At around 5:30 on a recent Monday night, Matt Singer casually sips a Pabst pounder at the Badlander, where he typically starts his Monday evenings mixing beer and Bloody Marys with a heavy dose political dialogue, a splash of activism, and the occasional piece of free fried chicken.
Tonight Singer, president and CEO of the burgeoning political nonprofit Forward Montana, chats with Pat and Don Simmons, two longtime and well known Missoula Democrats who are at least three times his senior and nipping gin and tonics rather than 16-ounce cans of PBR. Don is an affable gray-haired former music teacher whose creased face suggests he’s often wearing a smile, and Pat has an undeniably hip grandmotherly air. Singer introduces them as “two of the nicest people you will ever meet in Missoula,” and in turn they seem to hang on Singer’s every word as the trio talks about the upcoming city council elections, the Simmons’ son’s role on the cable TV show “The Closer,” and the Missoula Symphony Orchestra.
Singer can barely remember Ronald Reagan and he’s only old enough to have voted in one presidential election. Nevertheless, Pat and Don are clearly impressed by what the 24-year-old has to say. The conversation moves to talk of the Missoula City Council race in Ward 4 between Jerry Ballas and Lyn Hellegaard. Pat and Don are eager to hear their young progressive friend’s take on why voters such as themselves might want to support conservative curmudgeon Ballas this time around. As Singer starts to riff about Hellegaard’s unyielding rigidity compared to Ballas’ demonstrated capacity to compromise, more people file in the front door. Many of the faces can be seen at the Badlander each Monday after quitting time for Progressive Happy Hour, one of the dozens of activities Forward Montana hosts or sponsors over the course of the year.
On this Monday night, Democratic attorney general candidate Mike Wheat agrees to show. He’s come to answer a barrage of questions from two-dozen or so young, feisty lefties.
After a softball opening question (“What distinguishes you from your primary opponents?”) and an equally softball answer (“I’m the more experienced, in life and in work…”) Wheat playfully goads the crowd: “Matt Singer told me this was a raucous group. He said, ‘You’re going to come in here and these people are going to start ripping on you like you’ve never been ripped.’”
“Do we need to do some shots?” Singer quips to break the ice, the crowd laughs, and then floodgates open up:
“I know Mike McGrath has been using the powers of the attorney general to deal with health care in a way that’s never been done before. Have you thought about how you would use the powers of the office and maybe do it in explorative means?” someone asks.
“What is your position on the death penalty…” follows another.
Then he’s grilled about his feelings on including sexual orientation in hate crimes laws, and on and on.
After more than an hour of polite but intense back and forth between Wheat and the crowd, Singer finally takes the stage. He urges the now even larger group to continue the discussion, but “in a different format,” as in over more beers.
Long after Wheat has slipped out of the bar, the tables at the Badlander are full and the political discussions continue. While Singer would probably like to see a larger turnout for Progressive Happy Hour events, and he’d definitely like to see some of these young liberals put at least a fraction of the money they’re spending on cocktails and tallboys into the Forward Montana collection basket, for now he’s just happy to see more people his age showing an interest in Montana politics.
Progressive Happy Hour is just one of the dozens of activities Singer and Forward Montana have organized over the course of the last year in a potentially quixotic quest to get people excited about politics. Singer’s hopeful that the excitement at the Badlander will translate into votes for progressive candidates. He’s convinced that Montana’s future depends upon getting more young people involved in the political process, and he’s turned that conviction into a full time job.
You can’t talk about Forward Montana without first talking about Matt Singer’s work. A two-time college dropout (and proud of it), Singer is rewriting the rules for political engagement in Montana, and politicians in the region and young liberal activists around the country have taken notice.
In many ways Singer is Forward Montana. While the work the organization does—registering voters, canvassing neighborhoods, compiling voter databases and throwing parties, among other things—requires a sharp staff, motivated volunteers and a small army of interns, it’s Singer’s vision and determination that propels the organization…well, forward.
Singer has a burly, often disheveled appearance. His closely cropped beard, deep-set eyes, oval glasses, shaggy receding hair, and slack shouldered posture disguise his low-key charisma and bright political mind. He speaks in a flat, almost inflectionless voice that at times seems barely above a whisper. At first it’s hard to imagine an average Joe like Singer inspiring legions of young activists.
“When I met him I was impressed by two things. First, he says almost nothing. He’s very quiet,” recalls former nine-term Montana congressman Pat Williams. “Second, Matt makes up his own mind.”
