Posted on January 30, 2008
If Barack Obama's South Carolina win was a "black" thing,
it's awfully strange how it's going down in Butte. US towns
don't come much whiter or more hope-resistant than this
battered old Montana mining town. And yet organizers here
resonate with his call, not because they think he'll change
things here, but because they believe the movement he's
inspiring will help them do that work.
It was mid-morning Sunday when I finally flipped open my
laptop to watch Obama's South Carolina victory speech. The
only other soul in the faded foyer of the once-grand Finlen
Hotel was Debbie, the receptionist. Obama's words drew
blue-eyed Debbie over. What do you think? I asked. Looking
at the crowd, her smile revealed more than a few missing
teeth. "That looks like everybody," she said. "That's good."
The Finlen is a lonely place; a 1920s relic perched on a
snow-swept slope between stone-cold, closed Victorian banks
and bars and the country's biggest toxic Super Fund site.
Butte was once the copper capital of the world (and the most
unionized town in the US) but the swag and smut of the 1880s
is long gone and Butte's as broken now as the bones of its
best-known 20th century export -- Evel Knievel. And even he
The exuberant crowd behind the stylish Senator Saturday
was Southern, sunny, multi-racial and all revved up. The
backdrop to his words in Butte was very different. Obama's
pledges of "change" and "purpose" and "belief" echoed, airy,
into this wintry, white, whupped, western town. This place
aches for solid stuff like union jobs and productive work
and there was precious little promise of either in Obama's
So can Obama's magic move Butte? Before the morning was
over, I was able to ask the question to a group of local
activists. The Montana Human
Rights Network was holding its annual"Progressive
Leadership Institute" in the Finlen this weekend and two
dozen local organizers gathered around to hear the speech in
between workshops on running effective campaigns and running
for local office.
"It's not that he would change anything in Butte," said
Alan Peura, a City Commissioner in Helena. "But he's
building momentum that we can use to make that change
Although John Edwards was by my survey probably the
group's favorite candidate, Obama roused them, not by his
policy promises, but by opening he presents for their work.
"At the very least, we'll have four years of
movement-building from the Presidential bully pulpit, which
is the polar opposite from what we've had," chimed in Jason
Wiener, a Missoula city councilman.
Obama's wrong on fuel, said Patricia Dowd. He supports
liquid coal, a fossil-fuel-burning non-alternative that
Dowd, an environmentalist, is against. "But I love the fact
that he always thanks his organizers first. He values what
we do and that makes it easier for us to do our work.''
"I don't trust all this talk about bi-partisanship," said
retired MT Congressman, Pat Williams, one of the
longest-serving progressives ever to sit in the US House.
"Compromise can be just another word for collusion." On the
other hand, even Williams sees movement potential at the
party level if Obama were to be the candidate. Williams
served in Congress under Clinton in the early 1990s. He saw
how the Clinton magic worked - for Clinton only. "We lost
the Governors, the House, the Senate."
Ken Toole, one of the founders of the Network and a
student of the Right remembers how the Right came to power.
Gaining the White House wasn't the last it was the first
stage of that process. "The best thing Obama could be is our
Reagan," said Toole. "Reagan didn't deliver a whole lot in
terms of policies, but he shifted the country's direction."
Even from Butte, it's clear to organizers: Obama's not the
savior: we are. He opens a door. We push.
Laura Flanders is author of
Bushwomen: Tales of a Cynical Species.