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Once Fierce Rivals, Bradley and Racicot Meet In West's Radical Middle

Dorothy Bradley, a Montanan who narrowly lost to Marc Racicot in governor's race, has penned book of reflections on what she thinks is missing from American politics

Dorothy Bradley, left, and her Republican rival, Marc Racicot, who narrowly defeated her to win the Montana governor's race in 1992. They came together in June to endorse Independent candidate Gary Buchanan, a businessperson from Billings, Montana who is challenging incumbent Congressman Matt Rosendale to represent eastern Montanan. Photo courtesy Gary Buchanan for Congress campaign.
Dorothy Bradley, left, and her Republican rival, Marc Racicot, who narrowly defeated her to win the Montana governor's race in 1992. They came together in June to endorse Independent candidate Gary Buchanan, a businessperson from Billings, Montana who is challenging incumbent Congressman Matt Rosendale to represent eastern Montanan. Photo courtesy Gary Buchanan for Congress campaign.

by Todd Wilkinson

Only hours before the polls closed in November 1992, Dorothy Bradley of Bozeman was on the cusp of making history as the first woman elected governor in Montana. But then mail-in ballots started to be counted favoring her opponent. Celebration abruptly turned from victory in sight into disappointing concession.

But voters had spoken, Bradley said, and so she made the customary call to Marc Racicot as a gesture of respect, tact, tradition, grace, and a teaching moment to those who supported her. 

In the face of a high-profile defeat few citizens can ever understand, Bradley, following her loss to Racicot, received several job offers, including feelers sent out from the Clinton Administration about possibly going back to Washington DC. 

Bradley, however, did not want to leave her beloved Montana.

What did she do? 

She quietly drove out of Bozeman headed east toward a community that had left an impression on her. There, in the town of Ashland on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, she also received a second dose of humility—one more meaningful than her bruising gubernatorial setback.  

Bradley signed up to be a grade school substitute teacher and although she had to confess that in the beginning she wasn’t very good at the job, she learned. 

Right about now, in summer 2022, are you feeling stressed and cynical about how to deal with the uncivil divide tearing our country apart? Have you lost faith in the ability of politicians to not behave as if they are brainwashed members of a cult that rewards them every time they distort the truth? 

Maybe a better question to ask is this: were America and states in the interior West to press a reset button, returning decision-making back to the realm of the “radical middle”—where the best and most lasting public policy has always been crafted—what would the people inhabiting such a space look like?

Bradley offers us a glimpse in a new book of reflections. It’s not a thick, preachy tome or a treatise.  “In Celebration” is only 68 pages long and you can breeze through it in a day but its stories stay with you. After reading it, you will derive comfort from the thought that, not so long ago, the realm of politics was not as bat-guano crazy as it is now.

Today, Bradley lives in the shadows of the Crazy Mountains; by her own admission, she’s in the twilight of her life. Once among of the most prominent woman in ascent in Northern Rockies politics, she’s been pursuing a less conspicuous existence in recent years. 

Recently, it was a joy to see her re-emerge, becoming a catalyst for helping many citizens in southwest Montana understand the importance of why wilderness is not only vital for protecting biodiversity and the essence of this state. Safeguarding public wildlands, like those in the Gallatin Range and other parts of Greater Yellowstone, is our gift to future generations, she says. Yes, in case you’re wondering, Bradley identifies as a Montanan—and a Greater Yellowstonian, who is proud that her state is part of the triumvirate that comes together geography and represents the only remaining hub of complete large mammal diversity in the Lower 48

“In Celebration” isn’t a self-help book, though it’s full of inspirational, self-deprecating insights often drawn from disappointments. Bradley’s observations are more valuable for us to heed than ever. What I enjoyed most were her reflections on being a Montana woman born to two parents who assured her anything was possible but the route up and down mountains wouldn’t be easy. 

The title of Bradley’s book comes from a gift. Her father gave her a book from Wallace Stegner with a personal inscription from the author: “In celebration of love, learning, beauty, hope and heart.” She explores those virtues in the final chapter dedicated to her Dad, after whom “Bradley Meadows” at Bridger Bowl Ski Area is named.

