Political Hay

The Montana Howard Dean

Green liberalism comes into its own under new Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer -- in a red state!

By 3.30.05

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Newly inaugurated Democrat Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer had a meeting with Republican legislative leaders in Helena recently, ostensibly to discuss some of his top priorities for the current session, including tax breaks designed to attract movie productions to Montana, promotion of ethanol production, and a bill to strengthen the state's stream access law. According to participants, the meeting turned into a "25-minute filibuster," where Schweitzer supposedly refused to let the half dozen GOP lawmakers present speak at all.

"We went down there for 25 minutes and listened to him rant and have a 10-year-old temper tantrum," Senate Minority Leader Bob Keenan told the Helena Independent-Record. "To me, it's sad, I wonder if he wants to be governor. This is an inconvenience for him and he's finding it's a very difficult job."

"They're all big boys and girls," the governor was quoted as saying later. "They got here because they're able to pick up a ball and run with it."

This incident was typical of Brian Schweitzer's first few weeks in Montana's governor's office.

SCHWEITZER, 49, FORMER WHITEFISH, Montana, rancher and businessman, and married father of three, has not previously held elective office. He won Montana's 2004 gubernatorial race by beating Billings Senate Republican Bob Brown 50% to 46%, after a respectable attempt (51% to 47%) to unseat Conrad Burns in the 2000 U.S. Senate contest.

This time around Schweitzer was viewed -- especially on liberal Montana editorial pages -- as the Treasure State's Great Democratic Hope after the four-year tenure of Republican Judy Martz. Martz was the popular former governor Marc Racicot's lieutenant governor, but her own administration was so inept -- for many reasons -- that her polling numbers told her not to seek reelection, especially against the up-and-coming Schweitzer. During his own campaign against Brown, Schweitzer played the role of the anti-Martz. And for his own lieutenant governor running mate, he craftily chose veteran Montana Senate Republican John Bohlinger of Billings, as a way to reach out to Republicans and swing voters.

Schweitzer beat Brown and brought some new Democrats to Helena on his coattails, adding seats in the Montana House, and actually gaining a slim majority in the Senate. On Election Day some green-inspired environmental initiatives also passed, along with a medical marijuana initiative. Still, an anti-gay marriage referendum passed along with a dozen others across the country.

Montana's demographics -- like those of most neighboring states -- have changed radically in the last decade. The scenic mountain counties in the western third of the state have seen an influx of what the locals sarcastically call "Californicators," a population surge of semi-retired Baby Boomers, recreation-minded Gen Xers, and entrepreneurial "modem cowboys," all pushing the political compass to the Left. Schweitzer carried the fast-growing college and ski towns of this region such as Bozeman, Missoula, and Kalispell, not to mention Butte, a Democratic stronghold thanks to its blue collar, mining-union history. Brown carried most of the agricultural prairie counties of the eastern two thirds of Montana, where -- as across much of the adjacent Great Plains -- towns are graying and shrinking in population, as young people move away, schools and businesses close, and farmers go bust, leaving windblown towns full of very old retirees who have lived there their entire lives, and aren't particularly wealthy.

That Schweitzer along with other Democratic candidates and some liberal ballot measures prevailed is interesting in that George W. Bush easily carried Montana, beating John Kerry 59% to 38%. Incidentally, Bush also carried Colorado, which sent Democrat Ken Salazar to the U.S. Senate. Go figure. All this seems to illustrate that the fabled Red-Blue divide in modern America is really a myth.

THE "MOUNTAIN" AMERICAN WEST is the nation's fastest growing region, and seems to be developing an odd political dynamic. While its cities (Denver, Salt Lake City, Boise, Phoenix, Reno, et al.) are good examples of booming, entrepreneurial prosperity (read: Republican); Green-liberal Democrats are getting elected locally in reaction to the Bush administration's environmental policies pertaining to the Western public lands, such as oil and gas production. Schweitzer is an example of this type of Democrat. At the same time the President, with his War-on-Terror and culture war credentials, carried both aforementioned states without breaking a sweat.

