Two Guys from Montana Choppin’ It Up

For the rest of this week, I’m handing the newsletter over to Chris La Tray — who you may remember from this interview a few months ago. One great pleasure of running this newsletter = the ability to use it as a space to interview others at length, and watching you, as a readership, respond to, push back on, and just generally appreciate their ideas. Because many of you have opted to become paying subscribers, I’m able to pay Chris a very good rate to take over the newsletter today and Sunday (he’ll also be doing the Friday thread, which is going to be a good one). I think this interview will give you something to think about, even if you don’t know or care about Montana.

You can follow Chris on Twitter here, and subscribe to his consistently excellent (and free) newsletter here.

It's certain that, were it not for United States Senator Jon Tester, the context I'd be writing in and who I am now would be different. I say that because, without his determined efforts, it is unlikely that my people, the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians, would be a federally recognized tribe. Not yet anyway. I'd be an angrier person, and the arc of the story I’m telling in my current book project wouldn’t have a predetermined happy ending. I want to reiterate here though that my relationship to this recognition by the feds isn't one of gratitude, it's more along the lines of, "It's about fucking time." They didn't "give" us anything. They recognized they fucked up and this recognition is just the first step in making amends. There is a long way to go and we ain’t done with ‘em yet.

I feel gratitude toward Jon Tester, though. The first legislation he ever introduced, all the way back in 2007, was an effort to secure federal recognition for the tribe and he continued to do so every Congress since. It culminated in December of 2019 when, as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, federal recognition arrived for us. Our celebration happened in January 2020 and Tester was there via a video message. He couldn't attend because he was in D.C. to participate in the first of Donald Trump's two impeachment hearings. What a year. Covid-19 came calling, and were it not for our recognition we would not have received $25 million as part of the CARES Act money allocated for recognized tribes. That allowed us to jump start projects that would otherwise have taken decades to get off the ground. It is a huge deal.

Last fall Tester's memoir, Grounded: A Senator's Lessons on Winning Back Rural America, was published. I reviewed it for the Missoulian, which you can check out here, and I talked about how Tester is the first politician I ever really got behind. Not only that, but Grounded is a good book and delivers some quality insight into what Tester the man is really like. He's the best thing happening in Montana politics right now, which, I know, isn't saying much. But still. I love how he’s become one of the most recognizable people in American politics. When he shows up in the national media, I thump my chest, point, and bellow, “That’s our fucking guy!” But while I don't agree with him on everything, I trust him. If Montanans show him we want to be more progressive he'll lead us there. But there's work to be done, which is a point he makes over and over in his book. If we want to turn things around, it’s a group effort that we all need to participate in.

When AHP invited me to write for her, Senator Tester was the first person I thought of as an interview subject. We've crossed paths many times before. Recently we spent an hour together when I helped him sign copies of Grounded. I like to imagine that the rapport we've developed helped secure this interview that happened over the phone in the week between the storming of the Capitol and the inauguration of Joe Biden as our 46th president. At the time we spoke the events of January 6th were still fresh in our minds. They dominated a conversation that was intended to focus on the book. How could they not?

In the following I've chosen not to edit or streamline it much like I would for traditional publication. I want the feel of a couple concerned middle-aged Montanans shooting the shit over beers because that's really, when it boils down to it, what we are. I've retained the f-bombs, aimed to capture some of the irritation, all of it. I also hope it echoes some of the fun, because Jon Tester is fun to talk to. If I were given three wishes one would be to attend a barbecue at his farm in Big Sandy, way up by the Chippewa-Cree Reservation at Rocky Boy. With Tester, what you see is what you get, an impression that rings true from his book and, hopefully, this conversation.

I called him and he asked me to call back in fifteen minutes because "something big" had just come up. When I rang back, he issued a big sigh and said, "Well, now I need to get back into Grounded mode."

And here's where we went from there....

