Saturday, April 26, 2008


I wonder if the individuals who packed the UC Ballroom last Monday truly appreciated the diversity of the crowd around them. This may have been the largest–and most varied--assemblage of one-issue true believers.

Just walking past the long line of Paulistas en route to the press conference in the opposite part of the UC, I noted advocates of absolute gun rights and absolute parental rights along with those who want to end both the war in Iraq and the war on drugs. I saw pro-home school, anti-abortion, pro-hard money, anti-Federal Reserve, pro-isolationism, anti-foreign aid, and other kinds of folks there. The far left and the far right standing together.

My question is: have all of these folks looked at the Paul platform in its totality? Or is his agreement with their individual issues enough? I get the point that "freedom" is an issue that touches all parts of the political spectrum and that Paul fans can say (with some legitimacy) that he’s the one candidate who can truly bring together people of diverse viewpoints. However, I must wonder how that would translate when the time came to actually govern?

Paul’s press conference (and I use that term loosely) also was unusual. How many times does the Missoulian not get a single question in because Paul advocates hogged the floor, asking multiple questions to "Doctor Paul"?

I admit that Paul fanciers have a right to establish their own alternative, advocacy, media efforts (largely on-line and through distribution of DVDs) but I felt like an observer watching disciples asking the master to affirm specific articles of dogma they’ve already heard a jillion times. As a result, I learned less about the leader and more about the followers.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

On Film Incentives and Death Sentences

Two unexpected and unrelated pieces of news have come in this week that could--and should--generate attention in Montana politics, both in the race for governor and in legislative races.

First, Missoula played host this week to John Villarino, who supervises the construction of sets for Hollywood movies by the likes of Steven Spielberg. While Villarino didn't come to Missoula specifically to talk movies (he came to share his collection of Rembrandt etchings) I spent some time with him discussing Montana's efforts to get back in the movie game.

Three years ago, Gov. Brian Schweitzer and the legislature created the "Big Sky on the Big Screen Act" which gave movie companies tax rebates of up to 12% on up to $1 million in in-state expenditures. Last year, the legislature increased the top rebate to 14% (on labor costs) and removed the expense ceiling. In the months that followed, the state announced that a couple of smaller features would film in the state. Good news, right?

It turns out Montana's incentives pale in comparison to what other states are doing. Villarino specifically mentioned Michigan, which just last week announced an expansion of its tax rebate program for the film industry. Now, Michigan will rebate 40% of taxes levied on movie companies. Villarino told me (and Michigan media reports confirm) that Hollywood interest in that state has increased multi-fold. New Orleans also has eased the tax burden on movie-makers, to its benefit.

Villarino says Hollywood "can shoot anything" in Montana and bring considerable economic activity to the state each time it does. But Montana politicians may have to open the door a lot wider.


Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld lethal injection as a Constitutional form of capital punishment, will the death penalty become a larger issue in the 2008 Montana elections? Last year, the state Senate passed a bill abolishing the death penalty, only to see it fail in a House committee.

Among the Senators who voted for the bill--Republican Roy Brown, currently hoping to oust Schweitzer from the governor's office in November. Brown said at the time that his opposition to abortion led him to oppose the death penalty as well. His campaign website describes him as "a very pro-life Catholic who believes in cherishing life at all costs." Meanwhile, his primary opponent, Larry Steele of Great Falls, favored the death penalty when he ran for the legislature two years ago.

On the Democratic Party side, Schweitzer favors the death penalty ("strongly favors", according to one political issues site) while one of his two primary challengers, Helena school teacher Don Pogreba, had made abolition of the death penalty a priority even before the Supremes issued their opinion.

Elsewhere, Libertarian Stan Jones says capital punishment is OK, which means that, barring a huge primary upset, Brown will be the only opponent of capital punishment in the governor's race in the fall.

Monday, April 14, 2008


Now that the glow has faded a bit from Montana's historic presidential "wannabe weekend," some quick thoughts about that remarkable 48 hours--and a couple of more recent developments.

First, does punctuality count when choosing a candidate? If it does, then Barack Obama gets extra points. His Adams Center appearance on April 5 was right on time. Also, virtually all of the media people I know gave the Obama campaign good marks for organization. Translation: he didn't waste our time or the time of the audience. Plus, his staff warmed up the audience with a pre-speech undercard of campaign information, typically witty remarks by Mayor John Engen and that amazing "Yes We Can" music video.

