Rob Quist: Throwing his Big, Well-Traveled Hat into the Political Ring

Ken Thorsen

On March 5, 2017 Montana Democrats chose Rob Quist to run for the US House of Representative seat left vacant by Ryan Zynke.

On February 16, 2017 Ken Thorsen and Rob Quist sat down at Montana State University for an interview, the following is transcribed from their conversation.

KT: We’re here today to talk to the people of Bozeman about, [you] possibly throwing your hat in the ring for the seat in Congress left by Ryan Zinke. I’ve got to ask you, first off, you’re a founding member of the Mission Mountain Wood Band?

RQ: Yes.

KT: You’ve been in the music industry your whole life?

RQ: Yes.

KT: Some would say that’s a sleazy industry. [Laughs] And now you’re going to throw your hat, no pun intended, your hat..

RQ: My big and well-traveled hat into this nasty political ring. [Laughs]

KT: What got you interested in this?

RQ: Well, you know, I, I guess in many ways, I really feel like I’ve been representing the State of Montana all my life. I love the Big Sky Country and I’ve really been a student of the history and, of course, the native tribes, the native cultures that live here, and, practically every song I’ve written is all about the Big Sky Country. So, I really care what happens, and I really feel like given the climate that I could be a voice for the entire state. I think I’ve really connected to every demographic in the state. I’ve traveled throughout every geographical region and I’ve really been in touch with pretty much every part of Montana, the big cities, the small towns, and also I love the wild as I’ve hiked all the trails and the rivers. So, this is important to me. I know that this is going to be a fight about public lands, which is probably one of the reasons I decided to get into this, even the concerns that are facing everyday Montanans. I’ve lived life on the ground here, and I know that Montanans have real concerns about several issues that are concerns for me and my family as well. So, I really felt like I could be a voice for this state.

KT: We’ve got some questions from people.

RQ: Absolutely, I’d love it.

: You’re a musician. Do you write about politics? Is there politics in your music?

RQ: Well, you know, I think I’ve only written really one really political song. It was kind of cynical. I wrote that way back, I think it was 2007, it was called ‘It’s Going All To Hell’. That’s been the only one, but I guess in a lot of ways my songs are really political in the sense that you can tell in my music I’ve been standing up for public lands all my life. Also, I’ve fielded two shows which I’ve toured nationally and internationally with which talk about native cultures, presenting the history of Montana and the West from both rural American and Native American perspectives, with my good friend Jack Gladstone.

KT: Oh, great. When you’re on the road performing as a musician, do you have fans, people that come up to you and ask you about political issues?

RQ: Well, you know, I think that people would be surprised how political I am, but, of course, you know, you don’t want to alienate, a lot of your fan base, but I guess we always have what I call lively discussions, you know. To me, that’s really healthy. I think as long as you have a good healthy discourse with respect, and that’s a Montana value, to be respectful in your discourse. So, I suppose people do ask me, and I’m sure that’s one of the reasons I’m probably in this because, this has gotten so political, I really felt like I had to be a part of it.

KT: What are some concerns that you’re hearing from Montanans?

RQ: I think the No. 1 concern I hear is about public lands. I was at the public lands rally in Helena, because that’s a big issue for me. There were over 1,000 people crammed into the rotunda and I loved it because there were people from all walks of life, there were hunters and outfitters and people who love to hike and to kayak and to recreate in the outdoors. Plus, all these associations which I have close affiliations with, such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Northern Plains Resource Council and hunters and anglers. All those groups were there and they were all unified in their stand about not selling off our public lands. I think there was like 3.3 million acres that were going to be sold in Montana alone. And this happened all across the country, this human cry, and I’ve never seen a bill disappear so fast from the U.S. Congress. That was amazing. And that shows the power of what we could go when we organize together.

KT: The public lands, like you say, are the heart of Montana.

RQ: Absolutely. And I’ve traveled the states, all the states in the course of my career, and many of the states have lost what we still have, so we have to really hold onto this. There’s that great American concept of keeping the things, of understanding that it’s not the present that you’re thinking about, it’s 7 generations that are coming that you have to keep in mind when you make decisions.

