Shared State is hosted by The Write Question’s Sarah Aronson and is collaboratively reported and produced by Montana Free Press, Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio. It airs Thursdays at 6 p.m. on Yellowstone Public Radio, Saturdays at 9:30 a.m. on Montana Public Radio, and is available online here or wherever you get your podcasts beginning Sept. 8.
Every election cycle, politicians flaunt their Montana roots — or attack their opponents for their lack of them. This focus on so-called “authenticity” might make voters laugh or roll their eyes, but it’s just the surface layer of a complicated dynamic. For some, it’s supposedly a way to figure out who’s trustworthy, who’s acting in the public interest, and who doesn’t belong.
Montana Free Press’s Brad Tyer explores this popular trope in Montana politics, and asks: when we say “We the people of Montana,” who do we really mean?
Sarah Aronson Iris Samuels lives in Helena. She’s a journalist covering Montana politics. But that’s been a pretty recent change. She talked to our reporter, Mara Silvers.
Mara Silvers And how long have you been a reporter for the Associated Press?
Iris Samuels I have worked for the Associated Press for two and a half months now, and that’s about as long as I’ve lived in Montana.
Aronson Iris was born in Israel, but most recently she worked as a reporter in Alaska at a local newspaper, The Kodiak Daily Mirror. When she started that job, Iris knew next to nothing about the place. But she said the people there were really warm and welcoming.
Samuels There’s this feeling of you moved to Alaska, you’re there for five minutes and if you say ‘this is my home,’ then people accept that. No one’s going to doubt your level of Alaskan-ness by virtue of you being a newbie. In fact, they’re going to be excited to welcome you into the fold.
Moving here, I thought, oh, it will likely be the same, but I sense a lot more, like Montana is a bubble. And I have yet to be welcomed into the inside of this bubble. I’m kind of perched on the outside of it.
Aronson This feeling that Iris has about Montana, it came up after a few distinct experiences. She saw a lot of political ads slamming candidates who weren’t born here on Facebook. She saw hostile and suspicious comments about people considering moving to the state. And then a few days before this interview, Iris encountered a lot of questions when she was on a hike near Red Lodge.
Samuels Someone asked me where I’m from. And I said, I currently live in Helena, because I figured what they were asking was, are you, do you live in Montana or outside of Montana. And they said, oh, great. Like, did you grow up in Helena? And I said no, I moved here from Alaska. And they said, Oh, wow. Did you grow up in Alaska? And I said, no, but I felt like talking with this person I just met on the trail about the fact that I grew up in Israel seemed far less relevant than talking about my experience living in Helena for the past two months and living in Alaska for the year before that, because those are places that I’ve actively chosen to live in. It strikes me that many people would say that I’d have to work very, very hard to become a Montanan, and even then I may never be one.
Aronson This tension about how long someone has been in Montana and whether they’ll fit in, it’s not limited to snarky Facebook comments or curious trail banter. When it comes to elections, it’s a political tool. If you’re born in Montana, you might tally up how many generations your family has lived here. If you moved from somewhere else, you’ll get plenty of side-eyed looks. The focus every election cycle on Montana authenticity might make voters laugh or roll their eyes. But it’s just the surface layer of a complicated dynamic. It’s a way to figure out who’s trustworthy, who’s actually acting in the public interest and who doesn’t belong. So when we say we, the people of Montana. Who do we really mean?
In our last episode, we talked about how Montana’s constitutional preamble is guiding us through this season. Now we’re starting at the very beginning.
We, the people of Montana.
[voice montage]: We the people of Montana, grateful to God for the quiet beauty of our state, the grandeur of our mountains, the vastness of our rolling plains, and desiring to improve the quality of life, equality of opportunity, and to secure the blessings of liberty for this and future generations to ordain and establish … Do ordain and establish this constitution.
Aronson I’m Sarah Aaronson and this is Shared State, a podcast about what’s driving Montana’s 2020 elections and where the outcomes could lead us. Montana Free Press editor Brad Tyer will take it from here.
Brad Tyer Advertising isn’t cheap and attention spans are short. So when you’re trying to win an election, it’s good to give voters something sweet and simple, something that gives them a straightforward reason to vote for you …
[ad]: I’m a fifth generation Montanans raising the sixth. And there’s nothing I won’t do to protect Montanan’s way of life …
Tyer or to vote against your opponent.
