Democrats see the light in Montana

The 2000 elections could be pivotal for theeconomy and environment

  • Mark O'Keefe

  • Judy Martz

  • Brian Schweitzer

  • Incumbent Sen. Conrad Burns

 

Former nine-term Congressman Pat Williams believes Montana has reached a political crossroads. And he isn't alone.

"There are few elections in our lifetime that come at defining moments. This is one of those elections," says Williams, now a professor of public policy at the University of Montana. Williams doesn't claim to be a passive observer: His wife, Carol, is the running mate of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark O'Keefe. But the polls show that O'Keefe has a shot at occupying the Helena governor's mansion that has housed a Republican for the past 12 years. Democrats may also have a chance in other contests, including the race for the state's lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

"It certainly looks as if Montana might at least elect a Democratic congresswoman and governor," says Dan Kemmis, executive director of the Center for the Rocky Mountain West and former mayor of Missoula. "If (that) happens, it will be the beginning of a shift."

A shift toward moderate yet progressive-minded Democrats would not be out of step with Montana's past. The state has a long populist tradition that stems from turn-of-the century battles between labor unions and mining companies. Populism ignited again in the 1970s, when progressive labor and farmers regained strength. It lasted through the 1980s and led to the enactment of some of the toughest state environmental laws in the country (HCN, 12/22/97: Montana on the edge: A fight over gold forces the Treasure State to confront its future).

But since the decisive 1994 elections, Republicans have dominated Big Sky country. The GOP has maintained control over both houses of the Legislature since 1994, and comprised two-thirds of the congressional delegation since 1996.

A stagnant econmony

The longevity of the Republican reign has given Democrats ammunition this year. The state's GOP candidates are having a tough time blaming Democrats for Montana's serious economic woes.

The state ranks near the bottom nationally in average household earnings, first in the number of people who hold down two jobs, and 47th in funding for public education.

Pat Williams says the new economy that has propelled Colorado, Utah and other Western states has largely left Montana behind. And now that is making life more difficult for politicians such as two-term Sen. Conrad Burns, a Republican, who six months ago was thought a shoo-in for re-election, but who now is facing a stiff late-inning challenge from Whitefish farmer Brian Schweitzer (HCN, 7/5/99: A political outsider wages a clever campaign). Recent polls show Burns' double-digit lead dwindling to single digits.

A vocal critic of the Clinton administration, Burns has run on a promise to reform federal environmental regulations to make the West friendlier to resource-extraction companies. He recently helped block passage of the 15-year, $45 billion Conservation and Reinvestment Act on the premise that no more lands should be added to federal ownership. Schweitzer, meanwhile, has garnered national attention as one of the first candidates to make a serious issue of the high cost of prescription drugs; he has sponsored several bus trips into Canada with senior citizens to illustrate the fact that over-the-counter pharmaceuticals are cheaper across the border. He has also called attention to his opponent's record of bringing telecommunications pork to Montana while not changing Montana's status as an unfriendly place for high-tech business. He notes that Montana ranks last in the percentage of its population with Internet/technology jobs.

"Well, let me rephrase that. We are not in last place. We're ahead of Guam."

The race for the state's lone congressional seat, being vacated by retiring Republican Rick Hill, is also a study in contrasts. Democrat Nancy Keenan, a state education executive, is single and grew up beneath copper smelters in Anaconda, a town where unions tried to protect workers against exploitation from corporations. Dennis Rehberg is a classic rural Republican, with an affinity for the religious right, who calls himself "a family man."

Tight races

Perhaps the most symbolic race, however, is the one for governor. Republican Lieutenant Governor Judy Martz, the protegee of retiring Gov. Marc Racicot, is battling Democratic state auditor Mark O'Keefe. An outspoken friend of resource-extraction companies, Martz believes that high corporate taxes and environmental regulation have driven out logging and mining companies and the solid jobs they provide.

O'Keefe, on the other hand, has said he would "be the worst nightmare" for companies that treat Montana like a Third World resource colony. He has vowed to channel a larger portion of the state budget into education, and he criticized Racicot and the Republican-controlled Legislature for failing to attract more high-tech development.

Even outspoken conservative think tanks have been critical of the path Montana has taken. Pete Geddes, program director of the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment, based in Bozeman, blames several factors for Montana's economic woes: a provincial mentality; the state's geographical isolation from major markets and lack of telecommunications infrastructure; and the drain of students leaving the state for better opportunities elsewhere. "When politicians are wedded to special interests representing industries of the past, better options are foreclosed upon," Geddes says.

Williams couldn't agree more. But he knows a Democratic resurgence is far from a sure bet.

"I think before the campaigns are over you're going to see the same old nasty crowd out there hurling mud, and if they don't do it with negative TV advertising, it will be accomplished through 'anonymous' telephone push polls, leaflets left on windshields, and whisper campaigns," says Williams, whose political career was marked by close contests with Republicans. "Trying to shamelessly smear another candidate has become a tradition in Montana."

Todd Wilkinson lives and writes in Bozeman, Montana.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Dan Kemmis or Pat Williams at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West, University of Montana, 406/243-7700.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Todd Wilkinson

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...