Making progressivism 

Think tank adds outgoing Missoulian editor

Former nine-term congressman Pat Williams isn’t sure how to precisely define Western progressivism, but he thinks longtime Missoulian editorial page editor Steve Woodruff embodies it. That’s why he tapped Woodruff to help run the Missoula office of Western Progress, a new independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank dedicated to advancing progressive policy solutions across the region.

“I’ve thought for a long time that the Rocky Mountain West needed a muscular, progressive policy advocacy institution,” says Williams, one of the group’s founders. “Progressives have been asleep at the wheel for two decades. We want to get our hand on the wheel and guide it to the left.”

Williams, who has been working on the formation of Western Progress for more than a year and a half, says Woodruff is the right man to help execute the group’s mission in the Northern Rockies. Woodruff will start his new job as deputy director of the Missoula office after leaving the Missoulian May 15.

“There really isn’t something just like Western Progress that is dedicated to defining and perfecting and advocating progressive solutions,” Woodruff says. “A generation or more of one-party dominance in the Rocky Mountain West has kind of kept the dialogue on one side of the fence. We’re trying to make sure that when people are talking about energy development, for instance, that they’re talking about progressive solutions and not just the old standby solutions.”

Woodruff has been the Missoulian’s editorial page editor for two decades. He’s only the second person to hold that title since Lee Newspapers purchased the state’s second-largest daily newspaper from Anaconda Company in the late 1950s. Since 1988 Woodruff has written more than 6,000 editorials (mostly un-bylined) and in doing so he’s irked more than a few readers.

“Because my editorials run six days a week, everybody thinks they know me,” says Woodruff, who concedes that the Missoulian’s editorial voice is “right of center on many issues.” “My role as editorial page editor is to be the voice of the Missoulian. I’ve been very, very proud to play this role.”

“Steve, left to his own, would write the kind of editorials I think most Westerners would agree with,” says Williams. “So he fits pretty well into an institution that’s trying to talk to Westerners about progressive policy.”

Even before the Missoulian made a formal announcement of Woodruff’s imminent departure, the news received mixed reactions. 

“Based on the paper’s editorial leanings in recent years, I would have thought a libertarian think tank like the Property and Environment Research Center out of Bozeman would have been a better fit,” says Matthew Koehler, executive director of the WildWest Institute, a local forest advocacy group. In April Koehler authored a 2,200-word essay criticizing the Missoulian, and the editorial board in particular, for misleading readers about public land issues. The essay, which was circulated widely and published on, specifically criticized Woodruff for reporting inaccuracies and misrepresenting WildWest’s positions on forest management issues.

“I think few people in the Montana progressive community would even remotely consider the Missoulian’s editorial position during Woodruff’s tenure to represent progressive thoughts and ideals, not just on public land issues, but on a host of important issues facing our communities, state and region,” Koehler says.

Larry Campbell, a fellow activist and conservation director for Friends of the Bitterroot, a Hamilton-based environmental advocacy group, shares Koehler’s skepticism of Woodruff’s progressive bona fides.

“I think the biggest threat to democracy is corporate fascism,” says Campbell, who argues that Woodruff has a tendency to turn the Missoulian editorial page into a “bully pulpit.” “Steve Woodruff seems to be a real apologist for corporations, and often for the government, in not allowing the groups that opposed these policies to have a fair share of the pulpit that the Missoulian represents.”

But Jerry Brown, dean of the University of Montana School of Journalism, isn’t at all surprised at Woodruff’s new career path.

“Steve Woodruff will be missed because he has brought an independent point of view to almost every issue,” says Brown. “It’s not possible to pigeonhole how he’s likely to come down on any issue. To me that indicates an original mind.”

Western Progress has offices in Phoenix and Denver and plans to open its Missoula office later this month. The group’s lofty policy agenda focuses on a range of issues, from energy development to heath care and public lands issues to immigration. According to Williams, Western Progress already has raised “millions of dollars” for its operations.

Williams says the organization’s power will come through its ability to effectively translate Western values into progressive policy, and he adds that Woodruff has demonstrated over the years that he can effectively communicate with Westerners on those issues.

“If you can’t appeal to the independent Westerner, you’re dead in the West, politically,” says Williams. “Steve does that well. And now he’ll be able to do that even better than he could as an editor, because he was too restrained there. I personally think that’s why he came to us.”

For his part, Campbell says he hopes that Woodruff will at least bring the passion he demonstrated as an editorial writer to the progressive movement.

“I welcome him into the ranks of progressivism,” Campbell says. “I hope he’s as good at it as he was being the voice of corporations and bad corporate policy.”

As for whether Woodruff will ever be able to convince skeptics like Campbell and Koehler that he can be an effective advocate for progressive policies:

“They’ll just have to wait and see,” says Williams.
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