Democratic Party candidates Diane Smith, Franke Wilmer, Jesse Laslovich, Kim Gillan and Pam Bucy are interviewed in abridged form in the following story. See the full transcript of those interviews.
The bar is filling up, and I’m trying to decide how to approach this monster I’ve built in my head, the 2012 Montana Democratic primary in all its pomp and uncertainty, the cast of sharp minds arrayed in the major races, and the looming senatorial and gubernatorial battles.
It’s all jumbled: the long walk down north of York, through the mud and the precipitation and the wind; the glittering necklaces and earrings and the sharp heels, and the crisp shirts and ties and haircuts, of the Democrats at the Mansfield-Metcalf; the five interviews in three days with four women and a man who are all thinking on much higher levels than your average adult, who are all competent, and who all have the ability to govern. But only two will get a shot at the main stage, and it’ll be unsettled for the next seven months, our state political discussion set against the backdrop of the crazy national situation, the unworkable morass through which we’re wading.
So I’m sitting at Haps, glad to be off tired feet amongst the noise. Two dozen of us are able to relax here on a Wednesday, under the care of two tenders, across the brick street with trolley-car rails from the old clock-tower depot, beyond which Montana Rail Link rolls 20 or so trains through town and over the Divide. The big picture above the door shows Northern Pacific No. 5107, a 4-6-6-4 monster with two boilers and twelve driving wheels, which used to roll those rails, pulling freight over Priest Pass, under the sun and through the rock and out again. In the 1930s, those engines were the biggest thing NP ran, they were the beasts of burden as this country prepared to enter the war. They were all scrapped decades ago, lost from history to the money pile.
The men who worked on that engine, and the men who destroyed it, are all dust. They built them and built this country and then faded away, and we’re left trying to move forward for today’s workers, not only the men and women of MRL and BNSF Railway, but the food servers and mechanics and nurses and teachers and tradespeople and writers and small business owners and all the others struggling to carve out their own piece of the world, make their own living, nurture their own children, build their own future.
First: disclosures and explanations.
I shovel snow for the Montana Democratic Party. They pay me for the work. The business relationship is separate from my work at the Vigilante, and everyone at the corner of Sixth and Ewing knows that. I also shovel the GOP’s former headquarters on Last Chance, now home to physical therapists, and I’d shovel their new location, but they have a storefront on the north end and don’t need me.
I have one very close friend who is a chief Democratic Party fundraiser, and I’m acquainted with several others in that office. Those relationships do not affect this reporting – in fact, I may say things they don’t like – and those friends were not interviewed on or off the record for this story.
I was afraid to make this dragon twin-headed, so I’m purposefully leaving out the republicans for this month. They will have their turn with me soon enough, and we’ll go forward.
The party sold more tickets than it had seats this year, but I didn’t mind standing. I caught up with old sources from Havre, down for the M&M. I listened to some of the speakers ramble on. A few of them were good. I skipped Max Baucus and went for a walk outside. Young kids in suits were sticking fliers on windshields in the dark.
Paul Begala was speaking in a bit, and I didn’t really know who he was, but I was intrigued by how excited everyone was to hear him talk.
Twenty minutes before our phone interview, I got to know Franke Wilmer through her website. She was impressive on paper. It was the beginning of a trend.
Franke was a waitress, carpenter and substitute teacher. She put herself through graduate school and earned a Ph.D. She got a job as a professor of international relations at Montana State University, teaching young adults how the modern bloody world turns. Franke traveled to more than 50 countries for field research and speaking engagements related to everything from the self-determination of indigenous peoples to nuclear nonproliferation and the mid-1990s war in Yugoslavia – where she sojourned six times, including while the war was still on. She’s written three books, served three Montana House terms, and is asking Democrats to give her a shot at the U.S. House seat being vacated by Denny Rehberg.
She’s part of a triad of intelligent, focused and competent women leading the money count in the U.S. House primary, and one of those candidates might give republicans the first serious challenge for the seat in 12 years.
“I was able to turn my life around and have a job I love. And waitresses and carpenters should earn wages they can support their families on,” she said.
We talked about the need to strengthen apprenticeship programs to provide for training in the trades, so folks can make good livings as plumbers, bricklayers, builders, nurses and operators, and support their families and send their children on to school – the American Dream.
