Prairie Lights: In the age of Trump, a new kind of elector

Doozy

Montana sends three delegates to the Electoral College. This year, one of them is a doozy.

My, how things have changed in six short years.

In 2010, as you may recall, Tim Ravndal, the president of the Big Sky Tea Party Association, was ejected from the group because of comments he made on Facebook that appeared to endorse the murder of gay people.

Ed

Ed Kemmick

Ravndal did not himself make the most inflammatory statements in that Facebook exchange, but even his apparent support of what another person said compelled the state Tea Party, extreme as it was in some of its views, to give him the boot.

Well, here we are in 2016, and guess what? The man who actually made the comments that landed Ravndal in hot water is one of the three Montana delegates to the U.S. Electoral College.

That man is Dennis Scranton, who lives in Miles City. In that Facebook exchange six years ago, Ravndal had expressed his outrage over gay marriage, to which Scranton responded: “I think fruits are decorative. Hang up where they can be seen and appreciated. Call Wyoming for display instructions.”

Ravndal asked where he could get the “Wyoming instruction manual,” and Scranton suggested he go into the archives of the Billings Gazette, “a bit over 10 years ago.”

It was widely assumed that he was referring to the murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man who was tortured, beaten and found tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyo., and who later died of his injuries. He was murdered in 1998, 12 years before the exchange between Scranton and Ravndal.

Ravndal said he didn’t make the connection between Scranton’s comments and the murder of Shepard, but the state Tea Party obviously didn’t believe that story.

I’ll give Scranton this much credit: When I called him Saturday, he didn’t shy away from his remarks, apologize for them, claim he was misquoted or deny being a homophobe. If anything, he doubled down.

I remembered Scranton well because of the imbroglio in 2010, but also because he used to write to me occasionally when I worked at the Gazette, sometimes to make veiled threats and sometimes to spew unadulterated bigotry.

When I called him Saturday, he didn’t seem to remember me, even when I identified myself and said I used to work for the Gazette and was now running my own online newspaper. One of his first comments was high praise for Donald Trump.

“I thought he was a pretty good man. Now I know it,” he said. “He’s gonna send all the liberals clear out of the country. That probably includes you if you worked for the Gazette.”

When I told him what I was calling about, and asked him about his comments back in 2010, he said, “I’m 92 years old. I’m a veteran of World War II. I’m not one of these politically correct bastards. … I don’t like fruitcakes, I don’t like Democrats and I don’t like liberal lies. They didn’t have fruitcakes where I grew up.”

In case you’re thinking that perhaps “fruitcakes” is just another word for Democrats or liberals, Scranton was more specific a little later in our conversation. He had the kind of phone that works like a walkie-talkie, meaning only one person can speak at a time, and there were some odd gaps in our conversation, so I missed the first part of this passage, but the meaning is plain enough:

“… hang ’em on a fence. That’s what they need. I don’t like queers.”

Many people have asked how, in a country of 320 million people, we ended up with presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. I will ask how, in a state of 1 million people, we ended up with Dennis Scranton as one of our three presidential electors.

Scranton himself wasn’t sure. He told me he thought he’d been chosen by Republican legislators at some kind of meeting in June or July, which he did not attend, and was only informed of his selection after the fact.

State Sen. Jeff Essmann, chairman of the Montana GOP, cleared up some of the details. Until 2015, he said, the party used a nominating committee to put up candidates for delegates to the national party convention and delegates to the Electoral College.

At the 2015 state convention, he said, that practice was eliminated, replaced by a system in which delegates are nominated from the floor during the delegate convention, which this year was held in Missoula in May.

It’s all pretty confusing and complicated, Essmann said, because each county’s GOP central committee can send as many people as they wish to the delegate convention. To balance out the balloting, he said, votes are weighted according to how many votes were cast in each county for the GOP governor candidate in the most recent election.

Essmann said he was too busy riding herd on the process and tabulating votes to pay much attention to the actual nominees. (The other two presidential electors selected that day were Thelma Baker and Nancy Ballance.)

As for Scranton, he said, “All I can recall hearing about him when he was nominated was that he was a 92-year-old World War II veteran who was a big Donald Trump supporter.” And if that’s all he knew, Essmann added, he’s guessing that most delegates knew little more.

Essmann didn’t defend Scranton’s remarks, saying only that when people reach a certain age, they tend to follow one of two paths—deciding that the things they cared about deeply when they were young don’t matter much anymore, or thinking, “I can say whatever the hell I want and the rest of the world be damned.”

“I guess Mr. Scranton has followed the second path,” he said. Also, he added, being a presidential elector “is strictly a ceremonial function, and I hope people remember that.”

Under the old nominating system, Essmann said, people were usually chosen as delegates to the convention or to the Electoral College as a reward for long service to the party, or for having served distinguished careers as elected officials.

Now, who knows what lies behind the nominations? Essmann said there is probably a record of who nominated Scranton, but he couldn’t lay his hands on it this weekend. I hope someone does, and that the nominator is asked to explain that action.

In the meantime, whether or not the position is purely ceremonial, it would seem to be prudent for the state GOP to rescind Scranton’s selection and choose a more fitting delegate.

Although, let’s face it: in the age of Trump, Dennis Scranton might be the most fitting delegate there is.

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