A press conference isn't just a press conference when it comes to Gov. Brian Schweitzer. When the two-term Democratic governor announced his last budget proposal before leaving office, he did so with the flair and showmanship that his cabinet, legislators, voters, media and national audiences have come to expect, for better or worse.
"Our cash in the bank today is actually $469,758,700.47," Schweitzer announces to a packed room in the capitol on Nov. 15. He adds that the surplus is "about 10 times more" than the state has had at any point in the past.
The room erupts in cheers.
As he approaches his final days in office, Schweitzer is leaving Montana with a historic rainy-day fund. He's boasted about the accomplishment time and again, from Capitol Hill to the depths of many a newsroom. Talking about budgetary matters may normally make eyes roll, but Schweitzer uses it as a chance to solidify his legacy, both as a chief executive and entertainer.
Over the next half-hour, Schweitzer breaks down his budget the way a kindergarten teacher goes about teaching toddlers how to add 1+1. There are three basic tenets to his budgetary approach: educate, medicate and incarcerate. Programs falling under those three umbrellas account for 85 percent of government spending, he says. When you hear "those jackasses in Washington" talking about cuts to any other portion of a budget, Schweitzer continues, you know they're just trimming around the edges.
Of course, it's Schweitzer, so those three tenets have to rhyme. That's how he gets them to stick in the heads of anyone who hears or reads about his speech. He also squeezes in a few quips—let's call them Schweitzerisms. Just days before the budget announcement, he and his wife, Nancy, were in the Caribbean, where Schweitzer had "my toes in the sand and a beer in my hand." He talks about backward-thinking lawmakers "smoking their own belly-button lint," and claims there are "no tears" over the end of his final term, "just more beers."
Schweitzer makes even a mundane state budget meeting seem slightly vaudevillian. Such theatrics shouldn't come as a surprise at this point; it's how the governor has conducted business at almost every turn since he was elected in 2004. With each press conference and policy proposal comes a turn of phrase or choreographed stunt to drive his message home.
After all, it was Schweitzer who earlier this year had a crowd at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., chanting "that dog don't hunt" on cue. He's also the guy who, in his off-hours at the DNC, confessed to columnist Dave Barry that he was a huge fan of penis jokes and that Montanans voted him into office because "they were drinking." According to Barry's subsequent write-up of the encounter, Schweitzer then got down on the bar floor and proceeded to demonstrate how to properly castrate a bull.
Barry didn't hide his affection for the governor, writing, "if we don't elect this man, at bare minimum, president of the United States, we are even stupider than I think we are." He's not alone. National polls are already including Schweitzer in 2016 presidential election surveys. National talk shows continue to book the governor as a guest. Everyone wants to know what his plans are after leaving office. Schweitzer remains noncommittal, using each survey result, question and national appearance as an opportunity to play the crowd. He doesn't seem the least bit concerned about the fact that, in a matter of days, when he leaves the governor's mansion, those crowds may not be there.
Back at the budgetary press conference, Schweitzer ends with an open Q&A session. One reporter asks if he'll be handing down his now-infamous VETO branding irons from the 2011 legislative session to governor-elect Steve Bullock. Schweitzer answers without pause.
"There's very few people in this room who know how to handle a hot iron," he says.
The day after Schweitzer's budget announcement, a state rig rolls up outside the governor's residence a few blocks from the Capitol Building. Schweitzer stands on the front stoop waiting, his border collie, Jag, seated obediently at his heels. The governor is scheduled for a 1:30 p.m. interview about the nation's looming "fiscal cliff" with MSNBC's "The Cycle." He piles into the front seat and the car peels out, headed for the Beartooth NBC studio next to the Carroll College campus.
If today is like any other day, Schweitzer rolled out of bed around 5 a.m. His morning routine pretty much stays the same: one television broadcasting CNBC, the sound muted, another playing MSNBC's "Morning Joe" with Joe Scarborough on full volume. Then there's the computer, on which Schweitzer browses the early morning headlines from various newspapers. Schweitzer averages between five and six hours of sleep a night. Less than five hours and he says he gets "pretty ragged"; six and he's "doing just great."
Schweitzer chats idly about his Thanksgiving plans. He says he's doing dinner with Nancy at the governor's residence. They'll probably continue packing—they hope to complete the move to their cabin on Georgetown Lake before Christmas—and Schweitzer might try to break away from Helena over the weekend for a final hunting season outing.
A guest asks Schweitzer if he's had any luck hunting this fall. He hasn't. The guest asks if he bagged anything last hunting season. He didn't. The guest asks if Schweitzer thinks the 2013 Montana Legislature will be as big a mess as the 2011 session. He turns to his communications and policy advisor, Jayson O'Neill, and asks for a reminder regarding what MSNBC wants to talk about.
Schweitzer occupies an unusual place in the national limelight. Broadcasters on a variety of political networks have come to rely on the governor's comedic cameos as something of a down-home reality check. Schweitzer loves the role. Viewers across the country seem equally smitten. He's a break from the norm, a candid and at-times mildly inappropriate official with more know-how than you might give him credit for at first glance.
Two years ago, as the United States and the world continued to battle the Great Recession, CNBC's Nicole Lapin trekked out to Montana for a one-on-one with Schweitzer. The state had a notable budget surplus compared to the rest of the nation—though not as great as what we have now—and Lapin wanted to know why. Instead of breaking into the kind of dry explanation you'd expect on a financial cable network, Schweitzer explained the situation in terms anyone could understand.