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DIVIDING LINES: ‘Patriots,’ ‘Oath Keepers’ rattle Big Timber

DIVIDING LINES: ‘Patriots,’ ‘Oath Keepers’ rattle Big Timber

Are they defenders of the Constitution or anti-government extremists?

BIG TIMBER — Kevin McCauley says he doesn’t know what all the fuss is about.

The Big Timber City Council member who helped start the Sweet Grass County Patriots said the group is based on the simple idea that Americans are “losing our constitutional government.”

He also insists that the organization, while motivated by national events, was not formed in opposition to President Barack Obama. Although the situation has worsened under Obama, he said, the country’s decline started “probably a hundred years ago.”

“I just think there’s a feeling that it’s really picking up speed,” he said. “Bush stepped on the gas pedal. Obama pressed it to the floor.”

But some longtime residents of Big Timber, a town of 1,800 at the junction of the Boulder and Yellowstone rivers, see something more worrisome in the Sweet Grass County Patriots.

Tom Biglen, a former Republican city attorney and county attorney and now a self-described liberal Democrat, says he has been “very, very concerned” about the direction of local politics over the past year.

“They are taking this virulent national reaction movement to local politics,” he said of groups like the Patriots, and even people who want to serve on the school board or City Council “are now facing extremely debilitating, angry campaigns.”

They are also, apparently, bringing global issues to the local level.

During a City Council work session on May 3, McCauley asked supporters of a riverfront park in Big Timber whether their plans were part of a U.N. plot to abolish private property and national sovereignty.

“If you think about the Big Timber City Council talking about a little park as part of the New World Order — wow, that’s pretty amazing,” park supporter Lawson Drinkard said.

Enter the Oath Keepers

Jack Hines has lived in Big Timber for 37 years and says he has never seen “anything remotely like” the divisiveness of this election season.

He was especially upset that McCauley invited Elias Alias, the director of the Montana chapter of the Oath Keepers, to Big Timber in January. The Oath Keepers encourage active-duty military personnel, veterans, police officers and firefighters to renew their oath to the U.S. Constitution and to declare that they will not obey 10 specific orders — including orders to disarm American citizens, to assist or support the use of foreign troops on U.S. soil or to force citizens into detention camps.

The Montana Human Rights Network issued a briefing paper on the Oath Keepers last month, saying “anti-government ‘patriots’ have flocked” to the organization since its founding in 2009.

“The Oath Keepers are part of the resurgence of right-wing activism we’ve witnessed since the start of 2009,” the report says, and “we really hope that law enforcement workers, along with military personnel, will not be drawn into the ‘patriot’ movement’s web of conspiracy theories and thinly-veiled advocacy of insurrection.”

McCauley and Alias, who lives in Willow Creek near Three Forks, say that criticism from the human rights group — and for that matter from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has issued warnings about the group — is to be expected.

“It’s disappointing, but I’m not surprised by it,” McCauley said. “You consider the source. It’s almost like when you stand up for that (the Constitution), you’re a subversive.”

Alias said the Oath Keepers don’t tolerate racism or calls for violence from its members, and it works hard to keep those radical elements out of the group — and to weed out government infiltrators.

McCauley, a native of Columbus whose family has been in the Big Timber area for six generations, works in law enforcement for the Motor Carrier Division of the state Department of Transportation.

“The job I’m in, I can’t be some sort of radical,” he said.

Warning sounded

Hines and Biglen, among others, see a concerted effort to get Patriots and Oath Keeper sympathizers elected to office at all levels of government in Sweet Grass County.

“It just disturbs the hell out of me to see people involved in this super-patriot stuff moving into local government,” Hines said.

Critics of the Patriots see the group’s hand in races for county commissioner, sheriff and the school board. The City Council has already been remolded. In the election last fall, McCauley beat Suzanne Drinkard, who is married to Lawson Drinkard and who was considered the “progressive” candidate. Mark Stephens, a former Big Timber fire chief, ousted Mayor Diana Taylor, Biglen’s wife. Then, when Councilman Bill Miller resigned for health reasons in February, McCauley and Justin Ferguson voted to appoint Randy Rembold to fill the vacancy.

Only Councilwoman Lori Minette voted to appoint Drinkard to the vacant seat.  There are four people on the council, and the mayor votes only to break a tie.

“We changed the look of the City Council and the mayor quite a bit,” McCauley acknowledged.

Ferguson, who ran unopposed for the council last fall, said critics of the former mayor and council “realize that conservatives, like myself, are no longer going to idly sit back and allow them to push their left-wing agenda upon the citizens.”

He said Biglen, Hines and “others in their liberal camp” are in “panic mode because they realize the apathy of we conservatives is subsiding across the entire country and we intend on taking back control our destiny by limiting government at all levels.”

