Something changed in Bob Kelleher last year. Watching Ralph Nader accept the Green Party’s presidential nomination on television, Kelleher’s transformation took shape.
“He talked for an hour and 20 minutes,” Kelleher says. “My neck was sore from my head going up and down.” It was not long before Kelleher, a 78-year-old Butte lawyer and frequent unsuccessful political candidate, was no longer a Democrat.
Kelleher announced last week that he is running for the U.S. Senate as a Green Party candidate. He joins several Republicans in challenging incumbent Democrat Max Baucus in what is already promising to be an intense and closely-watched race. Kelleher has entered another fray as well, one within the Green Party itself. The party is still taking shape in Montana, and there is an internal debate going on about the future direction of the party. How the Montana Greens handle the 2002 Senate race may well show what kind of party they want to be. With the U.S. Senate split so evenly, the results of one election could be very significant, shifting control of the whole chamber. This has made Democrats from conservative states who are up for re-election, like Max Baucus, targets of intense national scrutiny.
“Baucus is considered highly vulnerable,” says the Web site of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC). The site points to President Bush’s sweep of Montana by 20 percentage points in 2000 and Baucus’ narrow victory in 1996.
National groups like the NRSC will likely spend a substantial amount of money on the Montana race given Baucus’ influential position as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. There are three declared Republican candidates so far, with the front-runner being state Senator Mike Taylor (R–Proctor).
“Certainly there is some debate within the party,” says Scott Proctor, head of the Montana Green Party. “We haven’t achieved 100 percent consensus about whether to run someone against Baucus or not.” The Montana Green Party, which achieved ballot status after Ralph Nader took six percent of the state vote in 2000, held an organizing convention in early December and will meet again in March to make things official. In the meantime, Proctor is the “interim state coordinator” and the party cannot control who runs with its name.
“Any candidate can do the paperwork, pay the filing fee, and run on the Green ballot line, which is what Kelleher intends to do,” says Richard Wachs, a co-coordinator of the Missoula Green Party.
Kelleher has now run for office about a dozen times. His first race, for Congress in 1964, came after he returned to Montana from working in the Justice Department. He went on to run for president, governor, the U.S. Senate and House, the state legislature, district judge, and the state constitutional convention in 1972. His only successful race was the last one.
The issues Kelleher ran on in 1972 are the ones he still talks about today. One of his favorites stems from his 13 years teaching political science and studying Scandinavian forms of government. Kelleher would like to see the United States switch over to a single house, parliamentary form of government. “Sweden went to one house in 1970 and by 1976 they had the highest per capita income in the world,” Kelleher says.
Kelleher says his first bill in congress would seek to repeal the Taft-Harley Act because “organized labor must have a level playing field.” He supports universal health care, environmental protection, and giving 100 percent of farm subsidies to small family farms. He opposes “the $36.9 billion arms industry,” sanctions against Iraq, the School of the Americas, and “tax relief for dead billionaires.” All of which sounds like a good Green Party platform.
Except Kelleher also wants to outlaw abortion. “They’ll say if you’re pro-life you’re one of those right-wing fascists. That’s just not true,” Kelleher says.
Kelleher opposes abortion and the death penalty because of his Catholicism. However, he has been a long-time supporter of gay rights.
“I know some of the Greens are a little bit worried about his pro-life stance,” says Proctor. “We don’t want to step on the man’s religious beliefs, but we are a pro-choice group generally.”
Kelleher’s stance on abortion is the first thing seized on by state Democrats to dismiss him as a threat to Baucus’ re-election.
“He has long and extensive pro-life credentials,” says Brad Martin, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party. “That plus his history of running perennially makes him a fairly marginal candidate.” Kelleher thinks his opposition to abortion will make him attractive to some Republicans, and therefore he would not siphon a disproportionate number of votes away from Max Baucus.
Nonetheless, Kelleher thinks Baucus, though a “brilliant man,” has been a disappointment.
“Bush wanted a $1.8 trillion tax cut and ended up with a $1.3 trillion tax cut, and who got it through but Baucus, a Democrat,” Kelleher says. Potential candidates have until March to declare their intent to run. Kelleher is the only Green Party candidate to declare in the Montana Senate race so far. If anyone opposes him, there would be a primary in June.
“There are a lot of people that are in the Green Party that really aren’t satisfied with Max Baucus’ voting record,” says Proctor. “I wouldn’t be surprised if more people signed up for that race.”
However, Proctor does not know of any specific potential candidates yet. If Kelleher remains the only Green candidate, there would likely be debate amongst Greens who actively support him, who actively oppose him, who oppose him but just want someone on the ballot, and who do not want to challenge Baucus at all.
“I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Baucus is no better than Burns, although some Greens would tell you that,” says Wachs. The Montana Greens are supporting Instant Run-Off Voting, a system in which voters rank multiple candidates in order of preference and candidates are eliminated until one gets a majority. Both Wachs and Proctor think it would solve the “spoiler” problem. Kelleher is not worried about being a spoiler, and he is not worried about being disloyal to the Democratic Party.
“It was painful. I was born a Democrat and swore I’d die a Democrat,” Kelleher says. After nearly 80 years, though, “the party left me, I didn’t leave the party.”