About 75 people turned out Wednesday night for a “Third Party Throwdown” at Yellowstone Valley Brewing Co.’s Garage Pub, but it seems safe to say that neither Gary Johnson nor Jill Stein was the main attraction.
That would have been Yellowstoned, a band that describes itself as a psychedelic reggae dub-hop collective. Others were there for opening acts that played folk music and hip hop.
Still, there were at least two strong supporters of Stein, the Green Party’s presidential candidate, and a dozen or more advocates of Johnson, the Libertarian Party’s standard barrier.
Brian Bolton, who is coordinating the Stein campaign in Billings and was manning a Green Party table at the throwdown with Nadine Smith, figured that 40 percent of the people in attendance (low in our estimation) were there for the music.
“But those are the people we’re trying to reach,” he said, “the people who don’t realize there are candidates besides the ones they see on the news.”
The event was organized by Bolton and Andrew Forcier, the Montana outreach coordinator for the Johnson campaign and a Libertarian candidate in state House District 57.
Johnson, a former governor of New Mexico, is running with vice presidential candidate William Weld, a former governor of Massachusetts. When Johnson ran for president in 2012, he won 1 percent of the national vote. This year, some polls have put support for the Libertarian ticket as high as 15 percent.
Stein, a physician from Massachusetts, captured less than a third of 1 percent of the votes in 2012 and has been hovering around 3 percent in the latest polls. Her running mate is Ajamu Baraka, a human rights activist originally from Chicago.
Supporters of both candidates said Wednesday that this could be a big year for third parties, given the widespread disenchantment with the big parties’ presidential candidates—Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Forcier said the Garage Pub throwdown marked the first time the Billings Libertarians collaborated with the Billings Greens. There are some big differences between the two parties, he said, but “we each want to see dramatic changes in the way elections function.”
The throwdown was not a fundraiser, just an awareness-raising event, Forcier said. When he’s knocking on doors in his House race, he said, people might say they know nothing about the Libertarian Party.
“And when I describe was a Libertarian is”—the party generally favors small, efficient government, personal freedom, low taxes and balanced budgets—”they say, ‘Hey, that’s me.'”
As for Stein, Forcier said her criticism of “crony capitalism” resonates strongly with Libertarians. And on social media, whether she’s writing everything herself or is getting help, her incessant, stinging criticism of the two major parties is brilliant, Forcier said.
Bolton, the Stein coordinator in Billings, has been a supporter of Ralph Nader and Ron Paul in the past, and this year was supporting Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential campaign, until Sanders dropped out of the race.
“I basically felt really disenfranchised by the DNC,” or Democratic National Committee, he said. He thinks he’s in good company: “Really, nobody likes the candidates the two parties put together.”
He said Stein, with her calls for expanded public health care and the erasure of student debt, “is really appealing to the Bernie crowd,” and people sense that “she tries to speak for those of us out here actually doing the work.”
Although he supports some of the Libertarian platform, Bolton said, he is concerned about Johnson’s seeming support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed trade agreement between the United States and 11 other Pacific Rim countries.
Sometimes Johnson is mum on the subject but sometimes he seems to support it, Bolton said, “whereas Jill Stein has been adamant from Day 1 that TPP is a bad idea.”
Two other state House candidates besides Forcier were on hand Wednesday. Daniel Zolnikov, a Republican who represents HD 45, is seeking his third term this year. Reason.com said Zolniknov and a fellow House member from Western Montana became the first Republican state legislators to formally endorse the Johnson-Weld ticket, which they did in late July.
In Montana, Zolnikov said, there isn’t much difference between Libertarians and Republicans, because so many Republicans here are strong supporters of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. And though he probably would find little if anything to support on the Green Party platform, he said, he’s always open to discussing politics.
“I think it’s good to go everywhere and talk to everybody,” he said.
The other House candidate at the throwdown was Kari Boiter, a Democrat challenging the Republican incumbent in HD 44. Boiter, who delivered a rousing introduction for Sanders when he brought his campaign to Billings in May, said she attended Wednesday’s event because she likes to support local artists, including musicians, and likes to be around “other engaged citizens.”
On the campaign trail, she said, “the overwhelming message is that people are not happy with the presidential candidates” put up by the major parties, to the point of discouraging people from voting at all.
She said she tells people feeling that way that they don’t have to vote for a presidential candidate but should be voting in statewide and local races that are more likely to affect their lives anyway.
Boiter said she asked one voter what his hopes were for this election. “I just don’t want to be put in a camp,” he told her. That startling admission, she said, shows how important it is for reasonable people to start talking to one another, to counteract the hyper-partisan, strongly negative temper of national politics.
One officially nonpartisan politician at the throwdown was Mike Schoenike, a member of the Red Lodge City Council. He said he has been “a fairly open Johnson supporter” but he tries to keep his politics low key in Carbon County, since City Council candidates are supposed to be nonpartisan.
Schoenike, who said he voted for Johnson in 2012 and attended the Libertarian Party convention in Orlando, Fla., this year, described himself as a “a very moderate, pragmatic Libertarian.” For him, he said, the big attraction of Libertarianism is “the live-and-let-live mentality.”
There are no expectations to follow the party line, he said. “You believe what you believe. You’ve got to be true that.”
One Republican fed up with his party was Josiah Loven, who was chairman of the Yellowstone County Republican Party in 2014-15. He’s supporting Johnson this year, he said, because “I don’t think the Republicans have continued to support liberty in the way they always had.”
Loven said he had been supporting Rand Paul during the Republican primary, and when Paul dropped out, “I was all in for the Libertarians.”
Like so many others at the throwdown, Loven predicted this will be a banner year for third parties.
“I think a lot of people are going to be looking at new options for the first time,” he said.
Dan Rice, a Miles City bar owner who is also the city attorney there and the part-time Prairie County attorney, said he gave up on the state Republican Party over its opposition to same-sex marriage, despite a U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding that right.
He said that right seemed as fundamental to him as the right of people to marry someone of a different race. The Trump candidacy really pushed him over the edge, he said, and his law partner suggested he look into the Libertarian Party.
He did, and he liked what he saw. In August he called Mike Fellows, the state Libertarian Party chairman who was making his eighth run for Montana’s U.S. House seat. Fellows, who was killed in a car wreck last week, put him in touch with Forcier, who reinforced his support of Libertarianism.
Since then, Rice said, his Trails Inn Bar has become the informal center of the Johnson-Weld campaign in Miles City, the place where people go to get campaign T-shirts and yard signs.
Forcier said Fellows was the animating spirit of Libertarianism in Montana for many, many years. His big contribution was getting on the ballot and encouraging others to do so, so that the party was more than just a presidential candidate.
“The great thing about Mike was, he forced people to take him seriously,” Forcier said.