Framed at the podium by several hundred pounds of premium Montana barley, Brian Schweitzer knew how to make a good first impression as he announced his campaign to unseat Senator Conrad Burns last week at the Black Star Brewery in Whitefish.
The popular local brew is a fitting symbol of Montana's need to cultivate value-added processing, said Schweitzer, a Whitefish farmer, third-generation Montanan and international consulting agronomist.
Beer or no beer, I was dubious about this political unknown, an obscure Democrat in Republican-dominated Flathead County. At the brewery campaign announcement, however, I saw several formerly apolitical friends waving Schweitzer signs. Learning they are his neighbors, I asked for their insights. They gushed, praising Schweitzer as hard-working, generous and intellectually brilliant.
A little more research revealed that Schweitzer, 43, has accumulated a good chunk of wealth from the acquisition and diversification of several Montana farms, his development of new plant varieties, and his consulting work on farming and irrigation projects around the world. He's willing to spend his personal money to defeat Burns. In addition, Schweitzer has called upon a deep and influential family network around Montana.
This guy sounds too good to be true, I thought. After a wide-ranging, four-hour interview this week, that's no longer my impression. Brian Schweitzer is for real, and he may be the hottest Democratic statewide candidate in many years. I predict that he'll sweep his likely Democratic primary opponents-Attorney General Joe Mazurek and Billings Mayor Chuck Tooley-and defeat Conrad Burns in November 2000.
In our conversation, Schweitzer demonstrated a command of the complex issues facing Montana along with a flair for political theater-a necessity if he's to upend a well-financed incumbent.
"I'm going into this campaign as a guerrilla warrior." Schweitzer said. "My opponent doesn't know what my resources are or where we're going to use them, but we will have the resources necessary to win this campaign."
On Wednesday, Schweitzer sniped at Burns from a grain elevator in Great Falls. Speaking first in Arabic, which he learned in Saudi Arabia, Schweitzer blasted Burns for his recent "raghead" slur of Muslims. "Senator Burns, quit calling my customers names," demanded Schweitzer, as he addressed a mixed audience of Hutterite farmers, tribal members and fellow wheat growers.
Egypt is the largest buyer of American wheat, and Pakistan is the fourth largest. Soon after Burns' racist slur was publicized last month, Pakistan canceled a 300,000-ton order of wheat and purchased Australian wheat instead. Schweitzer said Burns rudely violated basic business sense. If your grocery store manager calls you names, he said, you simply will choose another store.
On a policy level, Schweitzer blasted Burns and the Republican Congress for dismantling government "supply management" agricultural programs in place since the 1930s, "when we had a visionary president who knew that boom-bust commodity cycles aren't good for producers or consumers."
As one of five Clinton Administration appointees to Montana's Farm Service Agency Committee, Schweitzer has direct experience with the dramatic shift toward corporate agriculture. Largely as a result of Republican agricultural legislation, he said, "multinational corporations have replaced government as the manager of supply."
Growing corporate control of various agricultural sectors is the antithesis of sustainable agriculture, Schweitzer added. "Right now, these huge corporations are restructuring the entire system so that the farmer is becoming a serf on his own land."
Similarly, Schweitzer said that forest management in Montana has been subjected to destructive boom-bust cycles. "We know how to do sustained yield, but timber management has been tied too closely to fluctuating market prices."
Although value-added manufacturing is important for the viability of resource industries, he went on, Montana will remain a Third World economy until it successfully attracts high-tech companies. In particular, he suggests that some of the federal surplus be used to target tax breaks for start-up technology companies locating in rural states that have been bypassed by the U.S. economic boom.
"People don't live in Montana to be in the richest place in the country. We live here because of the quality of life. But it's reasonable to suggest we should be doing better than Number 50," Schweitzer said, claiming that Montana now trails the rest of the nation in per-capita income.
Among his numerous policy proposals, Schweitzer suggests creating a high-tech university extension service for schools, individuals and businesses, similar to the federal government's creation of state land-grant colleges and agricultural extension.
Contrary to popular myths, Montana's economy and environment are mutually dependent, Schweitzer said. "The debate over the past ten years has been jobs versus the environment. The results are in, and it's clear that we're losing both."
Schweitzer blasted Burns as a leading instigator of the jobs-vs.-environment myth. "Conrad Burns is good at polarizing issues. Polarization is what he's all about. And look where that's gotten Montana."
Amen, and I'll raise a frosted mug of Montana beer to that.
Ken Picard is off this week. "Citybeat" will return next week.