Williams, a fellow at the UM-based Center for the Rocky Mountain West and co-founder of a new think tank called Western Progress, has known Singer since the activist’s college days. “Whatever it is that Matt now believes politically, in a partisan way, he believes not through DNA but because he sorted it out in his own mind,” Williams says. “A lot of people come to their politics through their parents. Yeah, not Matt.”
Singer does have some conservative blood running though his veins. His father, Tom Singer, managed Republican John Sonneland’s unsuccessful campaign to unseat Washington congressman Tom Foley in 1982, the year before Matt was born. Singer’s parents dropped out of political life after Sonneland’s defeat and went on to build their legal careers, but Singer says his family remained engaged in the political process.
“My parents always brought my sister and me into the voting booth with them, and there were conversations about politics, but they were never super charged,” Singer recalls from his modest glass-fronted office on South Higgins Avenue as he watches scores of Hellgate High School students—future volunteers, perhaps?—march past on their way to Pizza Pipeline.
“It wasn’t partisan,” he explains. “My parents are quintessential swing voters. So unlike a lot of my friends, I wasn’t raised doing lit drops for candidates or knocking doors for candidates or making calls around election time. Instead, my impression of democracy was people sitting around the kitchen table talking about who they were going to vote for because it wasn’t predetermined.”
In high school, though he was too young to vote, Singer volunteered for Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign. He went on to study politics at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. where he spent a portion of his freshman year volunteering for the local Teamsters union.
“The local union had recently been revitalized and we were working with poor immigrant workers who didn’t speak English and fighting for things like back pay and safety pay,” Singer says.
But Singer grew disenchanted with other aspects of life at Whitman and dropped out before the end of his freshman year. He moved back to Billings where he worked the graveyard shift as a cook at Perkins and saw labor issues from a new perspective.
“It was eye-opening work,” Singer recalls.
His co-workers were high school students, single mothers and college students all making $6.50 per hour and trying to pay their bills and put food on their table. Witnessing those pressures each night from his post as a short order cook helped shape his current views on economics, labor issues and politics.
It was around that time, and around those very issues, that Singer launched his political blog, Left in the West, in December 2002. “I started blogging to maintain my writing skills after I left college,” Singer readily explains to anyone who asks.
A full two years before Howard Dean made “blog” a household word, Singer was regularly posting on topics ranging from politics, to the media, to complaining about his software. Singer’s early entry into the blogosphere, combined with his innate ability to write about issues in a way average Joes can understand, put him on the A-list of Montana bloggers.
His blog garnered attention on the Internet from other prominent figures in the national blogging community. He temporarily abandoned Left in the West that spring to join American Prospect writer and popular liberal blogger Ezra Klien on a new website called Klein/Singer: Political Consulting on the Cheap. Together they offered insider commentary on politics, drew readers’ attention to interesting posts elsewhere in the Internet and heaped criticism on the Bush administration and its Republican cronies.
Though successful by the blogging standards of the day, blogs in general were still things of fringe political campaigns and left-wing geeks. Hardly anyone read them and almost no one understood their impact or how they would shape the political climate. Nonetheless, Singer embarked on a near-daily prose assault on Reaganomics, the American healthcare system, Rush Limbaugh, Republican labor policies, etc.
While it may not have been his objective, Singer’s blogging was connecting him to major players in the national progressive movement and Democratic Party insiders. His writing elevated his portfolio among the class of progressive boosters who recognized his talent and ability to communicate.
Singer’s online activism and web savvy approach to politics eventually caught the attention of Democratic U.S. Senate hopeful Jon Tester, who hired Singer in the campaign’s early days.
“Basically what he did for me early on is helped us get a presence on the Internet,” Tester recalls in a recent phone interview. “He’s one smart dude. He’s very talented. I think what he’s accomplished using Internet as a vehicle for political action speaks for itself as far as success.”
Singer left the Tester campaign after just a few months and renewed his focus on Left in the West, where he blogged heavily on a scandal surrounding Tester’s primary opponent, State Auditor John Morrison, who had admitted to having an affair with the wife of a man his office had investigated for securities fraud. Singer helped propel the story into the national spotlight on influential blogs like DailyKos and Talking Points Memo. As a result, support poured in for Tester.