[ad]: Moderate? I don’t think so. Steve Bullock is just another New York liberal in a Carhartt jacket …
Tyer One of the most effective ways to do that, or at least one of the most common, is to convince voters that the other candidate isn’t one of us. They don’t share our values. How could they? They’re not from here. Anyone who’s lived through a campaign cycle in Montana has probably picked up on this message. In 2018 State Auditor Matt Rosendale was running to unseat Montana’s Senator Jon Tester. And that’s where “Maryland Matt” first came up as a line of attack. Rosendale had lived in Montana for 16 years by that point; but true, he was originally from Maryland and he has the accent to prove it.
[Rosendale] Citizens of Montana … The people of Montana … Montana … Citizens in Montana.
Tyer That’s from a 2018 ad compiled by the Montana Democratic Party. An ad called Meet Maryland Matt that hammered the point home by using images of a crab, Maryland’s official state crustacean. They even found footage of Corey Stapleton, who ran against Rosendale in the 2014 Republican primary, saying Rosendale’s East Coast values aren’t right for Montana.
[Stapleton ad:]: We dont’ need somebody from the East Coast representing us in Montana, we need a Montanan representing us on the East Coast.
Tyer Flash forward to 2020 and the patterns repeat. Rosendale is facing Democrat Kathleen Williams in the race for Congress. She’s another longtime Montanan who, as it happens, was born in California. And it’s not hard to see how each campaign is weaponizing its opponent’s birth state. It’s in their fundraising emails.
Here’s a line from the Williams campaign sent on July 20th.
[Narrator]: Maryland Matt is just too out of touch to ever be of service to the people he’s supposed to represent. He’s an out-of-state land developer who doesn’t know our Montana way of life.
Tyer The Rosendale campaign is singing a similar tune, calling Williams “California Kathleen” and saying she’ll always side with Nancy Pelosi.
One of their recent e-mails put it this way.
[Narrator]: Extreme Kathleen has given us every indication that she will be true to her San Francisco roots and will rubber stamp the radical policies of the liberal elite. California Kathleen won’t stand for our shared Montana values.
Tyer Here’s another wrinkle. They’ve both been elected before, multiple times, by Montanans. Williams served three terms in the state House of Representatives and Rosendale served a term each in the House and then the Senate before being elected to his current job as state auditor. If anyone should know that you don’t have to take your first breath in Montana to represent Montanans. It’s these two.
Full disclosure: I wasn’t born in Montana. I’m a seventh generation Texan, and over a decade ago I began adopting Montana as my home, which is one of the reasons why I’m especially interested in this political tactic.
Sally Mauk I think there’s an undercurrent in Montana always of who is a true Montanan and who is an impostor.
Tyer Sally Mauk wasn’t born in Montana either. She moved here from Kansas to tiny Heron in the northwestern part of the state more than 40 years ago. Eventually, she landed in Missoula at Montana Public Radio, covering politics and culture and watching debates about identity play out in the public sphere.
Mauk It comes out in elections, of course, but I think it’s always kind of been part of the Montana culture. Definitely, if you’re a native Montanan, quote unquote, meaning born and bred here, that gives you a cachet that other Montanans can only aspire to.
Tyer I want to flag something Sally just said: “native Montanan.” It’s a term that gets thrown around a lot come campaign season. But it’s not a very good one. It looks past all of the indigenous people who have lived here for centuries. Figuring out who was born here and who wasn’t does matter to a lot of people. But as Sally pointed out, it doesn’t really get to the heart of things. It’s shorthand for an actual Montana value: authenticity; being who you are instead of pretending to be someone you aren’t.
Mauk You know, one of my favorite expressions in Montana captures, I think, that disdain for people who are not authentic. And that expression is so and so is ‘all hat, no cattle.’ If you want to be taken seriously by Montanans and be seen as someone who can be accepted in the state, as someone who can benefit the state, then, you know, if you have a hat, you should have some cattle.
Tyer The day after we recorded this interview, the Montana Democratic Party put out an email about the Rosendale Williams race. The subject line says “Maryland’s Matt Rosendale: All hat no cattle.”
And for the record, this is a common saying in Texas too; another state with a lot of pride and an ethos that doesn’t look kindly on fakers. Because the flip side of authenticity is being deceptive, people wonder what your real motivations are, especially in a place like Montana, the Treasure State.
