Daines Forges His Own Path

By Beacon Staff

On the day of Steve Daines’ swearing-in ceremony, his office released a photo of the newly elected congressman celebrating with Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, hands joined as if teammates in a show of unity, all three smiling broadly. Excusing the slight awkwardness of the team-huddle arrangement, the photo seemed telling: a Republican congressman and two Democratic senators looking as if they might actually like each other, in an age when public displays of bipartisan respect seem like forgotten relics.

Then two weeks ago, Daines announced that he is joining Baucus and Tester in the fight to protect the North Fork Flathead River watershed by spearheading legislation in the U.S. House. Conservationists praised the announcement as a landmark moment in a long-running effort to prevent industrial development in the transboundary Flathead River drainage. Michael Jamison of the National Parks Conservation Association said Daines’ support is “proof that Montana’s most majestic landscapes provide a common touchstone for us all.”

“America’s Congress can learn from Montana’s leadership – here in the Big Sky country we know how to work together across borders to get important jobs done,” Jamison said.

The swearing-in photo, in retrospect, seems even more telling now.

As a first-term politician only three months into the job, Daines, 50, in many ways is still introducing himself to Montanans. And anybody who has paid attention to his public appearances knows he’s making a pointed effort to establish an early theme of bipartisan cooperation. He almost always mentions his regular meetings in Washington D.C. with Tester and Baucus, and frequently points out that the state has only three elected officials among the 535 representatives and senators in Congress. The message: If Montana’s voice is going to be heard, it’s a lot harder to ignore a united front of three than a caucus of one.

“We’re going to disagree,” Daines said of Baucus and Tester in an interview last week. “But we’re also going to work hard to find agreement on some issues, particularly that pertain to Montana.”

“It’s important,” he added, “that even when there’s vigorous disagreement, which there will be, that you maintain integrity in your personal relationships – you maintain integrity and respect.”

Daines, who is married with four kids, meets with Tester and Baucus every Wednesday morning that Congress is in session for “Montana coffees,” which are open to anybody from the state who happens to be in Washington D.C. The three also meet privately once per month for breakfast with their chiefs of staff: “six people talking about Montana issues to find out where we agree and where we disagree,” Daines said.

“Our staffs work together, too,” he said. “We have open channels of conversation.”

Both Tester and Baucus have also spoken highly of the mutual respect between the three men, and the possibility of finding common ground on certain issues – as has already been demonstrated with North Fork protection and agreement on maintaining the F-15s at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls. The three lawmakers have sent letters to the U.S. Air Force to plead their case in unity, with their signatures appearing together.

Baucus told the Beacon recently that one of the first things he did when the new Congress convened in January was walk “over to the House offices to welcome Steve to Washington.”

“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what political party we belong to, we all answer to the same bosses: the people of Montana,” the longtime senator said. “Like most Montanans, we won’t always agree on everything, but the important thing is that we just keep talking. Too often, the deck is stacked against rural states in Washington, so the more we work together, the more effective we can be for Montana.”

Tester strikes a similar tone, saying that “working together is the best way to get something done in Washington.” The Democrat said he’s covered a wide range of issues in talks with Daines and anticipates the fruitful conversations to continue in the future. He was encouraged by the congressman’s support of conservation in the North Fork.

“I’ve had a chance to talk to Steve about many issues affecting Montanans – including conservation,” the senator said last week, “and look forward to continuing to work with him to preserve our most treasured places and to support our $6 billion dollar outdoor economy.”

Rep. Steve Daines meets with Montana Veterans Home Superintendent Joren Underdahl and Social Services Director Helen L. Lyman while touring the facility in Columbia Falls. – Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

None of this is to say that Daines leans Democrat or is even a moderate Republican on most issues. Quite the contrary, his views on social and fiscal issues position him squarely in the right wing of the GOP. He has called for overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 U.S.

Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. He supports a balanced-budget amendment and has veered right from party leadership on certain spending issues – he was one of only 67 Republicans in the House to vote against a $9.7 billion disaster relief package for Superstorm Sandy.

Even if the voting records of Tester and Baucus place them among the more conservative or moderate of Senate Democrats, it’s clear that the two senators and congressman are going to disagree – sometimes emphatically – on quite a few issues.

Yet the three men readily acknowledge that reality and say they are interested in finding pockets of agreement rather than dwelling on the disagreements. Montana is known to be an independent state with large numbers of voters who vote by conscience and circumstance rather than party line. Tester, Baucus and Daines feel that, as the state’s only three federal lawmakers, they can demonstrate some of that same independent spirit in their policymaking.

“Montanans are independent people – we tend not to be aligned with any particular party,” Daines said. “What aligns us is issues. I think Montanans want to see their delegation working together for their state and not divided working for their own personal gain.”

All of which brings the conversation to conservation. The conclusion among many conservationists was that Daines’ support of North Fork protection is landmark, both for its symbolic and policy implications. A number of people have said it demonstrates that Daines is genuinely willing to explore issues that aren’t necessarily associated with his party’s priorities or values.

