Red necks, white votes, blue collars

by Ari LeVaux

The burgers were union-made on July 4 in Butte, Mont., where the Obama family celebrated the birthday of daughter, Malia, and their country.

Montana Sen. Max Baucus introduced Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who introduced Michelle Obama, who, after leading the crowd through a nearly on-key rendition of “Happy Birthday,” introduced her husband, Barack.

The candidate stumped for a few minutes, dosing the easy crowd with some of his oratory Kool-Aid before announcing, “Now I’m gonna get myself a hot dog.”

Across the field, in an area where grills were set up, some brothers were flipping burgers and brats – brothers, as in the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America (Local 112) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (Local 44), both of which had volunteered to staff the grills on behalf of the Democrats’ presumptive nominee.

When Obama quit talking, the brothers with spatulas issued a collective “oh shit” as the hungry crowd turned toward them. As the swarm organized into a rapidly extending queue, Al Wilson, of Local 302 in Martinez, Calif., arrived back at his grill, ecstatic.

“That was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” gushed Wilson, who’s in Montana wiring windmill turbines.

“Oh yeah, you’ve never seen Obama speak before?” deadpanned Bob Brock, of Local 44 (this was Obama’s second trip to Butte, and fourth to Montana).

I asked Wilson if he thought union workers who had supported Clinton might vote for McCain in protest.

“Every union member I know is going to vote Democratic. Every one, because we know that when Republicans get in …,” he paused to flip a burger.

“Al, we’ve got a situation,” said a young woman with the Obama campaign, bursting in. “We need four cheeseburgers, with – hang on ….” She got on her radio: “Hey, what does Malia want on her burger? No, just tell me what Malia wants … thanks.” Turning to Al again she reported, “We need four plain cheeseburgers.”

Barack, meanwhile, was holding court at a smaller grill across the field, by the stump, where he chatted with supporters as he flipped burgers and brats, laid them on buns, customized the sauce levels, and handed them out.

Watching the show, I realized I was standing next to Gov. Schweitzer. “Mr. Governor,” I asked, “do you or Sen. Obama have any special surprise announcements lined up for this afternoon?”

(It’s no secret that many believe Schweitzer, as a vice-presidential running mate, could help deliver key redneck states to Obama.)

“I already made my special announcement,” Schweitzer said enthusiastically, referring to his earlier introduction of Michelle.

Barack, meanwhile, had served his last cheeseburger and made off toward his bus. The governor headed for Obama’s grill, telling me “Hey, don’t you go write that I’m gonna get me a sausage with nothing on it!”

“Er…OK…what are you going to have on your sausage?”


I wasn’t sure what to make of that. When I caught up to him at a picnic table, he’d flip-flopped, and was eating a burger instead, also plain.

For several reasons, including aesthetic, I hate to interrupt a man eating his burger. But I wanted to ask the governor of Montana – which is home to more cows than people – about the fact that cows produce so much methane, one of the worst greenhouse gases.

I hadn’t gotten far when the governor, without missing a bite, cut me off.

“The Great Plains have always been full of elk, antelope and buffalo,” he said. “Grass-eating, methane-producing ruminants are part of the natural landscape of Montana.”

Quick to defend the cattle of his state against accusations of global warming, the governor didn’t hesitate to blame some for dysfunctions in the management of the last wild herd of buffalo in America.

At issue is brucellosis, a disease carried by cows, elk and buffalo that can cause cows to miscarry their firstborn calves. Montana’s second case of brucellosis was recently reported, a fact that will cost the state its economically important brucellosis-free status.

In a misguided attempt to prevent brucellosis transmission, last winter Montana Department of Livestock agents killed more than 1,600 buffalo as they roamed across Yellowstone National Park boundaries onto private land, in search of food.

But the largest buffalo slaughter since the 19th century couldn’t prevent the infection that cost Montana its brucellosis-free status. That infection was transmitted via elk, not buffalo.

Schweitzer agreed the situation is a total mess.

“The Interagency Bison Management Plan was crafted by state and federal agencies – frankly, a bunch of lawyers and lobbyists who knew nothing about disease management,” he said. “This is a document that has everything to do with chasing buffalo around and not managing a disease. If you’re managing a disease then you manage all the species with the disease, and cattle are the easiest of all of to modify their behavior and location.”

Change was certainly in the air that afternoon in Butte, in a state where Obama holds a five-point lead over McCain in recent polls. Perhaps Montana’s rednecks, white votes and blue-collar brothers will swing the ruminant state for the senator from Illinois.

The governor wiped his hands and went schmoozing. I got myself a brat, with everything on it, and ate that juicy thing alone. It’s no wonder that public figures, from Malia Obama to Brian Schweitzer, take their burgers and dogs plain when they’re on the stump.

Schmoozing is compromised when you’re holding a messy half-eaten burger, with mustard on your face and catsup on your fingers. For this reason alone, I’d probably make a terrible politician. •