Schweitzer’s Closing Act

In his final year, Montana’s governor seeks to cement his legacy

By Myers Reece

In seven years, Brian Schweitzer has evolved from feisty political rookie to one of the most recognizable governors in Montana history. National media outlets devour his Western Democrat bravado and he gladly dishes it out. His approval ratings are among the highest for governors in the nation, yet he has a special way of intensely and publicly irking his adversaries, like when he vetoed a series of Republican legislative bills with a red-hot branding iron on the steps of the state capitol.

And now, as a heated race shapes up to replace him, the term-limited governor is reminding people that he’s not gone yet.

“I’ve got plenty of time left and we’re going to get plenty of things done,” Schweitzer said of his remaining 10 months in an interview with the Beacon last week.

Schweitzer has shown in recent months that he is intent on going out the same way he came into the governor’s office, and the same way he generally enters any room – that is, by emphatically announcing his presence. In February, the governor gave two separate interviews in which he placed a $100 bet on the Keystone XL pipeline being built and then recommended placing another $100 bet on Democratic Attorney General Steve Bullock winning Montana’s gubernatorial race. And in a story widely circulated in the Canadian press, he called Rick Perry “pretty” and complimented his hair, while saying the Texas governor didn’t know anything about the Keystone proposal until a meeting a year ago.

But beyond the bluster, Schweitzer says he has serious work left to do. In his interview last week, Schweitzer rattled off a list of priorities for his remaining time in office, chief among them the establishment of a low-cost health care clinic for state employees, advocating on behalf of the Keystone XL pipeline, opening up a large pork-processing facility in Shelby and the continued expansion of Montana’s wind energy portfolio.

And Jim Lopach, a professor of political science at the University of Montana, added one more priority to the list: Schweitzer will work to “cement his legacy” in his final year. It’s a legacy that, in the previous seven years, has shaped the way many outsiders view Montana, Lopach said.

“He’s put a recognizable public face on Montana,” Lopach said. “That’s what I think he’s done. Many people, when they think of Montana, of course they think of mountains and plains and big skies, but I think they also think a bit of Brian Schweitzer.”

Schweitzer was born in Havre in 1955 to Adam and Kay Schweitzer, the fourth of six children. Raised on his parents’ cattle ranch in the Judith Basin, he would stay involved in agriculture through college, where he earned a bachelor’s in international agronomy from Colorado State University and a master’s in soil science from Montana State University, and into his professional life. He and his wife Nancy made careers out of irrigation development, working in Africa, Asia, Europe and South America.

In 1993, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under President Bill Clinton appointed Schweitzer to serve on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency committee for Montana, a position he held for seven years. Then in 2000, he made his first attempt at running for elected office, challenging Republican incumbent Conrad Burns in the U.S. Senate race. Burns defeated him 50.6 to 47.2 percent.

After losing to Burns, Schweitzer ran for governor in 2004. Though he had never held an office before, he defeated Republican Secretary of State Bob Brown in the general election by a slightly larger margin than he had lost to Burns: 50.4 to 46 percent. He became Montana’s first Democratic governor in 16 years.

Since 2004, Schweitzer has established and pointedly fostered a maverick reputation in which, as Lopach notes, he’s proven capable of equally riling both the left and right, while managing to maintain an approval rating that ranks among the highest in the country. As a Democrat in a red state, his approval rating regularly polls at higher than 60 percent. In 2008, Schweitzer handily defeated challenger Roy Brown, a former Republican legislator from Billings, by a margin of 65.4 to 32.6 percent.

Lopach said the governor has ably balanced the competing cries for natural resource development and environmental conservation, often drawing criticism from the farthest on the right and left even as many toward the center stand behind him, as his approval rating would suggest. Lopach distinguishes Schweitzer as a “conservationist” rather than an “environmentalist.”

“Economic development and environmental conservation: I’ve always admired him in the sense that he has credibly said that Montana can have both,” Lopach said. “He’s resisted being for development at all costs or a protectionist at all costs. He really has tried to realize a common-sense, middle-ground position.”

