Ochenski 

Theoretical dominos: A funny thing happened on the way to Rapture

It was pretty hard to miss all the hoopla surrounding the speech Gov. Brian Schweitzer gave at the Democratic National Convention in Denver last week. Whatever issues one may have with Schweitzer’s actual governance, he gave a rip-roaring energy speech that brought the delegates to their feet in what was rightfully dubbed the best “crowd interaction” performance of the convention. Equally enthusiastic were the subsequent calls for Montana’s governor to ascend to a higher position, with one pundit calling for his appointment as energy secretary no matter who takes the presidency.

Leaving behind Schweitzer’s success at the podium, some have begun to wonder what happens in Montana if the fickle finger of political fate lifts Schweitzer to serve the country in Washington, D.C. And that’s where the real fun starts.

One of the most hilarious pieces of political prognostication so far is a short little column by state Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena. Since Lewis is a Republican, there’s definitely some partisan humor in it, but as it turns out, he also was the budget director under both Republican and Democrat governors, so he knows the game.

Lewis’ column, which he titled “In case of Rapture, who will be governor,” starts off with the assumption that both Schweitzer and Obama win their respective races this fall. Then, like the Hand of God, Obama reaches out and Schweitzer miraculously ascends to political heaven.

So then what happens? Well, the much-ballyhooed “bipartisan” team of Schweitzer and his Republican Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger suddenly dissolves as Schweitzer heads off to D.C. and Bohlinger is left behind to run Montana. As Lewis writes: “John is a great guy but there is one small problem. He is a Republican and the Democratic Party is going to want a Democratic governor in place.”

In Lewis’ version of the future, a group of “Democratic wise men” meets with Bohlinger to try and convince him to step aside, which Lewis says is unlikely to happen since Bohlinger will want to “take his moment in history and at least serve out his term."

“Of course, any delegation of Democratic wise men would be a fairly small group,” writes Lewis, “so it would not need a very big room for the meeting. (Just joking, maybe).” He then goes on to posit that Bohlinger, as governor, would have to appoint his lieutenant governor. And looking forward to the 2012 election cycle, would that person be a Republican or a Democrat?

Lewis says he “happens to have great respect for John Bohlinger,” and hence “would be comfortable that he would appoint someone who would be both qualified and good for the state.” But he also predicts “Bohlinger will have a lot of new friends in a hurry” and will have to “carefully weigh the impact on his future plans.” With his usual humor mixed with more than a little truth, Lewis closes his column with: “State Sen. Dave Lewis does not have to run again until 2010 so is free to think deep thoughts and cause trouble.”

While Lewis hits the high points of what might happen if political Rapture lifts Schweitzer to D.C., there are some other considerations he didn’t mention. For instance, it’s the governor who gets to appoint department heads and, should a vacancy occur because of “death, resignation, or disability as determined by law,” the governor gets to appoint the new attorney general, state auditor or superintendent of public instruction. Governors also get to declare emergencies, call out the National Guard and command the agencies of the executive branch otherwise known as “the government.”

Moreover, it’s common knowledge that Montana is notoriously split between Republicans and Democrats. We have had split sessions in both the House and Senate in recent years and, other than the Republican domination of the ’90s, generally have narrow majorities in the legislature that swing back and forth between the Republicans and Democrats.

So let’s say the November elections result in a split House or Senate. In that case, whichever party’s candidate won the governor’s race is the party that gets the nod for speaker of the House and/or the president of the Senate. Never mind the 50–50 or 25–25 split, that’s the way it works. And, if Bohlinger is governor, the Republicans get to pick their speaker and/or president. Both positions carry the power to appoint committees and their chairmen or chairwomen, schedule bills and conduct floor sessions. And, of course, with the office of the governor comes the authority to submit budgets and veto bills, so the potential influence of a Republican like Bohlinger suddenly becoming governor brings with it tremendous legislative consequences across the political spectrum.

Which brings us to two seminal questions: First, would Schweitzer take the position of energy secretary, or any other cabinet position, were it offered to him? And second, is Bohlinger really a Republican?

The answer to the first question is a tough call. Schweitzer says he’s happy as Montana’s governor and has “the best job on the planet.” Still, if what he calls his “passion” for energy-related issues is real, which it certainly appears to be, it would be very tough for him to pass up the opportunity to significantly steer the nation’s energy future.

As for the second question, Bohlinger says he is a Republican, but the Republican Party claims he couldn’t be a Republican and run on a Democratic ticket with Schweitzer. They wouldn’t even invite him to their convention this year.

If Bohlinger became governor, however, all that could change. Given the enormous power of the position, it is highly likely Republicans would claim Bohlinger as a prodigal son come home. And the Democrats? They get to wrestle with the results, or consequences, of Schweitzer’s clever “bipartisan” ticket. One way or another, it will be well worth watching should the political Rapture actually occur.

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.
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