Mauk Are they here to take advantage of us as Montanans? I think that’s the undercurrent. And I think that’s tied to our history of exploitation in the state. Like in Montana, an ethical hunter is someone who hunts for meat and is willing to hike 10 miles straight uphill to get a clean shot, right? And then there’s the trophy hunter who hires a guide, flies in from Florida or somewhere and shoots something just to get something to hang on the wall. And I think that is the fear that Montanans have, is that we will become a state that trophy hunters take advantage of. And I mean that in a metaphorical sense. You know, that people will come in and get a treasure from the state, from the treasure state, and take it away.
Tyer Historian Joseph Kinsey Howard popularized the idea of Montana as a resource colony, a place where value could be extracted with the rewards going out of state to New York moguls and corporations registered in Delaware. Much of Montana’s enormous 19th and 20th century copper wealth left the state that way. And political influence can be a kind of resource too.
Mauk Someone who comes here to make a political name for themselves without having really paid anything to the state to get to that point, thinking that, you know, it’s a small state population wise, and if they have enough money, they can maybe buy an elective office. I think they’re, in a sense, trophy hunting the state. And Montanans take a dim view of that.
Tyer It’s hard to chronicle how long this litmus test has been going on in Montana politics. There doesn’t seem to be a particular election when this strategy of casting suspicion on carpetbaggers started. But it has been with us a long, long time.
Pat Williams I remember that one of the things candidates — including me when I was young — candidates would do is to hand out matchbooks. It was when almost everyone was smoking. And on the spine, the cover of the matchbook would often say “native Montana.”
Tyer This is Pat Williams, originally from Butte. Back in 1966 he was a candidate for the state Legislature.
Williams And I wondered why. Why is that the most important thing in your effort to get elected?
Tyer He went on to become Montana’s longest serving representative in Congress. Looking back, Williams can spot the contradictions in that native Montanan rhetoric, for a few reasons. For one thing, Butte is a town that built itself into a proud pillar of American industry, with the help of immigrants from across the country and around the world.
Williams It seems to me that this thing about American values or Montana values or who’s a native and who isn’t, although understandable, I think that to some degree it’s dangerous. And America certainly thought that when we entered World War II and fought against the notion raised by some Germans that in order to be a proper citizen, you had to be born as a German, you had to be white and blond and blue eyed. At we fought a war about that. And thankfully, we won it. So I’ve never been much for thinking about the importance of being native somewhere.
Tyer More important than being a birth-certificate Montanan, Williams says, is what you do once you get here. And it’s worth noting that some of the state’s most iconically Montanan personalities aren’t in fact born and bred Montanans, but they still embody ideals about who Montanans are.
Williams The two examples that always come to my mind: Charlie Russell from St. Louis and Mike Mansfield, who was born in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City.
Tyer Charlie Russell was one of the foremost painters of the American West. The museum dedicated to his work is in Great Falls, where he died in 1926. His giant mural of Lewis and Clark meeting the Flathead Indians presides over the House chamber in the State Capitol. And Mike Mansfield was the longest serving Senate majority leader in American history. There’s a statue of him and his wife, Maureen, in the state capitol too.
Williams Charlie Russell, you know, said, ‘I’m not an artist. I’m an illustrator.’ I’m just showing, I’m showing you yourself. I’m a mirror showing you yourself.
Mike Mansfield, in interviews like this, Mike would say ‘yep’ and ‘nope’ so many times that it was hard to get an interview with him [to last] for more than about … Four minutes. He made brevity and being right to the point, he made that so popular that Montana was known for that, those type of responses, that type of talk or lack of talk.
They both came here and they didn’t adopt Montana values. They set them. They created them.
Tyer Clearly, there’s room in the pantheon of Montana leaders for ‘real Montanans’ who weren’t born here. And as out-of-staters like me know, Montanans can be welcoming to outsiders who make an effort to get to know the state and earn its trust.
But here’s the thing about focusing on where a candidate was born or how many generations their family has lived here. If you stare at it too long, it starts to look more than a little absurd. Montana has only been a state for about five or six generations. And even a fourth generation. Montanan has a great grandparent who came here from somewhere else. Where do you draw the line and where did the other parts of your identity fit in?
That’s a question Denise Juneau knew she needed to address in 2015 when she launched her campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives against Ryan Zinke.
Do you happen to recall or maybe could kind of repeat a version for us of how you introduced yourself and your race for the House to voters? What parts of your bio you emphasized and kind of how you put yourself out there?