She told me the highest percentage of undergraduate degrees among CEOs in this country is in English, which makes sense: those students learn critical thinking, problem-solving and good communication.
I asked her how we would pay more money for education while dealing with our current fiscal disaster. She supports the pay-go system of legislative development, in which each spending bill must come with a plan to pay for it. She called our failure to invest in education at all levels a tragic case of short-sightedness.
“We’re just shooting ourselves in the foot. Those (students) will pay taxes and pay back multiple times our investment. When we fail to invest in education, that’s going to have consequences.”
Franke got involved in public service when Gov. Brian Schweitzer appointed her to the Montana Human Rights Commission, where she worked in conflict resolution. It taught her about the challenges of finding common ground, but she got the experience of breaking through and guiding people toward agreements.
“When you’re sitting in front of the people who are parties to a conflict, and you are asked to look at both sides … you see people right there in front of you who are directly affected by your decision.”
The experience led her to run and win and represent Bozeman in the Montana House in 2006.
She spent two sessions in a tightly split House, then was part of the Democrats’ small minority after the 2010 elections.
“My experience in the state House is really going to be important here,” she said. “Every bill I’ve had passed has had bipartisan support. I think you need to work that way in Congress as well. You can be effective in committee, asking tough questions … you can lead the way to killing bad bills and getting good ones out.”
We discussed the state of the world, a subject in which she has expertise. We talked about the Arab Spring, its inertia and the unlikelihood of it reversing. We talked about unstable leaders with access to nuclear weapons.
“The first thing to note is how many countries have chosen not to develop nuclear weapons.” South Africa destroyed its weapons program, she noted. “The bad news is it only takes one rogue state to mess it up.
“(In North Korea), it’s too soon to tell what Kim Jong-un is going to be like.” She noted the world has treated the country with a carrot system, and said the concept has merit.
“Then we have Iran. The IAEA has been involved in inspections for more than a decade … there are ways to strengthen that monitoring and verification process.” Still, it’s hard to stop the flow of knowledge. A Pakistani physicist gave the North Koreans the bomb. “That was in his head,” she noted.
She supports the idea of a fuel bank, an idea both the U.S. and Russia are interested in, though nothing’s moved on it yet. The bank would consist of fuel-grade fissile material from us and the Russians. “They won’t need to have the centrifuges that enable them to create fuel and (weapons). If we provide the fuel in the first place, then they have no need for that technology, it takes it right off the table.
“To put it in perspective, there are 196 countries. About two-thirds of them are potentially weak states, like Afghanistan, like Yemen, like Sudan, like the Congo. We can’t, nor should we occupy all of them.” She suggests a “multilateral firmness,” where industrial countries offer to strengthen weak states’ economies without damaging domestic growth.
I asked her why anyone should vote for her.
“Three reasons,” she said. “One, my life experience is unique. It’s unique among democrats, it’s unique against the likely opponent. Second, my political experience means that in the Legislature I have learned to be effective.” She again mentioned her ability to work across the aisle. “Those are things you learn by doing, and by doing them well. The third thing is my professional experience (in economics, international relations and security issues).”
I thanked her for her time. Onto the next.
My new baby’s got four paws, and I think I’ll name her Rosie. She’s going to work for me. She’s going to help me pull in money. Right now she carries two worn steel snow shovels and the Ice Destroyer. I’ve got nine properties, but the cold stayed north this winter, and I didn’t get much on the walks.
This summer my lil’ 23-year-old will carry gravel on her back and fire in her belly and we’ll be moving. If I dig enough dirt by fall, maybe I can get her to push snow for me next winter. My new baby’s got style, and she rolls, and she’s going to help me get ahead.
I acquainted myself with Diane Smith online. She lives in the Flathead now, but is originally a Virginian. In the early 1980s she went to work for a small long-distance company, which grew into Sprint. Then she moved on to a small rural phone company, which grew into Alltel. She stopped working for other people and started working for herself years later, when she started a media company, grew it, sold it, and got involved in other business ventures. She’s never ran for public office.
I asked her why Montanans should send someone with no political experience to the big House, and she said her business acumen would be a welcome change in Washington.
“Congress is broken,” she said. “I have a history of being able to change organizations, so I thought I had a skill set that was right for the time.
