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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Shared State Episode 01: Preamble

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In case you haven't been turning on the TV or opening the paper, we're in the thick of campaign season and there are big, competitive races up and down the ticket, some of which could flip the governor's office red or turn our whole congressional delegation blue. Money is pouring into these races from around the country, and the stakes are high.

But this election is also about something deeper: What the candidates say they care about and how those ideas could impact the rest of us. From Montana Public Radio, Yellowstone Public Radio and Montana Free Press, this is Shared State, a podcast about what's driving Montana's 2020 elections and where the outcomes could lead us.

Sarah Aronson If you live in Montana, and you've turned on the TV lately, or the radio, you've probably heard something like this:

[Ad]:"Mike Cooney for governor. As lieutenant governor, Mike Cooney partnered with Gov. Bullock to expand rural health care access ..."

Aronson Political ads: They're everywhere. And in most of them, candidates are trying to appeal to you. They're trying to tell voters what their campaign represents, and what they do if they're elected:

[Ad]:"Matt Rosendale fights for you. Take it from the folks who know him best: His neighbors in Glendive. Listen: 'He's hardworking. He's genuine. He's trustworthy. And he's...'"

Aronson All of this rhetoric is about making promises. But as a viewer, sometimes it feels like trying to understand code: What the candidates say or sometimes what that big scary narrator voice says and what we're supposed to take away.

Here's another example: There's this ad that Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte put out earlier this year. It's called "Why I'm Running for Governor." It's on his Facebook page, and it goes like this:

[Ad]:"Montana: A place of awesome beauty."

Aronson First, there are some pretty stunning images of mountains. And then it cuts to a rancher untangling twine while clenching a knife in his teeth. Cut to more men working with heavy equipment.

[Ad]:"But to reach our fullest potential, Montana needs a conservative leader who shares our values. That's why Greg Gianforte is running for governor..."

Aronson As soon as the narrator says "values," the camera cuts to a younger woman holding a blond baby, standing on a back porch surrounded by flowers and a barbecue.

And at this point, it's worth asking: What does that mean? What values are being referenced here? Motherhood? Men working in factories and warehouses?

Eventually, the ad gets a little more explicit. It says that Gianforte has created jobs. There are shots of him in a bright orange hunting vest, while the narrator says he'll protect Second Amendment rights and public lands.

Later, it says he'll, "Keep our communities safe from the threats of sanctuary cities and drugs." He's referencing immigration here, and walking with a sheriff.

So, by the end of it, the audience has some idea of what our values mean to Gianforte. But the thing is, we could do this kind of analysis for any Montanan running for office. Democratic Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney - who's running against Gianforte - Steve Bullock and Steve Daines, who are fighting for one of Montana's Senate seats.

[Steve Daines]:"Gov. Bullock has talked about the public option. This is where this goes: It's a complete federal takeover of the health care system. We don't want to have ..."

Aronson All the candidates are promising to deliver on their versions of Montana values.

[Steve Bullock]:"I'll stand up to corporate special interests. And I'll never let any party leader dictate what I do, or how we live."

[Ad]:"To move forward, we must focus on helping our businesses overcome the unprecedented challenges they are facing, and get back to growing our economy."

[Ad]:"Our veterans deserve the best services and treatment that we can provide them, given that they and their families ..."

Aronson In case you haven't been turning on the TV or opening the paper, we're in the thick of campaign season and there are big, competitive races up and down the ticket, some of which could flip the governor's office red or turn our whole congressional delegation blue. Money is pouring into these races from around the country, and the stakes are high.

But this election is also about something deeper: What the candidates say they care about and how those ideas could impact the rest of us. From Montana Public Radio, Yellowstone Public Radio and Montana Free Press, this is Shared State, a podcast about what's driving Montana's 2020 elections and where the outcomes could lead us. I'm your host Sarah Aronson.

Graphic of a cowboy and dog herding cattle.

All the talk about Montana values isn't unique to this election cycle. It tends to crop up whenever people start running for office.

Aronson Is Sarah there?

Sarah Vowell I'm here. Hi, Sarah!

Aronson Hi, Sarah.

Which is why I wanted to talk to Sarah Vowell. Sarah, will you just start by telling us how you want us to refer to you?

Vowell What do you mean? I'm a writer. Is that what you mean?

Aronson Sarah writes mostly about American history. But she's also a contributing writer for The New York Times, where she spends a lot of time explaining Montana and the West to people who don't live here. Where are you now? Where are you recording this from?

Vowell I'm in Bozeman, which is what I think of as my hometown, though I will admit that I moved here when I was 11.

Aronson I wanted to see if Sarah could help us understand Montana's political quirks.

