Look Back in Anger 

Flailing Toward 2000

The political lesson of 1998: When cornered, voters may attack!


Call it the Year of the No. Or maybe, the Year of the Nooooooooooooo!

Either way, 1998 will be remembered as a year in which the American voters were nettled from every direction-by the prospect of global economic collapse, by a political Babylon of unprecedented gaminess on the home front, by millennial hype that suggested, all too convincingly at times, that the End cometh.

As dedicated fans of the Fox Network could have predicted, the People reacted like a cornered, wounded grizzly, lashing out in November's elections in a rejectionist fury that made America look a lot like...well, like Montana.

When voters in Minnesota gleefully whacked the major parties and chose ex-wrestler Jesse "The Body" Ventura as their governor, national "experts" pitched a hissy fit. Montanans, however, could only chuckle and congratulate their Nordic cousins on finally getting with the program. Under the Big Sky, it was business as usual as voters hewed to their traditional strict pro-environmental, anti-industry, pro-monopoly, anti-tax, cheap-gas, arch-conservative, pro-education, year-of-the-woman, democratic-with-a-small-damn-d, revolutionary-reactionary-progressive line.

Meanwhile, the country reeled before Monica's blue dress and her face that launched a thousand drips. As national political discourse began to bear a creepy resemblance to Penthouse Forum, the electorate scrambled to put the brakes on the glacier-paced coup d'etat that has the nation on the brink of an excruciatingly smutty impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate.

Raven-haired intern Monica

As historic as that snafu will surely be, consider this: On Election Day '98, the president's party gained seats in a mid-term election for the first time since 1934, and Republicans were left with the narrowest House majority since 1965.

In the face of that history, the Republicans waffled a little and then returned to the crucial business of overthrowing the most popular president since Eisenhower. Who, they continue to suggest, is actually the biggest crook and worst degenerate in high office since Caligula Caesar. Sure, shtupping interns ain't got much class compared to willfully subverting the law in order to fund Central American nun-killers, smuggle cocaine and arm Islamic extremists, but there ya go. The public, apparently, doesn't grasp the gravity and majesty of the impeachment process. Which brings us to...

The majesty of the constitutional republic

Yes, the painstakingly constructed system of checks and balances that prevents tyranny of the majority and guards against mob rule. Well, Montana voters merrily told that garbage to go screw with their adoption of Constitutional Initiative 75, a wide-ranging, nebulous overhaul of the state's basic law requiring all new taxes, fees, what-have-you to face a vote of the people before taking affect.

CI-75 was devised and trumpeted by Montanans for Better Government, a political action committee fueled up on the intellect of University of Montana law professor and part-time gubernatorial candidate Rob Natelson. Natelson supposedly sharpened CI-75 to a constitutional razor-edge, despite lingering questions as to whether this revision of representative democracy is actually legal.

Doubts over the future of the new amendment, which has potential legal challengers lining up deep, have thrown a fog over the future of practically every governmental agency from small-town sewers to the statehouse. Can Whitefish annex neighborhoods without a popular vote? No one knows. Whither the six-mill levy, the special higher education tax voters overwhelmingly renewed? Good question.

Widespread confusion and angst spreads in the wake of the vastly over-simplified campaign for CI-75 (the Better Government slogan "Have a Say in What You Pay" didn't exactly illuminate the complexity of a measure amending about a dozen sections of the Constitution). Much as we enjoy watching politicians and bureaucrats suffer, this is a bit much. Still, with yet another legislative free-for-all in the offing, CI-75 should make this spring a time of deadly earnest for...

Montana's best and brightest

The 56th Legislature of the State of Montana convenes on January 4, 1999. If that's not enough to strike fear into the hearts of folks everywhere, consider that this edition of the biennial freak show promises to be the busiest ever. With term limits sending a corps of veteran lawmakers into the sunset after this session, the solons of the Big Sky have Legislative Services working overtime, drafting a record number of bills.

The new Leg will include 38 women, more than ever before, and a Democratic contingent healthy enough to suggest there might be life yet in the party. As usual, Missoula supplies the Dems' backbone after an election season that saw the local GOP run one candidate who openly advocated a return to God's Law (think Lynn Link) and one who was barely old enough to vote himself (Jon Williams). While members of the minority caucus insist they'll be stalwart yet effective in opposing the Republican majority, there's still no doubt which party rules the roost.