It’s impossible to quantify the effect Left in the West had on the primary election or Tester’s subsequent victory over Conrad Burns in the 2006 midterm election. But Singer’s readers, though small in numbers, include elected officials, top party hacks, news reporters, and political operatives. While Singer won’t speculate on his role in Tester’s victory, by November 2006 he was a familiar figure to Montana political insiders.
People outside the state took notice as well. At this summer’s YearlyKos, a national blogger convention held in Chicago, he spoke on several panels. C-SPAN carried much of the event and Internet correspondents streamed many of the panel discussions on YouTube.
“Matt is a part of the Millennial Generation, which is a generation of social entrepreneurs who haven’t really bought into the system and want to change things for the better,” says Mike Connery, author of the upcoming book, Youth to Power and founder of Music for America, a youth organizing group that inspires young voters through music. “I don’t think Matt’s unique, but I think he is the prototype in terms of Democratic youth organizers,” Connery says.
Singer may not be unique among Democratic organizers, but appearing on C-SPAN dressed in a Forward Montana T-shirt reading “God, guns, and gays — Love ’em all,” Singer stood out on a panel otherwise clad in more formal business wear.
“I’d recommend reading Thomas Frank’s book The Conquest of Cool,” Singer starts off as though he was a machine waiting to come alive the second someone put a quarter in him. For close to ten minutes he talks about the importance of Frank’s basic themes and how they relate to modern political organizing. Politics has become boring, Singer says, and the major challenge for youth organizing is to find new ways to bring some excitement and entertainment into the process.
“We’re competing with Xbox and skiing and concerts,” Singer explains later. “We need to make this fun or why would anybody want to do it?”
With his goofy T-shirts, often nerdy appearance, and deadpan humor, Singer doesn’t even try to be cool by any conventional standard. He considers a bright pink shirt featuring a bunny with the words, “Re-register to vote …or feel my wrath,” his hottest fashion accessory. But somehow, though the Internet, though activism and through a humble confidence that he’s doing the right thing, Singer’s built a reputation that can’t be ignored in Montana.
Largely considered apathetic and unengaged, young voters were practically ignored by politicians and political parties over the past two decades. Since President Richard Nixon first gave 18-year-olds the right to vote in 1971, their turnout declined and their impact at the polls was seen as minimal.
But there’s a new movement afoot to try to change that, and Forward Montana leads the cutting edge in the Treasure State.
“Youth organizing was totally dead pre-2002,” says Music for America’s Connery. Prior to 2002 there were plenty of non-partisan get-out-the-vote efforts, he says, but they weren’t targeting youth and they weren’t necessarily turning people out at the polls.
“Rock the Vote had sort of ceded its cultural mantle and become less about being a part of youth culture than being more about a media campaign aimed at young people,” Connery says. “The Democratic Party, after 9/11, ceding civil liberties, going along with the war in Iraq, even stuff like Gore’s recount…they really dropped the ball and young people stepped up in 2002 and 2003 and said, ‘You know what, the party isn’t going to do this, we need to create our own institutions that are going to energize our generation, get people out to vote, and hopefully change the direction of our country.’”
By 2004 dozens of youth-based voter groups began popping up around the country. Urged on by Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, which used the Internet to reach out to young voters and bloggers for the first time in history, new progressive youth-based organizations sprang up seemingly overnight. Groups like Connery’s, the Oregon Bus Project, Punkvoter, and the League of Young Voters began organizing and turning out volunteers, activists and voters. As a result the 2004 presidential elections saw huge increases in the number voters under age 30.
Meanwhile back in Missoula, Forward Montana, in its original incarnation, waged an altogether different kind of campaign on the University of Montana campus.
Originally founded by Republican State Sen. John Brueggeman as a supposedly student-run political action committee (PAC), Forward Montana was working to shut down the primary funding source for MontPIRG, which utilized Singer as treasurer. Since the 1980s MontPIRG had received the bulk of its funding from voluntary $3 student fees. But campus conservatives, led by Forward Montana, successfully lobbied the Board of Regents to do away with the fee system.
“It was probably the only substantive success they ever had,” Singer says of original Forward Montana. Though disappointed, he was far from beaten.
“I had seen that Forward Montana had let their corporate status lapse. They were involuntarily dissolved,” Singer recalls. “So I said, ‘I’m going to see if we can take this organization over.’ They went after our organization, we’re going to take theirs. Fine. Eye for an eye.”
A few days later he sent a check to the Secretary of State’s office and within weeks after the so-called fee fight had ended, Singer had assumed the business name for Forward Montana.
