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Know the West

Democrats see the light in Montana

The 2000 elections could be pivotal for theeconomy and environment


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.


  • 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