By Todd Wilkinson EBS COLUMNIST
Only hours before polls closed in November 1992, Dorothy Bradley of Bozeman was on the cusp of making history as the first woman elected governor in Montana. But then mailed ballots started to be counted favoring her opponent. Celebration abruptly turned into concession.
In the face of a high-profile disappointment few citizens can ever understand, Bradley, following her loss to Marc Racicot, received several job offers, including feelers sent out from the Clinton administration about possibly going back to Washington, D.C. Bradley, however, did not want to leave her beloved Montana.
What did she do? She quietly drove out of Bozeman headed east toward a community that had left an
impression on her. There, in the town of Ashland on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, she received a second dose of humility—one more meaningful than her bruising gubernatorial defeat.
Bradley signed up to be a grade school substitute teacher and although she had to confess that in the beginning she wasn’t very good at the job, she learned.
Right about now, in summer 2022, are you feeling stressed and cynical about how to deal with the uncivil
divide tearing our country apart? Have you lost faith in the ability of politicians to not behave as if they are brainwashed members of a cult that rewards them every time they distort the truth?
Maybe a better question to ask is this: Were America and states in the interior West to press a reset button, returning decision-making back to the realm of the “radical middle”—where the best and most lasting public policy has always been crafted—what would the people inhabiting such a space look like?
Bradley offers us a glimpse in a new book of reflections. It’s not a thick, preachy tome or a treatise. “In Celebration” is only 68 pages long and you can breeze through it in a day. But its stories stay with you. After reading it, you will derive comfort from the thought that, not so long ago, the realm of politics was not as bat-guano crazy as it is now.
Today, Bradley lives in the shadows of the Crazy Mountains; by her own admission, in the twilight of her life. Once among the most prominent women in ascent in Northern Rockies politics, she’s been pursuing a less conspicuous existence in recent years. It was a joy to see her re-emerge, becoming a catalyst for helping many citizens in southwest Montana understand the importance of why wilderness is not only vital for protecting biodiversity and the essence of this state. Safeguarding wildlands is our gift to future generations.
“In Celebration” isn’t a self-help book, though it’s full of inspirational, self-deprecating insights often drawn from disappointments. Bradley’s observations are more valuable for us to heed than ever. What I enjoyed most were her reflections on being a Montana woman born to two parents who assured her anything was possible but that the route up and down mountains wouldn’t be easy.
The title of Bradley’s book comes from a gift. Her father gave her a book from Wallace Stegner with a personal inscription from the author: “In celebration of love, learning, beauty, hope and heart.” She explores those virtues in the final chapter dedicated to her Dad, after whom “Bradley Meadows” at Bridger Bowl is named, and says she has been shaped most by her experiences outdoors.
After attending Colorado College and then earning a law degree at American University in Washington, D.C., she settled back in Bozeman. She was elected to eight terms in the Montana House of Representatives as a Democrat but did not serve them consecutively. The first span was during in the 1970s in the aftermath of Montanans coming together to write a new state constitution. The second half of her tenure lasted from the mid-1980s to early 1990s.
Following her initial service in Helena as a representative from Bozeman (a town very different then), she ran for Congress, challenging fellow Democrat Pat Williams in the primary and lost. Williams went on to serve nine terms in D.C.
It was that other race, in 1992, that commands the highest profile in “In Celebration”: her gubernatorial contest with Republican Racicot. Ahead in many polls into the final weeks of the campaign—after she
barnstormed across the state, often driving her own vehicle or meeting people while on a symbolic horse
ride—she narrowly lost. She did not claim the election was stolen.
Of 407,822 votes cast in a state with less than a million people, the difference was just 10,980 votes. Racicot remembers her as a worthy opponent. In the wake of her substitute teaching position in Ashland, she served as director of the Montana State University Water Center.
Politics is not for the meek, the thin-spined or those without ego. Almost never do winners and losers at the end of a tough race come together and wish each other well with bear hugs, but that was different with Racicot. Today there are actually few degrees of separation between them. While both had different approaches, they had the same outcome in mind. They shared a devotion to the public interest by working with the other side.
The profoundest irony of all? Despite their differences, Bradley and Racicot, in terms of pondering what’s
best for Montana and the West, are far closer in their thinking than to radicals at the fringes of both of their parties. “In Celebration” foremost is a reminder of what we are so badly missing today—civility.
Todd Wilkinson is founder of Bozeman-based Mountain Journal (mountainjournal.org) and a correspondent for National Geographic and The Guardian. He’s authored numerous books, including his latest, “Ripple Effects: How to Save Yellowstone and America’s Most Iconic Wildlife Ecosystem,” available at mountainjournal.org.