Montana Viewpoint

November 8, 2004

There used to be a witty saying that went, “sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits.” As a guy who’s spent a lot of hours keeping a tractor seat warm, I envy anybody who can “just sit.” Me, I get bored, so I do a lot of thinking to pass the time. Actually, ruminating is probably a better term than thinking, because I tend to chew on a particular line of thought for hours on end.

Sometimes I share the benefit of my ruminations with captive audiences such as passengers in my pickup. Given that their choice is between listening to me or bailing out of a moving vehicle, I may have an elevated opinion of my ability to hold their attention, but who am I to disparage myself when others can do it for me?

A while back I was treating my daughter to a philosophical pickup monologue about the nature of political power and how it relates to elected officials, when she suggested I write an article about it. It may have been just a way to change the subject, but the idea appealed to me, and so here it is. Remember, if this bores you it’s my daughter’s fault.

Over my years in public office I’ve observed in myself and other politicians the conceit that we are very powerful people. Well, when people—even if they are lobbyists—are falling all over themselves to get on your good side, it’s easy to get hoodwinked into believing some pretty flattering notions about yourself.

My moment of awakening came eight years ago when I decided to not run for re-election to the Montana House of Representatives, and made the mistake of letting it be known long before my term was up.

For years I’d been trying to get a second game warden for my neck of the woods, and I’d been promised by the Director of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks that my district would get the first one available. Imagine my chagrin, then, when I overheard this same Director giving my game warden to another legislator.

I confronted him with his promise and his response revealed to me the true meaning of being a lame duck legislator; “sorry, Jim; you’re out of here.” It was a not very tactful way of letting me know that I had as much power as a hoppy toad on a highway.

So that was the moment when I realized that there was a big difference in the power of Jim Elliott the citizen compared to the power of Jim Elliott the State Representative. I didn’t have the power, the office had the power, and I had the borrow of it only as long as I held the office. Out of the Legislature and back on the tractor, I ruminated on this.

I believe that every person has a certain amount of political power just because they can influence an election with their vote. The elected office has the collected power of its constituents, and it is the they who bestow the use of their collective power on the person they elect to that office. It’s on loan, and if it’s used well, the officeholder can use it as long as he wants. Used poorly, it’s back to the tractor seat.

But still, we refer to an office holder as being a very “powerful” person. What’s that mean? I think it means that they are a very “capable” person—capable of using that power of the office to its greatest advantage. They understand power and how to use it. We hope, of course, that they use it to make life better for the people who gave it to them, but that’s not always the case.

If you doubt the power of the individual voter, consider this: today, the control of the entire Montana House of Representatives hangs on the vote of one person from Polson. The State Representative race in Polson has Rick Jore of the Constitutionalist Party ahead by one vote. There will be a recount, and the race could go to the Democratic candidate Jeanne Windham. If Windham wins, the House of Representatives will be split 50-50, and control should go to the party of the Governor, a Democrat.

If Jore wins, it will be 50 Republicans, 49 Democrats, and 1 Constitutionalist. Because Democrats now hold the Senate and the Governor’s office, one vote will determine the course of the Montana Legislature for the next two years. One vote. That’s power!


Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620