Bottom-Up Power

Bottom-Up Power

In Montana, grassroots campaigns elected politicians and influenced policy. The same can happen across the country.


This article is adapted from Laura Flanders’ new book, Blue Grit: True Democrats Take Back Politics From the Politicians (The Penguin Press).

An odd thing happens on the way to an American election. For months politicians talk about the importance of voters, voting and the power of majorities. Then on election night–wham–suddenly the only person who matters is the candidate. Thanks to media that cover elections as if they were races, all the attention goes to the horses; there’s little left for the people in the stands. Consider what happened in the wake of the Republican rout in the 2006 midterm elections. Just days after election night, the Sunday-morning TV talk shows were in full gallop, training attention away from the hordes of people and the organizing that had just flipped both houses of Congress and focusing instead on the few politicians who might be expected to run for President.

The brighter the spotlight on the candidate, the dimmer the darkness that falls on everyone else. Take Montana. The first Democrat to win the governorship in sixteen years, Brian Schweitzer, sparked breathless talk about a “Montana Miracle” when he won office in 2004, the same year that Democrats gained power in both chambers of state government after twelve years of GOP dominance. The national public heard more about Schweitzer’s bolo tie and boots than they did about his politics–but no matter, when his protégé Jon Tester pulled off a nail-biter win in the Senate two years later, Democratic hopes rose even higher. Maybe the Montana magic will rub off and herald Democratic victories across the West.

When the Democrats hold their national convention in Denver in 2008, Schweitzer and Tester are bound to be headliners. “The future is wearing a turquoise bolo tie wrapped around the open collar of a blue-and-white-striped button-down dress shirt,” began a typical article on Schweitzer in Salon. Tester, an organic farmer with a big frame and a flattop haircut, has stimulated similar style-over-substance talk. But the big men are not all that’s going on in the Big Sky state. To talk about a one- or even a two-man miracle is to ignore what’s really interesting about politics in Montana. As two local feminists, Judy Smith and Terry Kendrick, put it in their essay “Revisiting the Montana Miracle,” “rather than a miracle [what happened in ’04] was closer to a perfect storm.” As I discovered during my travels out West last spring, what’s been happening there may indeed have lessons for national Democrats–but not if the analysis stops with the candidates.

The day I arrive in Missoula, in March 2006, I meet a bright, blond athlete named Betsy Hands. As we drive around town, Hands tells me she is a former Peace Corps volunteer and environmental scientist who spent years in various African countries and once led wilderness trips for Outward Bound. She is program director at homeWORD, a community housing organization that helps low-income women and families buy affordable homes. She’s also a competitive telemark skier and, oh yes, she’s running for office, a seat in the State Assembly. “Somebody’s got to step up, and why not me?” Hands tells me cheerfully. It’s an attitude I hear a lot in this state.

On March 8 at the Missoula Women’s Day Potluck, trestle tables sag under the array of food. A cheerful noise spurts from a childcare room next door. Around the hall, women’s groups working on violence, healthcare and workplace discrimination are scattered about. What they have in common, I gradually learn, is that they are all members of something called Montana Women Vote, a coalition of ten statewide women’s organizations focused on increasing women’s participation in elections and encouraging women to run for office. This isn’t presidential election season; it’s eight months before a Congressional midterm race, yet on just about every table there is something about voting, a flier for a fundraiser or an invitation to attend a training for candidates. Voter registration forms are everywhere.

“The thing I often say about electoral politics is that I never thought I’d find myself doing it,” Judy Smith told me the next day. Smith is a longtime activist and a founder, with Terry Kendrick, of Montana Women Vote. “I was part of that radical contingent in the 1960s and ’70s which thought that electoral politics was not something that would make real change,” continued Smith. Her beliefs haven’t changed that much, but the possibility of affecting policy-makers through movement pressure has. In 1994 the Democratic Party in Montana found itself in the same fix that national Democrats woke up to in 2002: Out of power in both houses of the legislature and the governor’s mansion, “we were out in the wilderness, lost, trying to figure out why we were lost,” Tester’s state director Bill Lombardi, a longtime Democratic consultant, recalled. Montana was once a comfortably Democratic state that had only returned one Republican to the Senate in its history, but its demographics and its economy had shifted such that a whole lot of traditional Democratic voters (women, blue-collar workers, low-income urban dwellers) had abandoned the Democratic Party, or the state. Republicans, meanwhile, were reaping the benefits of years of investment in Western states by the organized right, including the Christian Coalition and the corporate-backed Wise Use anti-environmentalist movement. In 1994, the year that swept Newt Gingrich to power, Montana Democrats won just thirty-three of 100 seats in the State Assembly and nineteen of fifty in the Senate.