Minette said she thought the previous council, “a friendly, cohesive group,” got “quite a lot accomplished.” Now she feels isolated, and though she calls herself “more liberal than anyone else on the council,” she said she has no political agenda. She can still work with the other council members, she said, but she avoids political discussions.

“I’ve known Kevin since high school,” she said. “We talk about other things.”

No grand designs

Despite the changes on the council, McCauley discounted claims that he and his group are somehow pushing to install Patriots in local offices. He pointed out that the City Council election took place before the Patriots group was founded, and even now, the group only encourages political involvement and doesn’t direct anyone.

Attendance at the Patriot meetings has ranged from 50 to more than 150 people, but the group doesn’t even ask anyone to join, McCauley said. The meetings are open to all and are intended to be educational.

He said six or seven people who’ve been to the meetings filed for Republican precinct committee slots, and others may have been inspired to file for elective office.

For instance, he said, some people have described Bill Wallace, who is challenging Sweet Grass County Commissioner Phil Hathaway in the Republican primary this spring, as a Patriot or Oath Keeper candidate. McCauley said that’s simply not true.

“I didn’t even know Bill was running until I saw it in the newspaper,” he said.

Wallace said he is not a member of the Oath Keepers or the Patriots, though he did attend several meetings of the Patriots.

“I suppose their ideas influenced me,” he said, but he doesn’t think one has to be a radical to be worried about the direction the country is taking. “Everybody’s upset,” he said, and “if we’re going to do anything nationally, we’ve got to start at home.”

Wallace also sees nothing wrong with what the Oath Keepers are trying to do. Officials at all levels of government ignore or circumvent the Constitution, he said, so simply asking people to swear to uphold the Constitution shouldn’t be grounds for concern.

“If that’s wrong, we’re in a world of hurt,” he said.

Hathaway, like Wallace, addressed the Patriots at one of their meetings, and he sees their involvement as traditional politics, “a natural part of the process.”

Hathaway said he’s aware of the rumor that he was warned to join the Oath Keepers or they would find someone to run against him, but he said that comment came from a friend and wasn’t entirely serious.

“I think it’s being blown out of proportion,” he said.

Reasons for running

Kevin Klostermeier, who is challenging Sweet Grass County Sheriff Dan Tronrud in the Republican primary, said he is “absolutely not” running as a representative of either the Patriots or the Oath Keepers.

“This is something I intended to do long before all that,” he said. He and Tronrud both spoke at a forum sponsored by the Patriots, Klostermeier said, but he doesn’t belong to that group or to the Oath Keepers.

Klostermeier is a former Sweet Grass County deputy and undersheriff now working for the state Division of Criminal Investigation in Billings. He rents an apartment in Park City and goes home to Big Timber only on weekends, so being elected sheriff would mean getting back to Big Timber full time.

He’s also a veteran and said he “really didn’t see a reason” to renew his oath as a soldier or a law enforcement authority. Although the Oath Keepers, like most groups, attract some people with fringe beliefs, he said, he supports many of the organization’s goals.

“The ACLU has a lot of the same beliefs, but on the other side of the spectrum,” he said.

Tronrud himself said that Klostermeier is just “a regular guy.”

And while he doesn’t see the Patriots or Oath Keepers as much of a factor in his race, Tronrud said passions are definitely on the rise this election season.

“There seems to be more tension of citizen against citizen than at any time in the past,” he said, and he’s heard from people on both sides of the divide — Oath Keepers and Patriots expressing fears about the government and citizens worried about right-wing activists.

Friendly discussion

So far, though, there have been no allegations of criminal activity or anything else that rose to the level of requiring action on his part, Tronrud said.

Tronrud said the Patriots appear to be mostly interested in financial matters — taxes and government spending and such, much like the Tea Party groups around the country. He said he and McCauley had friendly discussions about the Patriots and Oath Keepers, and Tronrud told McCauley he had no interest in joining either group.

“I told him I took an oath of office that I was very proud of. He was fine. He understood exactly where I was coming from,” Tronrud said.

Mayor Stephens, who defeated Taylor last fall, said he has never been to a meeting of the Oath Keepers or the local Patriots and doesn’t intend to get involved in either group.

“I don’t pay attention to any of that,” he said, and the main reason he challenged Taylor was that he didn’t think she was paying enough attention to repairing local streets and the sidewalks on Big Timber’s main drag, McLeod Street.

As for talk that some members of the City Council are so opposed to big government that they want to stop taking federal grants, Stephens, the city’s former fire chief, said, “I’ll accept the grants because if I don’t, you will.”

Fears of the U.N.

