Once in a while, a principled person can make all the difference.
This is how it began for me: I host Home Ground, a weekly public radio program, and a year ago, Montana’s U.S. attorney invited me to attend a law enforcement conference of about 130 officials, ranging from city and county police to state attorneys general and Canadian Mounties. Their purpose: To plan ahead for the kind of crime that was certain to hit eastern Montana’s quiet rural towns as the North Dakota oil boom moved west.
I thought we'd do one show, but we ended up doing three. The third focused on human trafficking, including child prostitution. The guests were an FBI agent and an assistant U.S. attorney, both specialists in the sex trade of children. I have heard a lot of ugly things in my life, but halfway through this recording session, I had to stop to regain my composure.
I realized that very problem was headed for eastern Montana, and something needed to be done to help our communities prepare. Just prior to this January’s legislative session opening, I wrote several elected officials with a suggestion: Pass a law enabling school districts, cities and counties to ask oil companies to contribute money, in order that kids and families could be counseled beforehand about the danger.
The hustlers prey on young girls’ insecurities, and when the pitch has been described in advance, it helps potential victims recognize it. Oil development in Montana has an 18-month tax-free window from the start of production, and any company making a contribution would get full credit, plus interest, when its first tax payment came due.
I approached several Montana legislators. All of them expressed concern and sympathy; not one agreed to sponsor a bill. It was "complicated,” they explained, because anything impacting the tax-free window would get messy, become difficult, generate opposition, and so on.
I'd run out of contacts by the time I went to a reception at the Capitol Rotunda, where women inmates from the state penitentiary -- now training to be chefs -- were proudly demonstrating their new food skills. Perfect fodder for a future radio show, I thought.
"What are you doing here?" I turned to see one of the oilmen I'd initially approached with the idea of a counseling bill. He’d told me the industry would neither oppose nor support it and declined my request to meet with the top brass.
But then he asked if I'd had any luck on the bill. I said no. He opened a three-ring binder and pointed to a page. "Change this line,” he said.
"What's that?" I asked.
"The appropriations bill. Change this line to include the kids' counseling."
"Great, but how do I get that done?"
"Talk to Duane Ankney, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee,” he said. "He's right over there."
Nearby stood a short man with thinning hair, wearing an ill-fitting suit, cowboy boots, large glasses and a walrus mustache. Old Montana, I’d have said, the kind of guy I’d come to know back in the late ‘60s. I introduced myself, saying, “I’m told you might be able to help me.” “What’s up?” he asked.
So I described the problem: A 21st century boomtown, with thousands of young men coming in, many of them single, looking for work, fun and sex, and with high wages in their pockets -- a truck driver can make around $75,000 a year. Crime follows that kind of money, including narcotics and prostitution and, ugliest of all, child sex trafficking. Pimps come in, recruit young girls and build what they call a “stable” – the very word reflecting their contempt for the children they desecrate.
Ankney’s eyes had never left mine. I quoted what the FBI agent had said on the air: “They cruise where kids hang out, and when they see a girl, they say, ‘You have beautiful eyes.’ If she says, ‘Thank you,’ and looks away, they move on. If she says, ‘No, I don’t,’ they sit down. ‘Yes, you do. … You’re beautiful.’”
Duane Ankney’s eyes filled with tears. “I’m a rock-ribbed conservative Republican, and I’ve never voted against kids yet. Write me up a paragraph saying what we need. And do you have some copies of that radio show? Drop them off at my office at 7 tomorrow morning.”
A few days later, he told me he’d put the counseling appropriation in the bill, and despite intense pressure from his party to cut spending, he’d kept it there. For reasons separate from that provision, the governor vetoed the bill. But the press had made the issue front-page news, and it is likely that a way will be found to allocate the funds. One thing is certain: Duane Ankney will not give up.
After the legislative session ended, I thought about why he took action when others had not. True: He had compassion and concern for kids. But there was something else involved. When other politicians were presented with the issue, they saw “political realities” and did nothing. Duane Ankney saw and acted on clear moral imperative. In that distinction is a world of difference.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.