Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D)
Elected: 2004, term expires Jan. 2009, 2nd term.
Born: Sept. 4, 1955, Havre .
Home: Georgetown Lake.
Education: CO St. U., B.S. 1978; MT St. U., M.S. 1980.
Family: Married (Nancy); 3 children.
Professional Career: Farm developer, 1980-86; Farmer, rancher, 1986-present; Committee member, Montana Farm Service Agency, 1993-99.
Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat who was elected governor of Montana in 2004, grew up on his family’s ranch in the Judith Basin, east of Great Falls. His Irish grandparents had homesteaded in Hill County, near the Great Northern Railway line. He graduated from Colorado State with a degree in international agronomy and from Montana State with a degree in soil science. In the early 1980s, he went off to the Middle East on an agricultural adventure. He developed a 15,000-acre farm in the Sahara in Libya and helped oversee the development of a dairy farm in Saudi Arabia. In 1986, he returned to Montana and bought two farms. He raised cattle and exported bull semen and grew mint and dill. In 1993, when the Clinton administration took office, he was appointed to the three-member, part-time Farm Service Agency that helps distribute federal payments to farmers.
|Brian Schweitzer (D)||318,670||(65%)|
|Roy Brown (R)||158,268||(33%)|
|Stan Jones (Lib)||9,796||(2%)|
|Brian Schweitzer (D)||159,820||(91%)|
|William Fischer (D)||9,865||(6%)|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2004 (50%)
In 1999, with minimal political experience, he embarked on a race against two-term U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns. That fall, he organized a bus trip for senior citizens so they could go to Canada to buy prescription drugs at low prices. With armed guards, he strode into the Capitol in Helena and poured out $47,000 in cash—the amount, he said, of contributions to Burns from tobacco company political action committees. He attacked Burns for supporting a bill that would limit compensation to people with asbestos-related disease and shut down the giant asbestos tort cases. Burns, who had reneged on a 1988 promise to serve only two terms, outspent Schweitzer by 2-to-1 in the 2000 election but won by only 51% to 47%.
The Senate race made Schweitzer a formidable political figure and an obvious candidate for governor in 2004. The incumbent, Republican Judy Martz, elected in 2000 with only 51% of the vote, had had a rocky tenure. In August 2001, the state House majority leader was killed in a car crash; Martz’s chief policy adviser, who was intoxicated, had been driving. She endured months of unfavorable publicity and in August 2003, threatened with a primary challenge, announced she would not run for a second term.
Schweitzer entered the race for governor as the clear front-runner in the Democratic primary. He campaigned against one-party rule—Montana had had Republican governors since 1988—and championed small businesses against out-of-state corporations. Montana had developed into a “salmon economy,” he said: “All our young leave the state and then they come home to die.” Republicans, he said, were to blame for high property taxes and for the state’s low wage levels. He made common cause with both environmental advocates and hunters and fishermen by championing hunting and fishing rights on private lands and opposing the sale of public lands. He called for low-tuition technical colleges to provide training for young Montanans and for creation of pharmacy purchasing pools to buy prescription drugs in Canada. He named Republican state Sen. John Bohlinger as his lieutenant governor candidate and named him head of a Corps of Recovery to come up with $60 million of spending cuts without eliminating services. Schweitzer won the June 2004 Democratic primary 73%-27%. The winner of the Republican primary was Bob Brown, who had served 26 years in the Legislature and later was a lobbyist for USWEST (now Qwest), Columbia Falls Aluminum Co., and the state university system. Brown, like Schweitzer, declined to take the Americans for Tax Reform pledge not to raise taxes. Brown favored limited oil and gas exploration on the Rocky Mountain Front and the ballot proposition to repeal the state’s ban on cyanide mining. Schweitzer took the opposite stand on both issues.