Lopach said the governor, who he describes as “not lacking in opinions” and “larger than life,” often appears to relish the fact that he angers people on both sides of the aisle.

“I think he enjoys that,” he said. “He’s not an extremist – there are positions of many on the right or on the left that he sees as ridiculous.”

That propensity for brazenness is a knife that cuts both ways. While his supporters feel confident the governor will not back down in defending their shared positions, those who feel slighted by him often feel slighted in a way they wouldn’t with less brash politicians. The word “bully” comes up a lot. In a television advertisement during the 2008 governor’s race, Roy Brown’s campaign asked Montanans to send in examples of being “bullied” by Schweitzer, setting up a site called www.brianthebully.com.

“There are times he can be a bully,” Republican Sen. Jim Peterson of Buffalo, the state senate president during the last Legislature, said in an interview last week. “Even his fellow Democrats have referred to him as a bully occasionally.”

When Schweitzer took the capitol steps last April with a “VETO” branding iron and pile of Republican bills he didn’t like, Peterson and House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, were not impressed. Lee Newspapers quoted both Republican leaders as being critical of the theatrics, with Peterson saying Schweitzer was making a “spectacle” and “mockery” of the political process. The branding iron video clips made news across the country.

“He practices probably more showmanship than I’m comfortable with,” Peterson said last week. “I’d rather sit down and do what’s best for Montana. One of my favorite quotes is that he manages with a mirror instead of a window.”

Peterson acknowledges he and the governor “are not cut from the same cloth,” and believes Schweitzer missed vital natural resource development opportunities, but said in the end “we did agree on a budget that was good for Montana,” leaving the state with a sizable surplus. Peterson is quick, however, to give more credit to the Legislature for its role in the budget surplus than Schweitzer generally does.

Whether one likes the showmanship or not, it has undeniably helped raise Schweitzer’s national profile. The governor has carefully nurtured his persona of the gun-toting, bolo-tie-wearing Western Democrat who travels everywhere with his trusty cow dog Jag. A 2006 profile in The New York Times called “The Big-Sky Dem” opens up with a description of Schweitzer marching “into a barroom in blue jeans and cowboy boots and a beaded bolo tie.”

“And his border collie, Jag, leaps out of the vehicle and follows him in,” the story continues. “The governor throws back a few pints of the local brew and introduces himself to everyone in the place.”

This persona, along with his accomplishments as governor, has earned Schweitzer some notable national recognition. He has chaired both the Democratic Governors Association and Western Governors Association, and in 2008 he gave a widely publicized speech at the Democratic National Convention. Pundit Mark Halperin gave Schweitzer’s speech an “A” grade in Time magazine, calling it a “folksy, tough, funny, home-run of a speech.”

“Full credit to the convention planners for giving the relatively unknown governor such a coveted slot – and in doing so, turning him into a star,” Halperin concluded.

In the years since his convention speech, Schweitzer has steadily increased his national presence, leading to inevitable speculation over him running for a federal office after his governorship ends. Schweitzer maintains that he is ready to get back into the private sector, away from the public spotlight in which he has so eagerly basked as governor.

Nevertheless, rumors have persisted of him challenging Montana Sen. Max Baucus in 2014 and, to a lesser degree, even running for president in 2016. A Public Policy Polling survey from last year shows Schweitzer routing Baucus in a 2014 matchup. Other rumors have pegged Schweitzer as a cabinet leader in a Democratic administration, perhaps the Secretary of Energy or Secretary of the Interior.

Last week, Schweitzer, having just returned from the National Governors Association winter meeting in Washington DC, dismissed the chatter.

“I’ve said plenty of times before that I think Washington DC is pretty dysfunctional,” the governor said. “I’m really quite disgusted with the level of rhetoric and incompetence that’s in Washington DC. I really don’t at this time have any interest to be part of that process.”

Given that Schweitzer’s personality seems to lend itself to a chief executive job, Lopach believes the governor would be “unhappy” serving in the U.S. Senate and “really unhappy” serving in the House. Lopach could envision him in a cabinet position, if a Democratic administration is “looking for someone to really shake things up.” A successful presidential run seems unlikely for a former Montana governor, the professor said, but not entirely out of the question under certain circumstances.

