Reaching into a patch of mud in his quarter-acre backyard vegetable garden in Grant Creek, Gary Marbut unearths a red potato the size of his fist. Whatever spuds he doesn't end up eating himself, he gives to the Missoula Community Food Co-op, he says.
Birdhouses surround the garden on high posts, an invitation to hungry swallows. Marbut, who is now campaigning as a Republican for House District 99, says the birds devour bugs that might plunder his veggies, thus eliminating any need for pesticides.
Marbut can talk about the organic garden behind his energy efficient dome-style house with passive solar panels that he built in 1980, and about the trivia contest on his campaign website that offers a $2,000 prize to the randomly drawn winner. He can also talk about distributive generation, a plan he's mulling over for the state legislature as a cheap and efficient method to harness forest fuel for electrical power for Montana. But it's what he's not talking about that may come as a surprise to those who know him best.
"I want to avoid talking to the people of this district about guns," he says. "I've already earned my spurs in the right-to-bear-arms community. There are a lot of people who know me and appreciate that. But there are a lot of people down here whom I need to be able to communicate with who don't understand much about guns."
Marbut has not tried to bury any traces of his influence on gun rights in Montana over the last 30 years. On the meaty résumé posted on his personal website, he lists himself as an expert witness in firearms use and safety, having authored the reference guide Gun Laws of Montana and many essays regarding 2nd Amendment rights.
Describing himself as a guy with libertarian instincts and interests, Marbut had always been interested in issues he thought related to personal liberty, he says, but when he first got involved in political activism in the 1980s, he stretched himself too thin over many issues. To make an impact, he decided to focus his energy on gun rights.
Now that he's spent nearly three decades advocating for interest groups in favor of gun rights, he says he wants to switch his efforts to a new group of constituents in HD 99, which includes all of downtown Missoula. It's a district he describes as 60 to 65 percent Democratic.
"I want to interact with voters in a way they will appreciate and understand," he says. "I need them to know that I have very broad experience and very broad interests that have a lot of overlap with theirs."
Despite going mute on his status as "Gary the Gun Guy," Marbut boasts that the legislature has passed 58 bills of his making. Speaking of his Democratic opponent in the district, Kimberly Dudik, Marbut says his experiences in legislative sessions give him an edge in getting policies through.
"I see freshman legislators who go up there and just get lost in the process," he says. "They spend the whole first session trying to find out where to get copies of bills and what time to show up for committee hearings and stuff like that. I know all that stuff and a whole lot more."
One of the most recent pieces of legislation that Marbut crafted was House Bill 228, which passed in 2009. It included what is now Montana's version of the controversial Stand Your Ground law, which demands that the burden of proof be placed on the state, rather than the defendant, to determine whether a homicide was justified.
State Rep. Betsy Hands, the District 99 incumbent, who is endorsing Dudik, says Marbut's concentration on gun legislation distracts from more pertinent issues like education and the economyissues she says Dudik is more qualified to tackle. "I've seen Gary Marbut up at the legislature for the last three sessions, and his primary and only focus seems to be on extreme gun laws such as Stand Your Ground," Hands says.
While his reputation as a gun activist precedes him, there is at least one new issue Marbut says he hopes to make progress on if he makes it to the capitol in November. He wants to revisit a bill he tried to push through the 2005 session that proposes using biomass generators to burn dead forest fuel as an electrical power source.
Marbut says the process could be made more efficient through redistributive generation, which involves situating biomass generators at forest clean-up sites nearest to available power lines, which would reduce diesel use on the trucks that would transport the fuel.
If he can overcome present controversies surrounding the University of Montana biomass boiler, and the dead end he met trying to get Northwestern Energy on board with his idea, re-trying his failed proposal may be Marbut's best shot to prove to prospective voters that he can play for them in Helena just as well as he did for gun lovers.