The 2007 Montana Legislature had barely gotten underway last week when controversy erupted over Winifred Republican Rep. Ed Butcher’s comments to Democratic colleague Jonathan Windy Boy of Box Elder. Butcher called Windy Boy, a member of the Chippewa Cree Tribe, “chief,” and asked him whether his gavel “would qualify as a war club.” Outraged Democrats demanded an apology, which Butcher grudgingly delivered.

Whether Butcher meant his comments “as a compliment” (as he later claimed) or as racist insult (as much of the Montana blogosphere has accused him of), one thing’s for sure: the divisive partisanship of today’s Legislature doesn’t leave much room for across-the-aisle name-calling.

But that wasn’t always the case. Prior to term limits, when legislators could serve for decades, lawmakers got to know each other so well that nicknames were common at the capitol.

Missoula Rep. W.R. Campbell was known as “Lefty” in the House during the 1960s and early 1970s; Billings Rep. Lloyd C. Lockrem’s colleagues knew him as “Sonny” in the 1970s; P.J. “Squeek” Keenan, of Anaconda, served in the Senate in the 1960s and 1970s; Stanford Rep. John “Mudslide” Murphy served in the House in the 1970s; Winifred’s J.O. “Boots” Asbjornson served in the House in the 1960s and 1970s. More recently, “Spook” Stang, “Big Ed” Smith, “Little Ed” Smith, “Wooly” Bob Gilbert and “Oily” Bob Gilbert all walked the halls of the capitol as legislators and lobbyists.

But when we asked current legislators and longtime capitol reporters for examples of contemporary nicknames, they scratched their heads and came up empty.

“I think an explanation for that probably would be the term limitation means legislators don’t know each other as well anymore,” says former longtime Republican legislator and gubernatorial candidate Bob Brown. “When you serve with people over a long period of time you get to know them and you get to know their dog’s name—literally—and their wife’s name and their kids’ names.”

And, of course, their nickname.

And while most nicknames don’t carry the racially charged baggage that “chief” does, we’re willing to give Butcher the benefit of the doubt in this case, especially since Windy Boy himself later told the Great Falls Tribune he wasn’t particularly bothered by Butcher’s comments.

“I’ve known Ed for a long time, and I don’t expect anything different,” Windy Boy said. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

Got that, Ed “Old Dog” Butcher?

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