Uncommon Ground


If the two running for election win, it will make three millionaires from Bozeman representing working Montanans

By Mike Jopek

The memory struck me as I knelt in the dirt. “It’s like everything is free,” he said after pondering the question for an uncomfortably long moment. Maybe no one asked him what it’s like being wealthy, I thought, it suddenly felt improper.

He’d shaken his head back and forth, ever so slightly, before answering. My query made him stiffen. That wasn’t my intention. This was my friend. I’d just told him what it felt like being a farmer, working my hands in the soil, growing food for a living.

I understood money, but everything is free caught my attention. I got the free part. Even liked it. I appreciated his simple answer. He’d trusted me with truth.

As a teen, I recalled, the owner of the local general store saying that “money talks and sh*t goes to the dump.” I looked at him puzzled like he’d told me a secret.

Wealth is visible in the valley, performing much work building music schools, skate parks, theaters, or helping kids get a fair shake at growing up.

Generosity is evident in the structures we build, the land we conserve. Much local infrastructure exists because of money. People are good when it comes to local non-profit work.

Eight years ago, Gov. Greg Gianforte reportedly spent over $6 million of his money trying to get elected. After finally gaining the top job in Montana, he promptly outlawed local housing programs in places like Whitefish and Bozeman that guaranteed affordability to workers when big development came marching through our small towns.

Political newcomer Tim Sheehy reportedly spent $1.6 million of his money seeking to oust dirt farmer and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, whose family has worked the same Montana land for 100 years.

Sheehy was handpicked by Gianforte and U.S. Sen. Steve Daines. If the two running for election win, it will make three millionaires from Bozeman representing working Montanans.

Superintendent of Public Education Elsie Arntzen spent $700,000 of her personal money in a primary where Congressman Denny Rehberg put in $300,000 of his money, and State Auditor Troy Downing self-financed with $300,000.

Even President of the Montana Senate, Jason Ellsworth, used $26,000 of his cash on a court clerk race. Rep. Tanner Smith, who’s primarying Gianforte, spent $146,000 of personal money. Good on them, I thought kneeling in the allium aisle, they’re lucky, got money to burn.

These politicians never bluster about how the Legislature targeted massive homeowner property tax increases onto middle class Montanans putting local school levies in danger for decades to follow, kicked 36,000 local kids off healthcare, and never have housing problems as some politicians own multiple mansions. Everything is free, it seemed. It suddenly felt a cheap, unfair generalization.

I’ve never heard my retired neighbor talk politics, yet recently he stated that he works up on the hill all winter just to pay his property taxes, which increased multiple fold over the past years thanks to a sleepy Legislature.

Nowadays in Montana, politicians fly in private jets. Kneeling in the dirt, I wondered how much private jets costs. Earlier politicians cut top-end income taxes helping select constituents while working folks, who hardly ever enjoy that miraculous free concept, face bill after bill.

Imagine, I thought to myself, never worrying about dental bills, massive health insurance deductibles, or how much elder care suddenly cost.

The rain started.

Off in the distance, the prehistoric call of a loon echoed from the wilds near Spencer Mountain. The sound filled the air, eerie, unnerving. My knees became wet from the dirt. I found a piece of cardboard as protection and planted another Ailsa Craig seedling into the ground.

The onions are sweet, recalling their flavor from seasons past. The sugars caramelize when slow fried, how perfect the flavor was on egg sandwiches. I brushed aside the nonsensical idea of free, concentrating on the work. The row was long. Rain would help seedling success. It was a good day for planting.