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Bob Kelleher, recurring candidate in Montana politics, dies at 88

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Bob Kelleher, left, talks with former Sen. Conrad Burns before a debate of Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate in 2006 at the Billings Depot. Kelleher died Sunday. Photo by LARRY MAYER/Billings Gazette

HELENA - Bob Kelleher, a delegate to the 1972 Montana Constitutional Convention, a perennial political candidate and a longtime advocate of a parliamentary form of government, died Sunday in Billings.

Kelleher, 88, had a lengthy career as an attorney in Billings and Butte.

A rosary/celebration of life service will be at 3 p.m. Thursday at Dahl Funeral Chapel in Billings.

With his wild, bushy eyebrows and flair for the dramatic, Kelleher was among the most colorful Montana political candidates over the past four decades. He mostly ran as a Democrat, but later ran as a Green Party candidate and in 2008 won the Republican primary nomination for the U.S. Senate.

From 1964 to 2008, Kelleher was a fixture on the state ballot nearly every two years - running 16 times, losing 15 times and winning only once. He also made a failed bid for president in 1976 in the New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Georgia primaries pitching the parliamentary system.

His lone victory came in November 1971 when he was elected as one of the 100 delegates to the 1972 Montana Constitutional Convention.

There, Kelleher fought tenaciously, if unsuccessfully, for Montana to switch to a one-house parliamentary form of government. Under this system, voters elect legislators as they do now. The lawmakers whose party won a majority form the government and serve as the executive branch leaders, as is the case in many countries.

"I don't know if there's a person who's a known politician in Montana who's run under so many party labels for so many offices for so long a time," said Craig Wilson, a political science professor from Montana State University-Billings.

He took up the state and national parliamentary cause in every succeeding campaign.

"We've got to change this system before it gets any worse," Kelleher said when he filed for the Senate in 2008. "We can't be going to war every other Tuesday."

Unfortunately for Kelleher, most Montana residents don't understand what a parliamentary system is and it's a foreign concept to Americans, Wilson said.

Kelleher was practicing law up until the day he died, according to his son, David Kelleher, of Kalispell.

"The Con-Con, that was the place he had the most impact on," his son said.

Asked why his father ran for office so often, David said, "I think he wanted to express himself. He was highly educated and a brilliant individual."

Kelleher, an Illinois native, graduated from Mount Carmel College in Ontario in 1945 and received a law degree from Catholic University in Washington, D.C., in 1950. He spent a year studying at Harvard University law school in 1953 on a Ford Foundation grant.

He was a U.S. Army Reserve officer, retiring as a colonel in military intelligence. He was a graduate of the U.S. Army War College.


Kelleher strongly opposed abortion and discrimination against homosexuals. He advocated for people's right to privacy and fought for minorities, the poor and the disenfranchised.

"He was a very intelligent and passionate man," said Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who twice was in races with Kelleher. "I will call him in a good way a professional political provocateur. When no one else would poke a tiger, Bob Kelleher would. And we need that."

In concluding his assessment of Kelleher, Schweitzer said, "And those eyebrows!"

Fellow Constitutional Convention delegate Bob Campbell of Missoula said, "For people who didn't know him, they remembered the big eyebrows, and then they wouldn't listen to what he was saying."

Campbell said Kelleher refused to trim the eyebrows, and in his final race even made fun of them by gluing big wads of cotton to cheap spectacles and handing them out on the campaign trail.

"He had that deep belief in helping the less fortunate," Campbell said. "For 40 years, he would go each morning to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting to counsel people who had alcohol addiction because he had gotten over alcohol addiction himself. That commitment was just amazing."

Wilson said some may have considered Kelleher "a figure of fun" but he doesn't.

"In reality, I consider him to be a true democrat, small ‘d,' in the truest sense of the word," the MSU-Billings professor said. "I don't think he went into any of the races expected to win. He believed in what he talked about."

Leroy Not Afraid of Lodge Grass, Kelleher's running mate in 1996 and now a Big Horn County justice of the peace, said, "He definitely was a man of true integrity. He did not care what anybody thought. He just pushed forward with his beliefs. He was and still is a true role model for me."

In June 2008, Kelleher surprised the state by collecting nearly 27,000 votes to win the six-way GOP primary to face longtime Democratic Sen. Max Baucus in the fall. Party officials, however, refused to allow Kelleher to address their state convention later that month. Instead, they consigned him to a side room where only reporters and a delegate who was a Ron Paul supporter showed up to hear him.

Kelleher had seven children, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

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