All in the Family?

By Kellyn Brown

Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger’s relationship with his own political party is an awkward affair. The state’s Republicans are a large extended family and Bohlinger plays the brazen uncle who often riles his cousins.

But the latest spat, contrary to previous ones, appears more calculated than predictable: reoccurring in-law infighting. Bohlinger is upset over the fact that he was told he couldn’t vote in the Republican caucus Feb. 5. To him the case was simple: “I am the lieutenant governor of the state of Montana and I am a Republican.”

The devil, however, is in the details. The Secretary of State’s office, which is not organizing the GOP caucus, said the ticket Bohlinger ran on with Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer in 2004 only lists the Democratic Party, so the rules wouldn’t allow him to cast a vote as a Republican. This leaves Bohlinger – once again railing against his own party for feeling excluded – beginning to look disingenuous.

When Republicans told Bohlinger that he was not welcome at the party’s convention last year, I sided with the lieutenant governor. The GOP’s argument then that Bohlinger isn’t a “real Republican” rang hollow; it still does to some extent. After all, Bohlinger has said publicly he is supporting U.S. Sen. John McCain for president.

But, once again, as Bohlinger has stolen some of the spotlight from a major GOP function, I’m beginning to understand his party’s skepticism. It’s one thing to play both sides – I think the political term is “maverick.” Bohlinger is a Republican with a bowtie and an independent streak. And, overall, we need more politicians like him on both sides of the aisle.

Lately though, he’s making his family look bad. Brushing off any suggestion that voting would violate the rules, Bohlinger told the Associated Press, if party members tried to stop him “they would look silly. And I don’t think they want to look silly.”

Republican Party Chairman Erik Iverson responded in a letter, which was also sent to the state’s media, explaining to Bohlinger why he couldn’t vote.

“Under the Montana Republican Party Presidential Preference Caucus rules … you do not qualify as a voting delegate because you are not an incumbent Republican officeholder.”

Iverson went on to say that Bohlinger could have asked to be elected as a precinct committeeman, but he missed the Jan. 26 deadline. He also encouraged Bohlinger to attend the caucus and speak in support of McCain.

As you read this, that may or may not have happened. It would seem that a speech would just add to the awkwardness. Last week, McCain abruptly and unexpectedly replaced Bohlinger as chairman of his Montana presidential campaign with former U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns and neglected to say why. The relationship between Burns and Bohlinger is likely a thorny one. Bohlinger’s boss, after all, helped Jon Tester unseat Burns in 2006.

Yes, Bohlinger is the GOP’s relative who makes everyone uncomfortable at family reunions. Iverson did say in his letter that he looks “forward to working with (Bohlinger) to elect Republican candidates around the state in 2008.”

But that’s like telling your shifty uncle that you can’t wait to see him at the next potluck. Polite maybe, but also disingenuous.

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