Hillary Clinton, by contrast, kept her public rally audience waiting for 40 minutes. There was virtually no attempt to engage the audience before the speech and the opening remarks by Carol Williams and Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss added little to the event. Clinton's staff also left some media folks grumbling about lack of communication. To her credit, however, Clinton spent longer on stage, spoke more specifically about her agenda, took questions from the audience, answered them forthrightly and, in my interview with her, was both charming and informative.

Both of the candidates' appearances focused on hope. Obama has made it a watchword, while Clinton is more subtle. In the last 24 hours, though, the story of the Clinton-Obama race has focused on faith. Personally, I'm troubled that a candidate's church-going habits and profession of faith have become so prominent in national campaigns. Article VI of the U.S. Constitution specifically states that "no religious Test shall ever by required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

Yes, I understand the sentence refers to a government test and that the United States has no law requiring a candidate to adhere to a particular religion (or even have faith at all.) Yet the language of Article VI seems lost on the public and on the major political parties, especially the Republican.

I asked ACLU legal director Steve Shapiro about this when he came to Missoula in February. His take was that the First Amendment is the bottom line here--that the Constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion empowers citizens to talk about faith and query their candidates about it. I accept that but, personally, I'd prefer the candidates answer questions on personal and professional ethics and morality. If they choose to reference faith and religious beliefs to answer those questions, fine. But for Americans to choose a leader based on a particular spiritual approach seems antithetical to what the founders intended.

One final thought. My daughter recently attended her first Bruce Springsteen concert and, not surprisingly, was swept off her feet. Her descriptions brought back my own memories of Bruce's 2000 show in Tacoma. Which made me think of last fall's Elton John show in Missoula.

Springsteen and Obama seem to have similar approaches--lifting their audiences en masse to create a unified whole with strength, hope and the belief that, together, we'll all get through whatever trials life brings. (For me, in that pre-9/11 year, the ultimate expression of that was "Land of Hope and Dreams"; for my kid, it was "The Rising.")

Elton and Clinton focus on personal connections. When Elton sang "Your Song" last September, I felt he was singing it to me. (Although my wife swears he sang it to her.) It wouldn't surprise me if everyone in the Adams Center came away with a similar thought. That seems to be Clinton's approach--that if she can make individuals believe in her, she can build on the strength of those bonds.

We'll know in the coming weeks which approach is the more successful.

Thursday, April 3, 2008


Sure, the visits by Bill, Hillary and Obama are the big political news of the week (and rightly so.) But there are other things going on.

Tonight (April 3) I'll moderate Montana’s first candidate debate of the season--for Superintendent of Public Instruction. The forum is scheduled from 6-9 p.m. in Helena, prompting one fellow journalist to say, "Three hours? Better have some black coffee and No-Doz on hand."

Seriously, though, organizers have had this on the calendar since October and may have been wise to schedule it so early in the season, since it may be the most attention this race gets all spring. Five of the six candidates (four Democrats, one Libertarian) will be there. Only the Republican will be missing. (She's traveling.)

There aren't many issues on the agenda--the continuing legal arguments over school funding, No Child Left Behind and the usual "Why should we vote for you?" But the Libertarian's answers might be interesting. Have we ever hand a candidate to head to OPI whose mission would be to dismantle the office?


Among the last-minute filings for the legislature on March 20, an intriguing entry for the state House. James Steele, who serves as chair of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Indian Reservation, is among three Democrats running to succeed Rep. Rick Jore of the Constitution Party. Steele officially is from Arlee but, because of the creative way Jore's district is mapped, Steele will be running against Democrats from Ronan (understandable) and Heart Butte (hundreds of miles away across the Continental Divide on the Blackfeet Reservation.)

With Jore not running and with no Republican in the race, the primary winner will earn the seat, barring a write-in campaign in November. If elected, Steele would not be the first tribal council member to simultaneously serve in the legislature, but I'd be very surprised if a council chairman has done so.

Also, the fact that Jore will not return to the legislature makes the race for control of the House even more interesting, since Republican flame-throwers Mike Lange, Roger Koopman and John Sinrud won't be back, either.


One final note--in my last post, I shared the story about Kumamoto, Japan and its election toilet paper. ("Issue tissue" as an associate called it.) Now the results are in and Kumamoto's voter turnout was way up from 2004—49% compared to 39%. Co-incidence? Or is the way to a voter's head really through the...