CORVALLIS — David Merrick has never wavered from standing up for what he thinks is right.
Often as not, it’s been kind of a lonely journey.
Those who have traveled the Eastside Highway over the years have seen him around election time standing out there alone while waving a sign for the most recent Libertarian candidate.
A few years back, when a pair of Libertarian candidates faced charges of operating an illegal marijuana grow operation, the then-71-year-old spent hours marching around the courthouse with a hand-painted sign that read “Stop government assaults on people and property. End prohibition.”
Once again, he was alone.
Over the years, he’s hosted Libertarian candidates for president and encouraged others to step forward and put their name on the ballot.
On Sunday, the Montana Libertarian Party honored Merrick’s determined efforts with its inaugural Mike Fellows Award at a low-key event in Missoula.
The award honors Mike Fellows, who died two years ago on Sept. 19, in Missoula County in a car crash following a campaign event while running for the U.S. House. Fellows worked tirelessly for more than two decades for the Montana Libertarian Party, running for office and supporting other Libertarian candidates and the party.
In 2012, he made political history by becoming the first Libertarian candidate to earn more than 40 percent of the vote in a statewide partisan race.
The Mike Fellows Award was created to honor Montana Libertarians who follow in Fellows’ footsteps in activism and dedication to the principles of liberty.
The award was presented to Merrick by U.S. House Libertarian candidate Elinor Swanson.
“I am honored to give Dave this award almost two years to the day since Mike Fellows died,” Swanson said. “Dave is an inspiration to my own campaign for U.S. House and to freedom-loving people across Montana.”
In a telephone interview, Swanson said she’s impressed by the fact that Merrick joined the Libertarian Party one year after its inception in the 1970s and has never looked back.
“He’s just been a real dynamo in Montana,” she said. “He’s tirelessly been working for freedom against all odds by cheerfully doing whatever it is that he can. I would love to emulate that.”
Merrick has been the face of the Libertarian Party in Ravalli County for decades.
“The MTLP and Libertarians across the state owe so much to Mike Fellows,” MTLP Chair Francis Wendt said. “Dave Merrick is the perfect choice to receive this first award. Dave has been a stalwart defender of freedom for more than two decades. The Libertarian cause has been dear to his heart and has shown in his activism.”
Merrick had to the opportunity to meet Fellows when he was in the Bitterroot Valley giving a speech.
“I had been a Libertarian for quite a while by then and had helped with getting the party started in California,” Merrick said. “He asked me to help here. For quite a while, Mike Fellows was the Libertarian Party in Montana. There wasn’t much of a party without him. He made sure there Libertarians on the ballot.”
Merrick said he’s not certain yet if he’ll take his chair down to the Eastside Road on Election Day to wave a sign for his party in November.
“This was the first time in 20 years that I wasn’t set up at the fair or enter any parades,” he said. “I just don’t have the energy that I once did. …Sometimes it seems like people look at the outside parties as a way to take away from another party. They don’t want to see them as real candidates. Libertarians are the third-largest party in the country.”
Swanson believes that’s beginning to change.
She said she was a Democrat before switching to the Libertarian Party.
“It was a long slow process of realizing that I’m a big fan of personal autonomy,” she said. “The Democrats don’t uphold and respect that.”
Republicans are defecting, too, as they learn more as they learn more about the party that preaches fiscal responsibility and social tolerance, said Swanson.
“Here in Montana, we have the most Libertarians per capita of any state,” Swanson said. “We have doubled our numbers in Montana. There is an insane amount of interest, growth and participation.
“I like to say that we have pastors and prostitutes in our party,” she said. “There is an incredible amount of diversity in thoughts and beliefs. … but what I’ve seen recently is an influx of business-orientated people, like me, becoming involved.”
Swanson is a mother of four, wife, and an attorney in Billings.
“I’m seeing people who aren’t just focused on advancing their own values, but want liberty and freedom for all people,” Swanson said.
Merrick said that is what attracted to him to the Libertarian Party in the first place.
“I just want to go back to the principals of live and let live,” he said. “Life, liberty and property — those are the principles that are important to me.”