Ochenski: Fiery rhetoric 

There are no winners in Montana’s politics of hate

Governor Martz’s recent rant against environmentalists in the Bitterroot logging debate and the fire-bombing of a University of Montana professor’s Missoula home shamefully illustrate the politics of hate. In Montana, where we pride ourselves on vigorous debate of public policies, this turn to intimidation and violence reflects a growing trend toward radicalization of the issues— and a dangerous departure from the rule of law.

Let’s start with Gov. Martz. A weak, inexperienced governor from the start, Martz has recently found herself and her administration’s policies strongly criticized by both the mainstream media and those within her own political party. After a statewide poll found Martz at the lowest approval ratings of any of the state’s leading office holders, she decided to give a State of the State speech, which is normally done only when the Legislature is in session. But, like so much in the Martz administration, instead of lifting her standing, the speech backfired and added to her pile of woes. The Missoulian lampooned Martz’s address with a parody of what should have been in the speech, including the admission that the people of Montana shouldn’t expect much because Martz wasn’t much of a governor. Then things got even worse when her former communications director unloaded on the governor for dodging issues, breaking promises, and making up excuses rather than addressing the problems of the state head-on.

It is well-documented that Governor Martz is thin-skinned when it comes to criticism, and she clawed back at the Missoulian, but her efforts to berate the editorial were pitiful. Meanwhile, reports that her former communications director had subsequently been threatened by a current Martz administration official likewise did nothing to improve the governor’s flagging image.

Comes then the Bitterroot logging debate. A bad decision by Mark Rey, former timber lobbyist and now Undersecretary of Agriculture in the industry-stacked Bush administration, disallowed the long-standing public appeals process for government logging decisions. It should be noted that the appeals process was originally implemented to reduce the need for court trials. Ironically, by seeking to illegally circumvent the process, Mr. Rey achieved exactly the opposite of his goal. Instead of moving ahead on salvage logging, the issue wound up in court. And guess what? The judge did not uphold Mr. Rey’s version of the law, and the logging was denied while both the judge and the public puzzled over the Forest Service’s twisted legal logic.

Incapable of providing a thoughtful solution, Governor Martz instead sought to bolster her standings by whipping up the Bitterroot logging community against the Bitterroot environmental community. In harsh and baseless accusations, the governor refused to acknowledge legitimate environmental and procedural concerns and chose instead to call those who took the issue to court “obstructionists.” But remember, it was the judge, not the environmentalists, who ruled on the law. Nonetheless, the governor, holding true to her self-description as “the lap dog of industry,” yapped loudly, but achieved nothing productive to resolve the situation. As the evidence irrefutably supports, neither she nor her highly paid advisors were capable of thinking their way through the policy dilemma and bringing Montanans—all Montanans—to a workable solution. Instead they chose, dangerously, to radicalize the issue and demonize their opponents.

Judge Donald Molloy, much to his credit, did not suffer from Martz’s policy paralysis. Instead, using the power vested in his office, Molloy issued a court order forcing the U.S. Forest Service and the plaintiffs to literally lock themselves in a room until they hammered out an agreement. The marathon negotiations went on almost around the clock. In the end, both parties agreed to move forward on logging some of the lands that were not environmentally critical for endangered bull trout, while the government dropped its ill-conceived scheme to bypass the long-standing public appeals process. Nobody got everything they wanted, but everybody got something. What the governor was incapable of doing, Judge Molloy got done—and Molloy did it through law and negotiation, not by turning Montanans against each other.

I wish the same could be said of Missoula’s fire-bombing incident, for in many ways the tales are similar. Two Montanans, who happen to be lesbian domestic partners, were joined by others only days before the fire-bombing in filing a lawsuit challenging the state university system for discriminating against same-sex couples. While same-sex couples and salvage logging may not seem to have much in common, in both cases it was a legal challenge against a government policy that precipitated the widely-differing responses. Thankfully, the timber issue reached a negotiated settlement. Tragically, the lesbian couple was forced to flee from their burning home in the dead of a cold winter’s night.

In this country, which was founded by people in active revolt against the ruling government, challenging state or federal government actions should be universally embraced, no matter where you land on the political or issues spectrum. Government, just like any other large bureaucracy or individual, can be wrong. Intentionally or unintentionally, the vast network of state and federal agencies and hundreds of thousands of employees, can and do sometimes make mistakes. If history has taught us anything, it’s that citizens who can no longer challenge their government are, by definition, no longer free.

So here’s the question Montanans must face: Will we continue to be a people who live by the rule of law and respect the rights of our fellow citizens to challenge the law? Or will we, like so many others around the globe, be polarized by our politicians, break into warring factions, and go at each other’s throats? The tremendous outpouring of community and statewide support for Missoula’s fire-bombing victims is a great move in the right direction. It’s a pity the same can not be said for Governor Martz’s dangerous efforts to radicalize the timber issue.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.

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