“It was 10 college students, one recent graduate and no professional legal advice,” Singer says. “Frankly it was a bunch of kids who didn’t even know if what we were doing was allowed.”
But within a year Singer and a newly assembled board of directors secured a grant for $250,000 from Redwood City, Calif.-based Skyline Public Works, a nonprofit venture capital firm dedicated to funding upstart progressive causes. The grant, which called for Forward Montana to match the funds in order to receive them, would total $500,000 over three years.
The new Forward Montana launched in 2006, just two months before the 2006 midterm election, and immediately went to work with get-out-the-vote efforts and Election Day registration drives.
Singer says there are two ways to build power in politics in today’s political system, and that’s either by a) giving candidates or parties a lot of money, or b) mobilizing a lot of grassroots support. Since young voters as a group tend to have little cash, their only chance to wield power in today’s political climate is to organize and get active in the political process.
“What’s the biggest problem with American democracy today? There is either too much money or not enough people,” Singer says. “We tend to think it’s the latter.
“Young people are some of the most civically involved people in this country, not in terms of politics but in terms of volunteering in their communities. What’s exciting about volunteering is the ability to see what you’re doing and seeing a direct impact,” he says.
Under Singer’s leadership, Forward Montana hopes to foster a new generation of young voters, activists and politicians. In turn, Singer believes his generation can tip the political scales in favor of a new progressive agenda that will push back against decades of failed conservative policies.
Not everyone in progressive politics feels comfortable with Singer’s dual role as progressive political organizer and left wing blogger. Tester spokesman Matt McKenna says it’s hard to know how to deal with the likes of Singer, who wears many—and very different—hats from time to time.
“Left leaning bloggers in Montana are trying to figure out what they want to be when they grow up,” McKenna says. “Do they want to be journalists, activist, insiders, strategists, or critics? You can’t be all of those things. Yet that’s what a lot of these guys are trying to do.”
McKenna says it can be frustrating dealing with Singer, who at times supports Tester publicly, at times criticizes Tester and other Democrats, and at times attempts to reach out as CEO of Forward Montana for support.
Singer says there are fewer conflicts these days.
“I’m committed to Forward Montana now,” he says, adding that while Left in the West is still important to him, he’s more careful about how his writing might affect the organization he runs.
Erik Iverson, chairman of the Montana GOP and top aide to Congressman Denny Rehberg, has a less critical take on Singer than his Democratic counterpart. Even though they sit on opposite sides of an ideological divide, Iverson is willing to cut Singer some slack. That’s in no small part thanks to the fact that in the weeks after Iverson’s ascension to top post in the state party, Singer called him up and requested a meeting.
“We’re both young guys interested in politics and interested in Montana,” Iverson says of the impetus behind their meeting over beers earlier this year. “I obviously want young people to get involved in politics and paying attention and volunteering and voting. It’s better for democracy and better for Montana.”
Iverson says that while he’s fully aware that he and Singer are on polar opposites of the political divide on most issues, he feels confident that Singer can put ideology and party labels aside for a common goal of getting more young voters active in the process.
Forward Montana is by no means the first progressive movement rooted in Missoula. But unlike past movements born out of environmental or labor movements and tied to rigid platforms, Forward Montana welcomes anyone who wants to forward any one of the organizations issues.
“About 40 percent of our members identify themselves as Democrats, but none of our member are members of the College Democrats,” says Singer. “We like to say we’ve got a small tent on issues and big tent on people. If you want to work with us on one issue, awesome. If you want to work with us on 10 issues, great. We’re not going to turn you away. We’re actually accepting of different ideas.”
“Forward Montana believes that democracy works better when more people are taking part in the decision making process,” Singer says.
To that end Forward Montana has developed a broad list of campaigns designed to make the often-arduous process of political organizing and activism more interesting. In the weeks prior to the Oct. 9 close of voter pre-registration, about 40 volunteers donned pink bunny ears and took to the streets and campus hallways in a last-minute registration drive. Forward Montana even got Missoula Mayor John Engen to dedicate Oct. 8 “Pink Bunny Day.” On Halloween, 50 or so costumed Forward Montana volunteers will go door-to-door, clipboards in hand, canvassing neighborhoods and registering even more voters.
And earlier this month Singer and company were able to convince 150 people to actually pay $5 to watch a Missoula City Council candidate forum/talent show called “Candidates Gone Wild” at the Elk’s Lodge. More that 35 people volunteered to help make that event happen and Forward Montana registered 15 new voters that night.
