Originally published in the Jackson Hole News, Aug. 16, 2000
After 14 years on campaign trail, Morris says this year’s race will be his last.
By Jim Stanford
At precisely 10:30 a.m. the START bus arrives on the Jackson Town Square, and out steps a tall, thin man with a warm smile and calm demeanor.
Slowly he shuffles away from the bike rack at the front of the bus, carrying the various items that have come to distinguish him: the white, wide-brimmed hat he gently sets atop his head; the briefcase plastered with political bumper stickers; the old-fashioned bicycle he sets down and wheels toward the corner.
Before long he approaches a pair of newly arrived college graduates, and out pops his most identifying characteristic: the voice.
“Have you seen my marijuana flyer?” he asks in a deep, resonant baritone that combines the aristocratic air of John Huston with the nasally monotone of Herman Munster. It is this unmistakable voice, made omnipresent by abundant radio and TV commercials, that signifies the friendly stranger with the “Vote Marijuana” paper is none other than Capt. Bob Morris.
“Are you registered to vote in the Republican primary?” he queries the slightly puzzled and bemused youngsters.
Thus begins another day of electioneering for Teton County’s most persistent politician. For 14 years, while running for a variety of state and county posts, the venerable Morris has waged an unconventional campaign in this manner, reaching out to the one segment of the community least likely to vote: ski bums.
Tirelessly he has championed a unique agenda, vowing to solve the housing crisis and improve mass transit while advocating hitchhiking, decriminalization of marijuana and removal of the $1 bill from circulation. He has pursued a shrewd strategy, the subtlety of which his target audience often fails to grasp. By seeking the Republican nomination, he hopes to swing the balance of power to moderate candidates in the general election in November, which — as he often puts it — “is what the right wing fears the most.”
The marijuana issue is his most radical idea. By allowing adults to grow a marijuana plant at home, he hopes to deliver a “death blow” to a black market he says causes crime, violence, corruption and the imprisonment of “more of our countrymen per capita than any nation on Earth.”
Morris does not smoke marijuana — “I’ve never had a joint of my own,” he says — and as with most of his platform, he does not stand to benefit from decriminalization. He says that by voting for him, the public can send a message to other elected officials, particularly the sheriff, that ticketing adults who grow marijuana for personal consumption should not be a high priority.
As the primary season culminates Tuesday, Morris’ name is again on the ballot. He is making his third bid for county commissioner, running — as always — on the Republican ticket.
This time, however, there will be no next time if Morris fails to defeat his right-wing rivals. At 67, Capt. Bob says he is making one last run at office before retiring from the political arena.
The perennial candidate is tired of the apathy he inevitably encounters when mingling with the valley’s young working class. More than a decade of futile campaigning has left him with a deep-seated fatigue and even a hint of sadness.
Going to the polls is “not a labor of Hercules,” he laments. Voting requires a minimal effort, yet motivating young people to vote is “a) largely futile; and b) takes a prodigious amount of effort,” he says, stretching his arms wide for emphasis. “I want them to vote for their sake, not my sake.”
Yet while his efforts have failed to win him election, his distinct, peculiar style has made Capt. Bob one of Jackson Hole’s most intriguing characters, as much a fixture in the valley as the clocktower in Teton Village or the shootout on the Town Square.
Although by running for office he continually subjects himself to public scrutiny, Morris remains somewhat of an enigma, shrouded in mystery. To some he is a mad crusader, a Don Quixote whose windmills are the Religious Right, internal-combustion engines and Barbara Cubin.
The best way to learn the truth about Capt. Bob is to ask him a question. An articulate speaker who chooses his words carefully, he will offer an honest answer. He is eager to dispel the many myths surrounding him, such as the notion that he is an heir to the Phillip Morris tobacco family and fortune — “an irrepressible rumor,” he says with disgust.
His rhetoric is poetic and profound, like how a conversation with Plato might have sounded. Morris, in fact, credits his studies of Latin and Greek in high school for teaching him to construct clear, forceful and lively sentences.
Born and raised on 93rd St. in New York City, Morris studied at Groton and Yale, where he achieved a B.A. in history in 1955. After graduation he enlisted in the U.S. Marines and served until 1967, rising to the rank of captain. He became vehemently opposed to the Vietnam War, however, and on leaving the service dedicated the next six years of his life to campaigning for peace.
