At 7 p.m. on November 3, Election Night '98, Erick Tombre, press secretary for Democratic congressional hopeful Dusty Deschamps, looked something like an expectant father as he paced Missoula's Union Club, where local Dems gather each election to watch the returns. After months of uphill battle against incumbent Republican Rep. Rick Hill, Tombre held out hope he might see the advent of something wonderful.
"I'm cautiously optimistic," he said. "Nervous, but optimistic."
By midnight, as the last stragglers of an jam-packed Democratic party wandered out of the bar, Tombre looked more than a little bereft as he stood by his candidate. "I guess I start looking for a job tomorrow," he said. "Got anything at the Independent?"
Despite a late push and early returns that had the Union Club crowd cheering, Deschamps' upset bid against incumbent Rep. Rick Hill, a Republican, fell short. On a night when Democrats across the country connected with their target voters to score victory after victory, the veteran Missoula County Attorney failed to cobble together a majority.
The defeat raises the question of the Democratic Party's viability in a state that, despite its reputation as a GOP stronghold, is full of unpredictable voters. In Missoula, some liberal partisans wondered if the party's national wing had done all it could have.
In particular, they wondered where was Montana's Sen. Max Baucus, a Democrat, as Deschamps ran hard down the stretch. Baucus' people say he campaigned for Deschamps and many of the party's legislative candidates.
The party faithful say Baucus' efforts were key in contests around the state. And, just maybe, Baucus' relative invisibility in Missoula can be credited to Deschamps' strength on his home turf, where he's held elected office for nearly 30 years.
Republican Sen. Conrad Burns stumped for Hill, as did House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Even though the national media branded Hill vulnerable, last-minute appeals from President Bill Clinton to the Dems national base did little to help Deschamps.
Burns' press secretary, Matt Raymond, says his boss' efforts were nothing out of the ordinary, noting that amongst the GOP Hill never seemed to be a full-on certainty. "We knew for a long time that it'd be closer than anyone expected," he says. "Frankly, we were wondering what planet some of the polls were being taken on."
With Republican flacks like Raymond acknowledging that victory in Montana isn't a foregone conclusion, the ball seems to be in the opposition's court. Some Missoula Democrats say old coalitions must be revived.
Locally, divisions between progressives and more traditional, conservative Democrats healed temporarily as campaigns implored voters to turn out. To hear candidates and operatives tell it, state and local races turned on bare-knuckled machine politics. As union members, blacks and Hispanics turned out across the country, Garden City lefties focused on energizing similarly sympathetic, sometimes apathetic voters.
In Missoula, poll watchers and phone calls turned out droves of working-class voters; a big push from the University of Montana student government, led by Democrat Barrett Kaiser, pulled in a record turnout in traditionally anemic campus precincts.
"There was a lot of energy put into the Northside and Westside neighborhoods," says New Party organizer Ande Clark. The New Party, a decidedly left-of-center PAC, has frequently found itself at odds with traditional Democrats. This year, the group stayed in the background, offering manpower to the mainstream party but declining to endorse candidates.
"The election judges at all the polling stations I went to were talking about how heavy the numbers were," adds Clark, who marshaled volunteers for a number of Democrats.
Missoula's results testified to successful grunt work. Progressives Gail Gutsche and Ron Erickson stormed home in state House races, easily beating 18-year-old Republican Jon Williams and arch conservative Lynn Link, respectively. Veteran Democrats Carolyn Squires, Carol Williams and Linda McCulloch all capitalized on heavy voting as well.
Democrat Fred Van Valkenburg staved off Clinton Kammerer's challenge in the race for county attorney, Deschamps' old job. Bill Carey, a former state legislator, beat Republican challenger Jerry Ballas in the race for Missoula County Commissioner, despite Ballas' war chest and support from popular Republican Commissioner Barbara Evans.
Even in state house districts held and defended by the GOP, Democrats made it close. John Lynn came within a whisker of unseating the Matt Brainard in a conservative district. Political rookie Wayne Fairchild made a respectable showing in the South Hills district won by GOP favorite Dick Haines.
Though the night ended in disappointment for Deschamps-and for those, like Tombre, who staked a good deal of faith and labor on his campaign, many Union Club celebrants overcame the gloom of his defeat.
By contrast, all this made for a somewhat sober Election Night atmosphere at the Joker's Wild Casino, where Republicans gathered. Despite Hill's triumph, those gathered at Joker's had little to cheer about. According to Jon Williams, who may be the youngest candidate for office in state history, Missoula's GOP sometimes falls short of its rival's resources.
"I've had a good response," he said. "But I knew going into this that this was a Democratic district. In national politics, I think people in my district favor leaving Clinton alone, and I'm sure most of them voted for Deschamps."
Clark, for one, thinks the state Dems need to take a cue from the Missoula branch's emphasis. "It can be a challenge to reach low-income voters around the state because they tend to live in pretty inaccessible places," she says. "The bottom line is that Democrats had a finite amount of resources this year and, in my opinion, they devoted those to legislative races in upper middle class areas."