“I think it says a bit about his ideology that he’s willing to think independently and not have knee-jerk reactions,” said Ben Long, a longtime conservationist and writer in Kalispell. “It’s pretty remarkable and pretty refreshing in an era that’s defined by political gridlock to have him reach out like he’s doing across traditional political lines.”

Long has been carefully tracking conservation issues in the region for more than 20 years and says the entire delegation coming together on a public lands issue like North Fork protection is unprecedented, or at least extremely rare.

“I can’t remember that kind of unified front from the delegation,” he said.

Daines appears to be carefully selecting issues to champion and feeling other ones out early in his term. Political observers note that North Fork protection has gained enough widespread support to be a safer bet for a Republican than some other conservation issues. Nobody is calling Daines a bleeding-heart environmentalist. He enthusiastically supports the Keystone XL oil pipeline, as do Baucus and Tester, and on a recent statewide natural resources tour, he spoke of the need for more access to federal lands for logging and increased coal development.

But with that said, conservationists commend Daines for approaching environmental issues with an open mind. A week after the congressman made his North Fork announcement in West Glacier – which came in the midst of a tour of Montana’s natural resource industry – he held a listening session in Choteau on the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, which Baucus reintroduced to Congress earlier this year. The act proposes to add 67,000 more acres of wilderness to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and designate 208,000 acres as a conservation management area.

Daines emphasizes that he isn’t leaning one way or the other on the act, but feels it’s prudent to learn more about it, since it addresses a wide range of issues vital to Montana. Through its land designations and various stipulations, the measure seeks to ensure public access for hunters and other outdoor recreationists, limit road building, provide for continued grazing rights and weed control, and set forth guidelines allowing active management for wildfires, insects and diseases.

Furthermore, Daines said he has a personal interest in the proposal as an avid outdoorsman and because his great-great grandmother homesteaded 40 miles from Choteau: “She woke up every morning looking at the Rocky Mountain Front.” But the congressman said it’s too early for him to take a position.

“The Rocky Mountain Heritage Act is something that’s been years in the making and I’ve been in the job for 90 days, so this is a start of the process,” he said.

Joe Perry, a wheat farmer from Conrad, has been involved with promoting and reworking the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act for the last six years or so. Explaining that he’s not a “party guy” when it comes to political affiliations, he said he’s encouraged by a Republican congressman joining the conversation, no matter what Daines ultimately decides about the act.

“I was certainly impressed by his willingness to come to Choteau, Montana and sit down and listen to all sides of the issues,” Perry said. “There’s passionate folks on both ends.”

Perry notes that the act is a “collaborative resource management” effort, involving a diverse array of interests and political persuasions.

Bob Hickey, product line manager, left, walks Rep. Steve Daines through Plum Creek’s medium density fiberboard plant in Columbia Falls. – Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

“Partisan politics don’t have a place in these types of decisions,” Perry said. “This involves everyone – it involves a lot of passion and personal feelings. Party politics just don’t have a place and I take this as a sign that he recognizes that.”

Daines says his views on conservation are informed by a lifetime in Montana’s outdoors and his background in the tech industry. As vice president of Bozeman-based RightNow Technologies, Daines saw the value of the outdoors in both retaining Montana employees and attracting out-of-state employees. The company had a recruiting website called www.iloveithere.com and billboards that announced, “Work where you also love to play.” Having nearby access to pristine streams, hiking trails and ski resorts is a valuable asset, he said.

“I think it’s important to protect that and use that as an economic force to help us grow companies in Montana,” he said.

There are political factors that create a suitable environment for camaraderie among Montana’s three federal lawmakers. For one, Daines has never run against either Baucus or Tester. His predecessor, Republican Denny Rehberg, lost a Senate race to Baucus in 1996 and another hard-fought race to Tester last year. There aren’t many photos floating around of Rehberg, Tester and Baucus celebrating together.

Daines, on the other hand, arrived in Congress with a clean slate, no voting record and an opportunity to start out on the right foot with his Senate colleagues. He likes to point out that last November’s victory over Democrat Kim Gillan was the first time he’s won an election since he was elected student body president his senior year at Bozeman High School. He has, however, been active in GOP politics since 1984 when he attended the Republican National Convention as a delegate for Ronald Reagan.

Jim Lopach, a political science professor at UM, commended Daines’ early effort to embrace bipartisanship, though he said it comes with the political risk that “the more extremely partisan faction of his party could seek a primary opponent for him.”

“He’s taking a risk, of course, which makes his position all that more admirable,” Lopach said. “Courage in politics is a rare element, so when it’s seen it should be praised.”

On the other hand, Lopach said Daines’ efforts could be politically rewarding. Voters are tired of hyper-partisanship, which Lopach calls “narrow, selfish and off-putting.” Willingness to cooperate, the professor said, may restore some faith in Congress.

“I think it’s going to take more of that by a number of politicians to overcome the cynicism that’s built up in a number of voters,” he said.

Daines believes the Montana delegation’s cooperative efforts could and should serve as an example for other elected officials.

“Montana has a chance to model something that should be seen more in Washington D.C.,” he said.

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