Butte’s deeper meaning: Candidates can learn from the toxic past

Montana’s Democratic Party is captivating the headlines with a parade of top-tier politicians fighting hard for Big Sky votes.  For a state that is so frequently, and so incorrectly, painted as a “red” stronghold, a tidal wave of blue is rising.

As I write, former President Bill Clinton is finishing up his speech in Havre, way up on the cold and windy Hi-Line. While the national media pundits might think such a wild and wooly rural environment would be a hotbed of conservatism, they’d be dead wrong. Instead, this railroad town has been a stronghold of labor unions and has produced a long line of outstanding Democratic legislators–which is undoubtedly why Bill Clinton decided to give his opening speech there.

From Havre, Clinton will head to another heavily Democratic town, Great Falls, which has its own long history of unions and the Democrats they elect. The “Big Stack” of the former Anaconda Co. smelter is gone, but plenty of people still remember the struggle between the giant corporation and the working men and women who fought to get a fair shake from the Copper Kings and their successors. Again, Clinton is targeting an audience that, at its very root, understands the difference between how the two political parties treat workers–which is either as disposable commodities, the Republican view, or as the waft and weave that make up the fabric of our nation.

Finally, Clinton—the man who has been called the best extemporaneous speaker of the last two decades—will wrap up his day in Helena. While Helena lacks the industrial base that provided the underpinning for the Democrats in Havre and Great Falls, it is the epicenter of state and federal government bureaucracies, which involve union jobs. The political truth in Helena is undeniable: There’s not a single Republican on the City Commission or on the Lewis & Clark County Commission, and most of the legislators Helenans send to the capitol are Democrats.

But while Bill Clinton is doing the early press stumping for his wife, the big show comes this weekend when Hillary and Barack Obama slug it out in Butte. If ever there was a town that was built on the backs of workers, Butte’s the place. Still thick with ethnic neighborhoods, local bars, and hometown specialty foods like pasties, Butte remains a scrappy reminder of its former glory.

For one day, at least, that glory will return as the normally staid Mansfield-Metcalf Dinner suddenly finds itself under the national media spotlight. Instead of the few hundred who show up for the fundraising dinner every year, there will be nearly 5,000 fired-up Democrats filling the floor and bleachers of the Civic Center.

What they are coming to hear and see, of course, is yet another round in the hard-fought battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, as the two candidates try to convince the crowd that they offer the best chance for the Democrats to take back the Whitehouse in November.

Clinton will paint herself as the champion of the working people and a strong union supporter–and of course will say that she is the only candidate ready to step into the Oval Office and take charge of the nation on Day 1. Obama, meanwhile, will unleash the rather awesome oratorical skills he has been using to fire up young and old audiences across the nation with his message of change and hope.

In Butte the messages from both candidates will find open ears.  The city has suffered a drain of its young people since the sell-out of the Anaconda Co. and the intermittent closures in copper mining. Likewise, sister-city Anaconda has yet to recover from the closure of the smelter. The message of hope from either or both candidates will resonate strongly with the locals.

Unfortunately, both cities still suffer from the stigma of being part of the largest Superfund site in the nation. The Berkeley Pit will not be the greatest showcase of Montana’s natural wonders to a national audience, sad to say. Nor will reporters who take the 20-mile jaunt to Anaconda find it a shining example of reclamation renaissance. Instead, they will be greeted by the millions of tons of black smelter slag that perch at the eastern entrance to the city as they look out across thousands of acres of old tailings ponds still sitting in the flood plain of the Upper Clark Fork.

Perhaps the stark visual reminders of the environmental atrocities that accompanied a century’s worth of copper mining and smelting will shock both Clinton and Obama into facing another daunting reality challenging our nation. Perhaps both candidates, who are United States Senators, will go back to Washington with a renewed commitment to reinstate the funding for the Superfund program, which is now flailing as it tries to clean up the nationwide morass of toxic disasters with no secure, long-term source of revenue.

Or maybe, on their way to Missoula, both Clinton and Obama will pause to view the newly breached Milltown Dam. If they do, they should think about the 3 million tons of toxic sediment that is still in the riverbed and will eventually be washed downstream, or the 100-mile train trip the other 3 million tons of toxic mud took back upstream to Opportunity. Who knows, maybe we’ll even hear some conviction from these two would-be presidents on the importance of not putting corporate profits over workers’ health and maintaining a clean environment for the generations to come.

Montana’s Democrats should rightly revel in the spotlight this week. But hopefully they’ll also pull some commitments from these candidates to learn from the lessons of our past—and avoid the same grim mistakes in our future.

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.
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