Since retiring from his nine-term stint in the U.S. House in 1997, Montana Democrat Pat Williams has endorsed exactly zero Democratic primary candidates. It was a conscious and personal choice, Williams says, one largely driven by respect for friends in the political world who often found themselves at odds on the primary ballot. But Williams decided to break with his 20-year tradition last week, and confirmed for the Indy today that 2014 will mark his very first—and very last—primary endorsement: Democratic U.S. House candidate John Lewis.
“I’m endorsing John Lewis for primarily two reasons,” Williams says. “First, I think he has the precise temperament that Montana needs in the House. That is, he can listen, he can cooperate and he’s smart as hell. His other great attribute is that everything he’s for will result in a growing, vibrant middle class.”
Williams' announcement comes less than a month before a primary in which Lewis will face off against former state public service commissioner John Driscoll. Montanans likely recognize Driscoll as a political spoiler, the man who defeated Helena attorney Jim Hunt for the Democratic nomination in the 2008 House race. Driscoll made headlines later that year for endorsing his Republican opponent, then-incumbent Denny Rehberg. He’s committed to not accepting any campaign donations in advance of the 2014 primary election, though he does intend to raise and spend money if he goes on to the general.
Lewis, once a top aide to former Sen. Max Baucus, is currently touring the state drumming up name recognition of his own. He’s worked campaigns in the past, and has amassed a sizable war chest in recent months. The nod from Williams, who last year briefly considered running for Montana's open Senate seat, came as an unexpected surprise even for Williams himself. Williams says Driscoll has been a friend “for 30 years,” but simply doesn’t have the right temperament to represent Montana. Lewis, by comparison, offers a new direction and “the best chance Democrats have had in 20 years” to win Williams’ old seat.
“I’d like to see a young leader create a whole generation of interested young people,” Williams says of Lewis, who is 36. “It’s time for a new generation of politicians representing Montana in Washington, and this year is that chance.”
Williams cautions that future office seekers should in no way see his endorsement of Lewis as a sign of more to come. “I’m not setting a trend here,” he says. “I’m never going to do this again. I’m making one endorsement, and this is it.”
This post has been updated to correct an error. A previous version cited the wrong year of Pat Williams' retirement.