Flathead Republicans Disagree Over Lange’s Ouster

By Beacon Staff

It ain’t over, as the saying goes, until it’s over.

That is, unless you’re talking about the 2007 Montana Legislature – the failure of which to come up with a two-year state budget necessitated a special session.

And even after the special session adjourned, House Republicans gathered one last time to take care of some unfinished business: a vote to fire Mike Lange from his job as Majority Leader and replace him with fellow Billings Republican Dennis Himmelberger.

Lange’s move to cut a deal with Gov. Brian Schweitzer in the days leading up to the special session alienated him from the more conservative members of his caucus, including House Speaker Scott Sales of Bozeman. After a profanity-laced tirade against Schweitzer on Day 88 of the regular session (which has been viewed, as of this writing, 28,898 times on youtube.com), Lange was already on thin ice with his colleagues.

Lange’s ouster revealed a rift in the House Republicans between the moderates and more conservative members; that same dynamic exists in the Flathead delegation.

Unlike his Flathead colleagues, Bigfork Republican Bill Jones supports Lange and opposed his removal.

“I was not pleased with that at all,” said Jones, a self-described moderate. “It was uncalled for; it was unnecessary.”

Jones praised Lange’s work managing a strong-willed caucus through a long, bitter session and continually delivering 50 Republican votes on crucial issues.

“I admire him a lot,” Jones said. “He had a very difficult job.”

Lange epitomizes Montana’s citizen-legislator. A pipefitter-welder, Lange’s bluecollar background imbues his political sensibility with an earnest, realistic point-of-view that would be utterly out of place in Washington D.C.

At a January 31 hearing for a bill he sponsored to relax environmental regulations and encourage fossil fuel development, Lange lashed out at environmental lobbyists for demonizing big business. He drew from his personal experience doing contract work for Exxon refining facilities in Billings.

“I’m sick and tired of people that are paid to stand here and obstruct facilities just because they don’t like it,” Lange added, nodding to the conservation lobbyists seated behind him.

Those business provide jobs, Lange said, “good jobs for people like me.”

But when you’re a politician, wearing your heart on your sleeve is a double-edged sword, and Lange’s high emotion proved a liability when he cursed out the governor.

Jones said during Lange’s “YouTube moment,” many Flathead Republicans egged Lange on, yet they later pushed for his removal, partially because of that outburst.

“The people that were hooting and hollering and encouraging him were the same who voted to go to that caucus,” to vote Lange down on a secret ballot, Jones said.

Rep. Jon Sonju, R-Kalispell, said all Flathead House Republicans except Jones supported Lange’s ouster. Rep. Bill Beck, R-Whitefish, declined to discuss how he voted.

“There was some trust broken there,” Sonju said of Lange’s attempt to cut a deal with Schweitzer. “I think he compromised without getting the insight of the whole caucus.”

“I think it was just time to move on,” Sonju added.

Rep. George Everett, R-Kalispell, said Lange let go of the GOP’s session-long goal of permanent property tax relief in his collusion with Schweitzer – a politically fatal error in the eyes of his colleagues.

“He was going to try to make the best deal he could,” Everett said. “When he did that, he allowed property tax relief to end.”

It was this compromise that sealed the deal for Everett, who praised the content of Lange’s infamous outburst.

“The gist of his speech was right on,” Everett added. “He said what needed to be said.”

After a handful of House Republicans met with Schweitzer in a log cabin to work out a deal, conservative members of the caucus came up with a derisive nickname for the moderates.

Rep. Craig Witte, R-Kalispell, said the moderates became known as the “log cabin Republicans,” named after the national organization made up of gays and lesbians who support the GOP.

Jones, who was not among the moderates invited to the “log cabin” meeting, still criticizes the more conservative members of his party. Without some Republicans reaching across the aisle, he said, they would probably still be in Helena.

“It is so easy to just say no taxes, no government, no mercy,” Jones said. “But rhetoric meets reality and you’ve got to change.”

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