ANACONDA (AP) – Democratic Sen. Jon Tester has found a more demanding crowd in Montana than the one he left last year as an upstart candidate.
On his first extended trip since taking office, the senator traveled Montana during the congressional recess and everyone wanted a piece of him — and more federal money.
The question is whether the freshman senator, with no seat at the senatorial table where spending decisions are made, can deliver.
In the course of one very long day in late August, he was asked to fix a “broken” veteran’s health care system, get money for a Superfund cleanup that’s dragged on for years and help rejuvenate a county’s struggling economy.
One woman urged Tester to put pressure on the Environmental Protection Agency and a mining company to better clean up pollution in Anaconda. She complained of getting the run-around for years, and county leaders echoed their own frustrations.
Tester jumped in, promising help.
“They can run me around for a while, but then we’ll put the boots to ’em,” Tester said.
Later, the woman gushed.
“I think he’s great,” Maureen Robinson said. “I think he might be our salvation.”
Constituents said they are happy to find a U.S. senator on their side, but Tester will be tested as Montanans evaluate his ability to deliver.
Money for the state was an issue in his 2006 congressional race against incumbent Sen. Conrad Burns, a Republican who sat on the powerful Senate committee that doles out federal dollars. Burns boasted that he had brought $2 billion to the state over the years and that the state would be worse off if he were defeated.
During the campaign, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he would work to put Tester on the same appropriations panel if he were elected. But Reid favored more senior Democrats when he gave out committee assignments just a few days after the election.
Tester and his Democratic colleague, Sen. Max Baucus, have said the state won’t be compromised under their tenure.
According to Tester’s office, the two Democrats have shepherded almost $100 million through spending subcommittees in the Senate this year. That includes money for local roads, health care clinics and university research.
Tester’s office said the close working relationship between the two senators guarantees Montana projects are getting addressed, even though Tester lacks the seniority of his Republican predecessor.
Still, Tester said he understands there is only so much he can do. He acknowledged that some small requests he had for the highway spending bill were lost in the Senate process, in part, because he got outmaneuvered.
Republicans, however, criticized Tester for seeking earmarks after making an issue out of such financing for local projects during the 2006 campaign. At the time, Tester said the process should be more transparent.
“People certainly want money coming back into Montana, but more than that they want a senator who is going to be upfront and honest with them,” said Chris Wilcox, director of the state Republican party.
Tester spokesman Matt McKenna argued the two Democratic senators have made public all of their earmark requests, providing the transparency that Tester called for in the campaign.
For now, Montanans may not be entirely sure how to rate their newest senator.
Tester ranked lower than his congressional colleagues in a poll conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research of Washington, D.C., for Lee Newspapers earlier this summer. Tester had the lowest job-approval of Montana’s top elected officials with 46 percent.
But Brad Coker, managing director of the polling firm, noted a high number of undecideds and said lower numbers were not unusual for someone new to office.
In Washington, the Democrat is still defining himself on the Senate floor. Much of his short tenure in the Senate has centered around his opposition to the war in Iraq.
Tester has argued the war is a waste of billions of dollars a week, saying the original mission is completed and the nation can no longer spend money refereeing a civil war.
Montana’s needs “will be cut short due to the cost of what we’re doing over there in Iraq,” Tester said.
He has joined other Senate Democrats who want to de-authorize the war and force the president to get approval from Congress to continue the fight.
“It’s a different war than was originally approved,” Tester said. “This is a civil war now.”
The war has been a bit of a sticking point with a core of liberal supporters who helped Tester get elected and hoped he would be more outspoken against the war. They have criticized his vote to continue funding it.
“I think he needs to be more aggressive on getting us out of Iraq,” said Matt Singer, a blogger for the Web site leftinthwest.com and an early supporter.
But Singer remains a Tester fan.
“I think what we got is a senator who is smart, who is hardworking,” Singer said.
As he tours the state, Tester doesn’t look any different than before he was elected to the U.S. Senate. He is wearing the same camel-haired jacket he did when he was a state senator.
“Jon’s an amazingly approachable and friendly guy,” Singer said. “I think the response he gets is a response to that.”
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