Mr. Wire Goes to Helena

By BOB WIRE

Everyone complains about the government, but I decided to do something about it. I found myself in Helena to play a concert on March 5, so the next day I spent the afternoon at the Capitol to see what the hell was going on there, and how I could help straighten things out.

The Friday I wandered into the Capitol happened to be Legislative Lobby Day, organized by the group Montana Women Vote. When I walked into the first floor lobby, camera around my neck, clutching a notebook, I had no idea what to expect. I was completely uncredentialed, not even a flag pin. It was 11:30, and being neither a woman nor a lobbyist, I felt like a male fish constituent out of water. The atmosphere was like a cocktail party at Claire Underwood’s townhouse.

In my typical fashion, I did zero preparation for this visit. I didn’t brush up on the issues, familiarize myself with the schedule, or even tell anyone I was coming. I thought I’d just be a fly on the wall and soak it up. You know, watch that sausage being made. I like sausage.

The first thing I did was approach a couple of security cops and ask if it was okay if I observed the legislative session. When in a strange place, I always connect with the cops right off the bat so they think I’m on their side. Kind of like Travis Bickle approaching that Secret Service guy in Taxi Driver. The cop said I could watch from the House gallery after they returned from lunch at 1:00. I found a bench to warm.

Within five minutes I was made. Nathan Kostad approaches and says, “You look like a guy I interact with on Twitter.” He asks if I’m there to cover any particular bill. Not really, I tell him. I don’t know dick about shit. He looks off into the crowd. “Most people don’t.” He tells me about the Medicare expansion debate, which will be at 3:00. “Should get interesting.”

(Neither one of us know at this point that even if Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz and Ted Nugent showed up to juggle chainsaws and exhort the committee members to vote for Medicare expansion, the House GOP had already decided to ignore the testimony and nix the bill.)

Rather than take Nathan’s advice to “just grab a legislator and start talking,” I push through the throng of lobbying women and climb the stairs to the third floor. Much less crowded here. A lot of old white men wandering around. I stop a lady by the elevator who looks in the know, and ask her where I can find the Minority Whip’s office. I want to say hi to Bryce Bennett. “You mean the Senate Whip?” No, I say, the Orange Whip. Nothing. Apparently she’s not a Blues Brothers fan. “Well,” she says with a smile, “go down this hallway and turn left and keep walking ’til you reach the House side of the building.” Whoops. Wrong legislative body. I don’t know any state senators so I beat feet.

Geese

Here I am with Rep. Ellie Boldman Hill, HD 90. She’s the one on theleft.

At the Minority Whip office, they tell me Bryce is off somewhere, giving a speech. That must have been the action on the front steps when I came in. Ah, well, I’ll see if I can find Ellie Hill and say hi.

I walk past the chamber until I hit a restricted area. A surly-looking dude is standing at the doorway to the anteroom or whatever it is, where the legislators are milling around, waiting to take their spots in the Chamber. He ignores me. When a woman nearby compliments him on his colorful kerchief, he steps away from his post to give her a closer look. I slip through the entryway, as I hear her saying, “Instead of banning yoga pants, they should require all pages to wear a bright kerchief like this.”

“Bob, there you are!” It’s Ellie, who takes me by the arm a leads me down a hallway into the House floor. “I’m going to introduce you to the House from the floor.” Say what now? I was just looking for a hug and a selfie. She gives me a quick tour of the Chamber and points out the massive Charlie Russell painting at the head of the room. “Sit right up there in the gallery and I’ll introduce you,” she says. I’m wondering if this is a good idea, after the semi-viral video I’d made lampooning the GOP’s proposed dress code a couple months ago. “Don’t worry about it,” she says. After a couple of quick photos, we part.

True to her word, Ellie gives me a glowing introduction, mentioning my book, Montana Curiosities, and generally making me sound like a model American. The legislators seem to tolerate my presence and give me a polite round of applause. I look down and wave at Bryce Bennett, who is adding to his collection of Red Bull cans.

I hang around and listen to the debate on the Raw Milk Bill, which will enable dairy farmers to sell unpasteurized milk directly to the public. Rep. Nancy Ballance, wearing a cow-print fleece vest, stands up to testify. A handful of legislators, I swear to god, begin to moo.

Several Representatives speak out on the bill. On the surface, it seems to run counter to the idea of public health. This concern is backed up by several legislators who cite CDC statistics and scientific evidence. Most of those arguing in support of raw milk look like Wilford Brimley, and typically begin their testimony with, “Well, when I was a kid…” and go on to explain how they grew up suckling directly from Bessie’s teat, and that raw milk tastes like freedom. Despite the fact that raw milk is 150 more times likely to cause an outbreak of disease than pasteurized milk, the bill passes its second reading.

I leave the gallery after the dairy debate and return to the first floor, where I run into my friend Ben Lamb. He’s there to lobby against the Federal Land Transfer Bill. “You want to testify at the hearing?” he asks. I repeat my assertion that I don’t know squat about crap, and we grab some pine where he spends 20 minutes laying it out for me.

“Well, that’s a stupid bill,” I say. “If the state takes over the public lands, we’ll have to foot the bill for all the firefighting, and they’ll wind up selling off public lands to the extractive industries to cover the budget shortfall. I’m guessing the energy companies are pushing for this.”

“Koch Brothers,” Ben coughs into his fist. “Look, you don’t have to be long-winded in the hearing. They like it short and sweet. Just say your name, you’re an independent businessman from Missoula, and this is a bad bill.”

Unfortunately, before I got the chance to testify, it was time to leave. I had to get to Parker’s Restaurant in Drummond and choose from their menu of 135 hamburgers. No, that is not a typo. I had the Crab Louie Burger, which uses real crab.

I did not order the milk.

   Check out all of Bob Wire’s posts in his blogarchive.

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Have an off-white Christmas with Bob Wire.Think of it as Gonzo meets Hee Haw: Missoula honky tonker Bob Wire holds forth on a unique life filled with music, parenthood, drinking, sports, working, marriage, drinking, and just navigating the twisted wreckage of American culture. Plus occasional grooming tips. Like the best humor, it’s not for everyone. Sometimes silly, sometimes surreal, sometimes savage, Bob Wire demands that you possess a good sense of humor and an openmind.

Bob Wire has written more than 500 humor columns for a regional website over the last five years, and his writing has appeared in the Missoulian, the Missoula Independent, Montana Magazine, and his own Bob Wire Has a Point Blog. He is a prolific songwriter, and has recorded three CDs of original material with his Montana band, the Magnificent Bastards. His previous band, the Fencemenders, was a popular fixture at area clubs. They were voted Best Local Band twice by the Missoula Independent readers poll. Bob was voted the Trail 103.3/Missoulian Entertainer of the Year in 2007.

You can hear his music on his website, or download it at iTunes, Amazon, and other online music providers. Follow @Bob_Wire on Twitter.

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