Defining moments 

Searching for the true identity of the Montana Democratic Party

Steve Kelly’s gallery in downtown Bozeman is sleek and hip, the walls bedecked in expressionist artwork in numerous media. Walking in, you might as well be gallery-hopping in SoHo, until you head toward the back and the gallery opens up into a flower shop.

Kelly’s desk is next to a cooler filled with flowers (the gallery is called, appropriately enough, Botanica Fine Art). It’s covered in the usual assortment of papers, notebooks and slides, as well as a stack of newspapers and a copy of Michael Moore’s book, Stupid White Men.

It’s from here that Kelly is running his campaign as the Democratic nominee for Montana’s sole seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. This is his third political campaign and his first time running as a Democrat. “That’s the beauty of politics,” Kelly says. “External forces always move the polls around, and this change is what I love as an artist. It’s the same kind of thing that stimulates the development of art.”

An artist and an East Coast native, Kelly may seem like an unlikely participant in a state political scene more focused on cattle, wheat and mining. But he has done his part to stimulate Montana politics, by running for the U.S. House as an Independent in 1994, for Gallatin County commissioner as a Republican in 1998, and again for Congress, this time as a Democrat.

While Kelly is proud of being an outsider, he is ready to work with the Democratic Party establishment. The state party, which was not able to recruit a more mainstream candidate, is apparently ready to work with him. Many Democrats admit, however, that Kelly is at best a long shot to unseat incumbent Republican Dennis Rehberg. The Democrats’ inability to field a more established candidate is seen by some as indicative of deeper troubles within the party. While the Republicans continue their nearly decade-long dominance of statewide politics, outside observers and some within the party are asking if Montana’s Democrats are fighting hard enough. To political analysts, the recruitment of candidates is a good indicator of a party’s health. This House race also raises the question of whether Montana’s Democrats were scared off by their defeats in the 2000 election.

While Republicans control both houses of the Legislature and most statewide offices, critics say the Democrats have failed to get their message across to ordinary Montanans and have been on the defensive as Republicans advance their agenda. Democratic leaders respond by saying that despite recent electoral losses the races have been close, and that they continue to speak out on issues like energy deregulation, taxes, and education.

One group of Democratic legislators who believe something needs to change has been meeting informally to talk about new directions the party can take. Although there are many different visions and plans, a common theme is that change must come from the bottom up. Both critics and party leaders agree that Montana’s Democratic Party is becoming more and more decentralized. While some see this as a challenge, others see it as an opportunity. While former Gov. Marc Racicot’s popularity provided the Republicans with a formidable statewide leader, many see the repeated stumbling of the current governor as a chance for the Democrats to gain some ground. Others believe the key to reviving the party is to harness their diversity of opinions and views and embrace nontraditional candidates. The problem is finding someone who can accomplish all these goals and still appeal to voters across a large and diverse state. Hopes are running high for Brian Schweitzer, the Whitefish farmer who appeared out of nowhere to nearly unseat Republican Sen. Conrad Burns in 2000. While Schweitzer sits out this year’s elections and mulls the possibility of a 2004 governor’s bid, the Democratic outsider of the moment is Steve Kelly. His campaign, which now begins in earnest after his victory in last week’s primary, represents both the challenge and promise of Montana Democrats.

The long shot

Steve Kelly is a native of upstate New York who grew up there and in Pennsylvania, and came out west for college in the ’60s. He studied hotel and restaurant management at the University of Denver, opened a hoagie shop after college, and moved to Montana in 1974 to become the food service manager at the Snow Bowl ski area. He spent the next two decades working odd jobs from cook to oil patch helicopter crewman, with stints as a tree planter and railroad worker. In 1986 he moved to Bozeman to get a degree in fine arts, which is how he began his current career.

An avid hunter, fisherman, and skier, Kelly became involved in politics through the outdoors. He studied up on conservation biology and helped found the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Friends of the Wild Swan.

“Conservation biology was a way to convince people it wasn’t about my use of public resources versus your use,” Kelly says. “It’s more on moral issue grounds. We adopted a scientific approach, then later an economic approach.” Soon Kelly realized that he could accomplish more in the political arena. Frustrated by the lack of progress on several key issues, notably a wildlife protection bill before Congress, he decided to run for office himself. In 1994 he filed as an Independent against then-incumbent U.S. Rep. Pat Williams (D–Mont.). It had been more than half a century since someone had just decided to run for Congress outside of the party process. He spent the next three months gathering more than 10,000 signatures and made it on the ballot. He lost.