Sadly, we won't have Bozeman GOP Senator Casey Emerson, corporal punishment's biggest fan and tireless abuser of journalists, to kick around this time. We will have such colorfully nicknamed lawmakers as Barry "Spook" Stang and Kenneth "Ken" Mesaros. And with speed limits, prisons, property tax reform, an administration economic plan that contains a shadowy value-added tariff (is it a sales tax?), the above-mentioned bedevilment of CI-75, attempts to relegalize cyanide mining and Lord knows what all else coming down the pike, fun is guaranteed for all.

Among the many spectacles we can look forward to is rampant jockeying for the pole position in the governor's race. Speaker of the House John Mercer of Polson has been mentioned as one possible successor to Marc Racicot; his management of the unprecedented tidal wave of bills coming his way may well set him up to replace...

The most popular governor in the universe

In November, Washington Post columnist and CNN talking head Mark Shields waxed eloquent about our golden guv. "Republicans could do a lot worse and look a lot farther in 2000 than the governor of Montana," he wrote. "And they probably will."

Montana Governor Marc Racicot

Indeed, watching Marc Racicot determinedly not seek higher office has been an amusing pastime this year. Between trips to the presidential happy hunting ground of Iowa to voyages abroad with Texas Governor George "Dubya" Bush to making the talk-show rounds, Racicot spent quite a bit of time not running for president. Or whatever he's not running for, which he says is nothing.

Term limits make Racicot a lame duck in his current job, which he could otherwise probably hold for life if he wanted to. With approval ratings that sometimes stray into the mid-80s, the Man from Libby is practically untouchable in his homeland. Certainly, Montana's continued slide to sub-Mason-Dixon rankings in per capita wage rankings and poverty hasn't thrown a crimp in his smooth, intelligent style.

When national Republicans wring their hands over their need to find more moderate, likable leaders than the Southern yahoos who produced defeat in this year's congressional poll, Racicot is who they're dreaming of. Unless Montana suddenly secedes from the Union under his watch (hmm....), count on Racicot to rise in the new century; we're not laying any bets, but let's just say that U.S. Senator Conrad Burns should perhaps dust off those radio ag report skills.

Democratic Secretary of State Mike Cooney is the first in the race to replace Racicot. Other names bandied about include State Auditor Mark O'Keefe, a solid Democrat, Mercer and, last but not least...

Secretary of State Mike Cooney

Our Representative

In 1996, Rick Hill won Montana's lone congressional seat after a sordid and brutal campaign against Democrat Bill Yellowtail, a tilt in which long-past burglaries and domestic incidents became the focal points of debate. This year, The New York Times tabbed Hill as one of a select group of Republican House incumbents ripe for the taking; Democrats hoped the folksy manner and old-school liberalism of Dusty Deschamps could win back the seat once held by their own Pat Williams.

Deschamps, Missoula County's former prosecutor, put up a strong campaign against the incumbent, mixing a harsh critique of Hill's conservative voting record with a platform drawn straight from the New Deal playbook. Deschamps stated strategy was to reassemble the farmer/labor alliance that drove his party in days of yore, and he talked a good game on wages, job creation and the current ag crisis.

In the end, though Deschamps' showing surprised many with its strength, he just couldn't overcome Hill's silken style or his own significant name-recognition problem. With the Dems back at the drawing board for another two years, the former Minnesotan with the impervious image and way-conservative voting record now sits in Washington, passing judgment on the leader of the Free World.

We wish him luck and wouldn't trade places with him for anything. Still, Hill should remember that he's got another election, for one job or another, coming up in that magical millennial year. He escaped the voters' wrath this time out, but if he learned anything from 1998, we hope he knows to approach with caution. No sudden moves.

Garden City Rock '98: We built this city on rock and roll


Seattle's dead. Thank God.

Because this small factoid has allowed Missoula to drop straight off the map of becoming the next little big thing, and enjoy a scene tainted only by the merest whiff of national hyperbole. Yes, buried under the blankets of multiple ironies and the requisite national press attending the kick off of Pearl Jam's national tour with the biggest concert the Big Sky has ever seen (even bigger than that Garth Brooks character), Missoula's rock 'n' roll heart can be heard beating hard.

