BIGFORK – When Jon Tester stood up in front of a class of Bigfork High School students last week, the first question he answered dealt with a decision upon which he would be questioned and congratulated almost continuously over the course of the day he spent in the Flathead: his vote against the $700-billion bailout bill for the nation’s financial industry.
Freshman Sen. Tester was among the 10 Democrats who opposed the bailout bill when it passed the U.S. Senate easily Oct. 1, on a 74 to 25 vote. Sen. Max Baucus, Democrat and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, reluctantly supported the bailout, while U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., opposed the bill when it passed the House 263 to 171.
As he traveled through the valley, the questions for Tester reflected not only public opinion toward the bailout bill, but also the concern many in the Flathead feel about their economic security.
When Caitlann O’Dell, a Bigfork senior, asked Tester why he opposed the bailout, he rattled off four reasons that he would repeat for the rest of the day: The bailout does not eliminate so-called “golden parachutes,” generous compensation packages for executives who ran their banks into the ground; the legislation contained no mandate for strengthening regulation in the markets; $700 billion was an amount so large the grandchildren of the teenagers in the room might still be paying it off; and there was no guarantee that the bailout would actually relieve the financial crisis.
“Nobody…could tell me this would work,” Tester said. “Any time you’re going to spend $700 billion you should get a pretty good sense from somebody that this is going to work.”
The Bigfork students, dressed in Hawaiian outfits for homecoming, nodded in understanding, and Tester took questions for the following 45 minutes on everything from the Georgia-Russia conflict to his opinion of the Saturday Night Live sketches lampooning Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (“Interestingly comical”).
“Is our generation up the creek when it comes to social security?” asked one boy.
“No, not at all,” Tester replied.
As students filed into the hallway after the talk, O’Dell said she knew immediately what to ask the senator because the economy and bailout are topics that have come up often in her house lately.
“My parents are really concerned about it; they have AIG (insurance),” O’Dell said. “They’re really glad that he didn’t vote for it, because they’d rather their taxes go to citizens than Wall Street.”
Later in the day, more than 50 people crammed into a sweltering room in Tester’s Kalispell field office. There, the questions ranged from alternative fuels to Iraq’s budget surplus, but again, the first question was about the bailout. Applause broke out when someone thanked Tester for opposing it. But on specific questions about how Congress would implement different aspects of the financial rescue, the senator was hard pressed for answers.
When asked about probable job losses in Montana compared to the rest of the country, Tester said the state’s unemployment rate “would probably double.”
“Do you see the economy crashing soon?” someone else asked and Tester replied that he did not.
“There’s going to be some people that feel some pain. We’ll regroup and rebuild and move forward,” Tester said. “It will reinstate some common sense back into the marketplace.”
Jim Roth, the owner of the landscaping business “First Class Grass,” told the room neither he nor his wife can get health insurance because they both have pre-existing conditions, and live in fear of getting sick.
“If I have a heart attack tomorrow, I’ll be living in a box,” Roth said.
Tester said he believed a roughly six-month window of opportunity exists, after the next presidential election, to pass broad health care reform.
As the discussion ended and Tester made his way out of the room, the people who thanked Tester for his bailout opposition made clear that appreciation of his vote transcends partisan lines. Sieglinde Sharbono, the Constitution Party candidate for secretary of state, shook Tester’s hand, followed by David Hart, former Montana coordinator for Ron Paul’s presidential campaign. Tester left for a talk at Flathead High, and a moment later Republican state Rep. George Everett, of Kalispell, stopped in to thank him for opposing the bailout.
On the other side of Montana, Rehberg also received a lot of feedback last week about his bailout opposition while campaigning door to door in Laurel and Glasgow for his re-election bid and for Republicans down the ticket.
“Frankly, nobody has come up and said I voted the wrong way,” Rehberg said.
He sees the greatest concern from those nearing retirement, and younger people who can’t recall a time when the economy wasn’t booming.
“I get the question a lot: ‘Where do you think we’re going?’” Rehberg said. “I have to be quite candid; nobody knows, this is uncharted territory.”
At the same time, Rehberg noted that the market for commodities remains stronger than others, and he is reassured by the extractive resource-based sector of the state’s economy, adding, “When you have a situation like this, it’s good for a state like Montana to be invested in timber, coal, oil and gas.”
Baucus was the sole member of Montana’s federal delegation to support the bailout bill, but he was clearly aware of its deep unpopularity in the state, calling the legislation “outrageous,” but necessary.
“Wall Street negligence and greed threatens Montana jobs, businesses and families,” Baucus said in a statement issued immediately after his vote for the bill. “The economic rescue package is our best hope of making sure a bad situation doesn’t become much, much worse.”
Tester headed to Flathead High School after the open house, where he faced another round of wide-ranging questions from students, the bailout foremost among them. In an interview afterwards, Tester said he had heard from only a small handful of constituents who criticized him for not supporting the bill. When the Senate resumes, Tester said the banking committee, on which he sits, would be “visiting how to get Wall Street under control,” and days like this one, spent talking to constituents, would continue to factor into his decisions.
“It’s always good talking with people,” Tester said. “We’ve got some economic challenges ahead and I think people are worried about it.”
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