Art Noonan: Butte’s Bulldog

By Beacon Staff

Butte-Silver Bow county commissioners voted in Democrat Art Noonan to replace George Groesbeck in the state House Wednesday. Groesbeck died suddenly Dec. 7 when a blood clot from recent knee surgery he had caused a pulmonary embolism. Noonan was quoted as saying he was familiar with the bill drafts Groesbeck had in the works, and he would work to advance the late lawmaker’s agenda. And while Groesbeck’s passing is a tragedy, House Democrats will now see the return of one of their toughest and most strategic members. Noonan, a native Butte Irishman, has worked in Washington D.C. handling policy for Congressman Pat Williams, and he was the executive director of the state Party for several years. Few House members understand the Legislature as well as Noonan.

I profiled Noonan during the 2007 Legislature when I was a student covering the session for the UM Journalism School. Democrats had a 49-member minority, and Noonan, the floor leader, led the Democrats through some of the most bitter and heated debates I have ever witnessed, as the Democrats held together as a caucus to stymie the Republicans’ move to break the budget into eight separate bills. On top of all that, he is also possessed of a powerful intellect, and a sharp, Irish sense of humor. Noonan may have an easier time this session, with the chamber under control of the Democrats, but a read of the profile I wrote in 2007 demonstrates the depth of his policy beliefs, and delves into the fascinating (in my opinion) Montana political tradition of Butte Democrats. From my profile:

HELENA — He doesn’t broadcast it, but Art Noonan is a cultured guy. He likes jazz and museums and the theater. So it’s fitting that when he attacked House Republicans last week he compared their eight-bill budget process to a bad play without a final act.

“The other side of the aisle set the process, picked the characters,” he said, addressing the House. “Now we’re to blame for the last act? We’re the ones that are going to be blamed because you didn’t write yourself a finale to this process?”

Shortly after his speech, the GOP bill to fund health and human services programs failed for a second time with all 49 Democrats opposed.

If the Republican plan to split Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s budget into eight parts has accomplished anything, it has been to unify Democrats to repeatedly vote “no,” even on measures they might otherwise support.

Day after day, the floor debates over the budget bills have been long and bitter, and in those fights Noonan, a silver-haired Butte Irishman, has been the Democrats’ reluctant bulldog.

“Being the voice of dissatisfaction with Republicans has been a very positive thing,” Noonan said during a break in the action. “This is not my natural stance; my natural stance is to play in the middle.

“Butte Democrats own the middle,” he added. “I mean, that’s where we sit.”

This is Noonan’s second term in the Montana House of Representatives, but his relative inexperience as an elected official belies a deep grasp of public policy developed over 16 years in Washington, D.C., as an aide to former Democratic Congressman Pat Williams.

“Butte legislators, more often than not, get their way,” Williams said. “Up until Art, they did that through quiet strategy, which some people call backroom dealing.

Art is more open and transparent. He has matured the Butte tradition.”

To ask one Butte lawmaker about another is to be flooded by Irish names like Murphy, Sullivan, Shultey, and how those families know each other and in which neighborhood they lived.

The Noonans have lived in Butte since Art’s great-grandfather, Ed, hopped off the train in 1880.

“He comes from good, Irish stock,” said lobbyist J.D. Lynch, who represented Butte in the Legislature for nearly 30 years. “He can disagree very vehemently without being disagreeable, an Irish trait as well.”

Noonan’s parents taught their six kids public-speaking and history at every opportunity.

“We were instructed in politics from a very young age,” Noonan said. “We dealt with social issues at the dinner table.”

He acknowledges he is a product of the 1960s, often wearing a Pink Floyd tie and a pin reading: “Stick around; it gets much stranger from here.”

Noonan worked on the Legislature’s staff out of college in 1975 and 1977, when lawmakers first moved from multiple budget bills to one consolidated bill. His objection to the current budget split, he said, is steeped in the problems he witnessed with multiple budget bills in 1975.

“History does not often repeat itself, but it does often rhyme,” Noonan said, quoting Mark Twain. “We’re rhyming with these people back in 1975.”

The Legislature moved to consolidate the budget because multiple budget bills risked stranding money for unpopular programs in the House and transferring too much decision-making power to the Senate, Noonan said. The health and human services budget’s difficulties in clearing the House this session is an example, he added.

“We’re about to cross this threshold that the House of Representatives will regret for many years to come,” Noonan said. “We will have invalidated the House’s sole role to put those budgets together.”

As of late last week, the human services bill had failed narrowly two times. Had even a handful of Democrats voted for it, the bill would have passed easily.

Noonan said he does not tell anyone how to vote, but he acknowledged that he has had to convince some Democrats that voting against public health funding is the right thing to do.

Managing a fractious caucus ranging from liberal Missoula delegates to business-oriented Butte Democrats is no easy task.

“People have come and said ‘I can’t vote against these things,’” Noonan said. “With 49 people it’s been a full-time job to make things run smoothly.”

Noonan acknowledged the failure to cooperate in the House extends to issues beyond the budget.

In the style of traditional Butte Democrats, Noonan favors developing Montana’s natural resources, particularly coal. Like many Republicans, he is disappointed with the lack of progress on energy development this session.

“I honestly believed that this would be the ‘Legislature of Energy,’” he said. “This state needed a ‘Legislature of the Budget’ like it needs a hole in the head.”

But from the session’s first day the atmosphere in the House has grown increasingly bitter. The current running joke in the House is that apologies are called for and given so often they should be added as a daily order of business along with the reading of bills. From day one, Noonan said, the Republican tactic has been: “We have a program, go along with it.”

And when Democrats object, Noonan said, the Republican attitude is “Oh, these people aren’t getting along, but by the way, we just punch ‘em in the face every day and every way we can.”

Yet no matter how hard Democrats and Republicans may spar over ideology, the tone shifts outside the House chamber.

“Art is a first-class human being,” said Majority Leader Michael Lange, R-Billings and Noonan’s counterpart. “He’s not, by nature, an attack dog.

“I don’t think he is the traditional Butte Democratic legislator,” Lange added. “I think he brings a different perspective.”

Before Republicans announced the budget split in mid-February, Noonan rose daily in the House to question Lange about Republicans plans.

Since then, Noonan has repeatedly asserted that multiple budget bills are unconstitutional and legally questionable. Lange fires back that such accusations are disingenuous and lack proof.

Lange said he has a good relationship with House Democratic leaders, but added, “They have stepped over where they should have in objecting to the process.”

Noonan is disappointed with the gridlock in the House and worries the public may not care about the Democrats’ stance on the budget.

“We’ve spent half the session arguing about the shape of the table” rather than the issues on the table, he said.

The fight has been so contentious that Noonan declined to spend St. Patrick’s Day in Butte this year.

“I didn’t want to be the person to say, ‘I think government should function better than this,’” he said.

But the clock is ticking.

As Montana’s 60th Legislature winds down, the Senate is now taking up the budget. Noonan sees the time for the House to have its say in improving the state slipping away.

“Those moments, those thresholds of possibility are real,” Noonan said. “And they pass you by.”

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