From the absurd tête-à-tête between the Skoidats, former Missoula oi! boys now found on MTV, and our beloved Sputniks, the local nobodies that everybody has heard of thanks to the New Yorker, to the emergence of a certain riverbank park as a nationally-recognized rendezvous point for friends of the musical form known as classic rock, the Garden City has finally emerged from the shadow of the Left Coast, providing local fans with faith that things are the same as they ever were.

The year got kicked off right when Tarkio-despite the departure of bassist and former Rockin' Rudy kingpin Tim Bierman for greener pastures-picked up the best new band award in the Independent's annual readers poll. That feat was followed by the release of a down-home CD from Colin Meloy and the boys-the first of many notable records put out locally in '98.

As the not-so-cold winter months passed (thank El Niño for that one), the true greening of Missoula's scene became apparent when reporter Zach Dundas (who also plays in the Sputniks) previewed a ska show at Buck's Club, calling the Skoidats "arguably Missoula's most successful underground band ever."

Montanans piled in to see Pearl Jam this June

On April 1, George Clinton brought his P-Funk All-Stars to the University of Montana for a 3-plus-hour dance jam, featuring Clinton's granddaughter chanting, "I smell skank and I want some!" That same week, just after April Fools, tickets for the Pearl Jam stateside kick-off went on sale, and before the month was out, Mandir, a project captained by Drum Brother Matthew Marsolek, celebrated the release of its debut, Out Beyond Ideas. Taj Mahal brought his amazing blues review to the University Theatre on campus in April as well.

By mid-June, with school out, it seemed everybody was prepared to tear the roof off that mother-sucker. Although dour music critics for the daily bombed the long-awaited Ram It Home CD, a compilation featuring cigarette-eating lowlifes who frequent Jay's Upstairs, there was little denying that despite the rifts in the community between voices hard-core and "emo," or emotional, there was plenty of solidarity to be found in the mosh pit.

The disc featured well-spun rockers by the ever-improving Sasshole, a local all-girl group, as well as a handful of furious tunes sung by assorted punk wannabes, ranging from Humpy and the Oblio Joes to the soon-to-be-famouser-than-they-deserve Sputniks. Ram It Home also featured what may be the best single produced this year anywhere, "Miniature Action Jesus," by the boy-geniuses in the Volumen.

In the meantime, Boise-based Bravo Productions (with a little help from the crowd at UC Programming) kicked off its local concert series in fine style with B.B. King, who, despite his advanced age and the fact that he played sitting down, provided Boomers and blues fans with a night to remember. Marring the proceedings only slightly were the off-hand remarks of Missoula City Council rep Andy Sponseller, who opined that if the public couldn't watch from the bridge, maybe the promoters should find someplace else for their performances.

The minor imbroglio drew in a variety of voices, and was eventually resolved when the Bravo gang decided that black plastic might just present enough of a obstacle that so-called freeloaders would be dissuaded from enjoying the summer concert series from the public thoroughfare known as the Higgins Avenue Bridge. A bang-up show featuring the ever-entertaining Carlos Santana and the Latino roots rockers Los Lobos, however, reflected Missoula's continued commitment to something for nothing as the sheets of VisQueen were totally shredded at the season's last outing.

But the outdoor concert of the summer (for the crowds on Mount Sentinel as well as paying fans) was clearly June's Pearl Jam show, which brought the international spotlight to focus on Missoula for reasons of good for a change. Eddie Vedder was in fine voice, while new drummer Matt Camaron (late of Soundgarden) hammered the skins with rare aplomb. The show, which got covered in the New York Times as well as the Dutch magazine Oor, which quoted from the Independent, reflected both the Jamsters' talent for crowd-pleasing rock and the fact that Montana is a place where rocking can still be raised to an art form.

(In August, the Lynyrd Skynyrd show at Big Mountain also lifted rock to a higher plane, as Johnny Van Zant in the place of his dead brother Ronnie did his best to raise the South again.)

