Billings, Montana—The 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 MoveOn.org 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?