KT: What are your political experiences?

RQ: Well, I’ve been in the Montana Arts Council for 12 years, of course representing the performing artists to the Arts Council. Through that I became an educator as well because I realized I needed to do more, so I took my songwriting seminars into the schools which turned into anti-bullying songs and songs about nature. I’ve been a cultural representative for the Department of Commerce to Japan for 3 consecutive years for Japanese tourists with our sister city Kumamoto, so that was a big honor for me. I’ve also been a spokesman for the Montana Food Bank Network for 3 years, and of course I’ve served on boards like Big Country Guitar Foundation, the Share Your Voice Foundation, and the Arts Council.

KT: An issue that is on the forefront of the media these days is the Affordable Care Act. There are roughly some 60,000 people from what I understand in Montana that are relying on the Affordable Care Act. There’s mass consensus that it needs to be fixed or replaced or repealed. Can it be fixed, or does it have to be repealed and replaced? What would you like to see as a solution?

RQ: Well, I think it needs to be, you can’t repeal it because there are so many people relying on it now and, I think if we just scrap the whole thing and start over there’s, I heard somebody say that if we’re going to repeal this you have to choose 10 people that would die which would be okay for that to happen in order for us to repeal it. But, you know, I’ve had personal experiences with it too which we probably can’t get into now, but I’ve played for many benefits for people and we’ve all contributed to Gofundme sites. The fact that they want to scrap the whole thing, I think there’s been many a chance over the years to fix the Affordable Health Care Act but they’ve all been stonewalled and now I think the fact that they just want to scrap the whole thing and start over, we just can’t do that.

KT: We can’t do that. You’re absolutely right. Jeannie Brown Galbreath, a question from a reader.

RQ: Hi Jeannie.

KT: Special programs such as Medicare and Food Stamps are expected to enter into block grants in the near future. In the past similar programs funded by block grants have been cut by the states in the ability to divert the block grant funds. What’s your stance on preventing block grants to these and other vital programs?

RQ: I think that first of all it’s amazing how these social programs are on the block to be cut, it comes down to whether it’s service to self or service to others. I’ve always come down on the side of service to others. We have to, you know? When I was younger there was kind of a nice distribution of wealth between the classes and now it just seems like that whole graph has just flat-lined across, from the poor to the middle class and then when you get to the super, super wealthy it just shoots up so high it’s just off the page. I was given a meeting with the Teton County Democrats and I was talking about this very thing, about how the wealth is distributed amongst the super wealthy. This economist was talking about how people become super rich by not paying other people the value of their services. There was this crusty old rancher that stood up in the back and he said “Well, you know Rob, it’s a lot like B.S. You gotta pile it up and it just starts to stink, but if you spread it around it grows everything.” So, it’s really about spreading the abundance to all people. It’s gotta work for everybody or it doesn’t work for anybody.

It’s kinda close to me is being a 4th Generation Montana family of ranch style of farm up on the hi-line for years.

KT: Climate change is a hot topic in the news today, and what effects have you seen firsthand in Montana maybe related to agriculture and maybe the environment, the recreational industry as well in Montana caused by global warming or climate change. What are your feelings on the Paris Climate Agreement?

RQ: Well, first of all, I think one of the signs I see, and I’ve been hiking, like I said, the trails all my life. When I was a Boy Scout, when I was 13 years old, and we got to see some of these glaciers that are in Glacier Park, and, of course, when I hike there now, these glaciers are a third the size of what they were. I think they’re going to have to change the name of the park to Used To Be Glacier Park. Of course, we see the effects of climate change across, with the storms we’re getting and the crazy weather that’s happening and everything’s really out of whack, and I think it’s really an issue about pollution because every wild area in the world is really being threatened by pollution. I think we have to come up with green technologies that really would reduce our carbon footprint and at the same time we would be able to create jobs, that would really be leading technology for the State of Montana. We could get out in front of this and be a leader in this thing. We have all this potential for wind and solar and there’s companies really firing up right now in the Flathead Valley that are going to be technology leaders when it comes to this.