There's not like an alien invasion going on, is there? That's about the only thing that could top what's been going on lately....

Oh, man, I'll tell you what. It's insanely sad, if you want to know the truth. They're talking about putting fences up now around the Capitol complex, and man, I'll tell you, it's just a bad sign to have to do that, as far as the overall health of the country. It just speaks volumes of how things are so screwed up. 

I don’t know how much you can say, but do you think anything is going to be done about the people who are still in the Senate or still in the House who were part of this? I’m afraid it’s just gonna be treated like water under the bridge.

Chances are is that nothing is gonna be done but who knows. Sometimes this place surprises me. I can guarantee you that if nothing is done then it’s going to continue, and that the insanity of all this will continue because people who are insane will think they can get away with it. 

I was on the plane on the 8th and there was a bunch of these idiots that stormed the Capitol on the plane, there were three guys behind me. They were so empowered by what happened on the 6th it was really pretty amazing to me. I laid pretty low because I didn’t want to start a fight or anything but more than once I wanted say, ‘“When is enough enough? When does this insanity stop for you or does it ever?”

You’re a pretty public guy, do you ever worry about being a target?

I will tell you before this happened I was worried about it. Every time I do a town hall meeting I always size up the crowd. I mean it’s just something that I do. It’s not healthy but I do. But you never know the ones that will try and kill you, you know? 

I do know! Hell, I do more of that now myself, just as a regular person, walking into a place and trying to find who it is, you know, who’s carrying.

That’s right. And then you’ve got the goofy goddamn [Montana] legislature that wants to make it so you can carry anywhere and it’s just gonna end up with someone dying. More than just one, by the way. Because people, even the folks who claim to be 2nd amendment advocates, they never think about what really goes on in a real life situation. 

My brother was asking if I carry, and I said here’s the problem, Bob. I never know ... you know, someone drives in the yard, like the other day a guy drives in the yard in a Dodge pick-up and I was walking in the house to give Sharla something and I said, “Be ready because I don’t know who the hell this is …" and it was the fuckin’ FedEx guy. [laughs] You’ll never know the guy that’s really gonna do it!

Let’s talk politics. Let’s talk about the outrageous amount of money that happens in campaigns. Every fucking candidate is a millionaire anymore. How can we get it back to where we can have people like Mike Mansfield, or Jon Tester, who are people who probably lived paycheck to paycheck more than once in their life. 

For sure.

How do we get people like that back representing us? Because you are the ones who really know what it’s like to be me, you know?

Yeah. It continues to be a problem in that you can spend as much of your own money as you want in these campaigns. So that really does draw the Gianfortes and the Rosendales and even the Daineses to public service because when push comes to shove they can just write a check for a couple million bucks and automatically be competitive. The way you get back to regular people is you force all the money to be transparent, you make is so corporations aren’t people so they can’t donate, and if you are going to allow corporations you certainly can’t allow them to donate under the guise that this is educational so that they can deduct it. That’s number one, fix Citizens United, and fix “corporations are people" because they’re not.

Then I think you need to figure out ways—and this goes contrary to what we were just talking about—to force people to go out and do town hall meetings and meet with folks. And I think that if you force the folks to do that, then people will get an idea of what kind of people they’re electing. I think it gives an advantage to the Regular Joe. Because the Regular Joe, as you’ve said, has walked in your shoes and knows what it’s like to, you know, not be able to pay your bills. Knows what it’s like to not be able to sleep at night because somebody’s short of money because you didn’t have the money to pay ‘em. So I think that’s where you start. You start with campaign finance reform and then you figure out some way to make it so that people have to get out to visit people in public forums and let people ask questions in a not-controlled situation. If the system would work you would automatically elect people that put themselves in that situation over people who just lock themselves in their house and never came out and just wrote checks to their campaign. 