Vowell In terms of the Montana values thing, which is kind have to say that, you have to say that in a campaign ad I think. I don't know if it's an actual law, but they always mention that, you know, someone is not holding up our Montana values. "I will definitely fight for our Montana values."

One thing that amuses me about the Montana political ads is that the candidates are almost never inside. They look like they're always running to be elected as a hiker, you know?

They're just standing on the side of a mountain somewhere. And they're running to have an indoors-y job, you know? They're running to be at the Capitol in Helena or in Washington, and they're gonna have to be in planes a lot or cars or helicopters. It's … they're not going to get a tan at whatever job they're trying to get.

Aronson I asked Sarah if she thought that the emphasis on being outside and wearing things like Carhartt jackets had something to do with the value of hard work. And she said that's part of the message, but also that outdoorsy focus romanticizes rural life and projects the idea that Montana is not an urban place.

Vowell Sometimes I get perturbed as a city person. I mean that, in the Montana version of a city, how it seems like "Montana values" can be shorthand for "Rural people are more worthwhile than urban people." And sometimes I think in those campaign ads, when you hear "Montana values," ...I mean, most Montanans live in cities or the Montana version of a city.

Aronson Just a quick interjection here. About 64% of Montanans lived in urban counties in 2017. Less than 12% lived in the more rural areas. That's according to an analysis by the University of Montana.

Vowell So there's something a little screwy. If Montanans values means rural people are more valuable than urban people, then that makes us all a bunch of self haters, you know? It's just weird to me that these ideas we have about ourselves don't entirely jibe with maybe the Montana of the last 20 years - the Montana we actually live in.

Aronson Sarah said when she writes about Montana for a national audience, she wants to complicate the way people think about the state because she feels that complexity personally. She has for a long time.

Vowell I think it was a couple of years ago, I was interviewing this rancher, maybe somewhere in Big Horn - I can't remember where he's from, honestly - and we were both at MSU at the same time. We didn't know each other.

We were emailing and he mentioned the winter of 1988-89, which was brutal. It was, you know, like 30, 40 below for weeks. And I remember that winter, too. He had to drop out of MSU that winter because he had to go back to the family sheep ranch. The sheep were all freezing to death and he had to, like, drop out of school and go help keep the sheep alive.

But I have such fond memories of that winter because I … after you know, it's 30 below for a while, people just wouldn't trust that their cars would start. So everyone would just, if they had to go somewhere, they would literally run.

Aronson That included running to social events around Bozeman, like the artsy films she liked to go see when she was in college.

Vowell And I remember there was this Danish movie called "Babette's Feast" about a French woman cooking. So I went to that, and when I got into the movie theater inside, everyone else who was there clapped. And then I noticed they did that for every other arrival and everyone clapped like "You made it!" you know, and like, it really took a lot of effort and layers to run to this movie theater at nine o'clock, when it's 30 or 40 below.

That was our version of being tough. Like, we weren't going to let a 40-degree-below-zero night keep us from this Danish subtitled movie.

Obviously, the rancher story is a little more heart-rending, like this kid had to interrupt his education to go keep some sheep alive.

Aronson When Sarah tells this story, the contrast is striking. But she says sprinting through the snow and ice to get to that foreign film is just as quintessentially Montanan as helping your herd weather a winter storm. It's not an "either, or."

So for Sarah, the answer to "What are Montana values?" depends on who you're asking. Those values might be as different as all the people who live here.

Vowell One of my jobs, I feel like - especially being from here and writing for an audience of non-Montanans - is to just kind of help with how we're a country of strangers. But sometimes I wonder if that's true of Montanans, too, if we're a state full of strangers.

Aronson If we can be strangers, we still can - and should - talk and listen. So after the break, we spend time with a few other Montanans to hear how they think about their values. Plus, how those ideas can turn into action. Stay tuned.

I wanted to hear from someone else who spends a lot of time thinking about Montanans and listening to them.

Tom Schultz "Incumbent Republican Sen. Steve Daines and his allies countered with $5 million in that second quarter fundraising."

Aronson Tom Schultz: Last year, he started hosting a daily radio show called "Voices of Montana." It's been on the air for more than 20 years.

Radio "… talk about that today. It's time for the fastest hour in radio. From Montana for Montana, Voices Of Montana with Tom Schultz."

Aronson Who are your listeners and why do you think they tune in?

Schultz You know, I'm still kind of getting to know the Voices Of Montana audience. Like you said, I've been the program host for about a year. The listenership goes back several previous hosts and 22 years of statewide broadcasts. So I'm thinking that it's going to take me a little time to really, truly understand that to a certain degree.

