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The Montana Democratic Party's Mansfield-Metcalf Dinner in Butte Saturday night. Photos by Anne Medley

Politics + Spring + Butte = Montana Democrats’ Prom

Spring is in the air. Or at least I think it is, underneath the ice crystals. I can almost see the dirt in my garden beds again, the sun stays up later than me, and Missoulians with pasty white legs are running in really short shorts.

So, on Saturday, to fully celebrate the (slowly) emerging new season, I attended that time-honored American spring ritual: the prom.

Granted, I’m ten years too old for the real thing. But the beauty of this particular prom is that the older you are, the cooler you are—because this was the Montana Democrats’ version of prom, the annual Mansfield-Metcalf dinner.

I got asked to prom back in February by Roomie. The thrill of being asked by such a fabulous woman was only slightly overshadowed by the fact that I was second-choice: her fiancé bailed on the event due to scheduling conflicts with the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four games (luckily for me, though, those smart Dems had the UCLA-Memphis game playing anyway).

Yet the prom-date-asking thrill paled in comparison to the utter elation I felt when I opened my Missoulian one icy March morning to the news that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama would be speaking at the dinner. Elation and, I must admit, an immediate smugness. NCAA be damned–I had a ticket to see the wordsmith-rock-star and the fiery-first-lady duke it out in one of the best places for duking in America: Butte.

Of course, my smugness faded when Obama and Hillary later announced their free Missoula showings. But that just meant I got to have pep rallies to go with my prom.

My co-worker and I planned our “follow the motorcade” weekend with glee: Obama Saturday morning at the University, drive to Butte, meet Roomie, party all night in our prom dresses, follow Hillary back to Missoula for her Sunday appearance at the airport.

As Clinton said in her speech opening on Saturday night, the only party to rival Butte’s infamous Saint Paddy’s Day is the Democratic Party. And, boy, was she ever right.

This party prom featured Montana Democrats with coiffed mullets, shiny curls, and stiff Stetsons. Diamonds set off battered-looking bolo ties. Ballgowns swished next to Wranglers, and minks sat next to Carhartt coats—usually on different people, too. My take on the theme: “sequins and denim.”

Of course, I didn’t get the memo on the theme until my co-worker and I arrived at the Civic Center parking lot. Proud of squeezing in Obama’s pep rally, some Missoula-style Saturday recreation, and still making it by 4:00, we figured we’d leisurely pick up our tickets, head to the hotel and primp, then waltz into the event at 5:00.

But then we saw the thousands and thousands of people snaking around the building, braced against the bitterly cold April wind. Heads down, shoulders hunched, faces pale, these devout Dems looked grim but determined. We noticed two crucial things simultaneously:

1) These people weren’t going to let us cut in line.
2) These people were decidedly not wearing fancy prom clothes.

Luckily, a high-ranking Baucus staff person told us we only had to wait in that line if we had stadium seats—not our front-and-center-on-the-floor, comes-with-dinner-and-a-table, $50 tickets. As for the “sequins and denim” dress theme, we couldn’t do much about it, as we’d only brought the one fancy (non-sequined) black outfit each.

After a whirlwind 7.5-minute change session at our hotel clear across town, we used our official-looking walk and fancy outfits to sneak into the building ahead of the brave and stoic line-waiters. Horrible, I know.

But karma promptly bit us in the ass when we discovered that 200 seats (and their associated tables) had been “deleted” to make room for the copious press and their gigantic Delaware-sized stage. Plus, instead of a sit-down dinner, we were to serve ourselves a “light supper” of antipasto-type things, and assorted “creamy calories in a pastry shell” with names like “salmon soufflé” and “mocha puree.”

Fifty bucks just doesn’t get you what it used to. Luckily, I’d stocked up on Cheez-Its from the hotel vending machine.

So, gin and tonic in one hand, and copious bite-sized pastries in the other, I carefully placed each cheek of my black-clad butt on two different chairs, shared between four people. And settled in for four hours of speeches.

Things were called to order by the state’s Democratic Party Chairman, Dennis McDonald, followed by a haunting invocation sung by a member of the Blackfeet tribe.

“I bet the Republicans don’t have cool native headdresses and drumming right after they say the Pledge of Allegiance,” I said proudly to my table-mates.

Next came Obama. He looked cool as a cucumber, brought up fly-fishing (and a few other jokes I’d heard at UM that morning) to make us feel at home. He launched gracefully into hope and change, and remembered all of the names of our Senators and dignitaries correctly. He only had one minor snafu, referring to nurses and truck drivers from “Butte to Bismark.”

“At least he knows one Montana city,” Roomie remarked logically.

My quads were on fire midway through his speech from the up/down, up/down applause dance, but I didn’t want people to think I was dissing a presidential nominee, so I made sure to keep standing and sitting (looking carefully to make sure each butt cheek landed in the appropriate millimeter of shared chair space) till the end.

Baucus was up next, and Schweitzer soon after. Many bar trips were made by many of the prom people (a real bonus of adult proms), which made for entertaining social observations when accompanied by the dinner of “light snacks.”

One astute Missoula politician approached me as I inhaled yet another cheese cube near the tower of wilting antipasto.

“I have to complement you, Big Sis, on the bold fashion statement: you’re the only person I know who would wear a tube top to the Democratic fundraiser.”

“Hey! This is a pantsuit!” I replied indignantly around a pickled artichoke.

“Ok, then, you’re definitely the only person who would wear a tube-top-pantsuit.”

I nodded thoughtfully, as this is likely true. “But I bet that guy at your table is the only person who would wear a rainbow-beaded bolo tie. That’s the beauty of the Montana Democrats’ prom.”

“Huh?” he replied.

“Oooo, look!” I distracted him. “Everyone’s doing the Tester hand-wave. We’d better sit down.”

Hillary was the grand finale, right on time at 9:00. Dennis McDonald’s introduction of her, though, was either a Freudian slip or the result of too many G and T’s: “She’ll never deliver solutions … to our urgent challenges … she’ll, um, always deliver solutions to our urgent challenges.”

Hillary pulled out some specific Montana references, showing someone had done their homework. However, possibly due to the late hour, we didn’t do the up/down applause dance more than a few times.

Amidst handshakes and pictures with the dignitaries, I managed to learn that everyone was heading to “the depot uptown” for the “after-party.” We arrived at The Depot’s maze-like series of bars and open space to see many of the same faces, minus the ones requiring Secret Service.

I merged into this new bar line, asking if they had anything other than light beer.

“This one feels pretty heavy to me,” replied the bartender, as he handed me a Coors Light. Beer snobs apparently have no place in Butte.

Nonetheless, I managed to choke down several Coors Lights throughout the evening (and well into the early morning), trying to forget I was wearing a tube-top-pantsuit that was really hard to get out of when I had to pee. I shook hands, smiled at smiling faces, and enjoyed the high of liberal hope, creamy calories, and sizzling political potential.

All in all (and all ribbing aside), it was the best prom I’ve ever been to (and I did, in all honesty, plan three of them in high school). My date was stellar, the entertainment was incomparable, and the experience–definitely once in a lifetime. I hope someone asks me to go again next year.

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One comment

  1. Sis: Great description – I would have loved to be in your place.
    Pendejo: Please just quit reading the columns and spare us.