The Road to the Future

Independent reporters look at what lies ahead for Montana in 2001



It’s only natural that we look upon the start of a new year as a time for reflection. When the numbers roll over and the accumulation of another year’s worth of memories are salted away, we almost instinctively begin a kind of stock-taking. We set new goals, weigh new options, and redouble our intent to determine our own fate. We do it every year. It’s almost as if the calendar demands it.

At the Independent, we’ve carried out this annual ritual in lots of different ways. There have been stories outlining the issues of the upcoming day, articles sketching out the agenda of the Legislature, even satirical predictions that veiled reality with parody. But this year, we’re doing something different altogether. Three of our staff reporters have devoted themselves to analyzing a particular aspect of civic life in Montana, with a view to tracking down new trends, hidden meanings and possibly even offering suggestions for a better future. This year seemed like a particularly apt time to try it. Surely, after what everyone can agree has been a tumultuous 2000, Montana is at a crossroads—politically, socially, economically. But what paths will we take? That’s what our writers have set themselves to the task of determining through these essays. Read them, think about them, and let us know what you think. After all, we’re going down this road together.

What Does “Conservative” Really Mean Anymore?

The Bitterroot Valley, quirky, friendly, conservative, traditionally votes Republican, or so conventional wisdom goes. But does it? In recent years Democrats have served on the Board of County Commissioners. The previous two sheriffs were Democrats. The present county attorney, one county commissioner and the treasurer are all Democrats.

Given the recent overwhelming shift to the Republican Party, it seems almost unbelievable that Bitterrooters ever voted for Democrats, so solid is the support for the Republican Party these days.

In the general election of 2000, a “D” after a candidate’s name stood for “Doomed.” Every Republican candidate for every office—state, local and national—carried Ravalli County. Only one Democrat won in the Bitterroot—Ed Smith, the incumbent Clerk of the Montana Supreme Court. And because he had no Republican challenger, his victory is easily explained.

Now that Republicans have prevailed in Ravalli County, the questions are why and what next?

Three Bitterroot Valley Republicans and one Democrat, all thoughtful and politically involved, shared their views about the strength of Republican Party in the Bitterroot Valley and what may come of the general election of 2000.

Glenda Wiles is administrative assistant to the Ravalli County Board of Commissioners; Kevin Schreier is the county’s grants administrator; and Frankie Laible is a member of the county planning board whose husband Rick Laible was recently elected to represent the Hamilton area in the Montana Legislature. Democrat Jim Olsen ran an unsuccessful campaign for the Legislature, losing to two-term Republican incumbent Allan Walters.

We asked them, why did Bitterrooters vote so overwhelmingly Republican, considering that the Republican Party has not done well by Montana’s economy in recent years? Is the rightward shift political, social, economic?

For the three Republicans, the answers can be summed up in two words: core values. Newcomers to the Bitterroot, like Laible and her husband, didn’t just move here from California; they fled. They fled the crime, the daily irritations and the angst. They fled the big, bloated bureaucratic machine that requires a string of permits and fees for every conceivable project.

They fled to rural America where neighbors know they can rely on each other in times of stress, like bad fire seasons. Where constitutional rights don’t seem to be under constant attack. Where a person can be self-reliant and not have to rely on the government for basic needs. Where moral integrity isn’t just an empty phrase tossed off by the nightly talking heads. Where freedom is possible.

It is not the party of the outstretched hand, government dependency and unworkable environmental laws that allows individuals to thrive in freedom. Rather, it is the Republican Party that best symbolizes basic American values, and rewards initiative and hard work.

If the Republican Party has been successful at anything it’s been its ability to define and label the Democrats as the party of big spenders and anti-family values, says Olsen. Republicans have adopted Democratic values, like devotion to family and maintaining local governmental control. But it’s the Republicans who have violated family and human values by peering into people’s bedrooms. And Republicans have concentrated power in Helena by stripping cities and towns of their ability to manage their own affairs. It was the Republican Legislature, he says, that removed the “public interest” criterion from local subdivision review, precluding citizen objections to unwanted developments in their own neighborhoods. And it’s the Republican Legislature that will, in the forthcoming session, consider taking away the towns’ and cities’ ability to collect taxes on poker and keno machines, giving that power instead to the state.

The future for the Democratic Party in Montana isn’t bright when the Democrats allow the Republicans to define them and then respond with whines and complaints.

Wiles, a working mother with two teen-agers, understands and agrees, in part, with some of what Olsen says. She calls Gov. Marc Racicot a tax-and-spend Republican and blasts other Republican legislators for their sponsorship of frivolous bills that will only cost Ravalli County taxpayers in the long run.

