Can Rob Quist’s Full-Throated Populism Win Back Rural America?

Can Rob Quist’s Full-Throated Populism Win Back Rural America?

Can Rob Quist’s Full-Throated Populism Win Back Rural America?

The banjo-playing, cowboy hat-wearing folk singer is battling a tech billionaire—and doing it the Montana way.


Billings, MontanaThe politicians and the press call it a special election. Steve Charter calls it “shoulder season.” Charter is a rancher, raising organic beef on a spread about 12 miles east of town, in the foothills of the Bull Mountains. He’s also an activist and conservationist who, with his late wife Jeanne, fought corporate dominance of the cattle industry all the way to the Supreme Court. “Shoulder season is when you have too many of something—deer or elk or whatever—and so they tack on an extra hunting season,” he explains.

On May 25, Montanans will go to the polls to choose a replacement for Ryan Zinke, the state’s lone member of the House of Representatives, who was named secretary of the interior by President Donald Trump. For Democrats still stinging from November, the race offers one more chance to make their case in a state with a Democratic governor and one Democratic senator, but where Hillary Clinton lost by over 20 points. For Republican candidate Greg Gianforte, a tech billionaire who spent at least $5.5 million of his own money in a failed effort to unseat the incumbent governor, Steve Bullock, just six months ago, the campaign is also a bid for redemption. Rob Quist, the Democratic nominee, favors a cull of corporate money in politics.

“There’s nearly 300 millionaires in Congress, but not one Montana folk singer,” says Quist, who until recently was known across the state (but hardly anywhere outside it) as the front man for the country band Rob Quist and Great Northern, and before that as a founding member of the Mission Mountain Wood Band, a category-defying group that has opened for everyone from Jerry Garcia and Bo Diddley to Bonnie Raitt and Jimmy Buffett.

Quist, a rancher’s son from north of Cut Bank who played basketball for the University of Montana before leaving to pursue a musical career, told me he’s been political “since the Vietnam War. I took part in the student strikes going on here. We were losing—some of our best buddies were over there.” A Bernie Sanders supporter in 2016, Quist got an early lift from Daily Kos, whose political director, David Nir, called the race “the perfect test…of a populist outsider versus an out-of-touch one- percenter.” Our Revolution and then Sanders himself followed suit shortly thereafter, with piling on too. In the contest between the banjo player and the billionaire, the odds were getting a little more even.

I caught up with Quist on the Montana State University campus in Bozeman, where a crowd of about 50 students listened to actress Alyssa Milano introduce the candidate. It’s easy to mock celebrity activists, but on the two days I saw her at work, Milano was the soul of modesty, lending a touch of good-humored glamour to the very unglamorous business of registering first-time voters, filling out absentee ballots, and phone-banking. “Who is she supposed to be?” I was repeatedly asked by students too young to have seen Who’s the Boss?

As Quist went door to door through the dorms, it was clear that many of the students had never heard of him either—especially those from out of state. Native Montanans were another matter, with one fan asking Quist to autograph his Mission Mountain poster, and many more who told him their parents “listen to your music all the time.”

“I’ve been representing Montana in my music my whole life,” Quist said, urging the students to vote and get involved in politics, telling them that “if I can stand up to do this, you can too.”

Quist’s emphasis on the environment and protecting public lands went over well on campus, as did his proposals to cap student-loan interest rates at 3 percent and to expand loan forgiveness for Peace Corps and AmeriCorps volunteers. It was the last day of voter registration and the first day for early voting by absentee ballot, and Alex Lei, president of the College Democrats, informed me that “the turnout is five times what we were getting last year.”

But Lei was taking nothing for granted. “A third of the students here voted for Trump,” he added. “And if you walk over to the school of computing, you’ll see Gianforte’s name on the building.”

The Gianforte School of Computing—the result of an $8 million donation announced last May, in the middle of Gianforte’s run for governor—is just one of his many causes. Gianforte’s own alma mater, the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, has received $20 million. (Perhaps unfairly, Quist has described Gianforte in his commercials as “a millionaire from New Jersey.” In fact, Gianforte moved to Montana over 20 years ago, after selling his software company Brightwork for $10 million in 1995. He later founded RightNow, a Montana-based company that produces software for call centers, and sold it to Oracle for a cool $1.8 billion in 2012, making him far more than a mere millionaire. Then again, Gianforte has described Quist as “really just Nancy Pelosi with a cowboy hat.”)

