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Columnist-host speaks to Missoula New Party gathering

"An agitator is that center post in the washing machine that gets the dirt out," national political columnist Jim Hightower told an agitated crowd of Missoula New Party members and supporters Friday night.

"Agitation is what America is all about," Hightower told the nearly 250 people at the Missoula Community Progressive Awards Ceremony in the Orchard Homes Country Life Club. "If not for agitation, we'd all be sitting here wearing white, powdered wigs and singing 'God Save the Queen.' "

Recognizing the number of politicians in the audience running for everything from county commissioner to governor and state Supreme Court, he added "they're here, because you've got actual power. Seven or eight years ago, you didn't exist. Now you're setting an example for the rest of America from this populist country club."

The Missoula New Party is a political interest group that backs local candidates and ballot initiatives. At Friday's awards ceremony, it honored 1972 Constitutional Convention delegates Mae Nan Ellingson and Daphne Jones; the Rev. Steve Garnaas-Holmes of First United Methodist Church; It's Spanish Time school founders Bettina Escudero, Melissa Bangs and Dennis Bangs; neighborhood council coordinators Judy Smith and Lin Smith; union organizer Jason Miller; botanist and parks volunteer John Pierce; and Indian People's Action leader Janet Robideau.

Hightower is host of a nationally syndicated radio talk show called "Hightower's Chat and Chew" and has authored numerous books and articles. He called for fighting a class war in favor of economic fairness, social justice and equal opportunity for all people.

This nation's political battleground is not between the left and right, but rather the top and bottom, Hightower argued. The huge amounts of soft money in the national presidential race is proof that a select few with money used it last year to narrow the field to candidates they could tolerate this year, he said.

"We're not talking about money, but greed," Hightower said. "It's not money that's the root of all evil, but the love of money. And those who love money are having an orgy."

Hightower deplored the lack of options in the 2000 presidential race, describing it as a choice between Miller Lite and Bud Lite. He proceeded to give an equal-opportunity bashing to both Republican Gov. George W. Bush and Democratic Vice President Al Gore.

"George W. Bush is to reform what Colonel Sanders is to animal rights activists," Hightower said in response to the Texas governor's calls for campaign finance reform. Gore was guilty of selling out his populist principles in "tutorials" with investment bankers who've taught him to see the world through the eyes of someone who works on Wall Street, he said.

"Some people say there's not a dime's worth of difference between the Republican and Democratic parties," he said. "I'm here to tell you there is -

17 cents worth of difference."

On the ongoing congressional debate about raising the minimum wage by $1 an hour, Hightower noted the Republicans are insisting it be phased in over three years, 33 cents a year. President Clinton is refusing to go along, demanding a two-year phase-in at 50 cents. At the same time, Congress was arguing over giving its members more than $4,000 a year in cost-of-living raises, he said.

Instead, voters should look to consumer protection activist Ralph Nader, who Hightower said was planning a presidential campaign aimed at raising money and support for local races

"A low voter turnout is a sign the system sucks," Hightower said. He exhorted the crowd to "climb the wall of economic and political exclusion" and field candidates who would represent community, rather than corporate interests. He also praised the Missoula New Party's efforts to elect its followers to local government.

"It gives people hope all over the country that they can do what you've done," he said. "You've opened a great big ol' can of kick-ass."

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