Notes from the convention

First, this message

The sun was blood red at 6 a.m. as I drove from Missoula to Helena on Saturday. I was headed to the Montana Democratic Party officers convention and the haze from the numerous forest fires, near and far, made for an eerie excursion.

The overwhelming evidence of man-caused climate change leading to earlier, more frequent and more intense wildfires was on my mind and I was hoping the candidates for the state party’s executive board would address this issue.

For the most part, they did not. There were some allusions to the environment but candidates skirted the subject of fossil fuels, alternative energy and climate change.

After stinging defeats in 2016 to Republicans pushing coal, oil and other extractive industries, Montana Democrats are leery of broaching the subject.

And I blame the environmental community, in part, for this reticence.

LGBTQ members are active and have a place at the table, some serving on the executive board. Labor is well represented. Women’s issues are front-and-center because activist women are involved. Same with tribal members, who have significant roles in the party.

So where are the environmentalists? “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” This quote and versions of it are attributed to Woody Allen.

Getting involved in the party is not heavy lifting. County central committees are hungry for officers. There are partner organizations that can vote on rules and officers, and effect change.

Between Montana’s fires, droughts and fish die-offs, a bold environmental platform is desperately needed and will resonate (if just for economic reasons). The party needs your help. Don’t write it off.

The convention

There were two oft repeated pronouncements: building the bench and rural outreach.

Building the bench makes sense. We’re behind the Republicans in numbers. They have more legislators, “tier b” elected officials, even congressional office holders. Democrats need fresh, young blood if they hope to make inroads. The party should start building name-recognition candidates for the long haul. Now’s the time to find and run people for office: school boards, municipal and county offices, legislative and statewide positions.

The rural outreach message is somewhat mystifying. Does the party expend energy on Wibaux County’s 564 voters or does it go after wins in, say, Yellowstone and Cascade Counties (71,871 and 53,867 voters, respectively). Don’t dismiss the rural vote but let’s focus on the numbers.

New officers

The new chairperson is Mary Sexton, former DNRC director under Gov. Brian Schweitzer and past Teton County Commissioner. She takes over for labor leader Jim Larson, who served for close to a decade.

Bryce Bennett of Missoula, a member of the Montana House and now running for the state senate, was elected vice chair. He succeeds another labor leader, Jacquie Helt, who served at least four terms.

My very progressive friend, Suzy Tarpey of Missoula, was re-elected secretary.

Great Falls’ Sandi Luckey, with the Montana Nurses Association, is treasurer.

The other seats filled:

Western District Female Chair: Lynn Stanley (Flathead County)

Western District Male Chair: Donavon Hawk (Butte)

Western District Female Members: Stacie Anderson (Missoula), Eve Franklin (Helena)

Western District Male Members: Andy Shirtliff (Helena), Lewis YellowRobe (Missoula)

Eastern District Female Chair: Elizabeth Marum (Belgrade)

Eastern District Male Chair: Kelly McCarthy (Billings)

Eastern District Female Members: Hannah Nash (Custer County), Vicki Dickinson (Billings)

Eastern District Male Members: Ming Cabrera (Billings), Jack Trethewey (Havre)

There were many contested races with people from all over Montana representing all kinds of constituencies. A number of activists from the Sen. Bernie Sanders campaign are on the board. This is all a good trend.

In conclusion

The election of Donald Trump and the far-right’s domination in congress, and various state executive and legislative positions, have galvanized the party. It’s too bad it had to come to this to get Democrats fired up, but there you have it.

In Montana, new central committees are forming, new folks are showing up and old folks are coming back to the fold.

This convention was the rank-and-file — people from all walks of life from counties big and small. They’re not in it for fame and glory but to advance progressive principles important to them. I really like these folks, which is why I bristle when some pundit talks about the “ignorant fucking Democrats.” That quote comes from a blogger on the “left.” I expect these sorts of comments from the right as I’ve hurled a few expletives in their direction. Fair criticism of the Democratic Party’s apparatchiks and culture is acceptable if one is willing to get involved and work for change. Otherwise, these sanctimonious comments serve no useful purpose.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

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About the author

Pete Talbot

'Papa’ Pete Talbot is first and foremost a grandfather to five wonderful grandchildren. Like many Montanans, he has held numerous jobs over the years: film and video producer, a partner in a marketing and advertising firm, a builder and a property manager. He’s served on local and statewide Democratic Party boards. Pete has also been blogging at various sites for over a decade. Ping-pong and skiing are his favorite diversions. He enjoys bourbon.


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  • I appreciate your work, Pete! That is why I checked in. Corporate, lite, is not working for most people. And they do not vote.

  • Montana’s most powerful Democrat, Jon Tester, has lied about environmental litigation and called non-collaborating enviros extremists, but sure, go ahead and blame environmentalists for not showing up. I can’t imagine why they would feel unwelcome in Montana’s Democratic Party.