According to The Atlantic, Gianforte has also donated “at least half a million dollars to the Montana Family Foundation,” a conservative group opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage. He and his wife Susan personally lobbied against an ordinance in Bozeman prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Petra Academy, the private Christian school attended by the couple’s four children, has received over $11 million from the Gianfortes, with lesser amounts going to the Family Research Council and James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, both of which campaign against gay rights and reproductive choice. But the family’s most spectacular, if not most expensive, gift must be Stan, the T-Rex skeleton the Gianfortes donated to the Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum, a young-earth creationist institute near the North Dakota border.

A progressive Montanan is not the same thing as a progressive New Yorker,” Linda Gillison, a retired professor of classics, told me the next day at a Quist rally in Missoula. “We’re trying to move the Democratic Party in Montana in a more progressive direction, but we don’t start from the same place as folks back east. Montanans do things our own way.” I’d gotten an inkling of what she meant that morning when, running along the banks of the Clark Fork River, shivering as a late April snow came down off the mountains, I noticed a group of young men in wet suits with short boards surfing in the rapids. Only they were surfing backward, with their boards pointing into the current.

I had an even better idea after I saw “Defend,” a 30- second TV commercial in which Quist loads a Winchester repeating rifle that “protected my family’s ranch” for generations and then literally takes a shot at an NRA attack ad. That would not be a vote winner in Manhattan, but while the NRA ad has about 5,000 views on YouTube, Quist’s has racked up over 52,000.

“My neighbors are pretty much all Trump people. Good people,” Steve Charter tells me over dinner one night in Billings. “Our values are pretty similar. But our politics are very different.” When I ask what he means, I learn that Steve’s parents, Boyd and Anne Charter, helped found the Northern Plains Resource Council (NPRC) in 1972 to help their fellow ranchers fight the big coal companies that wanted to mine under their grazing land and strip-mine alongside their water sources. “My folks learned that when push came to shove, Republicans didn’t support producers. They supported big companies.”

The NPRC’s early staffers, Charter says, were all “young progressive college kids thrown together with conservative ranchers.” The group could easily have splintered due to the clash of cultures. But some of the ranchers weren’t as hidebound as they looked—especially Charter’s father, whose own dad, Bert, rode with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And a lot of the college kids fell in love with Big Sky Country.

Montana has always been a state where capitalism takes its gloves off. At the turn of the 20th century, the Anaconda Copper Mining Company owned every mine on Butte Hill—and nearly every state legislator in Helena wore the “copper collar.” As late as 1956, the Butte mines were still churning out copper, along with gold, silver, coal, crude oil, and uranium. “My dad was an underground miner,” says Teresa Erickson, president of the Montana League of Rural Voters. “He mined uranium.” According to Erickson, Montana’s long, mostly unregulated history of mining has left the state with some of the most toxic sites on earth, from the Berkeley Pit, a mile-long former open-pit copper mine now filled with arsenic, heavy metals, and sulfuric acid, to the asbestos Superfund site in Libby.

“Billings has three oil refineries along the Yellowstone River,” says Anna Lucas, political director of the Western Organization of Resource Councils, an umbrella group that grew out of the NPRC. “We’ve got Cloud Peak—a spin-off of Rio Tinto—that mines coal in the Powder River basin. And NorthWestern Energy,” whose leaky gas line exploded in 2009, killing a woman and leveling half a city block in downtown Bozeman. Montana is also on the front lines of the fight against both the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines.

As one might expect, Quist and Gianforte are on opposite sides of that battle. But it isn’t just corporate polluters and climate-change deniers Quist has in his sights. In almost every stump speech, he warns that the long-standing effort by western Republicans to transfer federal lands back to the states—backed by Gianforte, and given a big boost by Trump’s executive order to “review” the designation of 27 national monuments—is just the first step in putting the wilderness up for sale. “The states don’t even have the money to fight wildfires,” Quist says. “How are they going to find the funds to care for millions of acres? Turning land back to the states is just a cover for privatization.”

