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.
"We've run the state of Montana the way a small business would run or the way a rancher would run a ranch," Schweitzer told Lapin. "When times are good, the cattle are fat, the grass is high, the crops are good. Put some grain in the bin. Store some hay to get you through the second winter, not just the first one."
It probably didn't hurt that the segment was filmed in front of the log cabin on Schweitzer's ranch estate, either. Or that Schweitzer treated Lapin to a bit of fly-fishing on camera. But even when he's not in his own yard, Schweitzer is at ease playing to the camera, as he did on "The Late Show with David Letterman" last April. The governor told Letterman to "take it easy there, cowboy" and explained that his post-gubernatorial plans were to "fish in the morning and drink whiskey in the afternoon."
Schweitzer strolls into the Beartooth NBC studio to a string of handshakes and hellos. He's become a regular figure here. He navigates the hallways straight to the sound stage and takes his seat in a director's chair. There's a good six inches of snow outside, but the stage backdrop shows a framed photo of the capitol lawn in full bloom. The cameraman clips a microphone on Schweitzer's jacket, does a quick sound check and centers Schweitzer in the frame.
Schweitzer quietly runs through some bit about "balancing checkbooks" as he waits for the call from MSNBC. He's rehearsing, perfecting a talking point for a question he hasn't been asked yet. When he's satisfied with his wording, he begins passing the time with talk of the recent scandal involving Gen. David Patraeus and biographer Paula Broadwell.
"The real guy that bothers me is that Gen. Allen," Schweitzer says, referring to John Allen, whose own affair with Tampa socialite Jill Kelley came to light shortly after Patraeus started making headlines. "He sent 30,000 emails to this gal in Tampa while he was running the War in Iraq. How'd he have the time?"
Schweitzer nods to Jag, who's snoozing in a corner of the stage. "Remember how bad he wanted to go herd those buffalo?" he asks. The governor may be a Democrat, but he's got a memory as long as an elephant's. Up on the Fort Peck Reservation this spring, Jag had slipped under the bison fence and made a beeline for a huge bull. The governor was there to greet a new herd of 63 Yellowstone bison. By the way, Schweitzer says, the tribe contacted him this fall. A new bison calf was born in October.
After 40 minutes of waiting, Schweitzer cuts himself off in mid-sentence. Krystal Ball from "The Cycle" is finally asking him a question. The speech he gives in response sounds just like his presentation at the budget announcement the day before. He talks about the "educate, incarcerate and medicate" tenets again. He compares Congress and the "fiscal cliff" to Hamburger Wimpy from the old Popeye cartoons.
"They come in and say, 'Oh we'll solve 10 percent of this now, and the other 90 percent, we'll do that Tuesday.'"
The whole interview lasts three minutes. Schweitzer unclips the mic, stands up and walks out. Jag stirs and follows. In the coming weeks, Schweitzer will also appear on CNN's "State of the Union with Candy Crowley," where he'll discuss the frontrunners for the 2016 election and answer questions about his own political ambitions. He'll wear an arrowhead bolo tie. He'll tell Crowley directly that only Washington, D.C. is talking about 2016 this early, and that the rest of the country is more concerned about jobs in the here and now. And he'll mention his "warm regard for the people of Iowa and New Hampshire," sparking several days of headlines claiming he teased a presidential run.
Schweitzer may have been born in Havre, but in many ways Whitefish seems more like home. When he returned from work as an irrigation developer in the Middle East in 1986, he settled down here and launched a ranching and irrigation business. Schweitzer clearly hasn't lost touch with the town or its people. As he walks into the Amtrak station, it seems like he's on first-name terms with everyone.
Schweitzer isn't at the train station to glad-hand like he's on some campaign trail. Amtrak recently announced plans to start charging a $10 fee for ski and snowboard equipment. Schweitzer's here to make sure that doesn't happen. The way he sees it, Big Mountain Resort is one of only a few ski destinations nationwide that Amtrak actually services. "They're just picking on Whitefish," he says.
Schweitzer doesn't take kindly to outsiders who try to meddle in Montana's affairs, and for a folksy, easy-going guy, he can be ruthless. He has constantly chastised the Department of the Interior for its response on pretty much every issue, from wolf delisting to the 15-year-long Cobell lawsuit, which alleged that the Interior owed millions to Indian Country for decades of mismanaged Individual Indian Money accounts. Those bison Jag tried to herd on Fort Peck months ago may never have made it to the reservation; in response to the Interior's refusal to accept transplanted Yellowstone bison at the National Bison Refuge in Moiese, Schweitzer issued a brief moratorium on all bison relocations. Of course, Schweitzer's strong-arm tactics don't always work. Back in spring 2010, he momentarily withheld stimulus grant money from several counties in the state, using the funds as leverage to build support for coal leasing in the Otter Creek Valley. The stunt backfired, and Schweitzer was widely criticized even after releasing the stimulus cash.