But she also cringes at the Democrats’ “liberal agenda” which promotes things like “Diversity Week” at Hamilton High School, where homosexuals present themselves as being just like everyone else, two hands, two feet and all—and then ask for hugs. It would be a mistake to describe any of these Republicans as homophobic. They are not. In the final scene, says Wiles, a devout Christian, homosexuals will have to answer to God, not Republicans. But liberal agenda ideas like Diversity Week are big, eye-rolling groaners that make Republicans, Christians or not, scream “enough is enough!”

Diversity Week is a small thing, though. For some Republicans, one of the big issues is the environment, and the way it has been co-opted by the “extremists.”

Protection of the environment has reached a point where it has become unreasonable. Public land has been locked up; its products cannot be harvested or mined for any purpose that could benefit mankind.

And it all started with the spotted owl report written by the “God Squad,” or the “gang of five,” which included former Forest Service chief Jack Ward Thomas, says Schreier.

That report made a mockery of science and sounded the death knell for the timber industry in the Northwest, and consequently in Montana. The God Squad “used”—in the pejorative sense of the word—the Endangered Species Act, not to protect the spotted owl, but as the means to end logging on public land.

Across the Northwest, logging communities Continued on Page 12 dried up and blew away. Families, the backbone or rural America, suffered greatly and still suffer to this day. It’s now kids, not timber, that Montana exports.

It doesn’t need to be this way. And again, this is where the Republican Party can triumph. Throughout the 2000 campaign, candidates stressed the need to improve the state’s sad economy. In the Bitterroot Valley in particular candidates chanted the magic words “high tech” over and over, like a mantra. But all were hard pressed to define “high tech” other than to implicate computers, the Internet and high-speed connections, failing to explain how, precisely, those things would bring jobs to a state working on a 19th century economic model.

Schreier believes that a 19th century economy that relies on the land for jobs and taxes, can, and should, meld with 21st century technology. Logging, mining and agriculture can be done with greater efficiency and with minimal impact to the land. It’s the state’s Republican leadership that can return Montana to its extractive industry roots—but with a modern, “high tech” twist.

Laible agrees, but goes a step further. The “liberal bent” that says “don’t touch anything” is an extreme view the state must jettison if government leaders are serious about improving the jobs outlook. But, interestingly, she also believes that same liberal view of the environment as sacred has rubbed off on the Republicans over the years. The challenge to Republicans now is to convince Democrats that logging, mining and grazing can be done in a way that benefits people and safeguards the environment. No one, not even Republicans, wants to see a Berkley Pit in the Bitterroot—not even to boost the economy.

Their views may sound ultra-conservative to some, but that that’s not the way they see it. Republicans, they say, don’t necessarily want to impose a conservative agenda in Montana. Instead, they hope to force the political pendulum back from the extreme left and bring it closer toward the center.

Progressive Montana’s Silver Lining in 2001

“Freedom from dogma enabled us to join independently in the struggle for racial equality and women’s rights, for intelligent sex relations, above all (and beneath all) for birth and population control. … Some future age looking back will be horrified at our unconscious subjection to a money power, and those looking back will be unconscious under the tyranny of some other powers.”

These words were written by Max Eastman, editor of The Masses, a small literary and political journal published between 1911 and 1917 in Greenwich Village, N.Y. Although The Masses often focused more attention on its literary and artistic presentation than its political message, what was noteworthy about the publication was its ability to tackle controversial issues of its day—the rights of blacks and women, organized labor, poverty, homelessness, the abuses of big business—in a way that seems both timeless and acutely self-aware of its place in history.

With the 2000 election finally put to bed, there has been much debate on the left about what the future holds for progressive causes. While Democratic Party loyalists both in Montana and nationally lick their wounds and talk about who is to blame for losing the Statehouse and the White House, it’s important to keep an eye on the timing of this political setback and capitalize on the historical opportunities it presents. In many respects, there may be a silver lining to be gleaned from this shift in power if progressives are keen enough to spot it, and Missoula, as the nonprofit capital of Montana, is uniquely positioned to reap its rewards.

