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A Red State Paradox: Montana on the Cusp
M ontana is not what it used to be. Small family-owned farms have been taken over by corporate behemoths. Public forests have been squandered and sold to the highest bidder. Racism is increasing. Poverty is rampant. Native Americans are being corralled onto even tighter plots of land. However disheartening it all may seem, there are still voices of hope rumbling across the vast Big Sky.
Montana doesn’t clearly fall within the predictable blue state/red state dichotomy. Don’t get me wrong; this is still Bush country—“W” stickers are flaunted on oversized SUV bumpers. Yellow Support the Troop magnets have been slapped on most every Ford truck. There is no question that these flag waving Montanans voted overwhelmingly in favor of George W. Bush last November. Republicans here are a dime a dozen.
I grew up out here on the eastern side of the continental divide in Billings, which is the largest city in Montana with a population of 90,000-plus. Billings, dubbed America’s “Crank Capital” by Time in the late-1990s, is nestled beneath the shadows of 500-foot sandstone cliffs. The snow-capped Rockies are due west. The Yellowstone River cuts through the south end of town. It’s searing hot in the summer and bitter cold in winter. A 40-minute drive southeast will park you in the impoverished and desolate Crow Agency (Indian reservation), which houses the memorial for the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
Much has changed since I left Billings eight years ago. A Mormon temple has been erected on the outskirts of town near a glitzy country club. Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Barnes and Nobles, Starbucks, dozens of tasteless eateries, and countless cookie-cut-out homes—all the destructive amenities that decorate our suburban landscapes—have relentlessly extended the city’s boundaries.
At a cursory glance one would be unlikely to detect any utterance of dissent in these parts. That is, of course, if you aren’t referring to the right-wing militia that have made Montana famous. But I am not talking about the Freeman who stockpiled weapons and took on the feds or that chemically inclined Kaczynski’s fetish for sending loaded love letters. I’m talking about an odd populist backlash that is gaining speed on these remote country roads.
A fair portion of the population is pissed. Rightfully so. Montanans have suffered far too long under the thumb of a conservative majority. First it was the cavalier Governor Marc Racicot, now a rising star within the Republican establishment, who used Montana as a stepping stone for his own political trajectory. More recently they were faced with Judy Martz, a Republican governor who has admitted that she was the “lap dog of industry.”
Martz earned quite a rap sheet after her election in 2000. She shielded timber companies from litigation. She befriended deregulation as Montanans saw a huge increase in their electric bills. She undermined public schools, gouged taxpayers, destabilized local business owners, and walked all over small farmers. Martz was a political train wreck and Montana reacted appropriately. Her approval rating by the summer of 2004 had reached an all-time low of 30 percent. Martz opted not to run for reelection. A sensible decision.
Sick and tired of Republican wrath, many rational Montanans voted to replace Martz with Democrat Brian Schweitzer—a wealthy cattle rancher who has operated ranches across the state. Schweitzer is a gifted orator who almost pulled off beating entrenched U.S Senator Conrad Burns, a popular Republican stooge, back in 2000.
Schweitzer ran on a split ticket this time around, picking moderate Republican state Senator John Bollinger to be his running mate. The choice of Bollinger was indeed pragmatic, as it is well known that Bollinger is a donkey in elephant attire. He swapped parties when he chose to run for state congress in a conservative Billings district in 1992. Bollinger knew his constituents would vote Republican out of habit. He was right and the Schweitzer camp capitalized on their collective ignorance under the banner of “bipartisanship” in 2004.
In 1999 Schweitzer made his mark with Montana senior citizens as he drove a batch of them across the border into Canada to see how much cheaper meds were for the Canadians. As Gov. Schweitzer recently explained in a radio address, “The purpose of those trips was to demonstrate the hypocrisy of Congress’ trade policies. They passed NAFTA, told us that it would be great for the consumers of the United States. We’d be able to have products and consumer products cross the border from Canada, Mexico, and the United States, and that we would find greater choice. And we have NAFTA and we’re supposed to have free choice for everything but medicine.”
Not bad for a Democrat. Since his inauguration last January, Schweitzer has been vocal in his opposition to the Bush agenda and has even said he wants Montana’s guard troops to return from Iraq so they can help battle wildfires this summer. Schweitzer is not buying Bush’s call to privatize Social Security, either. “Today we’re talking about Social Security, something that might happen 20, 30, 40 years from now,” Schweitzer said after a recent meeting in DC when U.S. governors spent an afternoon with the president, “But guess what’s really happening? We’re cutting Medicaid. We’re cutting programs in the heartland.”
But don’t go kidding yourself; Schweitzer is more centrist than radical. He opposes gay marriage (although I’m told only because had he come out in favor, Bollinger would have declined to be his running mate) and wants to expand Montana’s private prison industry. Even so, there is no question that Schweitzer is a pleasant change of pace from Montana’s Republican two-step.
Schweitzer’s win wasn’t the only interesting development in the state last year. Montanans also voted in favor of medial marijuana. No kidding. Despite what liberals claim, these red staters may have some common sense after all.
This isn’t even the best of it. The largest victory for Montana came when voters overwhelmingly shot down a mining initiative that would have returned open-pit, cyanide heap-leach mining to the state. Mining companies put up millions to raise support for the bill, but Montanans didn’t bite. Environmentalists and the public won outright.
It is good to be back. There is a defeatist attitude still lingering out in blue America and it’s a downer. No doubt “blue” is an apt color to describe the dejected mood that paints the coastal states that voted for John Kerry. Fortunately progressives in Montana, although a minority, have rolled up their sleeves and continued their work. The presidential election was not a deterrent. They stayed the course and never abandoned their issues, and won as a result.
Maybe blue staters will realize this isn’t fly-over country after all. Looks like liberals could learn a lot from these red state dummies.
Joshua Frank is the author of the new book, Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush , published by Common Courage Press.
Z Magazine Archive
CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; mailbikesnotbombs.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in NYC.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduate Center, Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16 in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; convention @adc. org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5-day Seminar at the University of Havana, plus visits to a co-op and educational and medical institutions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.globaljustice center.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
Contact: 164 Robles Way, #276, Vallejo, CA 94591; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.netrootsnation.org/.
MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process in the U.S.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from across the continent to learn skills and build one big union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13, the 11th Annual Peacestock will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers, and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; email@example.com; http://www. peacestockvfp.org.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations, and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://yeacamp.org/.