KT: How would we accomplish something like that without jeopardizing jobs in the fossil fuel industry?

RQ: Well, here’s the thing: I think a really good solution would be to put these wind generators and solar farms down in Colstrip because they already have the infrastructure there, they’ve got the power lines that are already running out from there. Of course, I’ve been to these counties, they’re really scared about that, so, to me, what better place to put it than places like that?

KT: Colstrip is being brought up in the news.

RQ: That’s right. Not only to have those wind generators and solar farms there, but also to build the panels and also the wind
generators there so there will be jobs there as well. I think that would be a good thing to implement.

KT: This question comes from an anonymous reader. Will you take a question from an anonymous reader?

RQ: Sure.

KT: We don’t know who they are, from the Flathead Valley. With recent protests at Standing Rock Indian issues are at the forefront of the media, how would you define Indigenous Sovereignty and what role do you think the Federal Government should play?

RQ: I’m really connected to Indian Country in so many ways. I’ve really adopted a lot of their core beliefs into my belief system. The concept of honoring Mother Earth and the concept of not questioning another person’s spiritual walk, and I think the one that’s most indicative right now is how they honor the person, not the person who collects the most wealth, but the one who gives the most away. I think where the Federal Government has made the mistake is not letting the Tribes be at the table when they first were putting this together. That was a mistake, and we have given these tribes sovereignty in these treaties. Treaties are contracts and we need to honor those contracts.

KT: Planned Parenthood in Montana, it serves 10,000 to 15,000 people here in the state. There’s talk in defunding it. Would you have a proposed plan to help Montana women who receive their reproductive help from the state?

RQ: You know, you don’t have to be a woman to understand how important reproductive rights are. I understand how angry they are about this, it’s really when you can legislate what a person can do with their body, I mean, where is that going to end? So, I think, as far as Planned Parenthood, all these things are being cut because of this one issue? That’s just a microcosm of what this whole thing is, it covers cervical cancer screening and all these other things, so we cannot cut this funding for Planned Parenthood.

KT: Kelly Corwin of Bozeman, the question from her is --

RQ: Him. It’s a him.

KT: Okay, there’s a lot of talk in the air about privatizing education for profit using public funds for school vouchers and private charter schools. Shrinking budgets from the Education Dept. could be harmful to single, rural communities in Montana particularly. How do you propose to protect public schools in Montana and now that we have an advocate in the position of Secretary of Education administration, how do you –

RQ: Well, I’m a product of a rural school. I went to a little country school called the Winkler Superior School in North Glacier County. How long did it take the United States to get public education as a model, and it’s worked. The fact that they want to use this voucher system so that schools that have more money will be able to get a better education whereas maybe rural schools won’t, that’s just wrong. That’s not the American way. One of the things I did when I was in the Montana Arts Council, I realized that arts funding were cut for rural schools halfway through the year and so I advocated long and hard to, to get funding for that. That’s really why I developed this whole thing of being an arts educator to take my songwriting seminars in the schools. I really will defend public education and arts education are one of my top priorities.

KT: We sit here at the Native American Building here on the campus of MSU, college graduates come to mind right off the forefront and we have college graduates leaving with the highest debt in history. Is there a fix for the outrageous debt that these college grads are leaving with?

RQ: You know, let’s just call it like it is. These are predatory loans. When I went to college, we had the federal insured student loan and we would get out of college with 1% loans and you could always roll this over into another loan if you needed to, but now that’s not the case. Both my kids are strapped with major college debt. I’ve even actually taken on my son’s debt myself. You make payments on these and they just get higher and higher with the interest rates and it seems like you can pay on it forever but they don’t go down. They only go up. And I know a lot of students are facing that. So, let’s just call it like it is: these are predatory loans and the fact that we’re allowing people to make profit on the backs of our students, I think the average student comes out of college with probably, I’ve heard people say as much as $37,000 as an average. If you take that paying $300 a month, I mean, how long would it take you to pay that off, especially with the interest rates. So, that’s just predatory.