I think we're interested in news, and I'm hoping that we're curious, you know, and open to hear a few good stories and open to new ideas, too, as I have been.

Aronson Tom has lived in Montana all his life, on both sides of the Continental Divide.

Schultz Grew up as a youngster in Eastern Montana and grew up as an adult in Western Montana. Still growing up, though, right? Aren't you?

Aronson Now, he lives and works in Billings, and also helps take care of his mom.

Schultz Mom's good. Mom's fine. You know, she's a typical Montanan: very independent. And, you know, nobody's going to tell her what to do. But she's not...

Aronson Before Tom was a radio host, he worked in politics starting back in 2001. He was the press secretary for Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg. More recently, he did the same job for Congressman Gianforte, so he's used to seeing the flashy political ads and hearing the stump speeches about Montana values.

So how is it that we can use the same language to describe something completely different?

Schultz Well, why is it completely different?

Aronson Right.

Schultz I don't think that it is.

Aronson OK, so what's the common ground then?

Schultz For me, when I think about Montana values, I think about personal accountability. I think Montanans really value personal accountability for our actions, and then the freedom that allows us to act off of that.

So I'm personally accountable to my needs. If it's something that I really want, it's up to me to go out and get it. If I don't have it, it's not somebody else's fault.

I think it's we all need to be accountable to our needs: personally accountable to the needs of our family, personally accountable to the needs of our community.

Aronson Tom, it strikes me that it like..ranchers' rules, which is like if you open a gate, you shut the gate.

Schultz Yeah.

Aronson That's what kind of to my mind. That's something I learned in Montana from a rancher.

Schultz There you go. Yeah, no, that's that describes it really well. It's as simple as that. And I think if we're all more personally accountable, then we're going to have less conflict, because I am going to pay you a fair wage and I'm not going to tell you a lie or make something up about my neighbor.

Aronson Close the gate, don't let the cows out.

Schultz Right. And that's how it used to be.

Aronson Tom said his ideas of personal responsibility started to get more specific later in life.

Schultz I think my journey toward conservatism, I can define it. It really started when my kids were born. You know, I was pretty much a young man, a liberal. I was ideal in a lot of ways.

So I would say back then I was thinking with my heart, and...but as I started looking at my family and going, "I'm responsible for this family. If this family suffers, it's because I did not do the job that is put upon me as a father, period."

And so then I started looking at the policies that enable me to take care of my family.

Aronson At one point in the conversation, Tom made this distinction: Our values can help ground us, individually and as a society, but the way we express our values politically, that might be more flexible.

Right now, it seems like so many people are trying to make sense of both things at once - what we care about and what we're trying to do about it. And the thing is, Montana has been in that kind of political tumult before: When we decided to overhaul our Constitution. Both Tom and Sarah talked about it, because it was kind of a big deal. Here's Sarah.

Vowell So I'm a real fan girl for the constitutional convention of 1972.

[Newscast]"An exciting age of rapid change. Montana's citizens came to the state capital well aware of the issues, and determined to write a new constitution to better serve the state for the 1970s ..."

Aronson Montana had had a constitution for over a century, but it didn't stop the mining companies and other industries from holding all the power. So Montana voters called for a constitutional convention.

Vowell And again, that's a direct response against, you know, being basically the largest company town on earth, which is what Montana had been before.

Aronson The nation was in turmoil. Nixon was president. It was the tailend of the Vietnam War and the beginning of Watergate.

[Newscast]:"We have a mystery story out of Washington. Five people have been arrested and charged with breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee..."

The first Earth Day was two years earlier.

[Newscast]:"Good evening. A unique day in American history is ending, a day set aside for a nationwide outpouring of mankind seeking its own survival ..."

In life, there aren't many times when you get to press the reset button, to right all the wrongs, to start anew. But here in Montana was a chance to learn from past mistakes and work towards a better society.

And it wasn't politicians who ran the show. It was ordinary folks.

Vowell The people who were the delegates - some of them were liars, but, you know, some of them were like homemakers and a lot of them were clergymen. One guy was a beekeeper.

These are some pretty high-minded constitutional ideas that, you know, just these normal people from all over the state came together and codified. They were so idealistic about what they were doing and how what they were doing should be in the public interest.

Aronson One of those people was Mae Nan Ellingson. She served as the youngest delegate to Montana's constitutional convention - and she still likes to talk about it.

Mae Nan Ellingson You had to be 24 to run, and I had turned 24 on June 1st. The election was in the fall of that year.

Aronson Nowadays, Mae Nan lives outside Missoula. She talked with our editor Nick in her backyard, surrounded by green shrubs and blooming flowers.

