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Continuity of culture in local politics

by Jim Elliott
| May 26, 2022 12:00 AM

The Montana primary election is coming up and I have been thinking about the choices I face in my rural Montana county.

I don’t ask a lot of county government, just the basics: roads plowed in winter, graded in the spring, a sensible budget, a deputy sheriff within reasonable distance, and most importantly, a county commission that gets along.

I’ve lived through my share of the opposite and it’s not good for anybody. A county in turmoil does not attract new businesses or medical providers; even tourists don’t feel welcome, which, now that I think of it, may have some benefits.

What I am looking for in county government is continuity of culture; that would be the Montana culture of hard work, common courtesy, helpful neighbors, and working together for the benefit of all. I like elected officials who understand the needs and stories of the people in the county they serve, which generally means someone of long-standing residency.

Montana is experiencing an influx of new citizens, many of whom are leaving states where they feel politically discriminated against, in the hopes that Montana politics is more to their liking. Often the new immigrant’s political expectations are not matched by what they find after they arrive, and they feel a need to address those issues quickly. That’s their right as new citizens, but I wish that they would take some time to understand the community as they found it before they try to change it.

Sometimes there are enough like-minded newcomers that the local government faces drastic changes. One of the most troubling examples of this occurred in the 1980s in Wasco County, Oregon, when a religious sect from India purchased a large ranch near the small North Central Oregon town of Antelope. Known as Rajneeshees, after the name of their leader, the Baghwan Rajneesh. They moved onto the ranch in droves, building living quarters and public infrastructure and immediately became a political force in Wasco County because they wanted to change the politics of the county more to their liking, and they voted. They were mostly Caucasian, educated, and well-off — at least before they donated their personal assets to the commune. The politics of North Central Oregon then were much as they are today, conservative ranchers and farmers with a good sense of what they did want and didn’t want from government; a self-sufficient people who knew that in some things their population and tax base were too small to accomplish projects beneficial to the local populace and worked with the state and federal governments to accomplish projects that served their community.

The Rajneeshees did not care much about the residents whose county they had moved to and thus began to try to change the government to one that met the needs of their cult. First, they started their own municipal government, the town of Rajneeshpuram, and then moved to change the politics of Wasco County to better suit their own political needs.

This desire to change the status quo quickly worked against both the local people and the Rajneeshees themselves when the Rajneeshees resorted to importation of new “voters” from the homeless of Portland, intimidation, and when things still didn’t move fast enough for them, to criminal acts such as poisoning salad bars in local restaurants with salmonella bacteria and conspiring to kill the United States Attorney for Oregon.

Times change, and the Montana that I moved to in 1975 is not the same today. What was a more or less homogenous blend of moderate political thought has separated into warring camps of left and right.

Me? I am far more comfortable in the middle where the majority of political ideas can be accommodated. Montana used to be a place where the only thing that people were judged on was whether they pulled their own weight. Now, it’s divided on where we stand on political issues. That’s not good for anybody. We all ought to be wise enough to know that.

Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.

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