Denise Juneau Yeah, sure. I mean, people want to know who you are when you are running for office. And so, you know, I would say, my story takes me from Head Start to Harvard from growing up on the Blackfeet Reservation to becoming a national education leader.
Tyer Juneau is a descendant of the Blackfeet tribe, among others. Her family moved to Montana when she was two after she was born in Oakland. She went on to work in schools on the Blackfeet Reservation, earned degrees from Montana State, Harvard and the University of Montana, and be elected to two terms as Montana’s superintendent of public instruction.
Juneau And it always was interesting to me about how politicians really played up the fact of how many generations they had been in Montana and, you know, whether they homesteaded there, how they got there or whether they were born there and how legitimate do you have to be in order to be running for office in the state.
Tyer And in that 2016 election she decided to have a little fun undermining the idea of lineage as a measure of Montana-ness.
Juneau And so, you know, on my Twitter handle when I was running for office, I would put 54th generation. And it sort of started out just as a joke, sort of like, you know, like, OK, if this is kind to be a real thing and we are relying on the issue of how long somebody’s been in the state in order to be a legitimate leader, then only indigenous people should actually be in elected office if that is going to be the marker for that.
Tyer On the campaign trail Juneau said what Montana voters really want to know is that you understand them, that you care about the same things they care about, wherever you were born.
Juneau I don’t really think the length of time you’ve been in Montana is the legitimate marker. The marker needs to be whether you understand what Montanans are going through. If you understand the values of public lands and you understand the values of tribal sovereignty and you understand, you know, those values that get to the heart of what our state really is about.
Tyer And the trouble with using birthplace or length of time in the state as a qualification isn’t just who is or isn’t included, it’s who gets boxed out and the experience that gets boxed out with him.
Juneau I think that when you leave the state and go to work elsewhere or you go to school elsewhere or you move into the state, you have different experiences. That really is, you know, how the fabric of the states actually come together, is that we take all these experiences from people, blend them together and sort of come up with what our state reflects and what we look like.
Tyer All sorts of identities can be used to define who belongs to a club and who’s denied admission. When Juneau ran for office as a woman and a Native American, her sexual orientation also came under scrutiny. All of that made the, ‘one of us’ or ‘one of them’ dynamic even more complicated. Juneau saw that as a good thing, a sort of teachable moment.
Juneau I was the first openly gay candidate to run for federal office in the state of Montana. You know, I think that really opened doors and people have to really think about who is representing that, right? And they have to struggle with identity. I mean, we actually had to work with media about how they were going to talk about the race. You know, there were some stories that would carry, ‘lesbian Denise Juneau runs against former Navy SEAL Ryan Zinke.’ And it’s sort of like, look, that’s not really fair. But I also think every time somebody steps up into those positions and allows Montanans to think a little bit more about how they’re navigating that and what that means to them, and having to do some introspection, I mean, I think when we see it looks across the country right now, that’s what’s required from all of us. How are we upholding the structures that we have always upheld and who’s been running the system?
Tyer Denise Juneau eventually lost that race for the House. Later, she moved to Seattle, where she’s now superintendent of public schools, and watching Montana’s latest elections from afar.
As we get closer to November and I keep getting these campaign e-mails telling me not to trust outsiders, I can’t help but wonder how am I supposed to take that advice? Me and the roughly half of Montanans adults who weren’t lucky enough to be born here.
But there’s something else happening here. Why are campaigns so focused on dividing us into groups of insiders and outsiders? Almost seven percent of us are Native American. Thirteen percent of us live below the poverty line. About half of us live in rural communities. And more than half of us live in cities. Instead of focusing on all the ways we could define who’s not a real Montanan, why aren’t candidates talking about all the different kinds of true Montanans there are? Because when the preamble to the state constitution starts off with “we the people of Montana,” doesn’t that include all of us, whoever we are? however we got here and wherever we may have been in the meantime?
Juneau Those are the questions we need to be thinking about. Like, what do you mean when you say those words? Who are you representing and why does that matter — above all — that that is the message that you’re carrying? And so those are all great questions to ask politicians who are using that tagline.
Grateful to God — how religion is influencing policy in Montana and what that means for the governor’s race.
Shared State is made by Montana Free Press, Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio. We’re produced by Mara Silvers and edited by Nick Mott. Editorial assistance comes from Brad Tyer, Nicky Ouellet, Corin Cates-Carney and John Adams.