A Red State Paradox: Montana on the Cusp




M

ontana
is not what it used to be. Small family-owned farms have been taken
over by corporate behemoths. Public forests have been squandered
and sold to the highest bidder. Racism is increasing. Poverty is
rampant. Native Americans are being corralled onto even tighter
plots of land. However disheartening it all may seem, there are
still voices of hope rumbling across the vast Big Sky. 


Montana
doesn’t clearly fall within the predictable blue state/red
state dichotomy. Don’t get me wrong; this is still Bush country—“W”
stickers are flaunted on oversized SUV bumpers. Yellow Support the
Troop magnets have been slapped on most every Ford truck. There
is no question that these flag waving Montanans voted overwhelmingly
in favor of George W. Bush last November. Republicans here are a
dime a dozen. 


I
grew up out here on the eastern side of the continental divide in
Billings, which is the largest city in Montana with a population
of 90,000-plus. Billings, dubbed America’s “Crank Capital”
by

Time

in the late-1990s, is nestled beneath the shadows
of 500-foot sandstone cliffs. The snow-capped Rockies are due west.
The Yellowstone River cuts through the south end of town. It’s
searing hot in the summer and bitter cold in winter. A 40-minute
drive southeast will park you in the impoverished and desolate Crow
Agency (Indian reservation), which houses the memorial for the Battle
of the Little Big Horn. 


Much
has changed since I left Billings eight years ago. A Mormon temple
has been erected on the outskirts of town near a glitzy country
club. Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Barnes and Nobles, Starbucks, dozens
of tasteless eateries, and countless cookie-cut-out homes—all
the destructive amenities that decorate our suburban landscapes—have
relentlessly extended the city’s boundaries.  


At
a cursory glance one would be unlikely to detect any utterance of
dissent in these parts. That is, of course, if you aren’t referring
to the right-wing militia that have made Montana famous. But I am
not talking about the Freeman who stockpiled weapons and took on
the feds or that chemically inclined Kaczynski’s fetish for
sending loaded love letters. I’m talking about an odd populist
backlash that is gaining speed on these remote country roads. 


A
fair portion of the population is pissed. Rightfully so. Montanans
have suffered far too long under the thumb of a conservative majority.
First it was the cavalier Governor Marc Racicot, now a rising star
within the Republican establishment, who used Montana as a stepping
stone for his own political trajectory. More recently they were
faced with Judy Martz, a Republican governor who has admitted that
she was the “lap dog of industry.”  


Martz
earned quite a rap sheet after her election in 2000. She shielded
timber companies from litigation. She befriended deregulation as
Montanans saw a huge increase in their electric bills. She undermined
public schools, gouged taxpayers, destabilized local business owners,
and walked all over small farmers. Martz was a political train wreck
and Montana reacted appropriately. Her approval rating by the summer
of 2004 had reached an all-time low of 30 percent. Martz opted not
to run for reelection. A sensible decision. 


Sick
and tired of Republican wrath, many rational Montanans voted to
replace Martz with Democrat Brian Schweitzer—a wealthy cattle
rancher who has operated ranches across the state. Schweitzer is
a gifted orator who almost pulled off beating entrenched U.S Senator
Conrad Burns, a popular Republican stooge, back in 2000. 


Schweitzer
ran on a split ticket this time around, picking moderate Republican
state Senator John Bollinger to be his running mate. The choice
of Bollinger was indeed pragmatic, as it is well known that Bollinger
is a donkey in elephant attire. He swapped parties when he chose
to run for state congress in a conservative Billings district in
1992. Bollinger knew his constituents would vote Republican out
of habit. He was right and the Schweitzer camp capitalized on their
collective ignorance under the banner of “bipartisanship”
in 2004. 


In
1999 Schweitzer made his mark with Montana senior citizens as he
drove a batch of them across the border into Canada to see how much
cheaper meds were for the Canadians. As Gov. Schweitzer recently
explained in a radio address, “The purpose of those trips was
to demonstrate the hypocrisy of Congress’ trade policies. They
passed NAFTA, told us that it would be great for the consumers of
the United States. We’d be able to have products and consumer
products cross the border from Canada, Mexico, and the United States,
and that we would find greater choice. And we have NAFTA and we’re
supposed to have free choice for everything but medicine.” 


Not
bad for a Democrat. Since his inauguration last January, Schweitzer
has been vocal in his opposition to the Bush agenda and has even
said he wants Montana’s guard troops to return from Iraq so
they can help battle wildfires this summer. Schweitzer is not buying
Bush’s call to privatize Social Security, either. “Today
we’re talking about Social Security, something that might happen
20, 30, 40 years from now,” Schweitzer said after a recent
meeting in DC when U.S. governors spent an afternoon with the president,
“But guess what’s really happening? We’re cutting
Medicaid. We’re cutting programs in the heartland.” 


But
don’t go kidding yourself; Schweitzer is more centrist than
radical. He opposes gay marriage (although I’m told only because
had he come out in favor, Bollinger would have declined to be his
running mate) and wants to expand Montana’s private prison
industry. Even so, there is no question that Schweitzer is a pleasant
change of pace from Montana’s Republican two-step. 


Schweitzer’s
win wasn’t the only interesting development in the state last
year. Montanans also voted in favor of medial marijuana. No kidding.
Despite what liberals claim, these red staters may have some common
sense after all. 


This
isn’t even the best of it. The largest victory for Montana
came when voters overwhelmingly shot down a mining initiative that
would have returned open-pit, cyanide heap-leach mining to the state.
Mining companies put up millions to raise support for the bill,
but Montanans didn’t bite. Environmentalists and the public
won outright. 


It
is good to be back. There is a defeatist attitude still lingering
out in blue America and it’s a downer. No doubt “blue”
is an apt color to describe the dejected mood that paints the coastal
states that voted for John Kerry. Fortunately progressives in Montana,
although a minority, have rolled up their sleeves and continued
their work. The presidential election was not a deterrent. They
stayed the course and never abandoned their issues, and won as a
result. 


Maybe
blue staters will realize this isn’t fly-over country after
all. Looks like liberals could learn a lot from these red state
dummies. 







 





Joshua Frank
is the author of the new book,



Left Out! How Liberals Helped
Reelect George W. Bush



, published by Common Courage Press.