Prairie Lights: A light lament for a lack of character(s)

Meet

Maybe your Last Best News correspondent is kidding himself, but there seemed to have been more characters, and livelier public meetings, in the old days.

Now that the election is over and we know who the new City Council members will be, I wish them all well and godspeed.

We appear to have a good crop of people and perhaps we can look forward to some good things getting done, which might give us some reason to believe — national politics notwithstanding — that there is hope for our system of government.

Ed Kemmick

Ed Kemmick

Even so, can I say that I find something lacking in the incoming council? And that I have found something lacking for too many years now?

I refer to the distinct lack of characters among our local elected leaders, a lack of eccentricity and even of crankiness, which was a common trait among the oddball politicians of an earlier day.

The Missoula City Council was the first one I covered, as a student at the University of Montana in the 1970s, and in those days the council’s preeminent character was Stan Healy, a former newspaper photographer and lifelong resident of Missoula’s Northside.

He was a born contrarian and storyteller who alternately delighted and exasperated his colleagues — and the young reporters in training who had a deadline to meet and would squirm in agony as he dragged the proceedings out with his yarns and frequent interjections.

My first full-time reporting job was in Anaconda, which I covered for the Montana Standard in Butte. Anaconda had a combined city-county form of government, with a three-person city-county commission. When I covered it, two of the commissioners were Darcy DeLong and Dupe (pronounced Doo-pee) Fitzpatrick.

I was told by many people that Dupe, who like almost everyone else in Anaconda was known only by his nickname, had been elected to the commission because his real first name (which I forget) appeared on the ballot, and most people thought they were voting for his brother.

Once elected, Dupe didn’t show much interest in the commission, which he demonstrated by falling asleep several times a meeting. On numerous occasions — and I swear this is true — Dupe would snooze right through public testimony and then, when it was time for a vote, DeLong would kick his feet under the table. Dupe would wake with a start, find out they were voting and look to DeLong, who would either nod or shake his head, so Dupe knew which way to vote.

He wasn’t corrupt, he was just very sleepy, and he had learned to trust DeLong’s guidance.

When I moved over to Butte, I worked as an editor for a while before going back to reporting, covering the courthouse beat. I don’t think I ever did cover the Butte-Silver Bow Commission (consolidated, like Anaconda-Deer Lodge), but I did fill in a few times to cover the city council in Walkerville, the incorporated little burg that sat on the hill above Butte.

I don’t remember any characters on the council itself, but I’ll never forget the clerk who kept the council minutes. She generally wore pearls, as I recall, and she painted her lips with the brightest-red lipstick I’d ever seen. And she smoked, virtually nonstop, so that what you saw from the public-seating area was this creature in white pearls and red lips, enveloped in smoke and scratching furiously away at a notepad.

In Billings, when I began covering the City Council in 1996, there were three prime characters, two on the council and one beside me on the reporters bench. The councilmen were John Michunovich, a fierce-looking but rather pleasant old Serb, and Michael Deisz, a congenitally unpleasant little fireplug.

On the bench with me was Red Welsh, who had worked as an insurance agent, secretary-treasurer for the Billings Brewery and TV weatherman. For many years he also covered the council, first for the Yellowstone County News and later for the Billings Times.

He had attended more meetings than all the council members combined, so his patience was rather short. If some public official rambled on too long, Red would bang his fist on the counter and mutter, just loud enough for everyone on the council to hear, “Come on!” or “Hurry it up!”

Michunovich, for his part, was an old-school pol who made city politics his full-time retirement project. He was the kind of councilman who would drive around his ward, alleys included, looking for things that needed improving, or blights that needed a visit from code enforcement.

He was stingy with taxpayer money, mistrustful of “expert” testimony and uncomfortable being in the majority on anything. He much preferred hamstringing those who were in the majority, and he was fearless to a fault in his criticism of others, including his colleagues.

Deisz was not just critical of his colleagues. He had a chip on his shoulder against much of the human race, and used the bully pulpit of the council to take his revenge on anyone and everyone. He was intemperate, mean-spirited, shrill and, despite all, damned fun to cover.

He was so convinced of the righteousness of his causes, and they were many, that it was hard to really dislike him. And let’s face it, reporters love anyone who interrupts the tedium of a typical council meeting, or who is constantly forcing an issue onto the front page by reason of his outrageous personality quirks.

That is the redeeming feature of the assorted cranks and larger-than-life characters I’ve covered over the years. Democracy needs to be leavened with characters, the kind of politicians who make people take notice of politics, who draw the attention of regular citizens to the ins and outs of political deal-making.

God knows that in the era of Trump we should be careful what we wish for, but that is what I miss in these calmer days in the history of municipal politics.

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