McCauley brought up the United Nations threat on May 3, when supporters of Dornix Park asked to speak with council members about their plans.

Two weeks earlier the City Council had voted 3-2 not to write a letter in support of a citizens’ group working on Dornix Park, which was seeking a $100,000 grant to create two small wetlands in the park. The group had been working on the park for two years, holding public forums and creating a master plan, which had been approved by the former City Council.

After the current council voted not to sign a letter of support, park backers asked to talk about their plans at the work session on May 3. At that meeting, council members expressed some concerns about the cost of developing the park and liability issues affecting the city. Then, suddenly, the scope of the discussion expanded considerably.

That’s when McCauley raised the specter of the U.N. Agenda 21, which is an international effort to promote sustainable development.

McCauley said he was concerned because the Dornix Park plan had been selected as a pilot project by the Yellowstone Business Partnership, a Bozeman group that supports sustainable development in the Yellowstone-Teton region. McCauley said that group was “tied directly with Agenda 21,” and he referred to a man named Michael Shaw as an expert on the subject. In speeches posted on YouTube, Shaw has said Agenda 21 is devoted to abolishing private property, national sovereignty and the traditional family.

McCauley said the Yellowstone Business Partnership is also affiliated with LEED — Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, best known for setting standards for “green” construction methods and sustainable development.

“Sustainable development,” McCauley told backers of the park, “is all about abolishing private property and substituting an economic system dubbed ‘public-private partnership.’ … As soon as they say ‘sustainable,’ that tells me what it is.”

At first, park supporters were at a loss for words, but they told McCauley they knew nothing about Agenda 21 or any purported takeover by the U.N.

Doug Lowry, a lifelong resident of Big Timber who served briefly as mayor when Tom Hanel (now mayor of Billings) resigned in the middle of his term, said he went to both council meetings at which Dornix Park was discussed.

“My grandmother was probably the strongest Republican in Sweet Grass County,” he said by way of explaining his take on current events. “I always thought I was pretty conservative, but anymore I decided I’m a moderate.”

He is associated with the Boulder River Watershed and the Sweet Grass Conservation District, both of which are involved in Dornix Park, so he attended the City Council meetings to support the park plan. He said he’s not going to any more meetings because these last two literally raised his blood pressure to a dangerous level.

He was careful not to criticize anyone directly — “I’ve known Kevin (McCauley) since he was a baby; Kevin’s a bright young man’” — and he said no one on the council is a fanatic.

“But some of the people they’re listening to are pretty fanatical,” he said. “Just because you read it on the Internet doesn’t necessarily make it true.”

The votes are in

If the Patriots were behind the school board candidacy of Ed Crocitto, who ran against incumbent Holly Hatch, they have already suffered one setback. Crocitto lost the election on May 4.

Hatch said before the election that McCauley and the Patriot group “put up this guy to run against me,” and then “put another one of their friends” on the City Council instead of appointing Drinkard to fill the vacancy.

Jack Hines, who wrote a letter to the editor of the Big Timber Pioneer just before the election to ridicule Crocitto for his lack of qualifications, said the day after the election, “we beat ’em on one at least.”

He said opponents of right-wing activities in Big Timber now realize that they need to counter the Patriots and Oath Keepers. He said they are making plans to start packing City Council and Patriots’ meetings, “so they know we’re watching them.”

State Sen. John Esp, R-Big Timber, a lifelong resident of the town, said the situation isn’t as dire as some critics seem to think.

“I think it’s a healthy thing for people to be involved in their government and the political process,” he said. After attending a couple of Patriot meetings, he said, they appear to be mostly interested in education, not action.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” Esp said. “I don’t agree 100 percent with some of the positions they’ve taken, but I think it’s healthy to have a dialogue.”

Esp, who is prevented by term limits from running for the state Senate again, is challenging Rep. Joel Boniek, R-Livingston, in House District 61 Republican primary. Boniek was featured in a front-page photograph on the cover of the second issue of the Oath Keeper newspaper, published in January.

County Attorney Pat Dringham, who attended the first Patriot meeting with Esp and Sheriff Tronrud, also sees little cause for concern.

He said he wasn’t “overly impressed” with what he heard at the meeting, but he saw “a pretty normal group of people.”

“I think these are just a lot of small-government, small-taxpaying people,” he said. “These are not radicals.”

Biglen is more worried about the poisoning of small-town camaraderie. Local politics used to be about nonpartisan service, he said, but now everybody is drawing lines in the sand. There are places he no longer goes and people he no longer talks to.

When he was a Republican he worked with Democrats, and after switching parties he could still work with the other side on projects like expanding the library and upgrading the Pioneer Medical Center.

“That’s what I see being endangered,” he said. “That’s the sad part for me.”

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