Bullock is steeped in Montana’s history of centrist, working-class politics. With his Filson jacket and cowboy boots, he is a throwback who rejects much of the Democratic Party’s national platform. Daines may be a hunter who says he is fighting to preserve “the Montana way of life,” but the company where he made his name, RightNow Technologies, helped usher in a high-tech boom that continues to transform the state. He offers a vision of free-market prosperity while moving publicly in lockstep with President Donald Trump, who is popular in Montana. Last year, Bullock made an ill-fated run for the Democratic presidential nomination. Scott Wolf, a conservative Livingston businessman and Daines supporter, told me he thought Bullock would have made a great “old-school Democratic president. But that doesn’t play anymore in the U.S.” When I traveled through the state, I heard versions of a similar nostalgia. Choteau’s mayor, Chris Hindoien, a Republican in a nonpartisan seat, told me that the state’s centrists have “lost our voice.” He added, “There’ll never be another Mansfield.” Mike Mansfield looms above Montana’s political history: The even-keeled Irish American, who was born in New York and raised in Great Falls, Montana, served as Senate majority leader from 1961 to 1977. Duane Ankney, a conservative Republican state senator from Colstrip who sometimes votes with moderates, said Mansfield “wasn’t left or right, he was for the people of Montana.” But, he concluded, “Those politicians are gone forever.” Bullock’s campaign tries to emotionally access this legacy. When touting his ability to pass legislation along with the Republican-majority state Legislature, he says he “wants to make Washington work more like Montana.” The airwaves are filled with venomous ads, funded both by the candidates and by national groups relying on dark-money support. (In 2015, Montana, with Bullock as a primary driver, passed a law requiring outside entities trying to sway local elections to disclose their funding. But the state government has no power over national races.) The radio from Great Falls to Glendive booms untruths: Daines has created more jobs in China than he has in Montana; Bullock is scheming with other Democrats to institute a radical, gun-less, socialist future. “Who’s fact-checking this stuff?” asked Gerald Gray, 54, chairman of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians and co-founder of a Billings advertising agency. “It’s not right.”
As Governor, I’ve had the pleasure of working with each of Montana’s eight Tribal Nations to tackle challenges facing Indian Country.— Steve Bullock (@stevebullockmt) September 27, 2020
Today, I’m truly honored by the Native Americans who vocalized their support for our campaign by launching #NativeAmericansForBullock. pic.twitter.com/4xFH5Jt29E
Oracle agreed to buy RightNow in 2011 for $1.5 billion. The following year, Daines ran for the U.S. House of Representatives and won. In 2014, Baucus resigned to become the U.S. ambassador to China, and Gov. Bullock appointed Democrat John Walsh to fill his seat. But Walsh dropped out of the election after it was revealed he’d plagiarized a term paper. Daines won. “Things have come easily to him,” said David Parker, a professor of political science at Montana State University and a former campaign manager for Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming. Gianforte has taken a steeper route to public office: He lost to Bullock in a 2016 run for governor, then won Montana’s congressional seat in a special election in 2017, after he body-slammed a reporter. This year, Gianforte is running to replace Bullock as governor, and is favored to win. RightNow’s political legacy is complex: It contributed to a tech boom that has moved Gallatin County to the left, and it launched the public careers of two conservatives who could very well change the state’s politics. When I asked Parker about Daines’ and Gianforte’s political forebears, he wrote, “They don’t really have any.” The uncomfortable truth about Montana’s political traditions is that they were built on a brutal century of white hegemony. But that is changing. Voter turnout in Indian Country has steadily increased thanks to groups like Western Native Voice, a Billings-based nonprofit. In 1999, there were two Native representatives in the state Legislature. Now, there are 11. Marci McLean, Western Native Voice’s executive director, who is Piikuni (Blackfeet), says there are between 15,000 and 20,000 registered voters in Indian Country. The actual number is difficult to pin down: Estimates are generated within targeted precincts in reservation communities, some of which are demographically diverse, and many Indigenous people live in Montana’s cities. During the 2018 election, 60.3% of voters in targeted precincts turned out, helping swing the race in Tester’s favor. This year, McLean is aiming for 65%, a figure that could make the Native vote a deciding factor. But registration efforts have slowed due to COVID-19. “It will make things harder,” McLean said, “and at the same time I feel it’s a challenge we can rise to meet.” The Bullock campaign’s deputy political director is a respected Piikuni (Blackfeet) organizer named Cinda Burd-Ironmaker. Alissa Snow, Piikuni (Blackfeet) and Aanih (Gros Ventre), formerly of Western Native Voice, is working on voter turnout for the Democrats. Bullock has been endorsed by Montana Native Vote, a 501(c)(4) organization associated with Western Native Voice.