KT: Next question: If you have the opportunity to serve on a Federal House Committee, which one would it be, and why?

: Well, I think I probably would want to serve on the Veteran’s Affairs Committee. It’s really important to me. This is spiritual because I lost some friends in Vietnam, I lost some close friends. Even now my friends in the healthcare industry tell me that there are veterans that are going to be coming back, that we’re going to be inundated, we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg. I have a perfect example, there’s a young gentlemen who, he’s [been] in Afghanistan, he’s a renter of ours and he also plows our driveway. He’s a broken individual. He was over there for 5 years and he would walk down the street, he went over thinking he was going to be spreading freedom and people would spit on him as he walked down the street. He watched the same school be bombed and rebuilt 5 times. We have this whole climate of regime change, but all it’s really doing is just spreading untold destruction around the world and it’s really bringing a backlash of terror against our own people and then we have all these veterans that are returning home. So, I think that’s really going to be one.

Here’s a program I’m instituting with one of my good friends, Dave McGriffith, we’ve kind of been calling it Band of Brothers, where we go into some communities and we get musical instruments for some of these veterans because they come home, they don’t know how to relate to people, but they’ve got that Band of Brothers, you know, psychology. So, we teach them to put a band together, they can meet once a week, play music together, of course, music is such a healing thing. It’s the frequencies that come through, you learn how to communicate, you learn how to express it yourself. Of course, that’s the toughest thing these vets are facing is how to express these feelings they have. So, this is a program that’s really near and dear to my heart.

KT: That’s fantastic. I guess the last question I have for you, and it kind of goes to the mainstream news again and it pertains to Alternative Facts, fake news. It’s everywhere. Do you think what we’re doing right now is fake news, is my first question to you, and do you have any ideas to protect people, the public, against fake news and fake journalism?

RQ: Well, I think really, people have to be really discerning of news that they listen to. My mother who was probably one of the most incredibly wise people that I’ve ever known, she gave me a phrase way back when I was younger and since I’m in this political game I’ve been using a lot more, and that phrase is: Consider the source. You know, when you’re hearing some kind of news thing you need to discern what is their skin in the game, you know, who owns them and what is their agenda in all this? I think it reveals a lot about where we’re getting our news from. And the other phrase I’ve been using a lot lately is that old Watergate [phrase]: Follow the money. So, those two things really reveal a lot about where we’re getting it. A lot of news that we get, it’s not really news, it’s to create outrage. I call it Outrage Du Jour. “Did you see what such and such!! Let’s get outraged!” You know, we’ve got to tone down the outrage. But I know that there are people that are really trying hard to get into what the actual news is and to be fair minded and to report what’s actually happening. Unfortunately, a lot of people aren’t taking the time to make that a priority.

KT: I’m trying to take that time as a priority as a volunteer, as a representative of music and contributing arts, a contributor for Bozeman Magazine that I think may help give some velocity to what’s being said if we can actually talk to representatives, state representatives, people in power and get direct answers on microphone so that it’s documented and know where they stand and what they feel and if they’re listening to the constituents. Would that be something that you would be open to as a representative?

RQ: Absolutely. You know, and that’s the thing, you hit the nail right on the head. That’s [why] this office feels right to me because I really feel in many ways I’ve been representing the State of Montana all my life and I have no other [sites] on any other office. This is the only office that appeals to me because it is being a representative of the people. So, the way that I want to run this is that I feel that I would be the servant and the people of Montana would be the boss. You’ve seen those charts where it has the CEO on top and then there’s the staff and everybody, well I’m flipping that. The people of Montana are going to be the top of the chart and then there’s going to be my staff and I’ll be at the bottom, so I’ll be the servant here.

KT: Rob, thanks so much for taking time out of your long, busy schedule to sit down and talk to me.

RQ: My honor. My honor.

KT: Thank you.    

This was made by