What’s turned that on end was about six years ago [it was 2016], when Jesse Laslovich ran against Matt Rosendale for Montana State Auditor. Rosendale literally never stepped outside his house and Jesse campaigned all over the state and got beat by, I don’t know, three or four points.

There’s got to be a way to make it so candidates have to go out and actually meet people. The way it was in the ‘80s when Ted Schwinden got elected governor. Ted told me that by the time you run a state-wide campaign you’ve shook hands or looked in the eye everybody that’s gonna vote for you and everybody that’s gonna vote against you. That’s really good a thing. That’s really, really a good thing. That allows people to find out how candidates are really wired. 

You talk about this a lot in your book, but how do we reconnect the Democratic party to real people? This last election I thought the Democrats had, down the line, some really good people running for all of these offices and it was just a frickin’ bloodbath. What do you think they did wrong?

Well, it’s hard to say. It’s probably a lot more complex than what I’m about to say but I do think that the coronavirus may have helped with the presidential election for Joe Biden, because the president [former President Trump] just mishandled it so badly. But I really think it hurt our other candidates in the state and I’ll tell you why, because I went to the rallies and there were [just] cars, in parking lots, and I think, as I also pointed out, that Montana is a place where you’ve got to go out and you’ve got to meet people where the default is Republican and I don’t think that was ... we had to do more than we did. The Republicans, generally speaking—I’m not saying all of them—as a general rule, didn’t see the coronavirus as near as big a threat to them as the Democrats did. So they were out there doing that and I think it really paid dividends for them.

Do you feel like you could have won in this election cycle?

I would have tried to run a different campaign than what was done. 

I saw Tester signs out around Missoula and I was like, “The dude isn’t even running!”

Yeah, it was a hard cycle, man. It was really a hard cycle. I would like to think I could win, but you know what’s really gonna tell me whether I can win or not in 2024 is what happens in 2022. Even though there’s not any races up except for the House race, you know, it’s how the legislative candidates do, if Democrats are able to bounce back in these state legislative races. They’re gonna have to work doubly hard now, they really are, because once a person is an incumbent it is much more difficult to beat them. And like in Great Falls, we literally lost every race. I heard this all second-hand, so whatever, but you know how some people said they thought there was going to be a blue wave? Christ, there hasn’t been a blue wave in Montana since Richard Nixon was impeached, or nearly impeached. The other thing is Democrats just thought that Covid wouldn’t allow them to go door-to-door so they didn’t and I just think that’s really important. 

I run farther to the left than you do. What effect do you think issues like Black Lives Matter, or Medicare for All, or Defund the Police, or all of these issues those of us on the left are pushing hard for, had to do with it?

I can tell you that the defund the police stuff hurt. I don’t know that the BLM stuff was nearly as transferable to mainstream Montana as defund the police was. I also think the socialism comments, even though they were entirely bogus, hurt. Look, I come from agriculture, and the last statistic I heard is 39% of agriculture income this last year came from the federal government. That ought to raise alarms for everybody because that is socialism. And so the socialism stuff hurt, the packing the court stuff hurt, but I think the one that really hurt was defunding the police. And trust me, as usual, it’s our own damn fault because I don’t know of anybody that I serve with that wanted to defund the police. They want to make the police accountable, and I think there’s a big difference between defunding the police and accountability. 

Or even reallocating some of that budget so you have mental health professionals responding to mental health-related calls.

Oh, yeah, for sure. We’ve got prisons full of people who need mental health care, they don’t need prison sentences. 

I’ve got one more question. I used to walk into the Little Shell community center, you’ve been there. There’s the big American flag hanging up there, and I used to get angry, that it was there, because I didn’t feel that America had ever done anything for us. Obviously things are a little different now that we’ve received federal recognition, but what do you say to people who just feel like the whole story of America ever being great is false? Because I feel that way sometimes, Jon. And I don’t like to. And as a Native person I have all of this baggage that I carry and yet everybody that I love is an American. And I want America to succeed; I’m getting emotional telling you this. What do we say? What would you say? I can get inspired hearing you speak, but then it all just drains away when we see what happens on the 6th, and all of this stuff. I’m troubled by it.