Daines has taken a different tack. He has been endorsed by Alvin Not Afraid Jr., chairman of the Crow Nation, which relies on coal. Last year, Daines and Tester introduced legislation pushing for federal recognition of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians. Tester had been pushing unsuccessfully for such recognition since 2007, but once Daines got onboard in a Republican administration, the measure passed. According to Gray, Daines flew on Gianforte’s private aircraft to attend the ceremony celebrating the bill’s passage. “I said, ‘Why don’t you give Tester a ride?’” Chairman Gray recalled with a chuckle. Later, Daines asked for the Little Shell Tribe’s endorsement. His request went unfulfilled. With his seat in peril, Daines has advanced meaningful legislation. Last December, he and Tester introduced a bill to ratify the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe-Montana Compact, which would quantify water rights on the Flathead Indian Reservation. The dispute dates back to the Hellgate Treaty of 1855; it has loomed over the tribal nation’s economic health and sovereignty as well as Montana’s agriculture for years. Water compacts with sovereign Indigenous nations must be ratified by the tribe, the state and Congress; following ratification in the state Legislature, Tester introduced it in the Senate in 2016, but it did not pass. In December, it came up again — this time with Daines’ name leading the way. It has advanced through the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. “He’s doing what’s right there,” said Jason Small, a Republican state senator from Busby and a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. But perhaps no victory was as significant as the passage this summer of the Great American Outdoors Act, which established permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The LWCF routes revenue from offshore oil and gas development to fund public-land infrastructure. For decades, legislators from both parties have been pushing for permanent reauthorization of the LWCF. But in February, Daines and Cory Gardner, the embattled Republican senator from Colorado, met Trump alongside Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. They left with the president’s promise to sign a bill. In July, the Great American Outdoors Act passed Congress, with Trump signing it into law shortly afterward. Democrats have criticized Daines for claiming credit for years of work by bipartisan legislators. Still, Land Tawney, of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said, “He deserves credit.” Alan Front, a lobbyist who’s worked on the issue for years, said, “The results speak volumes.”
Vote for Change. "What is most troublesome for me is the toxic enviroment of our current politics and the only way that that can change is if we use our full voice through our vote to make the change " Anna Whiting Sorrell, Confederated Salish and Kootenai, Public Health Advocate pic.twitter.com/kkWJMOGu9I— Western Native Voice (@wnativevoice) October 11, 2020
But Daines’ public-lands record is mixed. In 2015, he voted against reauthorization of the LWCF. That same year, Backcountry Hunters opposed an amendment to a budget resolution brought by Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski. The measure included a mechanism easing the path for the transfer of publicly owned, federally managed land to state control. According to advocates like Tawney, that could lead to the land’s sell-off. In his telling, Daines “shook my hand, looked me in the eye, and said, ‘I will never sell off public lands.’” But when it came time for the vote, Daines sided with the Republican majority. The measure passed 51-49. Bullock beat Gianforte in 2016 partly on the strength of his stance on public lands; he’s banking that voters will remember Daines’ record. A few days after Bullock’s trip to Great Falls, he traveled to the unincorporated community of Wise River, south of Butte. Bullock had come to dedicate a new fishing access on the Big Hole River in honor of a fishing guide and public-lands advocate named Tony Schoonen who died last year. There were about 25 people in attendance, many clad in flannel and Gore-Tex. Fast clouds cast shadows on the river. Bullock emerged from his Suburban with a face mask that read “I [heart symbol] PUBLIC LANDS.” When he spoke, his voice was soft, the pulpit growl gone. He reminisced about a nearby country bar: “Last time I was there, it was my nephew Josh’s bachelor party.” He talked about his time defending Montana’s law allowing public access to waterways, as well as the state’s “three great equalizers”: public education, public participation and public lands. “We’re all rootin’ for ya,” said Schoonen’s son. “Hopefully it works out,” said Bullock. Near the end of September, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie came to Montana to accompany Daines to VA facilities in the state. A group of journalists gathered outside the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Fort Harrison, near Helena. There was a dais in front of a path lined with American flags. Wilkie’s communications director issued one ground rule to the press: “No politics.” The doors to the medical center opened, and out they strolled: Wilkie in a suit, his face stern, and Daines, tan and tall, with a jacket that sported an American flag pin. Wilkie spoke about the vast landscapes of the West, “the great distances we at VA have to travel in order to get services to those who have served.” Daines took his mask off slowly, then talked about the potential benefits of telehealth. He told a story about how the secretary had, just then, inside, gone out of his way to speak with workers in the canteen.
Sen. Steve Daines (R-Montana) announced introduction of two #MMIW and public safety bills at Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing but he also has news on efforts to secure federal recognition for the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians here: https://t.co/HC2Bp7KDHM pic.twitter.com/hAv3T0oBbS— indianz.com (@indianz) June 19, 2019
Abe Streep lives in New Mexico. A recipient of the 2019 American Mosaic Journalism Prize, he is writing a book about basketball in Montana for Celadon Books. Tailyr Irvine is a Salish and Kootenai journalist from Montana. Follow her @TailyrIrvine on Twitter and Instagram.
This story was originally published by High Country News and by Montana Free Press. It appears here under a Creative Commons license.
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