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Know the West

Running Green is a learning experience

  "Green Party, huh? Well, I'll vote for you, as long as you're not a damn Democrat," said my 70-year-old neighbor when I told him I was running for the Montana state Legislature.

Few weeks later, I introduced myself to Tom, a local businessman and one of the Montana Freeman who'd gotten into trouble with the law a few years ago. As a Green Party candidate I figured I could tap into Montana's libertarian as well as its progressive tenancies. Tom and I agreed that the citizen proposal to buy back Montana's hydro-generating facilities was a fine idea.

"Come around to the cafe some afternoon, and I'll introduce you around," he told me. A few days later, I ran into Tom while dropping fliers off at the senior center. He scowled.

"I showed your card to the boys and they said, Green Party's a bunch of environmentalists. They didn't want to talk to no environmentalists." "The Green Party is about a lot of things," I responded.

"Well I believe that trees are a crop that should be harvested," Tom said. I sensed our association had ended.

On a crisp Sunday, I campaigned door to door.

In my rural area this meant a great deal of driving. I stopped by a house a few miles up a dirt road. A woman came out from the back of the house. Like everyone else I met, she was surprised to have a candidate actually stop by. As a state employee, she worked with developmentally disabled. We discussed the effects of the governor's draconian budget cuts on social services.

"You don't sound like a Republican; you must be a Democrat," she said.

"I'm running under the Green Party." "Oh, even better."

I continued on to a cluster of houses along the river. At a newer house I had a long conversation with a man who also worked for the state in health and human services. He didn't provide any suggestions but filled me in on the most recent cuts. I would have pegged him for a conservative, but a few days later, I received a campaign contribution from him in the mail.

A few doors down I encountered a woman returning home. I handed her my flier. As I was getting ready to leave her husband came out of the house and gave me an earful. "I worked as a plumber for the city of Great Falls. I had a retirement account with the city that was invested in Enron and Compaq and now it's worthless. We'll have to live off social security, as long as that lasts. You know, I saved all my life for retirement and now there's nothing there." He was even angrier than I was about corporate malfeasance.

I was beginning to feel pretty positive about my chances, since I was the only candidate actively campaigning. I didn't think I would win, but I figured I make a good showing. I was also learning a great deal about my district. I had thought it was mostly agricultural with a few wealthy retirees in the big log homes along the river. But going door to door I found mostly modest houses and trailers with middle to lower income retirees and a surprising number of commuters. Nearly everyone seemed aware of the issues.

At candidate forums in Great Falls and Helena, I met more knowledgeable and caring people. I also learned that the two-party system lends itself to lowest-common denominator positions. I figured it was my duty as a Green Party candidate to raise the stakes. So I railed against massive corporate tax breaks, obscene military spending and the mindless slaughter of the Yellowstone bison.

I suggested we revoke corporate charters for crooked companies, require surface-owner consent for coal-bed methane leases, require business that receive tax breaks to provide their employees with living wages, heath care, family leave and day care. I advocated the legalization of marijuana to solve our budget crisis.

Democrats seemed a little stunned that someone could say such things in public and not get lynched.

Election day came and went. Half the registered voters stayed home. The Republican incumbent won by more than the combined votes of his opponents. For a week I stayed home and sulked over my lousy 5 percent.

When I finally ventured out, nearly everyone I saw thanked me for running.

I was stunned; in over 20 years of being an environmentalist, no one had ever thanked me for writing letters, commenting on forest plans or attending meetings.

I guess 2004 is only two years away.

Greg Gordon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). When not running for office, he writes books in central Montana.