Wealthy Frenchman

Sunday, August 06, 2006

In the Small Towns of Big Sky


Missoula, Mont.

THE telephone directory for Big Sandy, Mont., lists 10 A’s, and one of them is “ambulance.” Down in the T’s, all nine of them, you find Jon Tester, the organic farmer who is challenging our Republican senator, Conrad Burns, and also the Tumble Weed Gallery, where I talked to a young man who told me to go across the street if I wanted to find out how people in the area feel about the race.

Across the street was Big Sky Auto and Ag, which sells and repairs farm equipment, and behind the counter was a genial, white-bearded man named Leroy Graff.

Mr. Graff, who has lived in Big Sandy for 30 years and knows both candidates well enough to call them by their first names, said he was already disgusted with the tenor of the campaign, specifically the opening Republican volley of TV and radio ads that focused on Mr. Tester’s flattop haircut. In a cornpone accent that sounded like hardly anyone in Montana, an actor posing as Mr. Tester’s barber called him a liberal who is trying to cover up that fact with a conservative haircut — and said he’s a chintzy tipper, to boot.

“I’m so tired of that hash,” said Mr. Graff. “Who cares whether Jon has got a flattop or a shaved head?” A couple of other men in the store nodded their heads. “What I want to know is what’s he going to do in Congress?” Mr. Graff went on. “Let’s worry about the issues, like taking care of the homeless in the United States, for instance.”

Big Sandy is perched on the rolling prairie of north-central Montana in Chouteau County, whose 3,000 or so voters are scattered over an area roughly two-thirds the size of Connecticut. It’s traditionally a Republican county, and Senator Burns carried it by 30 percentage points in 2000 when he ran for a third term against a Democrat challenger, Brian Schweitzer.

But party lines bend. Four years later, when Mr. Schweitzer ran for governor and won, he held the Republican candidate, Bob Brown, to only 54 percent of the vote in the county. In explanation, Mr. Graff said what a lot of Montanans say, which is that he votes for the man, not the party. His own vote in the Senate race will depend pretty directly on how the respective campaigns are conducted, he said.

Bill Graves, the man who has actually been Mr. Tester’s barber for at least 15 years, doesn’t disagree. “He’s got a shot,” he said, after thinking about it for a few long seconds.

Mr. Graves’s shop is an hour’s drive south of Big Sandy in Great Falls, and Mr. Tester shows up there every couple of weeks to get his flattop spiffed.

“About 1954, you saw flattops come in, often with a ducktail and fenders,” Mr. Graves told me. “I still cut a lot of flattops; I always have. It’s my best haircut.” He adjusted his yellow-tinted aviator glasses and ran his comb through the donnish graying hair of his customer, Dick Wilmot, a retired schoolteacher who now runs a painting business.

“Don’t you dare,” Mr. Wilmot said. “My wife would kill me.”

The Republican haircut ads didn’t sit well with Mr. Graves, who now refers to himself as the Real Barber. The ads were “phony, lies, cheap shots,” he said. “I thought there was a war going on in Iraq, for crying out loud,” Mr. Wilmot said.

“Something like $65 billion was just appropriated to fight that war,” Mr. Graves added. “And they want to talk about a haircut?”


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