“I’m certainly not naïve about what it means to be a freshman member of Congress,” she added. “I think you go into it knowing how hard it’s going to be, and still be willing to get up every day to push a really big rock up a hill. Change doesn’t happen in a moment.”
We discussed the problems facing small businesses. The Small Business Administration, which is supposed to be the government’s incubator for risky but potentially lucrative developments, considers a business “small” if it has fewer than 500 employees, Smith said. And the large banks tied into the SBA system only want to loan to folks with established credit and financial histories, she said, which runs counter to the agency’s goals.
“Companies with 500 employees are actually really big companies,” she said. “What do you do for the businesses with 20 (or fewer) employees, which in Montana is the majority?”
She said folks who don’t know what they’re talking about in D.C. tout tax credits as a boon for small businesses, when reality is much different. Small businesses usually don’t make a profit in the beginning, so they have no taxes to pay anyway, though they have to pay to file their taxes.
“In your first five years, the odds that you’ll have profitable income are somewhere between zero and none. When I was in the Valley of Death (the gap between an idea and prosperity), I thought of making payroll, I thought of keeping the lights on, but I didn’t worry about my tax liability. So giving me a tax credit didn’t do much good,” Smith said.
She talked about her friend in the Flathead, who is a talented inventor of gadgets, and who brings in a million a year from the work he does in his garage. He wants to hire people and pay them well, but he doesn’t want them full-time or year-round, and he doesn’t want the cost, paperwork and headache of establishing a payroll. He wants freelancers, contracted employees at $30 an hour, and Smith said he has a hard time doing it. I don’t know if I believe this guy can’t figure a way around it, but her point was that he was facing needless roadblocks.
We talked about energy in Montana, and I asked her about something no other reporter has bothered with yet.
“I’ll make a prediction: Montana will become a leader in the integration of traditional energy with alternative energy,” Smith said. “In a world where we’re not going to turn off fossil fuels in a decade, (Montana) will inhabit the premier space, and we’ll teach the nation how it’s done.
“The first thing is to get the alternative, new guys talking to the legacy-industry guys. A biofuel in a garage is a science experiment. A biofuel on the grid is a business success. Montana will meet that challenge before any of the others states do.
“The second is to develop mechanisms or standards that foster integration with the legacy systems, and the third is to help these young startups with great ideas get the financing they need to survive the Valley of Death.
“And I’ve seen how you build an expedient process for integration,” she added, noting she was a player in the telecom industry when the world switched from landlines to cell phones. “AT&T was not happy to be broken into eight pieces … but by making some pretty elegant policy decisions, those worlds have expanded, not contracted. And part of it is the respect for the guys who are already there … and figuring out a system for them both to work together.
“Mostly, it’s letting them have their big argument across a table.”
I asked her why she was worth a vote.
“I’m going to bring better and newer ideas to Congress, and I know how to deploy those ideas. We’re stuck in old-idea spaces, and we need to really shake that up. And we’ve been lucky with Sen. Tester and Baucus and Governor Schweitzer. These are really forward-looking people, and I think I can build on that.”
The wind picked up again, colder this time, and the muck began to move up the canyon. We could see it swallow the mountains in front of us, and then it was on us. Graupel is hard-packed white pellets, big around as a dime in this case, about halfway between snow and hail. It pelted us, drove us under an old ponderosa. I picked away at the bark flakes, the tree’s last line of defense against fire. The gods played drums overhead. I questioned the wisdom of our location, but my shorts and t-shirt kept me on the lee side of that tree.
The storm blew out of the canyon in a few minutes, and we resumed our walk. The road was now soupy—it looked like wet oats, in some places like gruel. It was spring in Montana.
I walked into Ray’s place, the General Merc, and met Bob Funk. Bob is Jesse Laslovich’s press guy, in fresh from D.C., where he worked on Tester’s staff for a few years. Jesse showed up a few minutes later, and we grabbed the back room, the one with the screen door.
Jesse was first elected to the House at 19, the second-youngest representative in Montana history. He later moved to the Senate, where he was midway through his final term when he started working for the state Auditor. He’s chief legal counsel for the securities and insurance departments, and he’s also been appointed as assistant attorneys general for the state and feds for prosecuting white-collar crime. Now he wants to run for state attorney general, the office being vacated by gubernatorial candidate Steve Bullock.
