Life of Brian (Part II) 

Life on the campaign trail with U.S. Senate candidate Brian Schweitzer

The Color of Money

The sunny autumn afternoon has turned into an idyllic evening as the first trickle of guests begin to arrive at the Pattee Canyon home of David and Monica Paoli for a Schweitzer fundraiser and Grizzlies homecoming party. As a campaign volunteer unloads an armful of lawn signs for the donors to take home with them, someone wonders aloud whether the Griz fans will be in a giving mood after the 20-0 battering the team was taking in the first half of the game.

“Didn’t you hear?” says Eli Ercolino, Brian’s fundraising director. “The Griz came back and won it in the fourth quarter, 24-20.”

The news is greeted as a positive omen, which is not surprising for a campaign that has defined itself by its remarkable come-from-behind efforts to make it a race worth watching.

Inside, clusters of guests sip Chardonnay and nosh on asparagus spears and crudités, a healthy mix of Missoula’s Democratic establishment—former Congressman Pat Williams, former Mayor Dan Kemmis, former county attorney Dusty Deschamps—as well as the next generation of supporters attracted to the Schweitzer message.

Among them are Kathryn Nagel and Jennifer Tresler, two UM pharmacy students who say they’re proud that Schweitzer was the one to put the issue of prescription drug prices on the national radar screen. While one might presume what their interest is in this race—UM students graduating with PharmD degrees can command a $65,000 to $70,000 salary even in Montana’s small rural towns—they see more to Schweitzer’s prescription drug crusade than self-interested economics.

“Brian is giving pharmacists a role in the management of drugs in our society and the whole health care system,” Nagel explains. “It’s so important that he started this issue, because for a lot of people in rural Montana, a pharmacist is the only health care professional they have contact with.”

Although UM’s pharmacy program isn’t exactly a hotbed of political activity, Nagel tells me that she spent a week in Washington, D.C., this summer while the Senate debated a Republican prescription drug plan that favors mail-order pharmacies.

“They’re destroying the pharmacist-patient relationship,” Nagel says. “For us, Brian is trying to keep that relationship together, because we are health care providers and we have an important role.”

Inside, the topic of conversation is, once again, breast cancer. The cancer-survivor attack ads have clearly struck a nerve among several women in the room whose lives have been touched deeply by breast cancer.

“Breast cancer was political when Congress had to debate if, when, how often, and how much Medicare was going to pay for mammograms,” Schweitzer supporter Kerry Dewey tells the room. “Breast cancer was political when we had to have Congress and our own state legislature mandate that the insurance companies let doctors decide how long a woman should stay in the hospital after a mastectomy.”

Dewey continues to hammer the point home, citing the role Congress plays annually in setting the budget for the National Cancer Institute, which funds or runs most of the cancer research in this country, including research that yielded the drug Tamoxifin.

“Breast cancer is still political when we’re still trying to decide who gets my medical records, and whether I should be tested for the breast cancer gene,” Dewey says, revealing that this week she celebrated her 15th year as a breast cancer survivor. “Will that information remain confidential? And how do I keep it confidential and out of the hands of people for whom it doesn’t belong?”

In another circle, the talk centers around a new poll out of Billings that shows Schweitzer leading Burns in his own backyard, the predominantly Republican stronghold of Yellowstone County. I corner Randy Bishop, a Billings trial lawyer and chairman of the Yellowstone County Democratic Party, and ask him what’s the secret of their success.

“I can’t take any of the credit,” Bishop says. “We’ve just laid down some ground fire. Brian is the one in there blasting away with the big guns all the time. He may be the most incredible natural candidate I’ve ever seen. Brian is truly gifted.”

“This race isn’t about Brian Schweitzer,” Brian tells the group later. “It’s about Montanans who’ve gotten on the bus and said, ‘Hell, no, we won’t take it anymore!’”

False modesty perhaps. But in a state where the percentage of resident on Medicare exceeds the national average and nearly 22 percent of the population has no health insurance, there may be some truth to Schweitzer’s assessment that nationally, Montana is “the canary in the coal mine.”

Toward the end of the evening, as many of the guests drift home, Brian is still engaged in dialogue with a retired physician over health care reform, and for the first time in 12 hours, I finally see him eating.

“The pharmaceutical industry is going to spend another few million dollars trying to rain on this parade. We’re scaring the bejeezus out of them,” Brian tells him. “But this bus isn’t going to stop until this bus gets to Washington D.C. And yes, we’re going to make some changes.”

As I head out the door, I ask myself whether most Montanans are even aware of how lucky we are. There aren’t many places left in this country where a political unknown can throw his or her hat in the ring and stand a chance of winning a seat in the U.S. Senate. Certainly not in Pennsylvania, where at last count the two candidates had raised about $12.8 million, or New Jersey ($48 million) or New York ($63.3 million). With Montana Senate races creeping toward the $5 million mark, it won’t be long before it’s out of reach for most Montanans as well.

“The men who wrote the Constitution were ordinary people, farmers and ranchers, not professional people,” Brian says to me. “This is an experiment to see if an average person can run and serve in the U.S. Senate anymore. If you can’t do it in Montana, you can’t do it anywhere.”

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