MTPR

'Going For It': Montana Millennial Runs For Democratic Nomination

Mar 6, 2017

While Rob Quist was selected as the Democratic Party’s nominee to run for Montana’s open U.S. house seat on Sunday, there were seven other candidates who lost. Nate Hegyi has this profile of the youngest candidate in the race.

It’s Sunday morning in Helena, and I’m in a beat-up, Silver Pontiac Gran Prix with Dan West and his girlfriend, Ariel Diamond. The sun is just breaking over the mountains. We’re coming up on a yellow light.

"Oh, we’re going for it," says Diamond.

"Go for it, babe," West says.

We blast through, heading towards the Democratic convention at a hotel downtown. At 30-years-old, West is the youngest of eight candidates vying for his party’s nomination.

I ask him if he thinks he can win.

"It’s still a long shot, but I think our chances are better than what we thought when we started," says West.

West is a former political appointee under the Obama administration. While he grew up in Missoula, he looks every bit the part of a kid from D.C. He’s wearing a black suit, thick-rimmed glasses, and even has a little flag button — the kind that politicians started wearing after 9/11 — pinned to his lapel.

We arrive at the hotel and enter the lobby. Dan gets right to work. For the next hour-and-a-half, West meets and greets delegates. These are party insiders, and there’s 160 of them at the convention. They will decide who the Democratic nominee is.

"There’s a fair number of delegates we haven’t gotten to meet in person," says Kelsey Hamilton, West’s 27-year-old campaign manager.

She’s quick to laugh, from New York City and when she talks to you, her blue eyes lock onto yours. But right now they are scanning the hotel lobby and trailing West. I ask her if he’s trying to convince people to vote for him.

"I think a lot of people have either made up their mind, or they are not going to make up their mind until the speeches. So we’re kind of in limbo. We’re just trying to be friendly," she says.

One delegate who hasn’t made up his mind yet is Sam Samson, a former Jefferson County commissioner. He says he’s torn between wanting a candidate with good substance verses a candidate with name recognition.

"I know which is more important. It’s the person who, I like their views, but on the other hand, as a Democrat, I feel like we have to get someone elected too, so it’s tough," says Samson. 

Shoots Veis agrees. He’s a delegate from Yellowstone County. He’s excited West is running.

"And certainly the Montana Democratic Party has to embrace young people as they come forward," says Veis. "I think that’s a natural base of people for us."

Veis is supporting Billings state legislator Kelly McCarthy. He says McCarthy has more experience and name recognition in the state.

"I’m glad to see that Dan’s involved with it," says Veis. "I hope he continues with the Montana Democratic Party because I think he could really be a force in it. I just don’t know if this particular election is the best way to move forward with that."

"I think there’s a sense that he’s too young and almost another campaign would give him that experience," says Kelsey Hamilton, West’s campaign manager. 

"I mean, I disagree with that," Hamilton says. "You’re not going to learn anything about being a Congressman from campaigning; campaigning and legislating are two different things. I think he’s ready."

I catch up with West as he’s mixing creamer into his coffee in the hotel lobby. He says it feels patronizing when delegates tell him to just ... keep at it.

"I could start tomorrow," West says. "Because the convention’s today.  And I’m one of the candidates. And I’m the only one with federal legislative experience. So, even though I’m the youngest, I think I’m the most qualified to do the job."

West also concedes that he’s dreamed of doing that job for almost a decade, ever since Barack Obama became president. Like Obama, West is also bi-racial. His mother is Korean. He got made fun of a lot in school, he says, so it was empowering to see a minority become president. It put the bug in him, but he wasn’t planning on running until he was 40 or 50. 

"The average age of Congress is like 58. No one knew Zinke was going to get nominated to be Interior secretary. He wasn’t even on the first list of candidates. Chance happened," West says.  

We get up and start walking down a hallway, when Hamilton comes running out of the ballroom. West is late.

"You gotta run; you gotta run; they’re about to gavel in," Hamilton says.

He hurries into the ballroom. There’s a small stage framed by the U.S., state and reservation flags. The delegates are sitting at white banquet tables. It’s a sea of gray hair, suspenders and flannel. There’s nary a cowboy hat to be seen except on the head of the front runner, Rob Quist.

There’s a thirty minute open floor where the delegates debate the merits of each candidate, a quick break for lunch, and then the candidates give their speeches.

West prepared and practiced his while nursing a beer the night prior. He’s got two copies in case he loses one. West has only ever given one other big, public speech — his father’s eulogy. Now he’ll give his second.

West climbs to the stage and places a poster board of a map next to him. Then he tells a joke:

“I notice a lot of people have the same cough today. That might be a good sign. Because it means we’re all shaking hands." 

It gets a good laugh and the speech unfolds. He explains his background as a biracial Montanan, his credentials in D.C., his platform ... It’s a little wonkish at times, but it gets a standing ovation.

Soon after, the first round of voting begins.

The delegates fill out their ballots and hand them over to staffers who count them at a table. The eventual nominee must win by a simple majority. But it doesn't’ happen the first vote. Quist and Curtis are in the lead, and West is in fourth place.

So second round of voting happens. The delegates fill out their ballots.

West’s campaign manager, Kelsey Hamilton, is watching from a cordoned off public area. West didn’t get as many votes as they’d hoped for, and Quist has taken a commanding lead. I ask her why.

"I think people are looking for a certain type, maybe. I think maybe they want somebody that looks like a Republican," Hamilton says.

But still, she’s hopeful. Maybe some of the voters will switch allegiances or have a last-minute change of heart. And they do ... West gets only eight votes the second round, and he withdraws his nomination.

Hamilton slips out into the lobby and leans on a wall. A couple of college Democrats say congratulations, and then she’s by herself. I ask her what happened.

"I know, I think people thought he couldn’t win and so they switched," says Hamilton.

But inside the ballroom, West is surrounded by delegates congratulating him. I can’t get a word in. They’re shaking his hand, patting him on the shoulder. West doesn’t look like a loser right now. He looks like a young, new face in an old crowd. A guy basking in the glow of his party’s attention. I remember asking him earlier, before the voting, why he ran for a long shot at his party’s nomination.

"There’s the border line between when you start talking about you’re going to do something and then actually doing it. You just have to go do it. Or else you’re just somebody who just talks about stuff and never does anything," says West.

For now, West doesn’t have any plans to run again. Instead, he says, he’ll be knocking on doors for Rob Quist.