Local women’s groups, like homeWORD, had no allies left to lobby. “Instead of running into that wall over and over, we had to crack that wall open,” said Smith. And they weren’t the only ones who felt that way.

For most of the past 150 years, Montana was a mining and timber-run state. Pit-head derricks still rise above the dusty streets of Butte, once called “the richest hill on earth.” Next to the mines today lurks a huge lake of acid-laced water, part of the nation’s largest Superfund site. With the decline of mining and logging, an environmental movement has grown up that’s part conservationist, part hunters and fishers and part citizens concerned about the toxins in their water. By the end of the 1990s, as Theresa Keaveny, executive director of Montana Conservation Voters, explains it, good environmental laws passed in the 1970s “had been gutted, and just working on lobbying and rule-making wasn’t enough. We realized we had to change the policy-makers, and that demanded a political response. We had to elect people.”

Long before the media spotlight hit their state in 2004, Montana Women Vote convened a Voter Summit to prepare for the 2004 election. In attendance were the state’s biggest nonprofits responsible for conducting election-related work. According to Kendrick, the groups shared data, coordinated strategies and divvied up their turf so that the state was covered and individual groups weren’t duplicating one another. The coordinated campaign of the Montana Democratic Party, the groups that made up the Voter Summit, and Native Vote, a powerful new group, registered 40,000 new Montana voters between the primary and the general election. In a gubernatorial race that was decided by just 19,703 votes, those numbers are huge. Because they didn’t rely on bused-in volunteers and hadn’t left the field in the intervening months, these same groups were able to draw on their base again for the hotly contested 2006 Tester versus Conrad Burns Senate race.

When it comes to campaigning, Democratic consultants typically recommend “broadening the electorate” (which usually means dashing for Republican voters) over deepening the “natural” base (the groups the party prefers to take for granted). More or less written off by the Democratic National Committee since Ronald Reagan won Montana in 1980, Democrats there have been mercifully spared DC advice. As a result, the state party has gone its own way. In the 1990s Democrats in the legislature initiated a routine (one that’s shockingly unusual around the states) of meeting regularly with statewide officials, local party players and extra-party activists.

But the biggest change in Democratic fortunes came with the work of Native Americans, the state’s largest minority group. Montana has seven Native American reservations and is home to eleven tribes. Natives are a small percentage of Montana’s population (about 7 percent), but in some districts, and on the reservations, they are a 90 percent majority. They vote almost as solidly Democratic as African-Americans do–roughly 80 percent. When they vote. “We have felt powerless, and we’ve been told that we are powerless,” said State Senator Carol Juneau, who grew up on a reservation and lives today on the Blackfeet Reservation in northwest Montana. On the reservation, Native people have their own elected tribal leaders. It has taken local activists years, said Juneau, to build any sense among the residents that there is reason to engage in politics outside the reservation. Besides, state authorities–and politicians of both parties–actively kept Indians out of the process. Voting-rights suits brought by aggrieved Native American voters in the 1980s and redistricting in 2003 created three new constituencies–two in the Senate and one in the House–in which Native voters predominated, and several more competitive districts across the state. The plan was overseen by Janine Pease Pretty on Top, one of the early voting-rights plaintiffs.

Instead of conducting outsider “outreach” to minority voters, Democrats in Montana gave enough resources directly to local Native American leaders that they could participate on an equal footing and build their own base. Pat Williams, a longtime US Congressman from Montana who worked energetically for Native rights, remembers the process: To start, “we gave that money to a virtually all-white, all-male consulting group in Helena…. They didn’t consult. The effort collapsed.” The next time around, over the objections of his political staff, Williams saw to it that GOTV money went straight to the reservations, into the hands of the local Native leadership. “I was assured by everybody that the Indians would drink the money. Instead they had the highest gain of any ethnic group in any state in registration and turnout.”