The paradoxes are everywhere. Even in my home state of Wyoming (maybe the most Republican state in the Milky Way Galaxy), which gave the President and native son Dick Cheney 67% of its vote, with its entire three-person congressional delegation in the GOP column, the state legislature and county offices lopsidedly Republican, and with a state Democratic Party that occasionally convenes in high school gyms or over coffee in luncheonettes: Wyoming still has a Democrat -- the popular David Freudenthal -- sitting in the governor's office since 2003 (though it would be laughable to call Governor Freudenthal a "liberal" -- he's a typical Wyoming NRA-Democrat). Back to Schweitzer.

As noted, Governor Schweitzer has already locked horns with GOP lawmakers on a number of issues. The first was his cancellation by executive order -- within days of his inauguration -- of an already approved and scheduled bison hunt on land adjacent to Yellowstone National Park.

The hunt -- the first since 1991 -- was designed to cull a tiny percentage of Yellowstone's roughly 4,200 bison, some of those that migrate out of the Park and onto federal public grazing lands in Montana each winter. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) personnel routinely shoot out-of-bounds bison in that same area anyway. This because up to 50% of Yellowstone bison are infected with brucellosis, a disease that when transmitted to domestic cattle causes cows to abort fetuses. By canceling the hunt, Schweitzer drew criticism from hunting groups and ranchers that he had caved in to pressure from out-of-state animal rights activists and a Montana organization called "The Buffalo Field Campaign," a radical enviro group known for civil disobedience, including on-site clashes with FWP personnel. All this after Schweitzer ran campaign ads last fall portraying himself as one of those NRA-supporting-hunter-sportsman Democrats (which his life story indeed confirms).

Schweitzer further inflamed the issue by proposing the ludicrous idea that all of those 4,200 bison in Yellowstone be rounded up and tested for brucellosis. In the governor's plan all infected animals would be slaughtered, and the meat -- which is safe to eat -- would be donated to worthy charities; the healthy bison would be vaccinated, thus restocking Yellowstone with disease-free bison. "I'm the first cattleman to be governor of Montana in generations," Schweitzer boldly told the Los Angeles Times. "I understand disease and cattle. I'll put the pieces together."

Governor Schweitzer wasn't clear as to who exactly was going to pay for this massive undertaking of man and beast, almost biblical in its scope. The U.S. Department of the Interior, whose purview is the national parks, diplomatically informed the governor of the unfeasibility of rounding up every bison on the over 2 million acres of Yellowstone. Schweitzer had even gone so far as to try to enlist the support of Governor Freudenthal in this harebrained scheme as it pertained to Wyoming's own shared borders with Yellowstone. The good-natured Freudenthal quipped to Wyoming media that Schweitzer "hadn't been in office long before he decided to help me run Wyoming."

DESPITE HIS ROOKIE STATUS, Governor Schweitzer has also not been shy in his criticism of current domestic Bush policies. While recently attending a National Governor Association meeting in Washington, D.C., Schweitzer employed the sort of barnyard rhetoric that the President would have certainly understood when he also told the L.A. Times that Bush's projected Social Security reforms were "a bull market hawking lousy studs." Around that time Schweitzer also delivered the Democrats' rebuttal to a Bush Saturday morning radio address, where he questioned -- among other things -- administration policies concerning our neighbor to the north, i.e. Canadian beef imports and cheap prescription drugs: "Why allow bad beef to enter the U.S. from Canada and not allow safe medicine." Not bad for a guy just a few weeks off the ranch.

The Montana governor's latest bit of public grandstanding concerns the letter he has lately sent to the Pentagon, in which he demands that Montana National Guard troops --and equipment -- currently serving in Iraq be excused from that duty and sent home in anticipation of Montana's annual summer forest fire season, which is expected to be severe this year due to ongoing drought in the Northern Rockies. I'm not aware of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld's response to this letter, but the subject did get Schweitzer some zingers from Rush Limbaugh on his radio show, which the governor probably found gratifying.

Montanans seem to have elected to the governor's office the Treasure State's version of Howard Dean. Not Dean the governor, but Dean the presidential candidate and DNC chairman. In some respects there is a refreshing prairie populism to even Schweitzer's most bizarre rhetoric and schemes. Brian Schweitzer-watching has certainly become endemic in this part of the world. But Montana's GOP political establishment, media, and ordinary citizenry seem to be eagerly -- and perversely -- awaiting the governor's next (so far only figurative) Deanesque scream. They rub their palms together in anticipation of the real thing.

It's going to be a fun next four years around here.

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.