Kelly’s next campaign, for Gallatin County Commissioner in 1998, was sparked by his involvement in the push for a special county zoning district to protect wildlife. Kelly says he ran as a Republican because that’s what he needed to do to get elected in Gallatin County. He did not win that race either, although he did take about 35 percent of the vote.

Kelly has been described as liberal on environmental and social issues but fiscally conservative.

“Pick a department or an agency, I could cut money anywhere,” he says, in support of his fiscal conservatism. However, he goes on to defend public agencies and bash the “Reagan-Bush-Racicot” model of privatization. He thinks crop subsidies should be reformed, but thinks Montanans need to be more realistic about their relationship with the federal government.

“Let’s face it, we’re all on the government tit here,” Kelly says. “That’s how Montana runs, period. If the federal government pulls out, the only people here who would be able to make it would be the Native Americans. If they could remember how they did it before the government came in and stole everything from them.”

Kelly, who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000, became interested in this year’s House race because he was disappointed in Rehberg’s record on the environment and issues like campaign finance reform. He chose to run as a Democrat because he feels the party is in line with most of his stances now, and because it seemed like the time was right. Although some Democrats are still bitter with him because of his run against Williams, Kelly says the party has been supportive, and he is looking forward to working with them. Especially because he has only raised about $7,000 so far, compared with Rehberg’s $1.3 million.

“You couldn’t get a big-time Democrat to run because he knew he couldn’t win!” says Bob Raney, a Democratic legislator from Livingston from 1985 to 1999. “It gives Kelly an opportunity to get out his message, so hooray for him.”

Kelly insists that he is running to win, not just to spread the word about his pet causes. University of Montana Political Science Professor Jim Lopach agrees, saying the Democrats’ failure to field a more mainstream candidate signals deeper troubles in the party.

“The fact is, today I think the Democratic Party is very weak,” Lopach says. “It’s a good indication that Kelly is not a strong candidate. They couldn’t get a strong candidate to run.”

Nevertheless, the Democrats have strong polling data, says Lopach, and they know what they’re up against statewide.

State Democratic Party Chairman Bob Ream agrees Kelly’s race against Rehberg will be a tough one, but denies any suggestion that his party is weak.

“The ones who ran last time and lost, I think they just weren’t up for tackling another election that they perceived as a tough one against an incumbent,” Ream says. “And sometimes it’s just a matter of timing, and this time we didn’t have the right candidate.”

On the defensive

Montana has always been unique among rural states because of its dynamic, competitive politics. For a longtime it was a true two-party state, says Lopach, and control of state government would regularly change hands. He attributes this tradition to the diverse nature of the state’s population and economic base, which supported both agriculture and a unionized industrial population.

“Montana had a sufficiently different complexion that it underwrote strength in both political parties,” he says. Montana used to be a bellwether state for presidential elections, often reflecting national trends. Things began to change, however, in the 1980s.

“When the Republicans started kicking our butt in 1988, I guess everybody thought it was a fluke,” Raney says. “But by ’93 they were whipping us in everything and by ’95 they were in charge of both houses of the Legislature with huge control of each. They were dictators by ’95.”

The new majority pushed its conservative agenda, weakening environmental protections and clean-up laws, changing the tax structure, and deregulating the energy market (with the support of key Democrats).

While some Democrats have continued to present alternatives and have fought the Republican agenda all along, they have largely failed to get their message out to many in the state, Raney says.

“Democratic legislators have done an exemplary job of fighting it within the walls of the Capital building, but that message has fallen on deaf ears,” he says. “People who live in trailer courts are voting for Republicans who are taking away from their very basic needs.”

A large part of the problem, say some current and former legislators, is that Montana Democrats have failed to differentiate themselves from national Democrats. They say the scandals of the Clinton administration, as well as the national party’s liberal stance on issues like gun control, have hurt the state party.

“When I first ran, President Clinton was embroiled in scandal and controversy,” says Rep. Paul Clark (D–Trout Creek). “I found myself coming from a position of defensiveness based on national politics.”

Clark was elected, although he says he had to fight hard to make people aware of his views on the local level. Montana Democrats on the whole, he says, were unable to do that.