  • Hey, Pete, you should have come over on Friday afternoon to the 2 1/2 hour break out sessions. I joined the southeastern Montana region, chaired by Custer County’s Hannah Nash. On more than one occasion that afternoon I brought up environmental issues confronting us here in Rosebud County. In a nutshell I encouraged us not to frame the discussion by pitting environmentalists versus well-paying jobs but rather by stressing building a diverse, resilient economy in “coal” country under the aegis of the Homegrown Prosperity movement fostered, in particular, by the Northern Plains Resource Council, of which I am a longtime member. In addition I encouraged democrats not to give up on the rural agricultural vote. No, Wibaux County is not going to win us seats in the legislature, but if we make gains on the state level in Tier B races, the PSC, the Governor, US Congress and President that will make a difference. So let’s bone up on the ramifications of a 2018 Farm Bill, NAFTA, passing COOL and acknowledgement of the threat of GMO’s.
    Your friend,
    Jean Lemire Dahlman
    Rosebud County Farm/Ranch Partner

    • Once again, Jean Lemire Dalman,, the most articulate, wise and wonderful Grande Dame of Montana Democratic Politics speaks truth to reality. A mentor, a friend, an icon in the party.

  • Pete, I hope that photograph at the top isn’t representative of the convention. It appears to be mostly elderly, white people. Predominantly male, and few (if any) persons of color. Not very attractive to political newcomers.

    As a person who’s been involved in politics and environmental issues both in and out of the dem party for near 40 years, I’ll offer a bit of advice. The democratic party will not attract environmentalists who place policy above politics when the leadership of the party has abused environmentalists.

    Jon Tester in particular has used, lied to, and castigated environmentalists who supported his 2006 campaign by calling them extremists. Brian Schweitzer had the ability to talk out both sides of his mouths when talking to, say ranchers and wildlife activists. Max Baucus’ environmental stances twisted with the winds of his funders and corporate sponsors. John Melcher put oil interests above habitat protection. Steve Bullock has shown zero interest in being an environmental leader, opting for the safe political space of noncommittal utterances about the environment. So which dem party leader is a solid “environmentalist” who can attract new blood?

    Politics is a way for politicians to defuse environmentalists who work towards, and to preserve sane policies. When environmentalists seek political power, it inevitably results in the loss of their principles, their core organizational missions, and their integrity. That is why what democrats have to offer environmentalists results in low turnout or inclusion rates in the party. Many environmentalists have come to understand that their priorities and policies are best advanced and protected from an independent political stance — through administrative and/or legal methods.

    • Shit, JC, I just wrote a pithy response to your comment, went to post it and it disappeared. I’ll try again but it might not be as eloquent.

      First, I noticed it in the photo, too: lots of old white men (of which I am one). Bad camera angle, I guess. We just elected two tribal members to the e-board and an Asian (sorry, Ming, that I don’t know more about your ancestry) and women outnumber men. There are some youngsters on the board but it’s hard for me to be objective since anyone under forty seems young to me. Did you know that the youngest state legislator in the country is a Democrat out of Hill County?

      Democrats could certainly have a stronger environmental message but we’re still evolving from an extractive industry culture that spawned a strong labor movement. Keep in mind that Republicans love the coal, oil, mining and timber industries but hate labor. And their message has been winning Montana elections. When compared to Republicans, the Democratic Party is more like Greenpeace.

      There have been Democratic leaders that championed environmental issues. Sen. Lee Metcalf comes to mind. And while I appreciate the administrative and legal challenges the environmental community has advanced, we need legislative action and a buy-in from the public. The environmental movement has fared poorly at this in Montana.

      So, as I said in my post, I ask for your support moving forward.

  • It seems to me that rural outreach is critical if Dems are ever to regain control of the Montana legislature. You are correct that few people live in the frontier counties, but writing those counties off comes at a price.

    To me this is the same logic that has cost Dems control of the Congress and most state legislatures.

      • Pete…part of the problem with the Dems over the past decade has been the uber focus on the big 7, the numbers are important no doubt. But the larger issue is outreach to all Dems regardless of county size. Every single vote counts, and to forego the inclusion of the small counties to focus resources solely on the larger populated counties hasn’t worked. Numbers and resources matter. But the foundation of politics is people. The Dems divorced themselves from the rural voter years ago. We ARE the party of the people. The numbers and the money are nothing without the voter, and voters are people. Let’s see how the new E-Board holds accountable to the messages expressed about the issue. Will they walk they walk or will it be more of the same? Tick tock…

        • I appreciate your comment, Becky, but sometimes wonder if rural voters divorced themselves from the Democratic Party, not vice-versa. I’m not sure why this happened and am open to any insight into how to win them back.