He’s 31, married with a 2-year-old, photogenic, and popular. When many democrats think of the party’s future, they think about this guy from Anaconda.
We talked about his jobs protecting consumers and prosecuted con artists in state and federal court. He pursued aggressive telemarketers who stole $3,000 from little old ladies and schemers who robbed investors to the tune of $55,000.
He discussed the people who embezzle from their employers and then get new jobs handling money, with their new bosses in the dark. He wants to create a service modeled off the state’s sexual and violent offenders’ registries, so employers can check new hires – not that those folks don’t deserve jobs, he said, but perhaps they shouldn’t be left in charge of the books.
We talked about the people who drive drunk with children in the car and see no significant additional penalty. He said those people need more than a fine and four hours of classes – they need inpatient or outpatient help.
“To have people go and really get treatment – that’s what (recovering addicts) told us: ‘Don’t slap me on the wrist … make sure I go through some intensive treatment.’” His point, of course, was a person driving drunk with children in the car had a more severe lapse in judgment than the person who got a first DUI coming home from the softball game after a few too many beers.
The discussion spilled into the practical realities of the incarceration vs. rehabilitation debate, and we touched the state’s problems with meth and other drugs.
“Some districts have drug treatment courts,” Laslovich said. “We don’t have one yet in Lewis and Clark County. They exist in Gallatin, Missoula, Yellowstone … and I’m going to brag about that. I carried that legislation in 2007 in the Senate, and I’m proud of that, because we’re seeing the fruits of that.
“You have the everyday person who’s addicted to meth … and if they’re not in one of those districts, they’re being prosecuted and going to jail, and they’re paying a fine, and then they’re getting out and doing it again.
“(The drug courts) are a pre-trial diversion. You’re charged with a felony, and if you meet the criteria – you didn’t assault someone … there’s no intent to distribute– (then) you agree to be a part of the drug treatment court system.
“You’re obviously going to be tested to make sure you’re not using, but the incentive is that if you’re successful … you don’t get to the point of pleading guilty.
“There needs to be some incentive for them to stay clean, essentially,” he said. “It’s a recognition of the necessity to be creative when handling these things. It’s no longer enough to simply sentence people to prison. I want to be a part of that discussion, and be a leader in that discussion.”
We talked about the attorney general’s role defending the state and arguing constitutional law. He took a swipe at Tim Fox, a republican running for the AG, and I let him.
“One person … running for this office … is talking about issues that really have little to do with the AG’s office.
“People are doing this – it’s bullshit. I don’t want to be quoted on that, but it’s just total bullshit. Tell us what you’re going to do. Don’t tell us that you’re going to say to the feds that you’re going to stand up for our state’s rights. It makes for good political theatre. But at the end of the day, tell us how you’re going to help Montana.”
We talked about the Citizens United case and corporate political speech.
“It boils down to whether we are going to answer to people or corporations,” he said. “I hate being dramatic about it, but it’s a defining moment for our generation. And it will have effect on us, on my kid, not just at the federal level, but at the state level, and I think we need to do everything we can to make sure we keep the laws on our books.
“I think it’s important that we have someone in this office who’s willing to go to bat for the people, rather than big out-of-state-corporations,” he added.
I asked him why he’s running. He talked about his 2-year-old, Cooper, who will grow up in a world where today’s proposals are policies, and he has to live with them.
“I ran for the legislature when I was 19, and I ran because I thought there was no reason … that people who are young shouldn’t have a seat at the table, to have a say in the future of the state. At 19, the policies that were enacted in 2001 during that legislative session were going to affect me longer than my colleague, who was 72. I don’t think it’s any different now.”
“Everyone’s talking about life’s too short to not do what you want to do, and I want to do it. If the right person gets in, they can do great work. If the wrong person gets in, they can do devastating work.”
I’m up at Martin and Suzy’s place in the old South Hills, and I write on their back deck bird’s nest, a platform without rails 25 feet above grade. I look over our work from last season: their son and the guys built a new retaining wall with several large monumental stones. I helped with the slate steps and the backfill, and helped lift and set some of the large patio stones, which weigh several hundred pounds and took four of us to move. And there’s more work to be done this summer. I’ll do some landscaping in the northeast corner, and it will look a little better back there.