“We’ve been on the defensive most of the time, and most people know that a team that’s on the defensive most of the time is not going to win the game,” Clark says. “I think it’s time for the Democrats to get up on the offensive and get proactive.”

A better way

Clark is part of a group of Democrats who have been meeting informally and brainstorming via the Internet, trying to come up with a better way. “We are 100 percent on board with not just changing the face, but changing the heart of the Democratic Party in Montana,” Clark says. Rep. Dave Wanzenreid (D–Missoula) says the feeling of frustration is widespread.

“Roughly half of that caucus feels that the party needs to take the initiative in promoting an agenda and promoting a message instead of simply responding to a message and an agenda that has been promoted by the majority of Republicans,” Wanzenreid says.

Republicans should be held accountable for failing to improve the economy with their program of corporate tax cuts, Wanzenreid says. He thinks the Democrats need to stress more loudly the relationship between the changes in tax policy and the cuts in education and social services. “Do the Democrats have the responsibility for making sure the public understands that?” Wanzenreid says. “You bet, because we’re the loyal opposition and it’s up to us to make the public understand.”

Ken Miller, chairman of the Montana Republican Party, says it simply takes time to fix a state’s economy, and that there is much work to do because Democrats spent the 20th century driving jobs out of Montana with high taxes and restrictive regulations.

“We’ve set an agenda and the people in Montana have recognized it as the agenda they want,” says Miller. “And that’s why we’re winning elections.” Democratic Chairman Ream dismisses the suggestion that the Democrats are in any way on the defensive.

“Montana has always swung back and forth from one extreme to another,” Ream says. “I think we’re swinging back.”

He points out that although Democratic candidates for governor, U.S. senator, and U.S. representative all lost in 2000, the margins were very close. Indeed, Rehberg beat challenger Nancy Keenan by only five percentage points. Judy Martz edged out Mark O’Keefe by four points, the same margin by which Conrad Burns beat Brian Schweitzer. The numbers were particularly telling in light of the enormous 25 percent margin by which George W. Bush beat Al Gore in Montana. Those numbers underscore the gap between national and state Democrats, and suggest that the enduring influence of the Clinton administration was a drain on state candidates. They also reveal a ripe electorate out there—if the Democrats can harness it.

Although several political analysts, Lopach included, doubt the Democrats can retake the Montana House of Representatives this year, Ream does think they can close their nine-seat deficit.

“We’ve gone through eight years of legislative candidates running on the coattails of Marc Racicot with 70 percent popularity,” Ream says. “Now with Judy Martz at 28 percent favorability, it’s a much different story.”

Ream asserts that the Democrats are now on the offensive. He cites a series of recent roundtables they’ve sponsored, bringing together hunters, small business owners, and farmers. Ream has been working to increase awareness of the Democrats’ pro-Second Amendment stance and support of other hunter-friendly causes like habitat and stream access. He is also working with Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe on the “Rural Initiative” to increase Democratic influence across the country. Ream cites a slew of letters to the editor and Op-Ed pieces the party has authored that are critical of the Republicans’ agenda, as well as efforts to draw in new voters such as those on Montana’s Indian reservations.

While critics within the party support these efforts, they think now is the time for more action.

“Rather than the rhetoric first, saying this is what we’re going to do and stand for, let’s just change what we do and then back that up with philosophy,” Clark says. “It is late so the message doesn’t ring true. That’s why I think it has to come from the bottom up and not the top down.”

Revolution from below

Democratic Party leaders are saddled with the unenviable task of trying to unite and inspire an extremely diverse party. Ideologically, Montana Democrats range from Missoula liberals to rural conservatives, with plenty of inter-party disagreement on key issues. All in all it’s a formula for an identity crisis.

“In the eastern part of the state we’re very leery of what their next press release is going to be,” says Rep. Gary Forrester (D–Yellowstone County) about the state organization. “Sometimes I dread what the next press release is going to be. It’s a difference of opinion. I represent my district, I don’t represent my party.”

As the party’s traditional base of support—labor, educators, seniors, small farmers, environmentalists—has fragmented, so too has the party, says Wanzenreid.

“I don’t think the state party is as strong as it once was,” he says. “Local party committees are strong, but the central state party isn’t as strong.”

House Minority Leader Kim Gillan (D–Billings) see the shift toward decentralization going on within the party, though she doesn’t think it has to be at the expense of a larger state Democratic identity. She says it is this dynamic that allows her, like Forrester and Clark, to be a Democrat representing a largely Republican district.

