True West

It's 8:30 on a sparkling June evening, and leaders of Montana's resurgent Democratic Party are hosting a river trip for the annual meeting of the party's Western States Caucus. The group of nearly 100 party leaders and elected officials is motoring through the canyon of the Missouri River that Captain Meriwether Lewis, 200 years ago this July, named the Gates of the Rocky Mountains. At a narrow bend, river pilot Tim Crawford swings the Sacajawea II around 180 degrees, and the passage literally looks like immense rocky gates opening and closing. As the setting sun lights up the peaks, Howard Dean, in town for the gathering, peers up the canyon's sheer, 800-foot limestone walls, and spots a bald eagle nested atop one of the ponderosa pines. Turkey buzzards circle, but the group's good spirits suggest that the birds are looking for Republicans.

Remarkably, some 172 miles of the upper Missouri looks much as it did when Lewis and William Clark first poled and paddled upstream, mapping the West for President Jefferson and looking for a river route to the Pacific. “This wilderness of 5 million acres,” explains Montana state party Chair Bob Ream, acting as tour guide, “has been spared commercial development, thanks to the Wilderness Act of 1964.” The Wilderness Act, and other progressive land and water legislation of that era, was largely the work of the western populist Democrats who used to dominate this region -- senators like Frank Church of Idaho, Mike Mansfield and Lee Metcalf of Montana, Warren Magnuson of Washington, and the brothers Udall of Arizona. Even Wyoming and Utah sent progressive Democrats to the Senate.

The Mountain West has trended (to put it mildly) Republican in recent decades. But its progressive Democratic legacy is being rekindled. Nowhere is this happening more than here in Big Sky Country, where Brian Schweitzer, the newly elected Democratic governor, ran a full 15 points ahead of John Kerry as the Democrats took control of both the governor's mansion and the Montana Legislature for the first time since 1989. In Colorado, Ken Salazar picked up a Senate seat for the Democrats, running 4 points ahead of Kerry. Democrats now have governors in New Mexico, Arizona, Montana, Washington, and Wyoming. They picked up seats in both legislative chambers in Colorado, Montana, Oregon, Nevada, and Washington, and House seats in Arizona. Back at Jorgensen's -- Helena's one union hotel and the invariable venue of Democratic gatherings like this one -- pollster Celinda Lake, who grew up near Billings, offers some explanations for the success. The West, Lake says, “is far more libertarian than the South. Two-thirds of voters are pro-choice. Only one-third of Christians in the West are born-agains, compared to two-thirds in the South.” The large Mormon population in these mountains has experienced discrimination firsthand from fundamentalists who don't consider Mormons to be Christians. Mormons have no enthusiasm for state-sponsored religion.

The West is a live-and-let-live region. Gay marriage is a tough issue, but as long as progressives are not in your face about it, they can get by. It's the pocketbook issues that dominate. When Montana's center-right Democratic senator, Max Baucus, tells the group that Democrats need to become more “pro-life,” there is a notable absence of applause.

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Brian Schweitzer is characteristic of a new wave of western progressives. “He presents himself as a problem solver, rather than in ideological terms,” says Lake, “but the policies are progressive and they build popular support for progressive government.” Since taking office, Schweitzer has had a terrific six months. In the legislative session, he steered through a tax increase on tobacco, the proceeds of which will subsidize health-insurance purchasing pools and lower the cost of prescription drugs, as well as a pioneering ethanol program that a coalition of greens, farmers, and ranchers had been pursuing in vain for nearly three decades. Under the new law, 10 percent of basic motor fuels consumed in Montana will have to be ethanol, distilled from grains. A byproduct of the process will produce feed for cattle ranchers.

The new law also provides for country-of-origin labeling to help farmers and ranchers, and will produce an estimated $250 million of new economic activity for Montana thanks to the ethanol refining. Schweitzer deliberately picked a fight with extractive-industry interests, which would rather see oil drilling in the pristine Front Range just north and east of here. The ethanol program was so popular with farmers that he was able to split the Republicans and force several to cross the aisle and support it. Schweitzer comes across as a pragmatist, but he's also a canny partisan. The centerpiece of his program is a jobs and economic-development initiative.