When it gets cold I go inside the upstairs office and sit among Martin’s art and blueprints and photographs, and I miss him. The wind rushes through the room. I only met him five times, and really only got to know him once. I tried to interview him before he died, but I was too late—his blood was killing him quick. He was an artist, writer, musician, filmmaker, husband, father, friend and inspiration to all who knew him. He owned a construction business for years in this town.
There is now a t-shirt with Martin’s smiling eyes on the front and “Be a Giant” written large below. It’s a good motto. I need that shirt.
He’s with me now as I write about workers and fighters and lovers and all of us human beings, no matter where we fall on the line of wealth, age, gender, sexual orientation or politics. He was above all a lover of the world, and his hands were always moving, and it was a good way for him to live.
After three big interviews I was deep into this and I had no idea where I was going. Wilmer, Smith and Laslovich were strong. I was looking to see who I’d suggest you vote for, to see who was a little taller than the others.
I caught up with Kim Gillan by phone during a brief stop on her months-long road trip.
“You don’t run for Congress in Montana, you drive,” she said with a laugh.
When Kim’s children were students at the Alkali Creek Elementary School in the mid-1990s, she was elected president of the PTA and went to work holding bake-sale fundraisers to buy the school computers. She discovered the perpetual problem that has made many headlines in Montana papers: the state’s dysfunctional school funding system.
“Instead of continuing to bake my way to prosperity for my children, people suggested I run for the Legislature. And I did that. I’ve always been a democrat, and some of my neighbors were republican … but we have common interests.”
She was elected in a right-leaning district of Billings for the first time in 1997, and after 16 years in both the state House and Senate, she’s termed out and looking for a job. She served in leadership roles during seven of her eight sessions, rounding out her service as the Senate minority whip the past two legislatures.
“I was able to deliver and get some very complex pieces of legislation passed, and I think that separates me from my democratic opponents.” She carried bills to reform insurance coverage for children with diabetes and autism. She worked hard to fix the school-funding system. She helped create a jobs-training program in the women’s prison.
“Being in leadership takes it to another level,” she added, “in terms of finding a way to find common ground when possible. At some point, there has to be a willingness to find a solution, and I’m a real problem-solver.
“I always played a very large role in … what we called the getting-out-of-town committees.” She said her persistence, pragmatism and results-oriented work were qualities Montana needed to send to D.C.
“There has been in the U.S. House a very limited focus on tangible, proven practices for creating jobs. The focus has been on almost everything but the central concern of Montanans.”
The government needs to invest in all sorts of infrastructure, she said: asphalt and steel, broadband internet cables, and workforce training. She supports Sen. Jon Tester’s work to provide incentives to small businesses that hire veterans.
Gillan also knows the ongoing debates over funding the nation’s Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid programs have real impacts on Montana. In many rural communities, health-care providers are strongly influenced by their Medicare reimbursements. “We’re considered a rural or pioneer or frontier state, and it’s very important to me that we don’t dismantle Medicare and Social Security.
“I am a responsible voice for our health-care system in Montana,” she added. “The one-size-fits-all solution – the one everyone who’s ever served in the Montana Legislature should be keenly aware of – doesn’t work.”
She spent years as a business consultant, and her primary job was evaluating proposals to see if they were worth money, time and effort. Now she’s involved in workforce development at Montana State University-Billings.
“I’m not an academic. I don’t teach. But three years ago I saw a problem in the Montana Women’s Prison. They were getting no resources (for job training).”
Now the prison has a model program for reintegrating its convicts into society, for getting them work after jail and helping them navigate through their new lives.
“I don’t talk about this stuff, it’s what I do. Some people belong to the Junior League, which is great, but I like to get things done. I’m turning tax users into taxpayers. Don’t write about that. But this thing about workforce development and training … it’s something I do every day when I go to work at 6:30 in the morning.
“In the prison, the social ills that people write about are not an abstraction.”
During her time in the Legislature, she had no patience for distractions.
“(I’d rather be) focusing on what is going to help the economy instead of all these other tangential issues that deal with women’s reproductive health and all that. What I felt in the legislature during 16 years is that one person can help set the tone. Last session, I got up and said: What does this have to do with jobs?”