Morris moved to Jackson Hole in 1970 while working to re-elect Wyoming’s anti-war congressman, Teno Roncalio. On June 30, 1973, Roncalio cast the deciding vote, Morris says, to de-fund the war.
Morris founded radio station KMTN in 1974 and nurtured it for 14 years. In 1988 he sold the broadcast license but retained ownership of the equipment. The station pays him rent, a portion of which is free ad time. Morris’ booming voice has appeared over the airwaves 365 days a year for the past 12 years.
Morris first ran for office in 1986 and 1988, challenging incumbent Dick Cheney for a seat in Congress. His main issue was U.S. intervention in El Salvador, “which I feared would be our Vietnam of the ’90s,” he says.
Morris waged a write-in campaign against Cheney in 1990. In 1992 and 1994 he made his first bids for county commission, and in 1996 he ran for a vacant seat in the Wyoming state senate.
A staunch conservationist, Morris chooses not to abide by many societal norms. He has not owned an automobile since 1956. He steadfastly reuses scraps of paper. His house utilizes passive solar heat.
He acknowledges he is most often described as eccentric, yet the pain shows in his eyes as he disputes the label. “Eccentric means unreliable,” he says. “No mother wants her son to grow up to be an eccentric.”
In nearly every facet of his everyday life, Morris is a model of efficiency, from the light, white cotton clothing he dons in summertime to the composting toilet in his home. Contrary to popular belief, when cycling around town, he always has a specific destination. There is a highly logical method to his supposed madness, a purpose behind every quirk.
He seeks to apply this penchant for efficiency to government. He regularly exchanges $2 bills and gold Sacagawea coins for $1 bills, which wear out quickly and cost the U.S. Treasury $522 million each year to replace. While he has been espousing this idea for years, only this spring did U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe of Arizona, chairman of the House Appropriations committee that oversees the U.S. Treasury, seize the notion and propose a change.
Although he owns two rental properties [since sold at below-market value to the Housing Trust], Morris has pressed for elimination of tax deductions for second-home owners. He seeks to loosen the grip landlords have held over the working class.
“The rich are really sticking it to the young people at enormous cost to the social and economic fabric of this community,” he says.
Dennis Johnson, deacon at St. John’s Episcopal Church, where Morris is a regular Sunday mass attendee, has gotten to know the politician well over the years. “At first glance he seems like kind of an odd duck, but he’s really quite intelligent and a well-spoken individual,” Johnson says. “He has some deep ideas and thinks out his positions very carefully.”
Despite his frustration with apathy, Morris has reason to be optimistic in this year’s election. He is coming off his most successful campaign yet, a bid for county commission in the 1998 Republican primary, in which he received 13 percent of the vote. By comparison, winners Bob Shervin and Jolynn Coonce carried just 21 and 20 percent, respectively. Morris nearly tripled his vote total from the 1994 county commission race.
Again he has targeted ski bums, the “young athletes” whose numbers he feels are great enough to foil the Republican right. He specifically has appealed to “marijuana-type persons,” which he defines as young, athletic-looking, college-educated people. His definition of “young” includes those up to 50 years old.
“They might have added 30 years, but their mindset hasn’t changed,” he says. “They’re still forward-looking.”
Morris has dedicated to his life to political activism because he wants “to improve the general consensus out there,” he says. “When I’m dead I’ll be mute for a long time.”
His quest is as much moral as political. “Wherever there’s injustice, heaven wants to set things right,” he says.
Has he succeeded in his goal of motivating young people to vote?
“The 22nd of August will decide that,” he says plainly.
Editor’s note: On the 22nd of August 2000, buoyed by a strong turnout of young voters and moderates, Capt. Bob won the Republican primary, defeating Bill Paddleford, Carol Richardson and others.
“Capt. Bob smokes GOP field,” read the headline of the next day’s Jackson Hole Guide. “County voters high on Capt. Bob,” countered the Jackson Hole News.
On the tragic election night of Nov. 7, 2000, Capt. Bob lost the general election by 11 votes. As the presidential race hung in the balance, suspicions were raised about the vote count in Teton County. No allegations were ever proven, and a recount expanded Morris’ margin of defeat to 17 votes.
I walked into the Rancher that Tuesday night, and as a TV news program declared George W. Bush winner of Florida, I counted two dozen slackers around the bar who had not bothered to vote.
Capt. Bob would make at least two more runs for county but never came as close.