Widespread misconceptions about the Democrats hurt the party, Clark says. But he has been so effective at turning them around in his district (which encompasses most of Sanders County and part of Lincoln County, including Militia of Montana territory) that he is running unopposed this year. His secret, he says, is speaking his mind and not hiding his beliefs. This unique style of conservative Democratic populism, he says, resonates with the Montana mentality.

“I’m a person who believes in the free market, but I don’t think free markets are any more sanctimonious than big government,” Clark says. “Especially when corporations are running big government.”

Clark’s politics call for changing the tax structure and offering reasonable environmental protection, but also promoting Second Amendment rights and putting more restrictions on abortion.

About 30 percent of Montanans are strong Democratic partisans, and about 30 percent are strong Republican partisans, according to UM’s Professor Lopach. The remaining 40 percent consider themselves middle of the road. It is this large swatch of voters the Democrats need to attract, he says, not with leftist positions but with a blend of moderation and populism that should appeal to the youth vote. The 2004 governor’s race will be a key test of the party, Lopach says.

“I think the youth vote is potentially there, but to get the youth vote they’re going to have to get a real charismatic candidate,” Lopach says. “They need a spokesperson. They can’t have this guy from Great Falls saying this and this woman from Bozeman saying that. That doesn’t get any visibility.”

When political observers try to come up with such a figure, Brian Schweitzer is a logical choice. When he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2000 he was an outsider and a political unknown, though he ended up mounting a campaign that drew substantial national attention. He also nearly won. Schweitzer says the lack of a strong central message from the party can be its greatest strength. By contrast, he reads the GOP’s regular electronic briefings, which he says instruct Republicans across the state on exactly what to say and how to think.

“We’re not members of an organized party. We’re Democrats,” Schweitzer says. “Some Democrats do X, some do Y, and some do Q. The Republicans all march in a single file.”

Schweitzer uses a seafaring analogy: In a powerful storm, a great big boat full of people will crash into the rocks and shatter, drowning everyone. He says you are better off having a thousand rafts tethered together by a few ropes. Schweitzer compares Montana Democrats to the collection of rafts.

Gillan’s preferred metaphor is child-rearing.

“I’m a mom with two kids,” she says. “I don’t want my kids to learn by rote memorization. I want them to learn critical thinking skills.” When Gillan sees members of her party diverging on issues in the Legislature, she sees the same dynamic at work.

“That’s the real difference between the Democrats and maybe other political parties. We are diverse thinkers,” she says.

The next pendulum swing

Nonetheless, many of the internal discussions in the party concern the actions necessary to put this plurality of opinions to work. Schweitzer says it’s time the party looks to the hinterlands for its winning candidates. “If in the next election cycle the Democrats nominate another Democrat who is tethered to a rope that’s within a 30-mile radius of the Helena insiders, the results will probably be the same that we’ve had for the last four election cycles,” he says. “But if the Democrats nominate someone from outside the Helena ‘Beltway,’ if you will, I think the Democrats will have a very good opportunity to win the gubernatorial election and make significant gains throughout Montana.”

Schweitzer has expressed some interest in the race, but has yet to make a formal announcement, citing more pressing concerns.

“I’ve got to get this hay crop in and get this calf weaned first,” he says.

As for this year’s outsider running for national office, Schweitzer acknowledges that the House race seems tilted in Rehberg’s favor, but still gives the Democratic candidate his stamp of approval.

“Steve Kelly is a maverick, that’s OK,” Schweitzer says. “I kind of like mavericks.”

Back at his Bozeman gallery, after giving a reporter a tour of the exhibit space and showing off some of his own innovative sculptures, Kelly sits down at his desk and talks strategy.

“The thing I know is grassroots organizing,” he says. “Politics has become boring to people, and it didn’t used to be. Nixon/Kennedy, now that was exciting!”

Kelly notes that the turnout for last week’s primary election was a record low, which he says drives him crazy.

“My strategy is, there’s a whole number of voters out there that don’t vote,” says Kelly says, who thinks they can be his base. Kelly’s strategy right now involves almost constant traveling for the next several months, hitting the streets and knocking on doors around the state. He’s also planning campaign events that will be full of live music.

“You’ve got to have fun,” Kelly says. “That’s one thing I can offer that Denny can’t. He and his cronies are one of the reasons politics isn’t fun anymore. There’s more to life than getting rich.”

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