She kept going. She was my quickest interview, but she filled up as many pages as the others. She was efficient.
“As I talk to Montanans, there are of course some people who are highly partisan, but there is a big group of independents who just want to see these issues resolved or moving forward. It’s that commitment and that track record of being a problem-solver that is perhaps what Montanans want right now more than anything. Someone who’s going to get things done.
“And maybe it’s old-school, but I was raised by parents who graduated from high school during the Depression. We didn’t tolerate a lot of complaining in our household. It was about problem-solving.”
After six miles – mostly downhill, thanks to the universe – there was a cabin beyond the trees. And there were cars parked there!
We journeyed down the long driveway, unsure whether we’d be greeted as friends or strangers. We found a southern gentleman and his wife, standing in their kitchen over tuna-on-toast. He got me a set of overalls, set me in front of the woodstove, and let me play with his two dogs. I used his booster to make a cell-phone call. My friend could meet me at the York Bar. He agreed to take us there.
He didn’t say much on the drive, just listened, but in between our profuse thanks he noted they see this sort of thing from time to time out there, being the last house on the road, or the first one out off the mountains. He gently chided me for not having a jacket, sleeping bag, socks, boots, food, water, first aid kit and matches in my rig, and he was right. Preparation prevents problems.
I was surprised when Pam Bucy’s communications director told me where to meet – I’d never been in that door, didn’t know it was open.
I walked down by the Bullwhacker statue on the Gulch and turned up the corner steps to the Securities Building. It’s one of Helena’s oldest and most beautiful properties, built as a bank in 1888. Solid. I opened the door and walked right into a first-floor office, where young people in dress clothes were making phone calls. It was volunteer night for the campaign, a busy Tuesday. I asked if they had any coffee on, and they said no, but they’d make some. Or I could have beer or wine. I paused. The day before, Bob Funk had managed to buy my cup of tea at the General Merc without me noticing, and he was the first source to buy me anything, ever, eight years out of J-school. I’d broken my rule. The line was gone. To hell with it. The spokeswoman brought me a selection of microbrews, and I chose a Hawaiian nut-brown ale, and we got comfortable.
Pam is a Townsend girl, and while much attention has been given to Jesse Laslovich’s rising star power in the state party, Pam has everything she needs to vie for the governor’s office in the next few years, and she could pull it off.
Bucy was Mike McGrath’s chief deputy county attorney in Helena before he was elected attorney general. She followed him to that office and served as his chief deputy attorney general for seven-and-a-half years. She was his right arm at the top of a 900-person agency. She argued cases before the state Supreme Court on game farms, school funding and the constitutional challenge to the state’s public-defender system.
She served as the department’s legislative liaison, drafted attorney general opinions (which carry the weight of law unless they’re rendered moot by new legislation), helped McGrath lead the state’s law enforcement, and worked for a time in the gambling control division.
“I was really able to get a full grasp of all that office does,” Bucy said. “And the combination of policy and law – you couldn’t ask for more. The amount of difference you can make in Montana law and in the lives of Montanans really meant a lot to me.”
After leaving the Department of Justice, Bucy took on another executive management role at the Department of Labor and Industry, where she’s primarily worked to reform Montana’s workers’ compensation mess and helped run another 900-person state agency.
“I’ve never been a politician. I’ve been doing legal and administrative work for the past 15 years. Doing work and being a politician are very different things,” she said.
If elected, she’d focus resources in two immediate areas, the first being the massive changes underway in eastern Montana, where the oil-and-gas boom is bringing thousands of potential roughnecks to tiny towns. To make a basic point: some departments out there are responding to 300 times the motor-vehicle crashes they saw a decade ago, Bucy said. And of course there’s the horrible story of the teacher in Sidney, who was allegedly strangled at random by two meth-heads on their way to the fields.
She said the attorney general, playing the role of the state’s top cop, can move highway troopers and criminal investigators from east to west, find grant funding for small departments, and listen to the needs of local sheriffs and chiefs.
For a time, Pam prosecuted sex crimes against children, and the experience has prompted her second main goal. She’s proposing a program to train school-resource officers and others across the state, so those adults could go into the middle schools year after year and teach kids how to avoid predators online and on their phones. When she first started doing this sort of work in conjunction with the FBI, I was in Havre watching her help put on a presentation about this, and Facebook didn’t exist. That was seven years ago.
