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The crowds at Celebrating Conservatism gradually grew to nearly 500 by the end of the summer. Docteur says the increased attendance means increased donations to help compensate speakers and pay rent at the fairgrounds, as well as expand the group throughout the state. Docteur most recently helped launch a group in Kalispell.
Missoula's version of the group, Conservative Patriots, cropped up in late spring. The latest meeting on Oct. 13 seemed more subdued than Celebrating Conservatism's more rah-rah gatherings. A modest crowd of 40 or so listened calmly to Carter Beck, a local neurosurgeon who offered a PowerPoint lecture on the ins and outs of the health care debate.
Gloria Roark, the Missoula group's head organizer, says she attended Docteur's meetings in Hamilton starting in January and felt inspired.
"There is a real need across the country," Roark says. "People are afraid of losing their freedom. We want to preserve the Constitution. I think something that's bothered me for a long time is the division. It's always an issue of race, of religion, of political parties fighting with one another. What's suffering in the end is our freedom. We've got some very, very big issues to deal with— national security, health care. And I think we're losing our freedoms, slowly, and the government is getting too large.
"It's all on the backs of ordinary working people like you and I," she continues. "I've had to come out of retirement to get a little part-time job. My husband is sick; our income is down. So it's a lot of people like you and me getting out there, rolling up our sleeves and saying, 'Enough is enough.'"
Roark grew up in Pennsylvania, where she says she and her family long considered themselves to be loyal Democrats. But over the last 40 years, both parties have evolved into something they no longer supported, she says. Now she believes the only hope is protecting constitutional freedoms and reaching across party lines. And that starts with education.
"I think when they know what we're about then they won't be threatened," Roark says of concerns about the group. "We're not out to hurt anybody. This isn't a covert operation. We want the best for our children and grandchildren, for our country. We want to get along and work together. I hope we're not a threat, because I don't intend to be in any way."
Celebrating Conservatism remains the largest and most developed of Montana's new conservative groups. When Docteur managed to land Chuck Baldwin, the Constitution Party's 2008 presidential candidate, for a speech in June and ex-Arizona Sheriff Richard Mack for July, other state organizations started to take notice—and raise serious concerns.
Mack made a name for himself in the 1990s promoting a hard-line view of the county sheriff as the highest authority in the nation. He served in Graham County, Ariz., for nearly a decade and proudly boasts he "never issued a seatbelt citation." Federal laws that infringe on an individual's personal liberties have no place in America, Mack believes, and he hardly draws the line at seatbelts. He's a strong proponent of the Second Amendment and successfully challenged the constitutionality of the Brady Handgun Control Act in 1995. He also rails against taxes and the Republican Party, and supports the constitutional right to form militias.
Mack's views connect with the ideology of extremist groups linked to the militia movement, such as the activity of radicals like the former Montana Freemen. Human rights organizations across the country also tie Mack to the white-supremacist Christian Identity movement.
Mack's Hamilton appearance confirmed the suspicions of the Montana Human Rights Network (MHRN) that Celebrating Conservatism was more than just an informal group of frustrated Republicans.
"They're not what you'd think of when you think of your mainstream Republican, pro-business, chamber-of-commerce conservative," says Travis McAdam, a 10-year veteran and executive director of MHRN. "I think they know the more exposure that's out there of the people they're bringing in, the harder it is for them to play this game of, 'Oh, we're just conservatives.' I've actually started calling them, instead of Celebrating Conservatism, 'Celebrating Right-Wing Extremism' because that's the kind of speakers they're bringing in."
McAdam says his concerns over Celebrating Conservatism stem directly from the type of conservative the group has turned to for enlightenment. He heard whispers of a new organization in the Bitterroot earlier this year, but didn't focus his attention until Mack's name came up.
"One of our members down there who went to Richard Mack's thing said that right at the beginning of his speech he made some comment about there being a lot of issues out there that people are concerned about," McAdam says. "He rattled off a list that included black helicopters, which is kind of a catchphrase of New World Order conspiracy theories. And he said, 'But tonight what I'm here to talk about is the county sheriff.' So he's definitely well versed in [conspiracy theories], and depending on the audience he'll talk a little more openly about it."
Docteur and Rodda are quick to leap to Mack's defense, saying he's been unfairly linked to extremist groups. They whole-heartedly support his views on state sovereignty. As for McAdam's concerns? Bogus attacks on Mack's reputation, says Docteur.
"He has nothing to do with the militia, and if someone reads the Constitution, the militia is in the Constitution," she says. "It's been demonized as something negative. Now I'm not saying that there aren't groups that have used it negatively, but it is something that is real and it is part of the Constitution...If people understood and weren't ignorant about words and what they mean, they wouldn't respond emotionally to that."
As Celebrating Conservatism continued its line of speakers, McAdam felt increasingly justified in his criticism. One name in particular—Jack McLamb, another former sheriff—caught McAdam's attention and prompted MHRN to issue a second, more critical media alert about the group in July.
McLamb's most notable contribution to the annals of right-wing extremism was a book published in 1992, Operation Vampire Killer 2000. In it, McLamb calls on peace officers to take a stand against an immense global conspiracy he refers to as the "New World Order." He predicted a hostile takeover of the United States would occur in 2000. When that year passed without incident, he began toning down his rhetoric.