Bradley who says she has been shaped most by her experiences outdoors. After attending Colorado College and then earning a law degree at American University in Washington DC, she settled back in Bozeman. 

She was elected to eight terms in the Montana House of Representatives as a Democrat but she did not serve them consecutively. The first span was during in the 1970s in the aftermath of Montanans coming together to write a new state constitution. The second half of her tenure lasted from the mid 1980s to early 1990s. 

Following her initial service in Helena as a representative from Bozeman (a town very different then), she ran for Congress, challenging fellow Democrat Pat Williams in the primary and lost. Williams went on to serve nine terms in Washington.

Dorothy Bradley new book of reflections
Dorothy Bradley new book of reflections
It was that other race, in 1992, that commands the highest profile in “In Celebration:” her gubernatorial contest with Republican Racicot. Ahead in many polls into the final weeks of the campaign—after she barnstormed across the state, often driving her own vehicle or meeting people while on a symbolic horse ride—she narrowly lost. She did not claim the election was stolen after election night.

Of 407,822 votes cast in a state with less than a million people, the difference was just 10,980 votes. Racicot remembers her as a worthy opponent. In the wake of her substitute teaching position in Ashland, she served as director of the Montana State University Water Center and other positions.

Politics is not for the meek, the thin-spined or those without ego. Almost never do winners and losers at the end of a tough race come together and wish each other well with bear hugs. That didn’t happen with Racicot. But today there are actually few degrees of separation between them and no chasm of bitterness. While both had different approaches they had the same outcome in mind. They shared a devotion to the public interest by working with the other side.

In June, the friendly old rivals went back to Helena and together backed a challenger, Billings businessperson Gary Buchanan making an Independent candidate bid bid to unseat Republican incumbent US Rep. Matt Rosendale. 

Rosendale, a former real estate developer who moved to Montana a couple decades ago and reinvented himself as a cattleman, has come under fire for making many shrill and controversial pronouncements—unsupported by facts—on many topics. He has supported the disproved contention of widespread election fraud in 2020, he voted to not certify Presidential election results in other states, and he claims the Jan. 6 hearings are scripted (even though most of those testifying are former members of the Trump Administration). 

Racicot, who once was chairman of the Republican National Committee, condemned Rosendale and other Republicans for voting to censure US Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, co-chair of the House's Jan. 6 Committee. Cheney is facing a challenge in Wyoming's GOP primary this month from Harriet Hageman, whose rhetoric, observers say, is just as extreme as that of Rosendale. Both Rosendale and Hageman have been endorsed by former President Trump.

Racicot has characterized many of Rosendale’s assertions as absurd and believes radicals have hijacked the GOP. Both Racicot and Bradley say that Rosendale and other members of the Freedom Caucus are undermining democracy and out of step with reality.  In many ways, the Rosendale-Buchanan race is considered a bellwether just as the Cheney-Hageman race is.

“When Marc Racicot and I co-endorsed Independent candidate Gary Buchanan on the steps of the state Capitol, I was thinking it was a great moment—stepping in harness for Montana and America together,” Bradley, a centrist, told me. 

The profoundest irony of all? Despite their differences, Bradley and Racicot, in terms of pondering what they believe is best for Montana and the West, are far closer in their thinking than to those at the fringes of both of their parties. “In Celebration” foremost is a reminder of what we are so badly missing today—civility.

POSTNOTE: Neither Mountain Journal nor its writers endorse political candidates on this site. We are independent and non-partisan but know that almost every issue affecting the lives of our readers and the environment they care about is political in some way.

Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal,  is author of the  book Ripple Effects: How to Save Yellowstone and American's Most Iconic Wildlife Ecosystem.  Wilkinson has been writing about Greater Yellowstone for 35 years and is a correspondent to publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian. He is author of several books on topics as diverse as scientific whistleblowers and Ted Turner, and a book about the harrowing story of Jackson Hole grizzly mother 399, the most famous bear in the world which features photographs by Thomas Mangelsen. For more information on Wilkinson, click here. (Photo by David J Swift).
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