But, ultimately, Lopach senses truth to Schweitzer’s stated desire to get out of politics.

“I think he’d be happiest in the private sector, as an entrepreneur risk taker,” he said.

Before he has to make those decisions, Schweitzer says there are a number of projects that will consume his remaining time in office. Of high priority, he said he has been in “intensive negotiations with Chinese investors” to build a pork-processing facility in Shelby, an ambitious project he believes he can “get over the finish line.”

Schweitzer estimates the facility would create some 500 jobs and “generate hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of pork,” produced and packaged in Montana and shipped to China. The governor has said the facility would have impacts across Montana’s agricultural sector, including grain growers producing feed for the hogs.

On his recent trip to Washington DC, Schweitzer lobbied the Obama administration about the possibility of including beef in the slaughtering plant project, which would require adjustments in trade agreements with China. Since the 2003 mad cow disease scare, China has banned U.S. beef imports. Schweitzer said he is asking Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack “whether Montana could get the green light to do sub-national trade.”

“So in other words, directly selling from the state of Montana to (China),” the governor said. “I have (Chinese) provincial governors and private industry who have expressed an interest in this sort of sub-national trade.”

Another priority for Schweitzer is his proposal for a low-cost health care clinic for state employees in Helena. The Schweitzer administration is currently seeking bids for operating the clinic. The governor hopes to award the contract this year and have the clinic open by December. He believes the model could then be expanded to serve university system employees and Medicaid patients.

Schweitzer will also continue to make his voice heard in Keystone XL pipeline discussions. He has been a vocal proponent of the pipeline and negotiated an on-ramp at Baker that would allow Montana oil to hook up to the pipeline and flow to Gulf Coast refineries. Baucus and fellow Sen. Jon Tester recently sent a letter to TransCanada’s CEO encouraging the company to break ground on the Montana portion of Keystone, even as the company is awaiting federal approval to build the entire pipeline.

Schweitzer said the idea of building the Montana portion, with lingering uncertainty over Nebraska, is “one of the silliest things I have ever seen.” The governor said Montana shouldn’t do anything until Nebraska completes all of its permitting and route planning for the pipeline. The idea, he said, lacks “logistics” and “logic.”

“What, we’re going to dump Montana oil on the prairie in South Dakota?” Schweitzer said. “I mean, it’s a pipeline to nowhere. Only members of Congress would come up with a plan to build a pipeline to nowhere.”

Also, Schweitzer will be responsible for crafting one final biennial budget proposal, to be passed along to the next governor and Legislature in 2013. When the proposal is released in November, Schweitzer will no doubt take the occasion as an opportunity to tout the state’s run of budget surpluses under his watch, even during a recession when nearly ever other state went into the red.

The governor says he has overseen “the seven largest budget surpluses in the history of Montana.”

“I think Montana was able to demonstrate to the rest of the world that you can run government like you run a small business or a ranch, that you can challenge every expense,” he said.

“We will leave this government running more efficiently than the one that we found,” he added.

In addition to the budget surpluses, Schweitzer said one of his other proudest accomplishments as governor is the creation of the Yellow Ribbon Program. The program was established to address the difficulties soldiers face in transitioning back to civilian life. It has since been implemented nationally as part of the National Defense Authorization Act.

“This Yellow Ribbon Program started here in Montana,” Schweitzer said. “We built this program and now they’re using it nationwide. Montanans should be proud.”

The governor said he doesn’t know what’s in store for the future, though he plans on “spending plenty of time in the Flathead.” Schweitzer, who used to live and run a ranch in the Whitefish area, said in particular he misses his “old pals” at the Great Northern Bar.

“I haven’t decided what my future is and I’m going to wait until I finish,” he said. “Nancy and I probably are going to go someplace warmer for a couple of months and just check out and regroup and we’ll try to decide what to do with the next chapter of our lives.”

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