Montana Fusion

Steve Kelly, the Montana artist and environmentalist, is running for congress again. This time as a Democrat.

“People talk about fusion politics, well, I’m it,” says Kelly, who has run before both as a green and a Republican.

Montana is the fourth largest state. But it has only one congressional seat. The incumbent congressman is Dennis Rehberg, a bland rightwing Republican. Despite Rehberg’s soft numbers and the Democratic Party’s purported drive to reclaim the House, Kelly, who won the Democratic Party primary in June, is yet to get a dime of campaign aid from the national Democratic Party or the State Party.

“I’ve gotten about $400 from the Democratic committees at the county level,” Kelly says with a grin. “But I’ve spent about $200 in gas money driving around to their meetings. Still it’s a 2-to-1 return. That’s not that bad of a ratio. Better than the big enviro groups.”

All in all, Kelly expects to spend about $17,000 dollars in the campaign. By contrast, Rehberg has already spent more than $300,000 and has access to an even bigger warchest.

Why didn’t the DNC pour money into Kelly’s campaign? After all, Rehberg is anti-abortion, pro-war and fanatically pro-industry. He backs Bush’s schemes on social security and tax breaks for corporations, is weak on education and health care and hostile to the environment. Well, Kelly’s proved to be a bigger pain in their ass than the Republicans. In 1994, he ran as a Green against Democrat Pat Williams. He got 10 percent of the vote and scared the hell out of Williams and his backers. And they’ve never forgiven him.

When he decided to run for congress as a Democrat this year, the first stop he made was to Williams’ office in Missoula. Williams is now a professor at the University of Montana and a kind of brahmin for Montana liberals. The former congressman didn’t have much to say to Kelly. After he won the Democratic primary, Kelly made another surprise visit to Williams, asking for his support in the race against Rehberg. Williams basically slammed the door in his face and told him to make an appointment next time.

“That’s the moment when I knew that the Democratic party establishment would rather lose this seat than deal fairly with me,” Kelly says. After he won the primary, the party had to let him into all of their meetings and hand over their fundraising lists. When he got his hands on the donor list, Kelly found that the names of many of the top donors had been blacked out.

“They said they doubted my allegiance to the party,” says Kelly. “Hell, I’m an artist. I don’t hold any allegiance to anyone.”

Kelly has also been a fierce critic of Senator Max Baucus, the dreadful overlord of the Democratic Party in the state, who is even now supporting Bush’s war on Iraq and pushing through his economic package. Baucus is up for reelection this year as well and, despite a weak Republican candidate, it looks like he wanted all the party’s political machinery mustered in his campaign. But the notoriously thin-skinned Baucus is hostile to Kelly, who has repeatedly savaged the senator’s noxious record on the environment.

The Lee newspaper chain came out with poll in early October showing Kelly with 28 percent and Rehberg barely above 50 percent. “That’s not bad considering none of these papers have written about my campaign,” Kelly says.

Not bad, indeed. In fact, Kelly is polling 5 percentage points better than the approval ratings of Montana’s Republican governor, Judy Martz, who recently opined that mining and timber companies are the “real environmentalists.”

“Two-thirds of the people have never heard my name, but I’m still polling better than our governor,” Kelly laughs.

In fact, Republican farmers in eastern Montana recently came to Kelly asking for help after the governor stiff-armed their plea for her to oppose wide-spread drilling for coal-bed methane gas.

“Coal-bed methane drilling is horribly polluting,” says Kelly. “It really fouls up the water. These guys are just now learning firsthand about the dark side of one of the old wicked laws of the west: the split-estate. You might own the land, but you don’t necessarily own the coal or minerals that lay beneath. And if somebody else owns those subsurface right, they’re going to destroy your land to get at the gold, coal or oil. We’ve lost so much to those giveaway laws. But I found them a good lawyer and now they’ll be able to fight back.”

I met Kelly in early October in the small town of Three Forks, where the Madison, Gallatin and Jefferson Rivers come together to form the Missouri. Kelly pulls up in a dusty Ford truck. It’s his equivalent of a campaign bus. The bed is stocked with yard signs, bumperstickers and Kelly for Congress t-shirts.

“Nice truck,” I say.

“Damn right,” Kelly says. “When you run a grassroots campaign out here you learn pretty quickly that the kind of car you drive makes a big first impression on people.” Of course, the truck also comes in handy for his day job: hauling around his sculptures (including his funny bronze “Bird Dog”, a Labrador with wings) and flowers from his Botanica gallery in Bozeman.

The fact that Kelly knows how to arrange orchids and gladiolas and can make a living at it is yet another puzzling contradiction for the people of Montana. “The way I see it there’s only about 1 percent of the people in this state who have any real money,” say Kelly, referring to his gallery and flowershop. “They’re the ones with money and we gear our gallery to sell as much to them as we can.”

This is the way Montana is going, a state divided by a handful of millionaires and a lot of people living on the margins.

If his gallery plays to the Bozeman elite, his politics is decidedly populist, with an appeal that stretches from Earth First!ers and constitutionalists to rank-and-file union members (though not the leadership) and the wheat farmers of the Great Plains.

Kelly was born in Ithaca, New York and raised in Philadelphia. He has studied hotel management in college Colorado and spent summers planting trees in the Oregon coast range, backbreaking work that also gave him a firsthand look at the devastating effects of industrial forestry.

He moved to Montana in 1975, attracted by ski slopes, grizzlies and trout streams. He helped start the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, a new breed of grassroots environmental group that sought to protect entire ecosystems. He also went back to school, getting a degree in Fine Arts from Montana State University in 1992.

