This is part of The Humanist’s monthly series highlighting openly nonreligious elected officials across the nation. Because of the work of the Center for Freethought Equality, the political and advocacy arm of the American Humanist Association, there are now 90 elected officials at the local, state, and federal level who identify with the atheist and humanist community serving in 30 states across the country. Join the Center for Freethought Equality to help politically empower the atheist and humanist community—membership is FREE!
The Center for Freethought Equality’s advances have been groundbreaking. Prior to the 2016 election, there were only 5 state legislators and no members of Congress who publicly identified with our community. Today, because of its efforts, we have 60 state legislators—a 12-fold increase–and a member of Congress, Jared Huffman (CA-2), who publicly identify with our community. It is critical that we connect and engage with the elected officials who represent our community and our values—you can see a list of these elected officials here.
City Councilmember Danny Choriki
Representing Ward 3, City Council Billings, Montana
“Living in a red state that is deeply influenced by religious and political ideology, it is very important to me that we both defend and promote humanist values.”
Born in Bozeman, Montana, Danny Choriki graduated from Great Falls High School and Montana State University with a degree in Psychology. He has identified as a humanist since high school. The oldest of seven, with three brothers and three sisters, Choriki’s extended family has been in Billings since 1984, when his parents moved the family business from Great Falls. He moved to New York City in 1984, where he earned his Masters degree in Psychology to better understand how people cope with and adapt to rapid social and technical change.
His first full-time job in New York City was at a policy research center looking at the impact of information technology on the New York City Public Schools. This was followed by a series of consulting and strategic planning positions at Fortune 50 corporations in the legal, finance, and telecommunications industries. He became an “accidental techie” while working at the computer center at his graduate school, The Graduate School of The City University of New York. He then moved into the internet startup world, during which he worked for an online advertising technology that was purchased by AOL. He subsequently founded startups in digital privacy and online content and games.
Choriki returned to Montana in 2012 to take care of his aging parents, who inspired him to serve his local community and introduced him to science and humanist values. Through his early life experiences, as well as prior training and consulting work on how information and decisions flow within organizations (process engineering), he learned to view the world and the human experience as a set of systems and to identify root causes to solve complex problems, skills that he now applies to his everyday work as an elected official.
Choriki has been active in politics and social justice issues throughout his life—in addition to protesting nuclear weapons and US military involvement in foreign adventures, he has been involved with International Workers of the World, the Ethical Culture Society, and is a “card carrying-member” of the ACLU.
In addition to spending some quality time with his parents and extended family in the Billings area, Choriki also moved back to help reboot his father’s startup, which after forty years, had grown a little stale.
On top of his work as a City Councilmember, Choriki is currently providing strategic business advice to startups, building upon his family’s GPS farm consulting business, using internet technologies and statistical modeling to advise farm operations. His current side project is starting a community-owned, local, online “newspaper.”
Sarah Levin: What motivated you to run for office?
Danny Choriki: Since I learned to read, history has always been a top interest. One of the lessons I learned from history is that in all the ups and downs, what matters most is the continuity of civilization. The second lesson I learned was from my parents. They taught me to care about and be involved in the community where I live, which is why I strive to leave the places where I live and work better than I found them.
My core values are humanistic and progressive, with an emphasis on the human experience. Policy decisions need to be made with compassion and data. We need to evaluate what does and does not work. We need to accept that we never get it perfect the first time and must continue to strive to be better.
One of my favorite lines is, “My country, right or wrong. And when it’s wrong, we fix it.” I am a classical liberal that believes that our public policies should be driven by the human experience. I am also an American progressive who believes that we should continuously strive to do better.
What worries me most is a fifty-year trend of cutting taxes, “governments are too big” rhetoric, and a lack of attention to the actual outcomes of failing to invest in the future, in our infrastructure, and in each other. This policy trend needs to be reversed.
Why did I run for office? We can do better. We have done better. We must do better.
On a personal note, I’ve spent over a decade of my career in the Fortune 50 corporate world. I’ve seen how the corporate world has transformed over the past forty years using data in management decisions and the use of information tools to increase the effectiveness of information flow and improve the quality of business decisions. We need to make this happen in the public sector here in Montana.
Levin: What are your policy priorities and how does your nonreligious worldview impact your policy platform?
Choriki: We are experiencing a major transformation of how our daily lives are structured and what they are going to look like in the future. Global warming is transforming the places we live, work, and recreate. Technology is altering our economic relations and daily lives. The human population is approaching 8 billion today and is projected to reach 10 billion around 2050. The economic impact of a burgeoning global middle class is changing the economy. We are seeing individual energy usages that were unimaginable 100 years ago. The pace of change is overwhelming and contributes to stress in the daily lives of individuals and families.
The way we build where we live, play, and work has changed in the past forty years. It is going to change again in the next ten years. We need to use what we have learned from the past and the tools we have learned from science as it applies to policy analysis to invest in a livable future for all of us.
Local, city, and county governments have the most direct impact on how we live our daily lives. Zoning defines the density of our development. It defines whether we focus on maintaining and rebuilding what we have or if we continue to develop on undeveloped land on the edges of our urban areas, converting green space to gray. How we do public safety is a critical policy decision impacting social justice. The economy needs to be encouraged to grow in ways that enhance the future.
Levin: Why was it important for you to be open about your nonreligious identity?
Choriki: It isn’t important to me to come out as nonreligious. I have been “out” as a nontheist since high school. It is important to me to express and promote core humanist values. I have publicly led the Billings Association of Humanists since 2014.
Living in a red state that is deeply influenced by religious and political ideology, it is very important to me that we both defend and promote humanist values. I firmly believe that America is the way it is today because we have lost the “cultural war” to the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Donald Trump.
The conservative movement has understood since the 1950’s that if you change the culture, that will change politics, and thus, will change the world. We need to return to the values of the post-WWII generation which were pragmatic, progressive, and engaged with our communities.
Levin: How did voters respond (if at all) to your openness about your nonreligious identity?
Choriki: It was pretty much a nonissue. There was an occasional person who said, “oh, you’re the humanist.” But frankly, I have been opposed by rigid thinkers across the political spectrum. And they are not likely to embrace me, whether we agree on local policy issues or not.
My stock answer is, “I believe in human compassion, in science, and that human experience needs to be the driving factor behind our public policy decisions.”
It is a time for creative thinking. It is a time for finding the gems from our past, preserving them, and projecting them into the future. It is a time for facing challenges we have never seen before. It is a time for trying new solutions, and if they don’t work, fix them.
To learn more about the Association of Secular Elected Officials and Danny Choriki:
To learn more about the Danny Choriki and the City of Billings Montana