Schweitzer Changes Tone After Backlash From Speech

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Less than a week after Gov. Brian Schweitzer was hammered in newspaper editorials around the state for a speech in which he suggested he influenced an election, the governor told voters he was changing his tone.

Schweitzer, up for re-election this year, still offers the same greeting on the campaign trail — “Cowboy, how are ya?” But the governor is a bit subdued this time around, perhaps stung from the fallout surrounding the speech that he says was all a joke.

“Since my last joke, I am out of the joke business,” he told Montana Resources officials on a tour of their copper mine in Butte.

During this day on the campaign trail, the governor acknowledged the speech was on everyone’s mind. He brought up the joke often by saying he doesn’t plan on telling more of them — each time getting a bit of laughter from the crowd.

The governor is known for shooting from the hip in speeches and campaign events. But he says he got carried away in the July speech to trial lawyers by telling a tall tale about using his office to help Democrats in the 2006 congressional election.

After an audio recording of the speech surfaced in September, Schweitzer quickly apologized, but that didn’t stop political opponents, including Republican challenger Roy Brown, from sharply criticizing the governor and questioning his judgment.

Schweitzer may have toned it down a bit — but not by a lot.

On a tour of local groups, businesses and a school, the governor commanded center stage. His confidence hasn’t dampened and he continued to ad-lib his stump speech. Although, he was careful about adding too many colorful anecdotes.

The criticism over that summer speech may have taken a little luster off the prominence he gained for another speech, at the Democratic National Convention, which was widely hailed by fellow Democrats and the media.

But Schweitzer has a natural gift for campaigning and was in his element when his campaign took him through the Bitterroot Valley on a tour of the new GlaxoSmithKline plant. There, he seized on a statement by site director Michael S. Covarrubias, who said the company had found regulations easy to work with in Montana.

Brown, Schweitzer’s GOP challenger, has lamented the regulatory environment in Montana as antibusiness.

“There are people that say Montana is a bad place to do business, but listen to this. These guys who have come here and built know that’s not true,” Schweitzer said.

The day also took him to meetings of business groups in Hamilton and over to Philipsburg. The governor hit the highlights of his stump speech in both places: The Montana economy has been good under his leadership, he has increased school spending and launched other popular initiatives — all while handing out tax rebates.

His message also included a discussion of his signature issue, energy development. At each stop, crowds were told that coal development in the state was flat under Schweitzer’s Republican predecessors.

At times, it can seem like Schweitzer is running as much against them as he is against his current opponent.

“These guys before me, their record on higher education was disastrous,” Schweitzer told a pro-business group in Philipsburg.

Schweitzer was the first Democrat to hold the office in 16 years when he was elected in 2004.

And Schweitzer, called one of the best “retail politicians” to arrive on the state political scene in recent years, knows how to work a room.

He will shake almost every hand, talking about such populist issues as offering full support for Montana’s unique stream access law loved by many anglers and hunters.

Although Republicans are making a great deal of Schweitzer’s missteps, it’s unclear how much voters care — or whether it will hold up as a defining issue.

At the Philipsburg meeting, railroad worker Tom McCarthy was impressed with Schweitzer.

“I’m 100 percent on his side as far as energy,” McCarthy said.