  • I believe that is what the Montana Democrat Party has been doing for 20 years is targeting urban areas with very poor results losing 4 B tier state offices ,20 years of U.S. House loses, losing a U.S. Senate seat held by democrats for 100 years and continued domination in the state legislature by the GOP. In fact just a 5% democrat increase in several rural counties would have made a big difference. The first time anyone paid any attention to rural counties in years is when Quist went out to 7 rural counties to form new central committees but it took months before the party website even listed them. I also was taken back by the photo heading up this article with so many older white men and women present. I witnessed first hand attending Lake County Democrat Convention this spring. There was no one well I recall one person under 50 of the 40 some present. I heard about the blue bench program couple months but really no press about. Really with the all these defeats why is Nancy Keenan still there? I see very little change in the state board leadership with most of the same people in office just moved around. I think the democrats need new blood but not so sure the party really wants that. Logicosity had a great article last week which said quickly name one Montana democrat other then Bullock. Think that says alot where the party is right now.

    • In case you missed my comment, above, on the perceived white only attendance, here it is again, Dennis:

      “I noticed it in the photo, too: lots of old white men (of which I am one). Bad camera angle, I guess. We just elected two tribal members to the e-board and an Asian (sorry, Ming, that I don’t know more about your ancestry) and women outnumber men. There are some youngsters on the board but it’s hard for me to be objective since anyone under forty seems young to me. Did you know that the youngest state legislator in the country is a Democrat out of Hill County?”

      Believe me, minorities and young people will be welcomed with open arms — just show up.

      What message would you take to rural counties to win them back? I’m seriously curious, Dennis, because I’d like them back in the fold, but we need bigger majorities in Yellowstone, Cascade, Flathead, etc., if we’re going to win.

      Finally, I support Nancy Keenan 110%. She’s strategic, a great organizer and is tough. I don’t believe any of the party’s loses can be laid at her feet.

      • Pete – my name is Tony Cate. I am a mere wage earner but Union Member in Missoula. One would think that in such a liberal bastion that I would be doing ok. However, our super progressive and beloved mayor raises taxes more than he gives raises (despite negotiation). As a result, those of us who are doing the right things under the “right” government fall farther and farther behind.
        But our beloved and besotted mayor has no problem funneling public dollars to private concerns. The
        n pleading poverty when wage earners come asking.
        This is a long way of asking for specifics concerning your 110% support of Nancy Keean, John Engen, and Ellie Hill. You seem to think they are doing right by Montana. Perhaps you would provide some specifics regarding how they have made wage earners lives better.
        Im not calling you out – just trying to understand how you can support the mirror reflection of the GOP. Is it ok because its our people doing it?

        • Not sure I see the connection between Nancy Keenan and Mayor Engen, Anthony. What has Keenan done to affect wages or taxes in Missoula? Not one thing that I’m aware of.

  • RE: The environment, environmentalists, the Montana Dem Party and Dem Political Leaders in Montana.

    Everyone see this breaking news today from MEIC, via their FB Page?….

    This is a very big deal, folks, and a victory for the future of Montana and the world. MEIC, represented by the Western Environmental Law Center, took the BLM to court, and won.

    “A federal agency should not be allowed to put its thumb on the scale when making decisions of this magnitude. The law requires, and the public deserves, an honest analysis of the risks and the benefits of proposals such as these,” said Anne Hedges, with the Montana Environmental Information Center. “The company and a government agency tried to cut corners once again. Thankfully the court didn’t let that happen.”

    Here are some snips from the AP article, which is titled “Judge blocks 176 million ton coal mine expansion in Montana:”

    A judge has blocked a proposed 176 million-ton expansion of an underground coal mine in central Montana because federal officials did not consider its climate change impacts.

    U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy said that officials inflated the economic benefits of the 11-square mile expansion of Signal Peak Energy’s Bull Mountain coal mine while ignoring its environmental impacts.



    Very much related to this great news, let’s also not forget the fact that in December 2014 (with no public notice and no public input or meetings at all) Senator Jon Tester and (at the time Rep) Senator Steve Daines attached a rider to the National Defense Authorization Act which not only released tens of thousands of acres of Wilderness Study Areas in Montana for development….

    But according to MEIC, part of the public lands rider from Jon Tester and Steve Daines meant that “Great Northern Properties gets its grubby hands on 112 million tons of coal adjacent to the Signal Peak mine. Great Northern has been wanting this coal for years as it knows developing the coal rights on Northern Cheyenne land would be difficult, if not impossible, to develop. The coal on the Northern Cheyenne reservation was omitted from the expansion of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in 1900. Now the Signal Peak coal mine that sends most of its coal overseas to Asian markets can further expand, continue to pollute water quality in the area, cause subsidence of surface owners property, and be responsible for hundreds of millions of additional tons of climate changing carbon dioxide pollution. Wilderness is not immune to the effects of climate change so should we sacrifice the climate for wilderness designation?”

    MEIC has stated that, for reference, 112 million tons of coal is approximately 3 years worth of coal production by every single coal mine in Montana, one of America’s top producing coal states. MEIC has also figured out that all that additional coal just given away by Senator Tester and Senator Daines with zero public input or notice during secret “horse-trading” meetings in Washington DC would result in an extra 224 million tons of carbon pollution.


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