We walk over to the only cafe in town. It’s packed with ranchers eating large breakfasts. They look at us and nod at Kelly. I’m given the quizzical look Montana ranchers reserve for Oregonians, which is a lot warmer reception than you get in similar establishments in Idaho.

Three Forks has seen better times. So has much of rural Montana, where the ranches are getting more than half their income from federal crop supports, most of the gold and silver mines are abandoned toxic waste sites and the wheat farmers are under attack from an array of multi-national robber barons.

“The economy is tanking,” says Kelly. “We were watching it teeter like the twin towers. And all the while, big business is ripping people off faster than ever. They start with the poor and defenseless and work their way up. People are worried about their social security and access to health care. I’m for universal health care. People say, but that’s socialism. I say: name me something that isn’t socialism. Except when it comes to small businesses and working people.”

Montana has been hit hard by NAFTA. Trade policy isn’t an abstract issue here. The wheat farmers and ranchers are in trouble, pinched between cheap imports and consolidation. About all the state has going for it these days is tourism. And that has its drawbacks, too.

“The most popular campground in the Gallatin valley is the Wal-Mart parking lot outside Bozeman,” says Kelly, shaking his head. “Even the campers want to be close to shopping now.”

Another big issue for Kelly is deregulation, especially the utilities. The state’s former electric utility, Montana Power, sold out to Pennsylvania Pacific Power and Light. Inevitably, electric rates went up.

“Now it’s a long distance call, just to talk to your electric company,” says Kelly. “And Montana Power, which used to be a regulated and profitable utility, turned itself into a telecom company. Now it’s a penny stock. And all these investors can’t get any answers about what happened to their money. This deregulated environment is a kind of cannibalism that’s eating its own.”

Kelly’s plan is to allow citizen enforcement of stock fraud and corporate malfeasance. He likes the model of the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act. He knows both of them well from his environmental work, which consists largely of heeding the motto: “Sue the bastards.” Ask the Forest Service. For the past decade or so, Kelly has been a one-man wrecking ball against their schemes to clearcut what’s left of Montana’s forests.

“We have to go right after corporate crime the same way,” Kelly says. “To hell with Harvey Pitt and the SEC, let the people sue these executives directly. Then you might see a change in behavior of these fat cats.”

“Lots of people have a romantic illusion about Montana, as the last best place,” says Kelly. “It’s the same kind of promotion that’s been going on since Thomas Moran painted those watercolors of Yellowstone to aid the railroad companies. Yeah, we’ve still got some wild places. But Montana is a pretty industrialized state, run by the big mining and timber companies. We have entire towns that are Superfund sites, like Anaconda and Butte.”

Then there’s Libby. This small mill town in northwestern Montana is one of the most polluted cities in the nation, largely do to asbestos contamination from the large abandoned vermiculite mine operated by WC Grace. More than 165 people have died from illnesses directly related to the pollution. Dozens of others are seriously sick. Yet, both the state and the feds have been slow to take action to help the victims and begin cleaning the site up. The governor opposed designating Libby a Superfund site.

“If 167 soldiers had been killed by the Blackfeet, it would have been a national memorial,” Kelly says. “But a chemical company can kill that many people and the politicians don’t even take notice.”

Kelly is anti-war and he says so are most of the people he talks to out on the campaign trail. “No one understands the rush to invade Iraq,” Kelly says. “No one knows why we have to act alone. The UN isn’t real popular in Montana, but people out here don’t think we should keep waging war by ourselves. They’re worried about the return of the draft.”

But the big fear in many parts of Montana is with Ashcroft’s war on the bill of rights: secret courts, warrantless searches, detaining people on minor violations.

“Even the cops are paranoid,” says Kelly. “I like to drive fast. And I get pulled over a lot. They usually just give me warnings, but I talk to these troopers and they’re worried about the way things are going. Ashcroft says that they’re supposed to participate in Homeland Security. But no one told them what that meant or if there’s any money in it.”

Kelly wants to protect the entire constitution, even the parts that most liberals want to do away with. It’s one of the reasons Kelly gets a fair hearing among libertarians, constitutionalists and even Montana militia types.

Take the issue of guns. “I don’t like guns much, but I like the idea of screwing around with Constitution even less,” Kelly say. “So I want to protect the Second Amendment from assault by the feds. The idea of background checks is a good one. If they destroyed the information after the check, but I don’t think that’s the gameplan. The idea of all these government lists and electronic databases scares a lot of people, including me.”

Kelly is also something of a fiscal conservative. It’s a lesson he learned by watching how the West has been destroyed by political subsidies to industry. “People can’t understand how the richest country in the world is broke,” says Kelly. “It’s because the federal handouts are going in all the wrong places. If we weren’t giving the timber and mining companies and the irrigators all this federal money, then they couldn’t afford to be doing all this stupid stuff.”

I pay for our breakfast at the cafe. Kelly walks back to the table and conspicuously doubles the tip, which seems the politic thing to do. He has to rush up the road to Missoula for an interview. He rarely passes one up.

Kelly was supposed to be debating Rehberg this week, but the congressman backed out. It was probably a wise move on Rehberg’s part. He’d be no match for Kelly, who doesn’t fit any cheatsheat profile. Rehberg’s a plodder and dull. Kelly is smart and has a laser wit.

“The insiders talk about the art of politics,” Kelly says. “But they’ve got it backwards, as far as I’m concerned. I enjoy politics as art. That’s what makes it fun.”

But this campaign isn’t just a lark. Kelly is running to win. If not this election, perhaps the next one. “I love Montana because it’s still a wild and crazy place,” says Kelly. “Anything can happen here. Who knows? Who would have predicted the collapse of Enron or WorldCom.”

Who knows, indeed.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3