Barack in Butte, Montana: Defying Conventional Wisdom About Race and Politics

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 is dead.

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 speech.

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 ourselves."

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.


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