First, it’s worth keeping in mind how many progressive, nonprofit organizations got their start in the 1980s when labor, environmental and social justice policies came under full-scale assault by the Reagan-Bush administrations. It was during this era that many people on the political left, marginalized and shut out of policymaking positions in government, put their expertise to work in the nonprofit sector. In the coming months, we will undoubtedly see a similar flood of Clinton-era policymakers hitting the streets in Washington, many of whom will be seeking jobs in the nonprofit sector and bringing with them a keen understanding of the issues and the machinations of government. And if President-elect Bush and Governor-elect Judy Martz are true to their roots and promote a conservative agenda that scales back environmental regulations and makes the world safe for Big Business, expect to see an increase in the amount of money flowing into progressive causes.

Second, Republican leaders, both in Montana and nationally, could not assume control at a worse time economically and with less of an electoral mandate. Although much of our attention was focused on the small number of votes in Florida and the Supreme Court that proved the difference between victory and defeat in the presidential race, nearly every statewide race in Montana was won or lost by a very narrow margin, reflecting a sharply divided electorate.

Consider then how the current stagnation of Montana’s economy and the leveling off of the national economy will highlight progressive messages. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once wrote that when you’re cold, don’t expect sympathy from someone who is warm. Under a “sympathetic” Democratic administration, while the Dow Jones soared and dot-com millionaires were made overnight, it was a lot more difficult to focus attention on such issues as living wage initiatives, affordable housing, human rights abuses and the myriad shortcomings of welfare reform. However, when the economy heads south and thousands of people lose their jobs, issues like globalization, free trade and the export of jobs overseas will find a larger base of political support and a more sympathetic ear.

Progressives will now find themselves as political outsiders at time when street-level political activism is being rediscovered with a passion unrivaled in this country in the last 30 years. The renaissance of large-scale street demonstrations and widespread civil disobedience has its roots in the 1999 protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organization and began to show its true potential with the birth of Ralph Nader’s Green Party.

While Montana’s statewide offices remained consistently Republican, Montana also retained its historical lead of turning out more voters per capita than any other state in the nation. Such numbers are important when you consider that a full 6 percent of the state voted for Nader, 15 percent in Missoula County alone, arguably making Missoula the epicenter for the progressive revolution.

Perhaps the most remarkable event to come out of the Seattle demonstrations of 1999 was the coalition-building that occurred among labor, environmental, agricultural and other social justice organizations, a trend that is quietly building momentum in Missoula and beyond. During the WTO protests, the biggest economic disruption to Seattle was not the revenue lost in downtown by Niketown, Starbucks and the Warner Brothers Store, but the shutdown of the Port of Seattle by unionized longshoremen, who refused to load or unload any ships while the demonstrations were underway.

The anti-WTO banner that read, “Sea turtles and steelworkers—together at last,” was not just rhetoric. Consider, for example, the forum given in December called “Beyond the WTO Protests: Convergence, Coalition and Commitment” which drew hundreds of people to the University of Montana. Among the featured speakers was Don Kegley of Spokane, a representative of the United Steelworkers of America and the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment (ASJE). Kegley, a bald-headed, mustachioed man built like a professional wrestler, spoke eloquently about how the jobs that would be created protecting our forests would pay more than those currently destroying them. One couldn’t help but imagine Kegley addressing a group of loggers in Kalispell or Libby, none of whom would dare accuse him of being a tree-hugger or not knowing the meaning of hard work.

Since Seattle, the ASJE has adopted the so-called “Houston Principles” in which they recognize, among other things, “a healthy future for the economy and the environment requires a dynamic alliance between labor, management and environmental advocates” and “the same forces that threaten economic and biological sustainability undermine the democratic process.” The Houston Principles were signed by a broad coalition of labor groups, teachers, environmentalists, and authors, many of whom, it’s worth noting, represent some of Missoula’s hundreds of nonprofit organizations.

Collective efforts like these and others—such as the Billings-based Northern Plains Resource Council, which for years has been building on the common ground shared by farmers, environmentalists, and community and labor activists—likely have the most to benefit from this renewed trend in coalition building.

“There is a silent revolution in American industry, towards the end of doing as you would be done by,” wrote the Masses’ Inez Haynes Gillmore in March 1915. “Throughout American business on the side of management, there is a growing feeling that the common man is worth a great deal more than the employers dreamed. The most important thing in the world is this common man; to give him full opportunity and justice is the greatest work that can be done.”

It is a timeless message that has once again found its time.

