HELENA — The Montana Senate rejected former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams’ nomination to the state Board of Regents on Thursday amid criticism that he went too far when he said the University of Montana had recruited thugs on its football team.
The Senate vote of 26-24 was mostly along party lines, with Republicans largely opposing one of the most well-known Democrats in the state.
Williams said he was “disappointed” by the vote, and questioned the judgment of the Senate.
State senators said they had received thousands of e-mails, both in opposition and support of Williams.
Opponents pointed out that even Williams’ former staffer and ex-University of Montana vice president Jim Foley testified at a hearing opposing the nomination.
“When the former chief of staff of Pat Williams came up here and testified against Pat Williams, that to me was a telling statement,” said Republican state Sen. John Brenden of Scobey. “People he was affiliated with are saying no.”
Williams outraged some of the school’s football fans earlier this year with the comment that came during the rape trial of quarterback Jordan Johnson, who subsequently was found not guilty. The school also is subject to pending NCAA and federal investigations into the way it and the city of Missoula responded to rape allegations on campus.
“That shows me he wasn’t thinking clearly, or he wouldn’t have said that,” said state Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena. “I think it is time to make a change.”
The former congressman has said his comments were aimed at a half-dozen players who had been implicated in a spate of sexual assaults, vandalism and beatings — and not the entire team. Williams has said there are similar issues that extend beyond the athletic department into other parts of the campus that deserve attention.
Williams said in a statement he is not surprised that a Senate that voted to allow students to carry guns on campus would oppose his nomination. The former congressman also said he hoped the vote would not “chill the voices of administrators” in commenting about the “excesses of much of college football” and players’ cases.
“Finally, women in Montana need to continue to hope that a majority of men fully understand that the old excuse of ‘boys will be boys’ is now bankrupt,” he said.
The Republicans said it would be better to let Gov. Steve Bullock send in his own nominee. Williams was nominated last year by former Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
Bullock released a brief statement that lauded Williams, but didn’t indicate how he would proceed.
“Pat Williams is an outstanding Montanan who has done incredible things for our state and for higher education across the country. I’m proud to call him my friend,” Bullock said.
Williams’ supporters said at the hearing that he deserves to be confirmed. They said Williams has a lifetime of knowledge on education issues that should not be marred by a comment to a newspaper.
Two Republicans voted in support of Williams, including state Sen. Jim Peterson, who said “it’s probable, and possible, there is no man better qualified for this post.” He said Williams sent him a note Wednesday attempting to clarify that he regrets that his comment was “so easily taken out of context” and that if offended people.
Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso of Butte said Williams is a staunch football fan and University of Montana supporter being unfairly criticized for recognizing there was a culture at the school that needed to change at the height of controversy over the way the program and school were handling rape complaints.
“I cannot think of a better person to have on the board of regents to stand up for education, to ask the hard questions, and to be a great representative of the team that has to lead our university system forward,” Sesso said.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.