“I love Montana. I want to be here,” said former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, declining a run for the U.S. Senate. Schweitzer will enjoy private life after running three consecutive statewide campaigns. In his last election, the Democrat won reelection with nearly two-thirds majority. Needless to say, Schweitzer is popular in Montana.
After three terms of sitting at Sen. Max Baucus’ former desk chair in the Montana Legislature, I retired from public service. I recall the day of pruning raspberries on the farm, when news became public that I would not seek reelection. I was overjoyed feeling that I would once again be a private full-time farmer.
Farming is a great life, but tremendously hard work not unlike public service. But unlike state elected office, there is no taxpayer-paid retirement or guaranteed health insurance. Any thought of leaving a life of farming for Helena, much less Washington D.C., is not a thought I relish.
When former Mayor Andy Feury reentered the Whitefish City Council races, my personal decisions were shaken. Feury had been retired from politics for a long time after serving Whitefish well for nearly two decades.
Like Schweitzer, Feury retired from office holding huge victory margins on election days. They both proved widely popular with voters.
But I was personally alarmed because if a visionary like Feury can un-retire, that’s not much reassurance to my family or my commitment to farming.
Feury’s visionary leadership was vital for a small growing city. During his terms Feury assured that Whitefish services like roads, parks, sidewalks and libraries were well maintained, while keeping city taxes surprisingly low. In many years Whitefish taxes were lower than across the adjacent county line.
Feury served Whitefish during critical private-public amenity building like the aquatic center, community center, ice rink and soccer fields. Feury championed the wildly successful recreation and conservation planning process forward with Schweitzer on the state public land surrounding Whitefish.
Feury’s return brings a wealth of knowledge to Whitefish. Voters traditionally have turned out big for to elect Feury. But it will be hard for city voters to turnout bigger than the last elections when more people voted that anytime in the town’s history.
Schweitzer also has the knack for grassroots activism. Before Schweitzer, Montana Democrats were a minority in both chambers of the Legislature, with the governor and half of Montana’s U.S. senators being Republican.
Voters responded to Schweitzer’s boycott of political action groups’ campaign financing of elections. Schweitzer won big and his political coattails elected a Democratic majority in both Legislative chambers. Schweitzer then worked for a two-year revolving-door ban on lawmakers becoming lobbyists, and tirelessly advocated to elect Sen. Jon Tester.
Schweitzer proved a frugal and skilled leader, balancing budgets for eight years. Montana posted historic budget surpluses without raising state taxes. Schweitzer’s populism put rural Democrats on the western map.
It will be great to again talk with the Schweitzer family as private citizens.
But like Feury, Schweitzer may likely serve again one day. Schweitzer’s too good of leader to retire to the farm. Feury’s un-retirement forced me to come to terms with a fact that the desire to serve one’s town and its great people does not fade away with time.
For Baucus, it’s decision time. Whom does he want to keep his legacy and work alive in Congress? For Schweitzer it was another moderate Democrat.
Baucus will likely say any replacement is up to his bosses, the voters. But he’ll endorse a candidate and clearly more enjoy a moderate rather than an ideologically driven, health care de-funding politician serving in his, and Sen. Mike Mansfield’s, old seat.
Baucus’ personal reflection time over his monumental achievements will wait. Today the workhorses’ policy chores include grand compromises from simpler taxes to North Fork conservation.
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