The year was 1996. I was quite full of myself, newly divorced and feeling a sense of freedom, intellectually and personally, that was quite new to me. I had written an op-ed piece in the local newspaper in which I stated that our Democratic Senator, Max Baucus, was a “faux bonhomme, or false friend. In those days the editorial page manager for that paper had a certain amount of leash extended, and pieces like mine could break through. He would, of course, later be canned. Independent streaks in journalists usually result in them doing something else for a living, and indeed that was his fate. He died in 2019, I just learned. His name was Gary Svee.
As result of that editorial, I was approached by Chet Blaylock, who himself was running for governor, a quixotic mission in facing Marc Racicot, immensely popular. Blaylock suffered a heart attack during his campaign and died. He was a nice man. On his persuasion, I elected to run for state legislature. I might as well have had a heart attack, so slim were my chances against Peggy Arnott, who was endorsed by Racicot, and who was a far superior campaigner than I. She won handily, and I bear her no ill will for my lesson, well learned. I was no politician. I vowed never again to run for office. (Peggy herself would shortly thereafter marry her sweetheart and exit politics.)
There was a night during the campaign when the Republican candidates were meeting on First Avenue South at a restaurant called The Windmill for a confab. Democratic candidates were called upon to assemble outside to stage a press conference protesting what was going on inside, about which I knew nothing. On arrival, I was approached by an operative of the state Democratic Party, and given a statement to read. I was new, fair haired, and considered to have potential. I read the statement over, handed it back to her, and said to her that I could not read it. Not a word of it was mine, and I was especially offended that she wanted me to endorse President Clinton’s initiative to put 10,000 new cops on the streets of our country. It appeared to me to be authoritarian and reactionary, and I wanted no part of it.
The statement was read that night for cameras by Conrad Stroebe, a local Democratic operative, and former high school companion. I left the gathering before all of this happened, walking west and facing a stiff cold wind in my face. My campaign was over. I was only too stupid to know it.
I write this because in the wake of my defeat, well earned, I had a sense of revulsion about Democrats. I knew some Republicans, and overestimated them, thinking them smart and cagey. They were just like me, apparatchiks, and I was merely one of them.
But that was OK. What I learned about Democrats was far more important. One of our legislative candidates was upset at one of our meetings, claiming that her Republican opponent in our fair city was passing. I have forgotten all names involved in this small affair, but will never forget the venom with which our Democratic candidate spoke. The Republican candidate was thought to be Hispanic. “She’s black!” said our Democratic counterpart.
I left that meet with a sense of moral superiority, never a good thing, but maybe that evening earned. In 2000 I would campaign for Ralph Nader, by my lonesome qualifying two districts for his ascension to the official ballot. Nader would pick up 5% of the vote in Yellowstone County that year, and I think a large part of it was my door-to-door efforts. Maybe.
That too was quixotic. I was soon to be done with politics, and would leave Yellowstone County and Billings in my wake, marrying my sweetheart and life partner, and making a new life in Bozeman, and then Colorado. Life only got better.
All of this comes to mind because I read yesterday that Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema has resigned from the Democratic Party, and become an independent. I sensed in her the same feelings I had in 1996, revulsion at Democrats, but inability to find anything better in the other party. Sinema is finished. She’ll never survive without major party affiliation, and right now, neither would welcome her. She trashed the Democrats, probably knowing that the election was rigged in their favor. She wanted to hurt them, but could not go so far as to switch parties, a meaningless gesture anyway.
I wish for her a happy recovery from party politics. I found out in 1996, even at the local level, that it was a seedy enterprise. I could not distance myself far enough away and fast enough. My labors for Nader were part of a slow learning process, that following leaders is pointless.
But I do salute two fine gentlemen I met in the process: Chet Blaylock, and western author Gary Svee, both departed.