For congressional long-shot Steve Kelly, the avalanche could have been much worse. High up in the Whitefish Range, outside the boundaries of Big Mountain Resort, Kelly dropped into one of the Canyon Creek chutes and kicked off a slide that almost claimed him. That was years ago, during Kelly’s tenure as a Whitefish local and resident ski bum. Kelly still skis, but his on-mountain bravado has vanished along with his ponytail. But as Montana voters now know, he’s still dodging avalanches—the political kind—like the one most Democrats thought would bury Kelly in his run against Republican incumbent Denny Rehberg.
According to the latest election results posted on the Montana Secretary of State’s Web site (the results won’t be certified until Nov. 25), Kelly garnered a respectable 34 percent of the vote and beat Rehberg in four counties: Big Horn, Deer Lodge, Glacier and Silver Bow.
Kelly’s success came without much support from the state Democratic party, which he recently joined. When asked about his relationship with the Democrats, Kelly grumbles about the “big money” Dems who declined to run against Rehberg—then did little to help his campaign.
Kelly’s criticisms allude to former Congressman Pat Williams, but when pressed on the topic he hedges, then drifts. Kelly says nothing about what’s next or whether he’s now a Democrat for life. The pick-up he used to campaign around the state is parked and Kelly is back at work as an artist and florist in Bozeman.
What remains of the Kelly campaign—an $18,000 effort of yard signs and billboards—is a glimpse of what’s possible in Montana politics. As reporters and pundits around the state are noting, Senate candidate Mike Taylor spent $1.7 million in his run against Max Baucus, but received fewer total votes than the unknown and politically impoverished Kelly.
A BFA graduate of Montana State University, Kelly likes to explain his success with words and art. It’s no coincidence that he and David C. Earhart, Director of Programs at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture, chose a Tuesday to open Kelly’s latest exhibition. It’s a show titled “The Last Refuge: Paintings, Sculpture and Mixed Media.”
(An opening reception is slated for December 10 at the University of Montana’s Meloy Gallery from 5 to 8 p.m.).
Kelly’s work includes dress mannequins with rear-view mirrors for heads and something he describes only as “an outhouse.” These pieces and others, including one called “Strategic Trout Initiative,” reflect Kelly’s experience in politics. It’s a fickle world that’s traditionally defined with soundbites from poli-sci Ph.Ds, media pundits and other outspoken wags.
In their post-mortems of the recent election, these keepers of conventional wisdom assign some of the blame for defeat to Democrats who ran without conviction. Ironically, it was Kelly’s strident positions on the environment, human rights and tax policy that may have chilled the Dems’ enthusiasm for his candidacy. “Oh, I had a plan,” says Kelly. “[The Democrats] didn’t buy into the fact that I had a plan to win.”
If, as Kelly says, “Everything is political and everything is art,” that plan continues to unfold. Take this statement, prepared for the catalog of his upcoming show, and try to imagine it as part of a campaign commercial: “If artists aren’t willing to speak the unspeakable, or at least the truth, then what’s the point? The same is true of politicians, they’re supposed to be leaders in our thought, and it’s hard to lead from the middle.”
A winning slogan? Kelly won’t say, adding only: “See, that’s the beauty of art. The viewer has a lot of options for interpretation.”