Connery praises Forward Montana’s ingenuity for finding ways to get young voters to not only get involved in politics, but to enjoy doing it.
“Matt has figured out a way to use culture to really create social capital in his organization. People buy into the organization because it’s a part of their lives in a way that a lot of politics isn’t,” Connery says. “It’s a fun thing they do every day where they meet people and they start to forge relationships, and so it’s more of a community.”
With the 2007 city council election ballots not even counted, and the 2008 general election more than a year away, it’s too soon to say just how big of an impact an organization like Forward Montana will actually have on Missoula, much less Montana politics. But no other youth-based group in the state has made the kind of headway with young voters that Forward Montana has achieved. With around 120 volunteers, an army of interns and a bright and charismatic leader at the helm, there’s reason to believe we’ll be hearing more about Forward Montana, at least in the near-term.
“Occasionally a handful of visionary, hardworking people—usually young people—will catch a political wave, ride a new trend and make a difference way beyond their individual numbers,” says former congressman Williams. “That’s what’s happened with Forward Montana. It already happened. They are in large measure responsible for John Tester going to the Senate and the United States Senate going to the Democrats.”
In a victory as narrow as Tester’s, almost any organization, group of individuals or demographic can take credit for the victory. A pooling of collective chemistry ultimately pushed Tester over the top. But Williams says get-out-the-vote campaigns and same-day voter registration drives significantly increased turnout among young people in Missoula and Bozeman, and those groups made up a significant portion of Tester’s margin in those communities.
“People were voting at 10 p.m. inside the courthouse after the door had been closed. Young people, same day registrants turned out by Forward Montana. Tester’s margin in Missoula and the other major college community, Bozeman, was significant and helped propel him to his narrow victory. That in turn helped change politics in the nation. So a few people, as we often hear—but now with Forward Montana we witnessed—can make a big difference.”
Williams and his wife, Montana Sen. Majority Leader Carol Williams, hosted a fundraiser at their home in the Rattlesnake last month. Judging by the interest people showed at the party and the talk within progressive political circles, Williams says Forward Montana has already earned a solid reputation among the deep pockets of the progressive movement. “I expect that Forward Montana is going to be raising twice as much money in the near future as they have in the recent past,” Williams predicts. “Their notoriety surpasses anything I thought it would be at this point. And the recognition of Forward Montana by people who care about progressive policies in the Northern Rockies is very significant.”
However others remain skeptical about how far the group can go before the bubble bursts. Tester spokesman McKenna hesitates to give too much credit to Singer’s organization.
“Forward Montana’s influence will remain to be seen. Right now only the insider group of the insiders have heard of Forward Montana, even in Missoula,” McKenna says, although he has high hopes for the group that sides with his boss on almost every issue. Still, until Forward Montana is a household name, McKenna doesn’t believe it will wield any serious political power outside of Missoula.
For his part, state GOP Chairman Iverson, also a veteran of Montana politics, is impressed by Forward Montana’s success generating excitement among Missoula’s young voters, but he says without sufficient funding, it’s hard to sustain that kind of momentum beyond the hills of the Garden City.
“I think they can have an impact on Missoula City Council elections,” Iverson says. “But that kind of impact is going to be much more localized. What will be interesting to see is if they can they take it and make it an effective statewide organization, or do they concentrate on local politics. If that’s their goal they can take it and make it effective. I don’t think it’s a viable statewide force yet.”
But as former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill said, “All politics is local.”
The first real test of Forward Montana’s strength may come next month when the Missoula City Council elections conclude. If the so-called progressive bloc gains an edge on the council, the youth turnout might merit some of the credit.
But the big goal is 2008.
As it stands now, Republicans seem resigned to the fact that they lack the will, and don’t look to be able to muster it any time soon, to launch a serious challenge to Democratic Sen. Max Baucus or Gov. Brian Schweitzer. Some observers believe the Montana GOP’s only glimmer of hope is for Republicans and conservative independent voters to turn out in droves come November 2008 to cast a ballot against a Democratic presidential challenger (say, Hillary Clinton, for example) and fill in the circle next to as many Republicans on the ballot as they can.
But Singer thinks the Republican tide is ebbing in Montana, and young, liberal voters are ready to take their place at the political table. He’s betting that Forward Montana can excite, motivate and engage Generation Y, and a higher voter turnout among his peers will in turn advance a progressive agenda in Montana and throughout the West.