Schweitzer is emblematic of a new kind of western politician who is both progressive and entrepreneurial. He inherited a failing family farm and turned it around by planting, of all things, mint. By researching and then efficiently serving an untapped market, he became a millionaire, and was able to enter politics as a farmer and small-business man as well as a progressive Democrat. He shrewdly allied himself with sportsmen, not just as a gun owner but as one determined to protect the fishing and hunting environment. He was one of the first politicians to lead prescription-drug bus trips to Canada. Campaigning statewide, Schweitzer lost a cliff-hanger election to Senator Conrad Burns in 2000, then prevailed by 18 percent in the 2004 governor's race. Two progressive Montana Democrats, Senate President John Tester and State Auditor John Morrison, are jockeying to take on Burns, who is probably the Senate's most vulnerable Republican in 2006.

Montana is also prime territory for a progressive Democratic resurgence because it remains a state where it's possible to do politics retail. It takes only about 4,000 votes to win a seat in the Legislature, and $10,000 is an expensive race. Montanans are suspicious of big money in politics. This is still the kind of “small-d” democracy Jefferson had in mind.

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Further west, in Washington state, Democrats also picked up three seats in the House and two in the Senate, giving them control of both chambers. Christine Gregoire, certified governor by just 129 votes, finally got the Republicans to concede on June 6, the Monday after the Montana meeting, when a judge dismissed the fifth Republican lawsuit. “Their story,” David McDonald, attorney for the Washington Democrats, told the Montana meeting, “was that felons were allowed to vote and servicemen weren't. The Republicans tried to claim every case of error as deliberate fraud.”

But when actual records were examined by the judge, Republicans could not produce a single GI whose vote was denied or not counted, or a single case of ballot-box stuffing or fraud. It turned out that former felons who'd neglected to file all the paperwork needed to get their right to vote officially restored broke almost evenly for the two candidates. In the final revised count certified by Judge John E. Bridges, Gregoire actually picked up four votes. “There is no evidence that Ms. Gregoire received any illegal votes,” the judge ruled. In Washington, a former felon can get an auto license and a gun license immediately upon release, but must go through a complex bureaucratic process to restore the right to vote.

Despite six months of seemingly endless challenges to her legitimacy that have damaged her standing in some polls, Gregoire, like Schweitzer, enjoyed a very effective legislative session. She championed a “delinking” of the estate tax from its dwindling federal counterpart, preserving her state's ability to tax large estates. The Democratic Legislature also raised taxes on tobacco and gasoline, which provided funding for child care, a cleanup of Hood Canal, and two new initiatives to reduce classroom size. What's more, Gregoire restored health insurance to several thousand low-income kids, and Washington adopted California's stringent auto-emissions standards. Washington is one of three states where the new group, Progressive Majority, has begun working to recruit progressive candidates to run for “down-ticket” offices, help them raise money, and plan their campaigns. In the Senate, two Democratic challengers backed by Progressive Majority ousted Republican incumbents. In the House, Progressive Majority targeted 10 seats and won nine, producing three pick-ups for the Democrats.

“Western Republicans,” says Western States Caucus Chair Karen Marchioro, a Washington state Democratic committeewoman and former state party chair, “are just not as right-wing as their counterparts in the South or the Midwest. There's a lot of unhappiness at what is going on nationally.” It's state Democrats like these who put Howard Dean in the party chairman's office. Despite Dean's occasional verbal gaffes, they like his emphasis on state party building and progressive message. “We're going to be working in all 50 states,” Dean tells the western Democrats to hearty applause. “We want to be everywhere.”

The West helps explode one of the great myths of this political era, of an American electorate hardened into red and blue voting blocs. In fact, there are plenty of independent-minded voters that an astute leader from either party can reach. “A lot of the West,” says Celinda Lake, “is red on the outside, blue on the inside.”

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect.

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