana. I'm pushing those bread-and-butter, kitchen-table issues that strike a chord with people across the state - including the minimum wage, health care, and paying our teachers a good wage to have good schools.
HCN: Democrats traditionally have been an urban party in many states. But in Montana, our other top Democrats - Gov. Brian Schweitzer, Sen. Tester and Sen. Max Baucus - also have some roots in ranching or farming. All of them, and you, present that image to the public. Yet really, not many Montanans are directly involved in ag anymore. Does it mean the politics still revolve around ag in some way?
McDonald: I believe that rural constituents, farmers and ranchers but not limited to them, deliver to the country a moral compass, a moral direction for the country.
HCN: And when the Dems connect with that rural constituency, regardless of number of rural voters, it lends authenticity to the party?
McDonald: Authenticity, that's a good word for it. I encourage Democrats elsewhere to consider it. I see it happening big-time in places like Colorado, where Sen. Ken Salazar and Congressman John Salazar (brothers elected in 2004) are examples. They both grew up on a small southern Colorado farm, and one of the things you come away with when you talk to them is how genuine they are, just down-to-earth genuine folks.
HCN: In the 2006 campaigns, when you got Jon Tester into the Senate, and the count was so close that every vote mattered, you expanded the organizing into rural areas that had been Republican strongholds?
McDonald: When I took over, there were 18 Montana counties that didn't even have a central Democratic Party structure; some hadn't had a central committee since FDR (Franklin Roosevelt's presidency in the 1930s). I spent the first year traveling across the state meeting with folks, and today we have a central committee in all 56 counties. When Jon Tester was traveling across the state, I could call folks in Scobey or Plentywood (small towns on the plains) and ask them to organize a meeting place so Jon could visit with them. In our rural counties, some of our elderly Democrats who otherwise may not have voted, we had people driving them to the polls, where previously there wasn't a mechanism to do that sort of thing. There's no question that it affected Jon's election. We're rebuilding the party structure from the ground up. Even on the county level, for county commission and clerk and recorder, I'm dedicated to the proposition that no Republican will run unopposed anywhere in Montana. People say, "Don't bother. We can't win that race, the percentage of voting Democrats in that district is so slight," and my answer is, "The reason for that is, we haven't made an effort for 25 years."
HCN: We've seen national Democratic candidates trying to appear they have rural values - like Sen. John Kerry, during his presidential campaign, getting photographed in hunting gear, carrying a gun. Do they risk looking phony?
McDonald: You touched on something: being authentic. I don't think anyone should pretend to be anything they're not. As an outdoors person, I have a twinge of resentment when I see that (urban Democrats faking it). I grew up hunting and fishing.
HCN: I also see a little irony: You wear the cowboy hat, yet you made your money as a trial lawyer, and that's a stereotype for Democrats - the trial lawyers winning money in lawsuits against businesses, then they use the Democratic Party to get what they want. Do you see any humor in that?
McDonald: I laugh at myself all the time.
HCN: Do you think more Democratic candidates should be out driving tractors for a living?
McDonald: I think if more politicians spent more time driving tractors or feeding horses, the entire country would be better off.
The author is the paper's senior editor.