At the same dinner in Billings, Jean Lemire Dahlman, who raises wheat and beef cattle near Forsyth, tells me how ranchers in the state have been squeezed hard by “the chickenization of the beef industry.” A Montana Democratic National Committee member who is also on the board of the NPRC, Lemire Dahlman says that with “three companies [Tyson, JBS, and Cargill] controlling nearly 80 percent of the domestic beef market,” small producers are unable to compete—or even to remain in business. “We’re captive suppliers,” she says, with every step in the process dictated by the purchasers’ monopoly power.

“Like everyone else, ranchers here want to be able to run our businesses without a lot of interference,” says Charter. “But the marriage between rural America and big industry is an abusive relationship. If you go back to the 1930s, rural America was pretty progressive—pretty radical, actually. The Republicans managed to convince people to work against their own interests.”

Is rural America waking up? Teresa Erickson thinks it might be. “It’s hard to argue against climate change when our growing season in Billings has increased by almost three weeks,” she says. And though Trump carried Montana handily and remains popular here, “we had a Women’s March in Helena. It was six degrees out. Ten thousand people showed up!” “We need to be like bees,” says Erickson. “When a swarm happens, you can drive a big animal inside.”

Anna Lucas says that, win or lose, Quist’s campaign has helped revive the state’s progressive tradition. “Quist came out to eastern Montana in January—to places that haven’t seen a Democrat in years. He’s reinvigorated Democratic county committees in rural areas almost single-handedly.”

Another place where politicians are scarce is any of Montana’s seven Indian reservations. Home to 11 federally recognized tribes, plus the state-recognized Little Shell Chippewa, Montana has a higher percentage of Native Americans—a little over 6 percent, out of a population of 1 million—than all but four other states. “We were given citizenship in 1924, and supposedly had our right to vote ensured in 1965. But there still isn’t a single early polling place on the entire Crow reservation,” says Alissa Snow, state field director of Montana Native Vote.

Ta’jin Perez, a program coordinator with Western Native Voice, says that even those who were heavily involved in the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline are often “reluctant to register to vote. People are wary of participating in a system that doesn’t work for us.” In 2016, 59 percent of eligible Native Americans in Montana turned out to vote—far below the overall state average of 74 percent.

“With the Blackfeet, our issue is oil and gas exploration,” says Snow. “They’re trying to drill on our sacred sites. A lot of people felt that Obama failed them on this. And Hillary’s lack of comment turned people away from the party in a big way.”

Yet as Rhonda Whiteman explains, when it comes to politics, Native Americans are no more monolithic than anyone else. “My tribe, the Crow, is a treaty tribe,” she says. “Coal is a huge source of income for people in our tribe. We tend to be very conservative when it comes to voting.” Whiteman, who is the board chair of Montana Native Vote, says she was surprised when her tribe “came out in support of the Standing Rock Sioux—not because of environmental issues, but because of tribal sovereignty.”

For Whiteman, “respect for our sovereignty” is key. Quist is sympathetic: “I grew up next to the Blackfeet Reservation, playing music and basketball with Blackfoot and Little Shell kids,” he says. “I’ve learned a lot from Native American philosophy.”

Quist “understands that we are not all the same, that Blackfoot is different from Crow,” Whiteman says. Gianforte, she adds, “is for repealing the Affordable Care Act, which includes the Indian Health Care Improvement Act”—a huge factor in a community where lack of access to health care takes 20 years off the average lifespan compared with white Montanans.

When then-Representative Zinke ran for re-election in 2016, his opponent was State Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, a member of the Mandan Hidatsa tribe. Though born in California, Juneau grew up in Browning, on the Blackfeet Reservation. She would have been the state’s first female member of Congress since Jeanette Rankin in 1917, as well as its first openly gay representative. But she got only 40 percent of the vote.

The challenge—in Montana and in other red states—is to put together a coalition big enough to fight the corporate interests and their enablers, and then to hold it together under relentless, well-funded attacks. “If we just rely on Democrats, we’ll keep getting 40 percent of the vote,” says Lemire Dahlman. “We need to attract independents.”