She's retired now after a long legal career, but back in the '70s, she was a Texas girl, new to Montana. She heard about the constitutional convention from her boss, a political science professor who nudged her to run to be a delegate.

Ellingson I knew it would probably be one of the most important things that happened in Montana in my lifetime. And, you know, I think it certainly was.

Aronson Mae Nan ran as a Republican, rode her bike around town, went door to door and that newness to Montana actually helped her out.

Ellingson I was it perceived as having any particular ax to grind. As a matter of fact, that was my chintzy campaign slogan, "She has no ax to grind."

Aronson In the end, she got the second-highest number of votes of any Republican. She was one of eight delegates in Missoula County. Before long, the whole thing was underway.

Ellingson We didn't have a lot of time to get this done. Sixty-some odd days is all we had.

Aronson We're not going to go through all the 60-some odd days of the Con Con now.

But there's a story that Mae Nan tells that's pretty illuminating. It's about the seating arrangement.

Normally in the legislature, Republicans are on one side, Democrats on the other. But for the Con Con, delegates sat alphabetically. Your political party had nothing to do with it.

Ellingson I mean, you're become friends. People sitting next to you, you don't see them as the opposition.

Aronson She doesn't mean to say there weren't any arguments, because there were.

Ellingson What was really controversial is, what it meant to give citizens the right to a clean and healthful environment. We just fought like crazy over that.

Aronson There were knockdown, drag-out fights over this. But still, after weeks of negotiating, Mae Nan said something surprising happened, something that's hard to imagine happening in politics today.

Ellingson One of the lawyers that I argued with mostly on the floor on this particular issue came to me. Toward the end of the convention and he said, "Another delegate and I have been talking and we think you should go to law school."

Ellingson I want to stop here for a minute. Mae Nan and this guy are butting heads and arguing every day, and then he pulls her aside and tells her she should make this her profession.

For Mae Nan, this was a pivotal moment. The convention emboldened her. She wanted to become a lawyer, but her life had recently taken a major turn.

Ellingson I had had some misfortune in my life right before the convention started. My mother died, and I inherited an 8-year-old brother and a 12-year-old sister to raise.

And so when they came to me and said, "You should go to law school," yeah, well how do I do that? I've got these two kids to raise.

Aronson But instead of letting it go, the two men had a different idea. They'd help her pay for school to make it possible. Later, she took them up on that.

Ellingson I mean, it was then and it continues to be, you know, one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and certainly totally changed the course of my life I think.

Aronson Mae Nan has this memento that she dusted off during the interview. It's a huge illustration, framed in dark wood: the preamble to the Constitution, written by one of her friends in ornate blue calligraphy.

Ellingson It's really pretty how she did that I think. Isn't that pretty?

Producer Nick Mott That's gorgeous.

Ellingson Yeah. I had this photocopied and gave each of my sons one of those.

Aronson Then she pulls it onto her lap and reads it out loud.

“We, the people of Montana, grateful to God for the quiet beauty of our state, the grandeur of our mountains, the vastness of our rolling plains, and desiring to improve the quality of life, equality of opportunity and secure the blessings of liberty, for this and future generations, do ordain and establish this constitution.”

And so that was ratified by the voters on June 6th of 1972. I do think the Constitution itself, the provisions of the Constitution, really do reflect Montana values.

Aronson When Mae Nan says that, it feels very different than listening to a political ad. During campaign season, all that rhetoric actually makes her cringe.

Ellingson It's just a buzz word that just drives me crazy, 'cause you just don't know what they mean by it, you know? When I hear Jon Tester saying "Montana values" and I hear Greg Gianforte saying "Montana values" - I don't know, what does it mean?

Mott Are they talking about the same thing at all?

Ellingson Are they talking about the same thing at all? Do they even know what they're talking about?

Aronson Over the next few months, that's the question we're trying to answer, and we're doing it with the help of that beautiful preamble Mae Nan has framed.

Ellingson It just kind of sums up what we are trying to do in the whole constitution, and it's kind of the glue or the binding principles - or some of them anyway - that holds it all together.

Aronson For the rest of this series, we're using the preamble as our blueprint. Each episode will focus on one value we're trying to make sense of, and how it's impacting the most competitive races of 2020.

Next week: We, The People of Montana. Why we have such a hard time with the idea of outsiders.

Shared State is made by Montana Free Press, Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio. We're produced by Mara Silvers and edited by Nick Mott. Editorial assistance comes from Brad Tyer, Nicky Ouellet, Corin Cates-Carney and John Adams. I'm Sarah Aronson. Thanks for listening.

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