By ANDREA BARNETT and CATHY SIEGNER
With a bang of his gavel on Thursday, October 22, U.S. District Judge Charles C. Lovell quieted the courtroom. He spoke slowly but clearly, wasting little time in proclaiming Montana's campaign finance reform law, Initiative 125-passed in 1996-to be unconstitutional.
"The court finds I-125 is clearly a restriction on corporate speech and First Amendment rights," Lovell declared. "The Supreme Court says corporations have First Amendment rights of speech just as do natural persons.
"We may not like it, but it is the law."
Thus ended the state's chance at making history, by overturning the nation's first law banning corporate donations to ballot initiatives.
I-125 seemed to have slipped through the electoral cracks two years ago, overlooked in the shrill rhetoric over two high-profile initiatives defeated in the fall of '96. One would have raised the state's minimum wage; a second measure, the so-called "clean water" initiative, would have tightened restrictions on mining companies.
For seven days, the argument went on in Lovell's courtroom in Helena's historic courthouse. On one side of the courtroom were the well-dressed lawyers for the plaintiffs, who argued the well-established precept that donating money to political causes is a First Amendment right. Attorneys arguing for the state and public interest groups, meanwhile, described I-125 as a vital tool for keeping corporate domination of elections partially at bay.
Judge Lovell listened to hours of testimony from a host of witnesses, reviewed hefty notebooks filled with hundreds of exhibits, and finally, came to his conclusion.
Approved by a 4-percent margin, the 2-year-old campaign finance law leveled part of the playing field. Suddenly, mining and logging CEOs were welcome to dig into their own bank accounts to fight environmental measures, but their companies had to keep the checkbooks closed.
Although the new law was challenged almost immediately by the Montana Mining Association and the state's Chamber of Commerce, campaign reformers were ecstatic. Their enthusiasm got another boost last February, when Lovell issued a strongly worded, 43-page decision upholding the law over a summary judgment motion to dismiss it.
With a trial set for this October, it looked as though Montana would make history with the first serious restriction on corporate donations to ballot initiatives in the country.
But for all the squawking about campaign finance reform locally, legally speaking, it's largely been a dead issue across the country. In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that money equaled speech. Under that ruling, if Phelps Dodge, Plum Creek and part-time Montanan Ted Turner's myriad of business ventures happened to have more money than the average person to spend on politics, then they had a bigger say.
When business advocates decided to sue over I-125, and the case ended up on Lovell's docket, the outcome seemed a foregone conclusion to many casual observers.
The first hint that the Montana Chamber of Commerce and co-plaintiffs might be badly disappointed came with Lovell's ruling last February. In essence, the judge relied on a Michigan case, where the U.S. Supreme Court found that a state had a legitimate interest in checking "the corrosive and distorting effects of immense aggregations of wealth that are accumulated with the help of the corporate form and that have little or no correlation to the public's support for the corporation's political ideas."
In other words, corporations profit from laws geared toward keeping the economy healthy. If they use those profits to corrupt the electoral system, then the state has the right to intervene.
In the 1996 election season, reformers took the position that corporate money had corrupted the political process-and offered voters the chance to back them up. With voter approval, they then had to convince Lovell that Montana elections had been manipulated by corporate spending. It was the only way the judge would rule that the First Amendment rights of companies would have to take a backseat to a healthier democratic process.
By the time the trial convened last month, I-125 advocates had scheduled 17 witnesses and more than 100 exhibits to make the connection between lopsided spending on the clean water, and other campaigns and the results at the polls.
Witnesses told the court that while both the minimum wage and clean water measures started out with favorable poll results, corporations drowned their opponents in a sea of money, paving the way for voters to reject both initiatives. Others described similar spending patterns in the campaigns for two failed recycling bills and a proposed tobacco sales tax. In 1990, tobacco companies filled the coffers of the anti-tax campaign, outspending health advocates 40-1.
The strategy of I-125's opponents was twofold. First, they claimed the law was unfair, denying businesses a voice in the political process. Second, they pleaded confusion, arguing that the law was too vague, too broad.
Questions were raised repeatedly both in the courtroom and in the media. Could corporate employees and officers attend meetings on their own time? Or would that be interpreted as some sort of in-kind donation prohibited under the law? Public officials worried aloud about their rights to speak out. Mining company officials said they declined to set up voluntary PACs for their employees to fight this fall's anti-cyanide initiative, Initiative 137, rather than risk running afoul of the law.
After eloquent closing arguments on both sides, Judge Lovell wasted little time in finding the law unconstitutional.
Plaintiffs and their supporters congratulated one another and went off to celebrate. Jill Andrews, executive director of the Montana Mining Association, said, "The judge realized we've made a tremendous investment in this state, and we have the right to protect this investment."
Attorneys for the defendants gathered up their briefcases and quietly left the courtroom. They plan to appeal Lovell's decision, according to C.B. Pearson, I-125's campaign manager and an intervenor in the case. If they lose there, Pearson said, they will attempt to take the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"Ultimately, anyone who looks at the status of American politics today realizes that [corporate spending] needs to be addressed if we're ever going to get a healthy democracy," Pearson said. "The political scene is going nuts in terms of money."