Sen. Jon Tester (D)
Elected: 2006, term expires 2012, 1st term.
Born: Aug. 21, 1956, Havre .
Home: Big Sandy.
Education: U. of Great Falls, B.S. 1978.
Family: Married (Sharla); 2 children.
Elected office: Big Sandy Schl. Bd., 1982-92; MT Senate, 1998-2006; MT Senate pres., 2005-06.
Professional Career: Music teacher, Big Sandy Schl. Dist., 1978-80; Custom butcher, T-Bone Farms, 1978-98; Farmer, T-Bone Farms, 1978-present.
Jon Tester, a Democrat, was elected Montana’s junior senator in 2006. He grew up in a farming family, on the same prairie land his grandparents homesteaded almost a century ago near the small town of Big Sandy. His family ran a custom butcher shop behind their barn; at the age of 9 Tester lost three fingers from his left hand in a meat grinder. The accident, he says, changed him from a saxophone player to a trumpet player. He earned a music degree from the University of Great Falls and later taught music at a local elementary school before devoting himself to farming. He raised organic wheat, alfalfa, barley, buckwheat, lentils, millet, and peas. Tester also served on the local Soil Conservation Service Committee. He was elected in 1982 to the Big Sandy school board where he served for a decade. In 1998, when his neighbor, a Republican state senator, decided not to run for re-election, Tester ran for the seat and won.
|Jon Tester (D)||199,845||(49%)||($5,588,292)|
|Conrad Burns (R)||196,283||(48%)||($8,516,022)|
|Jon Tester (D)||65,757||(61%)|
|John Morrison (D)||38,394||(35%)|
Tester was chosen as minority leader in 2002. He became Senate president in 2005 after Democrats won a Senate majority. In that role, he helped pass a budget that cut taxes for small businesses and middle-class families while increasing funding for public education. When the 2005 legislative session adjourned, Tester announced he would challenge three-term Republican Sen. Conrad Burns. Tester was one of five Democrats seeking the party nomination; his only real opposition came from two-term state Auditor John Morrison. Morrison was a former president of the Montana Trial Lawyers Association, the son of a state Supreme Court justice who ran for governor, and the grandson of a former Nebraska governor. He outspent Tester nearly 2-to-1. But in a campaign that focused on Burns’s ethics, Morrison was weakened by the disclosure that he had an extramarital affair in 1998 with the fiancée of a businessman who was later investigated by the auditor’s office. This enabled Tester to rebut claims that Morrison was the more electable candidate, leading him to say he was the only Democrat who could go “belly-to-belly and toe-to-toe” with Burns. He ran as an unabashed populist, which made him a darling of liberal Internet activists, and he assembled a formidable grassroots operation with hundreds of volunteers. He won in a 61%-35% rout over Morrison.
Tester was taking on the only Republican senator Montana voters had ever re-elected. But by 2006, Burns, the 71-year-old conservative incumbent, had two serious problems. The first was his connection to disgraced and later convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Beginning in 2005, national Democrats relentlessly hammered Burns for being the largest congressional recipient of campaign donations from Abramoff. He faced campaign accusations that he “sold his vote” and betrayed Montana’s American Indian population by earmarking funds for Abramoff’s Indian clients in other states. Burns urged U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to investigate the donations so that “these outrageous and wrongful allegations may be put to rest.” The broader theme Tester used was that Burns was not the same down-to-earth Westerner Montanans had sent to Washington 18 years earlier.
Burns’s second handicap was a gaffe-prone style, ill-suited for the YouTube era. His proclivity for making inappropriate and intemperate statements was one trait that had not changed in his two decades in Congress. In February 1999, he was forced to make a quick apology after referring to Arabs as “ragheads.” In 2006, while discussing the war on terrorism, he spoke of enemies who “drive taxicabs in the daytime and kill at night.” In July, he admonished a group of firefighters for doing a “piss-poor job” of battling a wildfire. A month later, he referred to his handyman as a “nice little Guatemalan man” and joked about the man’s immigration status. “I can self-destruct in one sentence,” he admitted. “Sometimes in one word.” In the past, such blunders might have been overlooked as part of Burns’s folksy appeal, but are harder to dismiss now that some of them are memorialized on video and on numerous websites. This was a bare-knuckled campaign. Burns spent $8.5 million, roughly twice as much as in 2000 and $3 million more than Tester. He was pummeled over his link to Abramoff while Republicans sought to portray Tester as too liberal for Montana. He was criticized for his opposition to a Bush-era anti-terrorism law called the USA PATRIOT Act and linked to “radical environmentalists” and liberal extremist bloggers. But Tester was not so easily caricatured. His signature $8 flattop haircut, highlighted in a television ad filmed at the Riverview Barbershop in Great Falls, his down-to-earth demeanor, his beefy farmer’s build, and his agricultural background worked to temper the criticism. He also had the support of Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Burns political enemy, who taped an ad saying, “Senator Burns and his crooked pals in Washington are lying about my friend Jon Tester.”
The race was decided by just 3,562 votes. Burns carried 41 of 56 counties, including Yellowstone County, home to agriculture-industry-oriented Billings, the state’s largest city. But Tester prevailed in several large counties including Cascade and Lewis and Clark, home to Great Falls and the state capital of Helena, respectively. He also won 64%-34% in Missoula County.
In Washington, Democrats hailed Tester’s victory as a signal of a new political direction in the Mountain West. His distinctive look—he’s tall, is barrel-chested, and wears cowboy boots—won him immediate notice in the Senate, as did his practice of prominently posting his daily schedule on the Internet, a Senate first. His physical stature stands in contrast to his modest attitude towards politics, “You have two ears and one mouth, act accordingly.” Since arriving in Washington, Tester has stressed the importance of transparency and accountability in government, thus distancing himself from the questionable practices that hurt his predecessor. He strongly supported the Senate’s 2007 ethics bill and in 2008 he voluntarily asked a retired Montana Supreme Court justice to conduct a comprehensive ethics audit of his office.
On matters relating to foreign policy and national security, Tester has taken a liberal stance. He sponsored a bill that increased the mileage reimbursement rate for veterans travelling to veterans’ health care facilities from 11 cents per gallon to 28.5 cents per gallon. He cast votes against the Iraq war and the federal government’s foreign eavesdropping programs. Tester also spoke out against the REAL ID law, which requires states to verify a person’s citizenship before issuing a driver’s license. He joined Democratic Sens. Jim Webb of Virginia and Claire McCaskill of Missouri in inserting an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would have established a bipartisan commission to oversee private contractors in Iraq. President Bush signed the bill into law but attached a signing statement stipulating he felt justified in ignoring the amendment, a fact that did not sit well with Tester. “For the president to say, you know, 'I don't think this is a good idea and I can do that because I'm king,' is a big mistake,” he said.
On domestic issues, Tester’s positions are more moderate and generally reflect the interests of his home state. He voted against a GOP amendment that called for a one-year suspension of earmarks, spending projects requested by individual lawmakers, and a bill that would have granted immunity to illegal immigrants. He has joined other Montana politicians in promoting carbon-capture and sequestration technology as a feasible method of clean-energy production that could lead to the development of Montana’s large coal reserves. “Montana is the Saudi Arabia of coal,” Tester likes to say.