Schweitzer raised more money than Brown, some of it from out-of-state contributors to his 2000 Senate race. He billed himself as a “pickup-driving, God-fearing, gun-toting, red-meat-eating, take-responsibility-for-my-actions, invest-in-education kind of Democrat.” Like Brown, he backed the referendum banning same-sex marriage, which passed with 67% of the vote. Schweitzer won by 50%-46%, even though George W. Bush carried the state by 59%-39%, and Democrats swept to a 27-23 majority in the state Senate and a 50-50 tie in the state House (thus giving them control because state law requires that in the case of a tie the speaker must come from the governor’s party). Schweitzer carried not only the usual Democratic areas around Butte, the Indian reservations, and Missoula but also Billings, the state’s largest city, and Helena, the capital.
Schweitzer announced an open-door policy in the governor’s office, allowing reporters to come in any time they wanted (they got tired of this after a while) and brought his border collie, Jag, there every day. With a projected budget surplus, he and the Legislature froze the business equipment tax at 3% and eliminated it for 13,000 businesses that owned $20,000 worth of equipment or less. He signed a bill requiring country-of-origin meat labeling. He helped pass a law requiring public schools to teach American Indian history, and he made commencement speeches at high schools with one-student graduating classes.
He also unveiled a plan to spend some $31 million on building maintenance, energy programs, and the Indian Education for All program, which passed the two chambers. In addition, Schweitzer and the Legislature put $125 million into the teacher and state employee pension funds, which were figured to be $1.4 billion short because of investment losses and benefit increases. In 2007, again facing a surplus, Schweitzer got the Legislature to agree to a budget that raised spending 11% a year, with $400 rebates to homeowners. But that required a special session and came only after the House majority leader denounced Schweitzer in obscene terms. (The leader’s colleagues subsequently ousted him from the post.) The Legislature also passed a law defying the federal Real ID Act, which requires states to verify a person’s identity and citizenship before issuing a driver’s license.
Schweitzer has emphasized energy issues. In 2005, he persuaded the Legislature to pass a bill requiring 10% of motor fuel to be a certain form of ethanol after state ethanol production reaches 55 million gallons a year, and another calling for 15% of electricity to be produced from renewable sources by 2015. Montana—“the Saudi Arabia of coal”—has the nation’s largest coal reserves, in deep veins, and Schweitzer has promoted “clean coal” liquefaction, despite opposition from some environmental groups. In 2007, he got the Legislature to pass tax breaks for windmill farms, biofuels, and coal liquefaction plants, long-distance electric transmission lines, carbon dioxide sequestration, and liquid-fuel pipelines. When the Bush administration opened up national forestland to new logging roads, Schweitzer pressed local officials to request that none be built.
Schweitzer has had very high job ratings and shown shrewd political instincts. As he told The Washington Post, “In politics it doesn’t matter what the facts are. It matters what the perceptions are. It is the way you frame it.” In 2006, he campaigned for Senate candidate Jon Tester, a Democrat who beat incumbent Republican Burns. He also supported two ballot initiatives, an ethics measure that got 76% of the vote and a minimum-wage increase that got 73%. But Democrats, contrary to the national trend, lost seats in both chambers that year: The Senate went from 27-23 Democratic to 25-25, after which a Republican switched parties and made it 26-24. The House went from 50-50 to 49-50, with one Constitution Party member caucusing with Republicans, and a Republican became speaker. In political circles, there was talk of Schweitzer as a vice presidential nominee in 2008. “I am just a Montana farmer,” he said in response. “I don’t know if what I say or do is exportable. It is a long way from the Little League to playing for the Yankees.” He delivered a spirited speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, but he appeared to go on after the allotted time, which meant that the next speaker, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, could not finish her speech before the end of prime time.
Schweitzer has his critics at home, and some circulated a YouTube video of a speech in which he bragged about increasing turnout on Indian reservations for Tester in 2006. But he has remained widely popular. In November 2008, he was re-elected by 66%-33% over GOP state Sen. Roy Brown. Republicans gained a 27-23 margin in the state Senate, but they lost ground in the state House, which was tied 50-50.