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051010 Melinda Gopher
Congressional candidate Melinda Gopher of Missoula. Photo by Michael Gallacher/Missoulian

Editor's note: This story concludes a series of profiles of the four Democrats and three Republicans running for the U.S. House in the June 8 primary. For the complete collection of profiles, go to Missoulian.com.

HELENA - Through her family's history, Melinda Gopher knows that one person can make a difference, no matter how difficult the odds or how great the financial disadvantages.

And that's just what the Missoula activist says she intends to demonstrate June 8 in the four-way contest for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. House.

Having only a fraction of the campaign funds raised by two of her Democratic rivals, Dennis McDonald and Tyler Gernant, Gopher is counting on a wave of fellow Native Americans, women and youth to rally behind her and "reach every corner in the state" in the coming weeks.

Blunt, outspoken and unafraid to criticize her opponents and top Democratic elected officials, Gopher is campaigning her own way.

"I won't go with the party line," she says. "I will do what's best for Montana. I will do my own evaluating of an issue, and I'm not beholden to anybody."

She tells how her father, Robert Gopher, borrowed money for gas from a relative so he could drive from Hill 57, outside of Great Falls, to Helena to testify at the 1972 Constitutional Convention. He successfully advocated for inclusion of this clause, which made it into the Montana Constitution: "The state recognizes the distinct and unique cultural heritage of the American Indians and is committed in its educational goals to the preservation of their cultural integrity."

"That's how that became a state law because someone chose to make a difference," Gopher says. "When I start to feel a little discouraged, I think of that example. My dad wasn't from any organization. He wasn't part of an organized effort. He was a citizen. That's the whole concept of one person making a difference."

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Those who know Gopher say she has that same grit.

"She has a very strong sense of direction, and she knows how to get there and she doesn't quit until she's exhausted all avenues," says Raymond Gone, who runs a convenience store in Fort Belknap. "When she grabs a hold of something, she's kind of like a pit bull and no one sways much one way or the other."

Gone said he, Robert and Melinda Gopher convinced the Legislature in the 1990s to appropriate nearly $1 million to buy Ulm Pishkun, now called First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park.

Dodson rancher Warren Matte says the state and nation could benefit from having Gopher in Congress.

"She knows how tough it can be in life," Matte says. "She was raised basically in a poor family. The family she came from had to fight for everything they earned and got. She doesn't fight just to be fighting. She uses her intelligence, her head. She tries to do what's best for everyone."

Gopher and her father led battles against housing discrimination in Great Falls.

Now living in Missoula, Gopher, 45, is married and has four children. She is completing her degree in paralegal studies from the University of Great Falls.

Her parents were of Ojibwe heritage and adopted into the Blackfeet Tribe through her grandfather. Her great-grandfather was the brother of Chief Rocky Boy, after whom the north-central Montana reservation was named.

In her campaign, Gopher says the jobs issue matters most to women, Native Americans, Hispanics and youth. She's disappointed in President Barack Obama's handling of the economy.

"Even though we all got out in 2008 for President Obama, on the single issue of change, it's pretty slow in coming for the people for whom change matters the most," she says. "Extending unemployment benefits has been helpful, but that has been a temporary Band-Aid."

Gopher says the quickest way to create jobs is through community development block grants targeted at communities with long-term, chronic unemployment.

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Creating jobs by transforming the state's economy to one based on home-grown, clean energy is her priority.

She criticizes Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer for being "a coal cowboy" supporting the state's leasing of the Otter Creek coal tracts.

Gopher tells how Fort Belknap tribal leaders sought the help of her father and others to help them organize over the environmental damages at the Zortman-Landusky gold mines on the Hi-Line. "We did it through mid-1990 onward," she says.

"In the final analysis, what has always occurred in Montana - in Zortman-Landusky and it will be true in the Otter Creek development, which I do not support - if we keep doing boom-and-bust cycles, if we always do what we always have done, we will always get what we've got," Gopher says. "I want to move away from that failed dynamic that has defined our state's history."

Disappointed with the federal health reform effort, Gopher says she'll keep pushing for a single-payer system. She has openly criticized one of the bill's main authors, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., saying: "I intend to challenge his failures, call him out and fight for all Montanans."

That McDonald and Gernant have raised more campaign money doesn't bother Gopher.

"If anyone can disavow big money, it's me," she says. "They have expended their money to get where they are in the race and they're getting a very hard blast of reality from me. They didn't get much bang with their bucks. They're having to fend off the challenge that I'm presenting, and I'm offering a strong message."

She has branded McDonald, former chairman of the Democratic Party, as "not electable" for taking the Native American vote for granted and representing a Mob figure decades ago as a California lawyer.

Yet if she wins the primary, Gopher believes she can unseat five-term Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg.

"Out on the trail, there's a lot of engagement by women and minorities that want to see Rehberg replaced," she says. "I don't think Representative Rehberg is going to survive the fall."

Missoulian State Bureau reporter Charles S. Johnson can be reached at (406) 447-4066 or at chuck.johnson@lee.net.

 

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