August also saw things get a little surreal as the Sputniks, a four-year-old act featuring brothers Zach and Chad Dundas as well as their cousin Grady Gadbow and childhood pal Richie Rowe found themselves the subject of an article in the New Yorker. The serendipitous profile (the result of family connections) featured these hometown heroes in the midst of an East Coast-bound tour, eating mustard sandwiches and waxing philosophical on the nature of punk rock.

But the most lasting impression made by the piece, evidently, was made on the Skoidats, who returned to Missoula from their new East Coast haunts with more than a little bit of vengeance on their mind. Despite consistent nice write-ups in the Indy, a few off-hand comments about the quality of the music the 'Dats play provoked not a few hurt feelings. Whatever.

Closing out the year, the now-departed Fireballs of Freedom have kicked it with a release on Empty Records called The New Professionals, which sets a new mark for greasy rock. And those wanting to keep up with the advances made by erstwhile practitioners of that music still known as Americana will be happy to know that the gone-from-here band Cloddhopper has finally released its debut disc, Red's Recovery Room, on My Own Planet.

As for the next big thing, well... it's hard to say, but if my dim, joyful memories Mike Watt and Redneck Pussy at Jay's Upstairs are any indicator: Rock is dead they say! Long live rock!

Passing the torch

Editor Dan Oko bids farewell


Working at the Independent these past four years has been a helluva ride.

In the winter of 1995, I joined the staff in a moment of moderate desperation for the newspaper and for myself, and next week my name will cease to be included in the staff box that opens each issue. I came on board, more or less, to fill the shoes of two able reporters-Marga Lincoln and Joel Reese-during a period when, upon reflection, Missoula was in grave danger of losing its alternative voice.

At the same time, I was getting a hard personal lesson in the economic realities of living in Western Montana. Despite a decade's experience in the world of restaurants, I could not for the life of me find a reasonable job. I had been writing, too, and selling the occasional piece to the Independent (although it took coming on board to get paid for any of it, and that took months) so when Eric Johnson, who had founded the paper and was then the editor, offered me a job I figured this was my chance to stay in Missoula-something I wanted dearly.

I had come to Montana, like so many these past few years, to enjoy the mountains and blue-ribbon trout streams. When Johnson suggested I might turn my still green talents to the task of reporting on these environs and the environment at large, I grabbed an oar and started paddling. Alongside a dedicated crew operating under the leadership of Johnson, our spiritual captain, and Erik Cushman, the paper's soon-to-be publisher and chief logician, I tried my best to help keep the paper afloat and on course.

As many close readers know, those alliances didn't last. To rehash what must seem like ancient history to some, the Eric/ks finally had to cash out a couple of years ago. When Jeff Smith took over the paper's financial reins there were many naysayers, but the biggest obstacle came a few months later when Cushman found himself at loggerheads with Smith-and the outcome, along with a massive staff walk-out, was my ascension to the job of editor, a title I shared with Andrea Barnett until this past summer.

The theme of hard lessons bled through such periods of uncertainty. Along with the tough times-especially suffering the slings and arrows of angry colleagues, lost friends and mentors, and the doubts of the community-reporter Zach Dundas, Barnett and I managed to find solace in continuing along the path of good work and the pursuit of honest, literate journalism.

By the winter of '98, our team had come pretty close to recapturing the trust of a large portion of our readership. As this year began, the Independent once again found itself under new ownership. Matt Gibson bought the paper just prior to last Christmas.

Initially, this reflection was intended to take stock in the things I have learned, to find an emotional depth to my professional adventures. But looking at what I've come up with, I realize that this narrative evokes a variety of names which have mostly personal resonance.

Nonetheless, the characters named here (and most of them certainly are characters) have all contributed to the health, well-being and longevity of the Independent. The paper has always been a composite of voices, of personalities, of interests-aesthetic, intellectual, commercial and social-and perhaps the biggest lesson for me has been that I am a cog, albeit a large one, in a machine which up to this point has outlasted most of its parts.

As for my plans, I'm going to try my hand at writing with an eye on the national scene, chronicling the history of the New West as it happens. I appreciate beyond words the introduction to this subject afforded me by my involvement at the Independent and my life in Missoula

That said, I'd like to take this final chance to remind readers not to take this project for granted. Various accidents, both happy and sad, during my time here have been enough to convince me that in a parallel world, the Independent does not exist-and the town we call home, despite its beauty, would not be the same if that were the case.

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