In 2004 the Coordinated Campaign of the Montana Democratic Party hired a Democratic Party Tribal Coordinator. With help from Native Vote (a national initiative), voters were registered on each reservation and local candidates were recruited for statewide office, increasing voter interest and turnout. By election day, an estimated 4,000 new voters–about 10 percent of the voting reservation population–were newly registered, and more were running for office. The delegation sent to Helena after the 2004 election included eight Native Americans–the second highest number of Native legislators in any state, all Democrats. The lowest turnout of registered voters on any reservation was 46 percent, and the highest topped 64 percent. In 2006 the number of Native Americans winning election rose again, to ten–the most ever. On Juneau’s Blackfeet Reservation, 83 percent of all voters went for Jon Tester. “It shows the power of the Indian vote in Montana,” said Juneau, who was elected to the State Senate that same day.

Nationally, Democrats know low-income women are a target group, but at the state level few parties have the resources–or the relationships–to turn them out. Polls show that only about 30 percent of low-income women typically register to vote, let alone show up at the polls. In 2004 the member groups of Montana Women Vote exceeded their target of registering 5,000 new voters, especially low-income women in certain districts (they ended up registering 7,300). In 2006 they exceeded their goals again. Sharing public data acquired by their better-resourced friends at Montana Conservation Voters, the women say they learned how to cross-reference voting records with their own membership lists. “This isn’t rocket science,” said Judy Smith. Pooling their resources, Montana Women Vote volunteers contacted voters not once or twice but several times, and distributed voter guides. In 2004, 77 percent of the Montana Women Vote registrants voted–six points higher than the statewide turnout. In that year, Montana Women Vote alone turned out an estimated 5,600 new, disproportionately Democratic voters. Thanks to sophisticated tracking software, Theresa Keaveny was able to show that where Montana Conservation Voters was active, turnout was also higher than average: 84 percent of their registrants voted, according to Keaveny’s data, as did 93 percent of their own members–a minimum of 30,000 votes. In 2006, for the first time, Montanans could register and vote on election day. Grassroots groups offering free bus rides to the polls helped boost turnout to more than 60 percent.

Judy Smith is right. This stuff isn’t rocket science. Grassroots organizers of every stripe know what grassroots activists do. It’s just very rarely written down. When it comes to the right, liberal researchers pay close attention; they often draw complex, spidery maps plotting the political, financial and social networks that have made it possible for the right to grow. Yet when it comes to Democrats and their allies, liberal media tend to see only the top of the pyramid.

In the case of Montana, the popular liberal bloggers Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas didn’t just overlook the role of movements in their account of the “miracle”; they actively disparaged them. “Montana Democrats nearly cut the issue groups out of their campaign efforts,” wrote Armstrong and Moulitsas in their book Crashing the Gate. Calling it “a rare rebuke” of the issues groups inside the party, “but one that served the purposes of the long-suffering Montana Democratic Party,” the bloggers alleged that Schweitzer “threw all of the [interest group] questionnaires in the garbage.” Which allowed that, in their words, “Schweitzer and the rest of the Democratic ticket in Montana could stand on their own, unencumbered by whatever negative baggage those groups might bring.”

All that is just plain bunk. Maybe Schweitzer tossed somebody’s questionnaire in the trash, but according to the groups, he responded to the questionnaire from every “interest” group I’ve mentioned. Not only did Schweitzer respond to Montana Conservation Voters’ questions; he met with them, before and after the election, and sought the endorsement of their PAC, along with the endorsement of the state AFL-CIO and the teachers’ unions.

When I met with Schweitzer in the governor’s mansion last spring, he knew the numbers on the women’s vote precisely: “Montana Women Vote registered some 7,000 women to vote, many single women, and they probably voted 80/20 Democrat. There is another four or five thousand into the Democrat camp,” he noted. “That’s important.” Brad Martin of the Montana Democrats told reporters after the election, “We reached out early to the prochoice community, the hunting and fishing community and folks from the labor movement, and we said, Look, you’ve got to be a part of this.” After his election, Schweitzer created a new position in his Cabinet for an Indian Affairs coordinator and appointed women to top posts. In 2006 he appointed the freshly elected legislator Christine Kaufmann, co-director of the Montana Human Rights Network, an anti-hate group founded to combat militia violence in the late 1980s, to chair a newly established seven-member advisory council on civil rights.