“It’s really designed to empower kids,” she said. “Everyone wants them to use this technology, it’s certainly the way of the future, but they need to understand the risks and their responsibility online.”
She’s not a fan of expanding government, but she thinks this targeted effort can give vulnerable kids tools to defend themselves, and it wouldn’t be a large expenditure – the state would simply use the classrooms it has at the Montana Law Enforcement Academy out in the valley, and it would get done.
On her own volition, she brought up a subject important to me: the system of care for folks struggling with mental illness in Montana. As those dastardly social programs have been axed by those heroic ideologues, the men and women who are supposed to serve and protect us all – the local cops and deputies, the troopers – have been party to the reality of life. Take away a sick man’s medicine or his quiet, secure place, and he’ll lose his mind again. And then the cops have to deal with it.
“With each cut in social services, law enforcement is becoming the front line,” she said. “These are folks that shouldn’t be in jail … but when they become a danger to themselves or others,” the police must get involved.
“As a state and as a multiagency problem, we’re going to have to coordinate resources to make sure we are keeping our communities safe and that we’re getting these people to the best place they need to be, and that’s not necessarily a jail. You’re going to hear a lot about that. You’re going to be hearing from cities and towns and counties. It’s a huge issue.”
She mentioned the state’s first mental-health court, located in Bozeman. She said the county attorney down there had been skeptical, but now he’s a believer in the program, because he’s seen the results. “There are some creative solutions out there, and they’re not all about money, they’re about taking time.”
Pam brought up the Citizens United case, and mentioned two other court cases, which haven’t yet gotten a lot of press. The first challenges the state’s ability to set spending limits for contributions, and the other claims the state cannot force campaigns to disclose where their money comes from.
If those claims somehow hold up, wealthy interests could dump gobs of money into our political system “and Montana voters would have absolutely no idea who was doing it. (Eliminating) disclosure is more scary than anything else.”
“Our elections at this point don’t cost a lot,” she added. “It’s the perfect case to say … you could buy a Supreme Court justice in Montana for $250,000.”
The most important aspect of the AG’s race, she said, is making sure people understand the office: the attorney general is the state’s chief lawyer and top cop.
“We do public policy, we do legislation the same as everyone else. But the daily work of the AG’s office doesn’t have anything to do with that. It’s making complicated legal decisions about how to proceed with pretty critical civil cases … and helping the appellate bureau, which handles every single criminal appeal. It’s working with death-penalty cases, policies and procedures and training for every law-enforcement official in Montana.
“It’s important that someone with significant legal experience serves in that office,” she added.
Mike Dennison, the Lee Enterprises state bureau reporter, walked out of the M&M before the keynote speaker. Dennison had a deadline. The TV reporters were gone. I was going to have the scoop on Paul Begala. I was going to be the one who published his comments.
That yappy little Texan walked onstage and suddenly I realized who he was: he was the guy Jon Stewart yelled at on CNN, back when I was in college. He was on “Crossfire” with Tucker Carlson, that dweeb in a bowtie, and all they did was scream at each other, and Jon Stewart came on the program and told them they were hurting America. He was right. Begala is a shill, and he did his job there at the fairgrounds, but he said nothing newsworthy. And it’s 3:31 a.m., and my editor is exhausted, and we’re going to skip him.
We drove out to York, up to Nelson, and then miles along Beaver Creek, two vehicles, three guys and a gal. I thought of Martin again. The only ill spoken of him at the memorial focused on his bad driving and his habit of getting stuck on Montana roads. But, as his son said, he’d gotten really good at getting himself unstuck.
New snow dusted the pines and firs, and we turned up Hogback Mountain. There she was: my working truck, my two-week-old moneymaker, my new love. She was in a pinch. But with a come-along, two jacks, four people and some shoveling, we had her out in 45 minutes or so.
For a while there will be evidence of our work there – the twin muddy trenches hacked out of snow and ice, the pink puddles of what is apparently power-steering fluid, the branches and gravel stuck in vain beneath the tires five days before, and the holes where we stuck shovels and the short spud bar, slowly widening under spring skies.
And then the sun will melt our time into the ground, and few will ever know we were here.