Leah Berry, Montana Native Vote’s field manager, thinks Quist just might do that. The Keystone XL Pipeline, whose prospects Trump has revived, “goes right up to the boundary of the Fort Peck Reservation,” she says, threatening its only source of fresh water. The dangers posed by Trump’s health-care bill should also help motivate voters. “Medicaid expansion added 70,000 Montanans, including 20,000 Native Americans,” Berry says. The ACA, she adds, is especially important to the 60 percent of Native Americans who don’t live on reservations.

Quist is not a perfect candidate. With a guitar in his hands, he’s confident and charismatic. But he’s often awkward on the stump and lacks polish in debates. He also had a botched gall-bladder operation in 1996 that left him with a mountain of unpaid bills and some tax liens that the Congressional Leadership Fund—bankrolled by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and the oil industry—have made the focus of an attack ad. That ad, however, may be backfiring. “We can identify with Rob Quist,” says Rhonda Whiteman. “His opponents make an issue of his medical bills. The fact is, he didn’t declare bankruptcy and walk away. I know Native Americans who are thousands of dollars in debt because of their own medical issues.”

Quist’s positions—he is firmly pro-choice; wants to make the ACA “more like Medicare”; is in favor of marriage equality, LGBTQ rights, and equal pay for women; backs an amendment to repeal Citizens United; and wants to keep public lands in federal hands—“certainly fit our definition of a progressive,” says Matt Blizek, the field director at Quist’s opposition to any further restrictions on gun ownership didn’t come up. But Blizek did say that had 19,000 active members in Montana, and when it polled them, “Quist got 99.5 percent of our members’ support.”

Quist told me that he “doesn’t want to nationalize” the race. So when DNC chair Tom Perez offered to campaign, Quist said no thanks. “I’m not trying to send a message. I’m trying to represent the people of Montana,” he said. That hasn’t stopped the Republicans from sending Donald Trump Jr. and Mike Pence. And when Bernie Sanders said he’d come, Quist tweeted the news. Leah Berry was excited: “If Bernie Sanders comes out to campaign for Rob Quist, that would have a huge galvanizing effect.”

I hope she’s right. Sanders’s call for a political revolution has inspired a growing corps of candidates, from Quist and Randall Woodfin, who is running for mayor of Birmingham, Alabama, to Weston Lindemann, a 20-year-old Mississippian and Sanders delegate to the DNC who is now running for the City Council in Meridian. Some, like Tom Perriello, running for governor of Virginia, and Paula Jean Swearengin, a coal miner’s daughter challenging Joe Manchin for the Senate in West Virginia, are even running against more centrist Democrats.

But I spent the previous week in Omaha, watching the fight between the Sanders and Clinton wings of the Democratic Party tear the wheels off Heath Mello’s campaign for mayor. When I arrived in Omaha, Sanders drew a crowd of 6,000 cheering supporters to a Mello rally. Mello is a young, working-class Catholic with a record of terrible votes on abortion in the State Legislature—all of which are more than five years old. Since then, he’s promised that he “would never do anything to restrict access to reproductive-health care,” including abortion. The reproductive-rights activists I spoke with in Omaha considered Mello an ally. That wasn’t good enough for Daily Kos, which revoked its endorsement, or for the DNC’s Tom Perez, who issued a statement making clear his distaste for the party’s nominee. On May 9, Mello’s opponent—who, unlike him, wants to defund Planned Parenthood—romped home by 6,500 votes.

“Bernie’s support not a magic bullet it seems,” wrote an old friend in New York. True enough, but I found it hard to share in her schadenfreude after reading a tweet from a new friend in Omaha who’d spent the week lobbying the State Legislature not to cut funding for reproductive-health walk-in clinics: “Thanks for fucking us over, national media & liberals.” Someday soon, the question of which issues—abortion, racial justice, income inequality, criminal-justice reform, immigrant rights, militarism, corporate domination—are non-negotiable for progressives, and where we draw the lines on the rest, probably needs to be faced. But, thankfully, not in Montana.

Listen to Guttenplan discuss Quist’s race on the Start Making Sense podcast.

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