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Silence of the Asses

Where are Montana’s Democrats when you need them?


Everyone knows Montana is in a world of hurt after 12 fruitless years of Republican leadership, but for some reason the Democrats are not taking the Repubs to task for their failures. By their actions, or lack thereof, one would think the Demos were in the majority, happily passing legislation and budgets that serve the needs of their constituencies. The reality, however, is much different: Two out of every three legislators are Republicans, the governor’s a Republican, our sole congressman is a Republican, and one of our two U.S. senators is a Republican. The simple truth is that the Demos have been getting their asses kicked. So why aren’t they fighting back?

Consider the state of the state:

• Just last week, while Governor Racicot was on C-SPAN telling the nation that Montana’s economy is “stable,” 350 Butte miners were losing their jobs because their company couldn’t afford to outbid California for the electricity it needs to operate. This situation resulted from deregulation legislation passed and signed into law by Republicans; you’d think the Democrat party would be on this like white on rice—but their silence is deafening.

• Recent reports show the mental health system running millions in the red after a horrifically failed Republican privatization plan. Only by stealing from next year’s budget can the administration even stay on its feet, which will mean huge cuts in next year’s services to those Montanans who need them most. While mental health advocates cry out, where the hell are the Democrats?

Montanans’ wages can’t keep pace with inflation, let alone catch up to the prosperity sweeping the rest of the nation. Yet, Democrats can’t seem to find a common voice to tell us what their solutions might be to raise us from the bottom of the barrel.

Perhaps the Demos think Montanans are so fed up with the current state of affairs that people will finally just quit voting for Republicans. Fat chance. In the recent primaries, thousands more voted Republican than Democrat. The Democrats are behind in the race for the hearts and votes of Montanans, but for some unknown reason they have decided the profile that will work best for them is donning the Cloak of Invisibility.

Normally in situations like this, the “loyal opposition” rises to its feet and loudly makes the case for change. But that isn’t happening. Instead of defining itself for Montana voters, the Democratic Party has allowed itself to be defined by its opponents. That definition, the one that has kept Demos out of the majority for so long, is contained in three simple words “Tax and Spend.” Would Pepsi let Coke define its image? Hell no. But that’s what the Demos are doing.

Today, perhaps more than ever, the opportunity exists for the Democrats to tell us what they would do differently on natural resource policy, taxation, the budget, social services, government structure, education, prisons, and corporate welfare. But if such a “Demo definition” exists, they are doing a good job of keeping it secret.

The Democrats used to be the party of the people—and certain candidates are trying to make it so again. For example, Pat Dawson, a Demo candidate for the Public Service Commission, and Ken Toole, a Helena candidate for state senator, have stepped up to the plate on the deregulation disaster, calling for the state and municipalities to take back control of Montana’s utility infrastructure. For their brave stand, they are chastised by fellow Demos for using the “c” word—“condemnation”—even though the power of government to condemn private property for the greater public good is exactly how so many dams and power lines got built in the first place.

Others are not so brave. When scientists recently discovered particles that move faster than the speed of light, some thought they must be describing Demo candidates moving to the middle of the road after the primary election. No need to point fingers, but there’s so much waffling going on in some of these campaigns you’d think they were running a pancake house. No matter how hard they try, Democrats will never out-conservative Republicans—and given the stunning lack of success our “conservative” leaders have brought us, why would they even try?

We need, and are hungry for, an alternate vision of how Montana should go forth in the new century. How are we going to deal with the fallout from the Republican failures? How are we going to get back on our feet? How are we going to reverse a trend toward a “disposable workforce” that comes and goes based on the cost of electricity? What are the options to the budget-busting, ever-expanding prison system? What steps would these future leaders take to keep our rivers from going dry and destroying the fisheries that are now one of our only promising resources? What will they do to make sure Montanans can afford to heat their homes through the long, cold winters?

Maybe we aren’t hearing the answers because, as so many people have said, there simply isn’t much difference between the two major political parties anymore. Perhaps, as Ralph Nader contends, both parties are so beholden to corporations that the people, and their myriad concerns, fall far behind the wishes of “business uber alles.”

Clearly, it’s time for the Democratic party to break this “silence of the lambs,” to speak out, inspire the people, show us an alternative path and tell us how we can walk it. If they don’t, I have this bad feeling that the “lambs” are headed to the slaughter again.

George Ochenski has lobbied the Legislature since 1985, primarily on environmental, tribal and public interest issues. You can contact him at The opinions expressed in “Independent Voices” do not necessarily reflect those of the Independent.

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