Reconsidering Our Biggest Mistake of All

In the next four months, members of the Montana Legislature will be continuously beset by constituents, interest groups, government agencies and corporate lobbyists—except for when they sleep. And even then, most will toss restlessly in rented beds, sometimes haunted by words of law, sometimes by the aftermath of the MSG-soaked chicken wings they had for dinner. They will work hard during the day, trying to figure out the myriad issues that will come before them as legislation, listening to testimony in committee, asking questions, watching and perhaps participating in heated debate on the floor of the House or Senate. Hundreds of legislative receptions, cocktail parties and lobby-ops will be lavished upon them at the end of every day—all free, just for wearing a Legislative Badge, just for Having a Vote. The din of the supplicants will rise above the sea of their open hands pleading for more money for universities, new funding for local governments, increases in human services, more for basic education, more for prisons and on and on. But one thing must come before all in this legislative session—our energy supply. There is no way to ensure a better future for Montanans unless we ensure a continuous, reliable supply of clean, renewable, affordable electricity to meet both citizen and commercial requirements. Otherwise, all the much-flaunted efforts to “jump start Montana’s economy” are doomed to fail. At the risk of sounding too much like Jesse Jackson, “without the juice, won’t be no use.”

In spite of the free market rhetoric to the contrary, the single act of deregulating Montana’s electricity supply and transmission systems in 1997 has cost the state more industrial jobs than any environmental restriction. Paul Polzin, director of the Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research, recently predicted in an Associated Press article, “The most likely scenario includes continued higher electricity prices and continued negative impacts on industry in Montana.”

That’s putting it mildly. So far, Montana Resources in Butte has abandoned efforts to reopen the copper mines, ending 340 well-paying jobs. Columbia Falls Aluminum is making money selling its cheap, publicly produced contract electricity back to the grid—in the meantime, halving production and idling workers. ExxonMobil’s Billings refineries cut production, Smurfit-Stone Container in Missoula cuts operation by 50 percent, and Helena cement plant, Ash Grove, goes into stasis. The losses of these major industries are not caused by some new, radical environmental requirements—by and large they go on polluting in much the same fashion as they have through the last 12 years of Republican governors (and Schwinden before them). No, they are closing because they simply cannot afford the prices to which electricity has risen under the much-flaunted free market policies embraced by Republicans. There is no compelling argument for sticking with deregulation these days. In California, the first state to deregulate, the out-of-control system has resulted in a consumer and policy-maker revolt—while bankrupting both the utilities and their customers. After the threat of rolling brownouts and dousing Christmas lights to save electricity, and the resulting threat to run a citizen initiative to re-regulate the energy supply, the governor called a special session of the Legislature. The one area that’s surviving is the City of Los Angeles, which didn’t deregulate, provides its citizens with low-cost power and, yes, allowed them to turn on their Christmas lights.

Is there a lesson here for Montana? Of course. One of the biggest blunders of the last century was the loss of Montana’s hydroelectric facilities to out-of-state corporations. Now, we are at the mercy of the market and any tough-to-track manipulations that may occur. Through a variety of tax, environmental and regulatory policies, the Legislature could move to ensure that cheap, reliable, clean power is available to make Montana attractive to businesses that consume power and citizens who both need the power and increasingly appreciate a clean environment. Besides the hydroelectric possibilities, we have a lot of wind and sun in Montana; both could be used as major investment centers to insulate us from the vagaries of a fluctuating marketplace.

But realistically, this probably won’t happen for a variety of reasons. First, Governor-elect Judy Martz’s chief of staff is a former lawyer/lobbyist for the Montana Power Company, the motive force behind deregulation. Second, it would require a wholesale mea culpa by both Republicans and Democrats who supported the “competition, free-market” baloney in the first place and gave away our power supply. Considering how complex it is to design, implement and run a state, you would expect there to be a modicum of failures. But for some unknown reason, the ability of politicians to ever admit that any of their policies were failures is subject to the famous Polticial Rule of Inverse Proportionality—the more they fail, the less likely they are to admit it. And finally, it would require undermining the foundations of Republican faith in free market theory that, no matter how badly the people suffer in the interim, in the end, the mysterious market forces will serve them well. Given those odds, I’m betting it doesn’t happen. Instead, we are likely to see a host of “incentives” for “increased power production.” Bear in mind, however, that unless we remove ourselves from the free-market bidding war of deregulation, that “new production” will likely go to the highest bidder.

From our position at the bottom of the economic heap, just what kind of a high bid are we going to come up with? We’ll get increased pollution, pick up the tab for the tax cut “incentives,” and still lose. Hanging onto the runaway ideological wagon of deregulation, Montana’s Legislature will ride it off the cliff that California so clearly defines as What Lies Ahead.

Unfortunately for Montanans—unless the Legislature concentrates on basics and gets the reins back on our power supply—they will take us with them.


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