Well, look, Native Americans are in a little different kind of situation because the truth is there’s been a lot of bad stuff that’s happened to Native Americans and I don’t need to go down that litany of history because you know it. It’s easy for me to say this, okay, as a European descendent of a family that’s been here three-to-four generations, we think, but it’s about building a country moving forward. There are fundamental things that happened on the 6th that just drive me crazy. Like, why were you [the pro-Trump rabble] there? You were there because you didn’t want to see a peaceful transfer of power. You were there because a lie was perpetuated concerning the presidential election. Well, you can get angry about a lie but it’s a lie. So at some point in time you have to face the facts. 

You’re in a little bit different situation being a Native American—and we have to look to the same things for people of African American descent—in that we have to work on making this country better. We have to work on making this country equal. We have to make sure that justice is delivered equally. I think that’s the hope for the future. We’ve not been perfect in the past and we need to get better in the future. What happened during the Trump administration is all these prejudices popped back up. All the white supremacy stuff popped back up, because quite frankly it was tolerated by this president. This is my opinion, okay? It was tolerated by Trump. Intolerance should not be tolerated. It should not be something that we accept as a nation, otherwise we won’t maintain our position as the country with the greatest influence in the world. 

So I can’t speak to what you see and what you do because I’m not Native American. But I do know that this country offers hope, and it offers the ability to change with public input—and I’m not talking about violence, Martin Luther King got it right—and you’ve got to keep plugging away, and keep plugging away, and if you do it in a nonviolent fashion you can affect change. I think that’s what we need to do. It’s important. I don’t care if we’re talking about making sure that Native Americans have access to money to be able to build businesses and homes and communities and school systems, or if you’re talking about in the inner city of Detroit, it’s the same thing. 

The fact is is that this country was built upon principles. We haven’t lived up to them but it’s built upon principles of equality and justice for all. I think that’s what we need to continue to strive for and we need to admit the fact that we’re not perfect and we’ve made plenty of mistakes but we need to move forward with that in mind. If we do not do that, I think this experiment in the United States will not live another 244 years.

Senator, I appreciate your time. I know you’re a busy guy and this is the last thing you needed to do but you’ve done me a solid here.

No, Chris, I’m always thankful for folks who think about things. That actually think about stuff and think about what’s going on in the world and how to move it forward. These are distressing times. These are distressing times for me for all sorts of reasons, not only safety but ... you know next week we’re going to have an impeachment trial and I’m a juror so I’m going to remain as neutral as possible, but to be honest with you I was there. I saw the shit that went down. I listened to the president speak and if this guy isn’t guilty of treason to this nation, then nobody is. And as somebody pointed out, it doesn’t mean that for the last month-and-a-half the president can do whatever they want because they’re going to leave office and they won’t be impeached. That’s total bullshit, there needs to be accountability. 

I saw someone say something that just because World War II was over it didn’t mean they didn’t have the Nuremberg Trials.

That’s goddamn right. That’s exactly right. And it’s the same thing that Hawley and Cruz get all the attention, but the fact is—and I like some of these people!—Kennedy, out of Louisiana, I like him but he fucked up. Steve Daines screwed up. Lankford, screwed up. All these people need to be held accountable because they perpetuated a lie that almost cost this nation its government. Let me tell you, if they had been successful and Trump would have been put back in as president, it’s over with. We’ve got a dictator from now until the end of time. It was that close. 

It feels like it was that close! Do you feel safe in the Capitol now?

Oh yeah, they still have 10,000 guardsmen here and this place has got fences with razor wire on the top of it and it looks like Baghdad in 2007....

You know, that sucks.

It does suck. But you know with good people, with good thinkers, we’ll get through this. We won’t let the idiots determine our future. 

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