Life And Death On The Montana Campaign Trail

At a small community hall in Seeley Lake Monday night, Libertarian candidate for the U.S. House Mike Fellows shared his views at a sparsely-attended candidates forum.

Fellows wore a dark suit jacket over a light blue collared shirt, an American flag tie wrapped loosely around his neck. He moved about slowly and with help from a metal walker. He hadn’t been feeling well lately and had had to skip a debate in Billings August 29th because of his health.

Monday night he said Republicans and Democrats in Congress don’t do a very good job working together.

“And that is something we don’t often do. The Democrats and Republicans in Congress, the fight over which issues they want to support. But if they finally came together and agreed on these issues we’d finally get things done. Of course Libertarians support this notion of responsibility. If you don’t infringe on your neighbor, why do we need more regulations?”

Hours later, Fellows would be killed in a car accident on Highway 200.

The candidate forum that was his last public appearance started informally. Pizza and soda were served out of a kitchen in the back of the room. Donations were encouraged.

The two dozen people at the event filled less than half of the available seats. Candidates took turns speaking to the public from behind a plastic collapsible table placed in front of the room.

The forum was open to candidates running for the U.S. House, governor, attorney general, secretary of state, and the Supreme Court. About half the candidates invited attended.

Mike Cooney showed. He’s running for lieutenant governor with incumbent Democratic Governor Steve Bullock.

Democrat Larry Jent showed up representing the attorney general race.

And both candidates for the contested Supreme Court seat were at the event.

So was Republican Corey Stapleton, a candidate in the secretary of state race. His opponent, Monica Lindeen, originally said she would be there, but her campaign said she had a change of schedule at the last minute due to an event involving her current position as state auditor.

Klaus von Stutterheim with the Seeley Lake Community Council organized the event.

“I’m very disappointed that we didn’t have near as many people as we usually have. We have half the crowd we usually have, and there was a competing event that couldn’t be changed so that is disappointing. And, as I said in the beginning, not all the candidates showed up.”

Klaus says he’s frustrated by the low turnout of candidates. He says getting them together in the same place to discuss their beliefs and how they would serve is more difficult than herding cats in an election season. But he says he understands that candidates for public office are busy campaigning.

“We’re really grateful for the candidates that did show up, because they running all over the state and as I said tongue in cheek, Seeley Lake is not the navel of the universe, so we are glad they showed up.”

The forum was competing for the public’s attention with Monday night football, the second gubernatorial debate, and a community barbeque going on in Seeley Lake.

During the two-and-a-half-hour forum, community members could ask candidates questions directly. Ken Kronsperger from Seeley Lake, says he appreciates  this kind of event as he tries to educate himself on the candidates.

Kronsperger says he’s an independent voter and he likes to talk with a candidate face to face, if he has the chance.

“A party doesn’t make a candidate good or bad, party is just a label somebody put on them. So, I don’t vote party lines. Newspapers are so biased anymore that’s I don’t like to go to that except for the comics and the editorial pages. I watch news on television and get most of my information there. And these forum also help me figure things out.”

Next week, Seeley Lake will host another candidate forum. Klaus von Stutterheim says public and candidate turnout should be better at that event.

“So we’re going to have state auditor, superintendent of public education, Public Service Commission, county commissioner, state Senate and state House. And they are all coming except for one candidate.”

Democrat Melissa Romano in the superintendent of public instruction race has not accepted the invitation.

This election season, the gubernatorial candidates and Ryan Zinke and Denise Juneau in the U.S. House race have each debated twice in events hosted by local newspapers, tv and radio stations.

Montana Television Network has hosted mini debates on their weekly public affairs program featuring the candidates in the attorney general and secretary of state contests, but there are no plans for future debates with those candidates.

For many voters, these events may be the only opportunity they have to interact with candidates beyond reading their names in an occasional headline, or on yard signs stuck in a neighbor’s front yard, or printed in the November ballot.

According to longtime Montana state government and politics reporter Chuck Johnson, since 1988, four Montana political candidates have died on the campaign trail.

Johnson tweeted Tuesday, “Our political candidates put their lives on the line driving and flying across this vast state in all kinds of weather to meet with us.”

Libertarian candidate Mike Fellows was 59 years old.

From Montana Public Radio