He drove a battered old ranch truck, was self-educated, had a speech impediment, and literally worked himself to exhaustion in service to Montana. Not exactly the template for today’s “made-for-TV” trite-talking, glad-handing politicians, but then, Francis Bardanouve, Montana’s longest-serving House member, wasn’t cut from that cloth. Instead, in the straightforward language of the Hi-Line, the depths of his understanding of the land, the people, our government, and the events of our times graced the Capitol for more than three decades, setting the high mark for integrity, intelligence, compassion, and honesty that we should expect, but so seldom receive, from modern politics. Those new to the state, or too young to remember, may wonder at the tributes to this kind, unpretentious man that will flower following his death. But to those who knew Francis, or were involved in state politics between 1959 and 1994, there is no mystery why the memories of Francis Bardanouve overflow with heartfelt emotion, vast admiration, and well-deserved praise.
With the help of a speech therapist named Venus who became his lifelong love, Francis Bardanouve overcame a cleft palate to be able to communicate what was in his great heart and astounding mind. While he never would have fit the mold of Great Political Orator, Francis, who was often called “the Conscience of the Legislature,” became one of the most thoughtful, fair, and articulate voices ever to speak in Montana’s House of Representatives.
As long-time chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, Francis kept a tight rein on the state’s pocketbook, often reminding fellow legislators that they were spending other people’s money and flouting fiscal frugality. He understood the tendency of government bureaucracies to grow and counterbalanced that with the simple concept that you can only squeeze so many tax dollars from a limited population. While it may seem strange by today’s polarized political ideologies, Francis Bardanouve was a fiscally-conservative, socially-progressive Democrat. He believed in strong state institutions, a strong educational infrastructure, and progressive social policy. But he also believed in balancing the state’s checkbook and knew better than anyone that every development, every new building came not just with the original costs, but the continuing costs of maintenance and operations. He wanted the best for Montanans, but he knew we had to live within our fiscal means. Had the party recognized this wisdom and followed his lead, Republicans would never have been able to tag Democrats with the fatal “tax and spend” image that has since decimated their once-strong majorities.
Bardanouve was also a fierce defender of the state’s Coal Tax Trust Fund against endless Republican attempts to bust it. In his vision, the Trust provided the fiscal backbone for the state. “Our dream was that we would have something forever,” he once said, dismissing the concept that the Trust was merely a “rainy day fund” to be drained whenever a fiscal emergency arose. With his typical disarming humor, he often reminded House members during Trust debates that, “We must be living in the rainforest of the Amazon, because we have had a rainy day almost every day since the day we created it.”
Likewise, Francis held a deep commitment to a clean and healthy environment. Having lived through the days of political domination and environmental destruction caused by the Anaconda Company, he knew the power of big business and often warned fellow legislators of the wine-and-dine proclivities by which lobbyists would seek to sway their votes. As the sponsor of the Major Facility Siting Act, Bardanouve tried to protect both the environment and Montana communities from the environmental, economic, and social impacts of the boom-and-bust cycles so common in resource extraction industries. It is a sad testament to the last decade of state politics that Bardanouve outlived many of the citizen and environmental protections he fought so hard to achieve.
Yet, many of his good works will outlive him. A favorite, oft-told story relates how he preserved a collection of Charlie Russell memorabilia that was in danger of being sold to out-of-state interests in the early ’80s. Although the state was in the throes of a budget crisis (sound familiar?), Francis had the foresight to fully understand that the Russell collection constituted an irreplaceable historical and cultural resource for the state, and that once gone, it was gone forever. Since Republicans controlled the Legislature, Francis was not then the chair of the Appropriations Committee. Nonetheless, throughout the legislative session he chipped away at state budgets until he accumulated, to the penny, what would be required to purchase the Russell collection. On the very last day of the session, he made a motion to suspend the legislative rules for the late introduction of a bill. Explaining what he felt the Legislature needed to do, and how he had “found” the money to do it, the bill was passed by both houses and sent to the governor that very day, thus saving the Russell memorabilia for future generations of Montanans.
But now, Francis Bardanouve is gone from us and we are all the poorer for it. This great man, in his unending dedication to our state, deserves all the praise and love we can heap on him. His memory should stand for what a politician can be—what it really means to strive ceaselessly for the public good, for all the people, now and in the future. In our current political climate, it seems almost impossible to reconcile such an example of vision and personal integrity with what now passes for leadership. In the era of Enron-style influence peddling, here was a man who wouldn’t take a dime in lobbyist “hospitality.” Although this gentle giant of Montana history is now part of our past, we can honor him best not with eulogies and platitudes, but by holding our politicians to the incorruptible ideals which he so nobly embodied, dedicating ourselves to the dreams which he had the vision to dream, and fighting to secure the better future for which my great friend now gone so gallantly strived.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.