The conventional wisdom about coattails would have you believe that the candidate at the top of the ticket always pulls those lower down in his or her wake. But take a closer look at who led whom to victory in Montana, and it’s not so clear the one on top did the leading. If anything, the results indicate a bottom-up or reverse-coattails effect. Brian Schweitzer won with just over 50 percent of the vote in a four-way race. He won in seventeen of fifty-six counties, in traditional Democratic counties and on the Native American reservations. He did well, but not as well as some other Democratic statewide candidates. (A progressive state Supreme Court justice, Jim Nelson, won with increased support and a bigger margin than Schweitzer’s.)

In several Democratic districts, progressive, grassroots-based state legislators outperformed the governor. In Helena, the two most progressive people on the ballot won with more votes and a bigger margin of victory: Christine Kaufmann and Mary Caferro, a single mother of four and former welfare recipient who directs a low-income families group, WEEL (Working for Equality and Economic Liberation), dedicated to the eradication of poverty. Schweitzer won 65 and 54 percent of the district vote, respectively, in Kaufmann’s and Caferro’s districts in 2004; they won 71 and 58 percent.

Candidacies like these are just what traditional party consultants hate. They’re risky, rely on mobilizing atypical voters and raise issues that challenge the center and the right. But sometimes the campaign is the point, says Kaufmann’s co-director at the Montana Human Rights Network, Ken Toole. “Sometimes the most important question is not Can you win, but Can you provide an alternative and use a campaign to advance a message,” he tells me. “That’s what the right has done for decades. They run not to win but to campaign.”

Montana’s a state where a little money goes a long, long way, and most legislative campaigns cost $10,000 max. In 2000, when Kaufmann and Toole both took leave from their jobs to run for office (she for the House, he for the State Senate), they both won. And they’ve won ever since. An out lesbian (only the second in the Montana legislature) in a district that includes not only a Catholic college but also a cathedral, Kaufmann won a four-way primary with 49 percent of the vote and then trounced her Republican opponent, a fundraiser for Catholic Charities. Term-limited in the Senate, Toole ran for a seat on the all-important Public Services Commission in 2006, in order to campaign against the privatization and deregulation of utilities. He won. The county commissioners chose Kaufmann to replace him, making her the first and only out lesbian in the State Senate.

With mentoring from Kaufmann and Toole and voter data from Keaveny and Kendrick, Mary Caferro won her primary race against an establishment incumbent. “I’m a low-income, single working parent with four kids [under 18] and a job. I know how to multitask,” she says with a laugh. About a quarter the size of Schweitzer, she matches his energy spark for spark. One of the reasons she ran for office, she said, was to give people like her a reason to believe in government. In a state that’s been besieged by extreme right-wing messages that blame gays and lesbians, immigrants and environmental regulations for the downturn of the blue-collar economy, keeping people engaged is a serious matter. “I was afraid that if we had another Republican majority, the last programs for low-income Montanans would be cut, and that would give poor people all the more reason to be discouraged and get alienated. I wanted people to see me and say, If Mary Caferro can run and win, I have a reason to continue to be part of the process.”

In his book What’s the Matter With Kansas? Thomas Frank describes how Republican power grew from the ground up. The lesson from Montana is that progressive power grows the same way. Schweitzer and Tester are both great charismatic candidates, with drive, strong positions and close relations with the organizations at their base. But in Helena, just about everyone’s in on the secret that outsiders tend to miss, namely that without progressive movements, there would have been no “Montana Miracle” in 2004–nor, most likely, a one-seat Democratic majority in the US Senate in 2006.

The Montana party now faces a challenge. A rabble of well-organized “outsiders” have learned the tricks of the party-insiders’ trade, and they’re rising in confidence, power and experience. Telemark skier Betsy Hands is now an Assemblywoman. After the 2005 session, in which Caferro was part of a successful effort to increase the minimum wage and expand the state’s child healthcare program to cover 5,000 more low-income children, she was handily re-elected in 2006. The voters this cohort brought into the process are wondering what happens next. The thrill of being a “ground troop” gets old fast. “Everyone knows people will not participate in a system in which they do not see an opportunity to lead,” Caferro told RadioNation in March 2006. Now the question for the party is, Will those who–really–made the miracle happen be permitted to enter the power structure and change it? Or will they be asked to sit quietly in the stands and watch the race? And for how long will grassroots blues with grit be willing to do that?

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