There have been a number of major Schweitzer missteps over the years. In 2006, he was criticized for his younger brother Walter's role in his administration despite state law barring Walter from working on the governor's paid staff. Political insiders in Helena claimed Walter, who was described in an Independent story as "the governor's enforcer, firewall and political bully," had his run of the governor's office, attended high-level meetings and weighed in on policy matters. Lobbyists were reportedly mum on Walter's true role in the early Schweitzer administration for fear of political retribution.
Walter was later appointed as chief deputy to State Auditor Monica Lindeen, and was the focus of a legal probe into whether he'd violated state law by soliciting campaign funding for Lindeen's 2008 election bid. The probe found insufficient evidence to back the allegations. Walter left Lindeen's office in early 2011.
Then there have been the stubborn pursuits and unkept promises, like clean coal. Schweitzer spent years plugging coal-to-liquid technology, claiming development would bring billions in additional fossil fuels revenue to western states like Montana and North Dakota. Despite mounting evidence that clean coal would only further contribute to climate change, Schweitzer has doggedly persisted in his attempts to bring the process to southeastern Montana. As early as 2006, he announced a deal between the Bull Mountain Land Company and a Houston-based coal technology firm aimed at constructing a coal-to-liquid mine outside Roundup. The project, which Schweitzer said would create thousands of jobs, never took off.
And who can forget the countless times Schweitzer's unflinching candor has landed him in trouble? This year alone, Schweitzer has gotten flak for insinuating that racism against American Indians in Montana is a societal norm, and for stating that 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's father "was born into [a] polygamy commune in Mexico." CNN's Anderson Cooper pressed Schweitzer about the latter comment. Schweitzer was unabashedly unapologetic.
Today Schweitzer's just sending a letter, albeit a strongly worded one, to Amtrak officials asking them to abandon this "knuckleheaded idea" of charging for ski equipment. People get quality family time on the train, he says, but that extra fee could add up, preventing potential tourists from making trips to Montana. A reporter asks him how big an impact that $10 fee could have.
"Well, it made me mad," he says.
Jan Metzmaker, director of the Whitefish Convention and Visitor Bureau, looks on as Schweitzer and Jag pose for photos. Metzmaker's known the governor personally since well before he was in office.
"I think he'll have a wonderful legacy," she says. "He supports us. He's done great things." Of course, she adds, he's "a bit of a showman."
Asked if he's changed much during his time in office, Metzmaker studies Schweitzer from a distance for a second, humming. "Well, he's definitely thinner."
Over the course of the day, it becomes increasingly apparent that Schweitzer is prone to distraction. As the car pulls away from the Amtrak station headed for a ribbon cutting at Proof Research, a firearm manufacturing company near Columbia Falls, Schweitzer turns to O'Neill.
"Do we have time to stop at the best bar in Montana?" he asks. The answer seems non-committal, but Schweitzer directs the driver to the Great Northern Bar and Grill anyway. After eight years of constantly traveling the state, it must be difficult to narrow it down to a single best bar.
"Well, for a while we were trying to come up with a list," Schweitzer says. "Let's see, there was the Northern in Whitefish, the M&M in Butte, the Sip 'N Dip in Great Falls, probably Stockman's or the Iron Horse in Missoula. What did we decide on for Bozeman, Jayson?"
"Montana Ale Works maybe?" O'Neill replies.
"Yeah, that's the one. That or the Rocking R."
Schweitzer leaves Jag in the car and heads into the Northern. Afternoon drinkers immediately begin whispering. One shouts, "Uh oh. Here's trouble. Schweitzer." Schweitzer orders a Wheatfish and walks up to a group of men at the end of the counter. One guy asks him if he's going to stay in politics.
"Hopefully not," Schweitzer says. "I want to get a respectable job. Maybe a piano player in a whorehouse."
Every time someone asks him what's next, he has a slightly different answer: Drink more beer in the afternoon, buy a bar in Butte.
One guy tells Schweitzer he voted for him. Twice.
"I hope I didn't let you down," Schweitzer answers.
Schweitzer starts sharing stories with the bar, but interest in the governor begins to wane. On the way out the door, someone asks if Schweitzer's driving.
"No," Schweitzer answers. "We left Jag in the car. He's our designated driver."
Schweitzer clearly runs on his own time. On the drive down to Proof Research, the clock is ticking. The company's executives are expecting the governor any minute. But Schweitzer interrupts a story about a bar brawl at the Blue Moon Grille and rubber-necks at a used auto yard on the side of the road.
"Did you see those dozers?" he asks frantically. "Turn around, turn around."
The driver does a U-turn in the middle of the highway, backtracks a half mile and pulls to the side of the road. Schweitzer climbs out, Jag and all, and begins fawning over a John Deere 455D bulldozer.
"This is the exact same one I was looking at online last night!" he shouts. "It'd be perfect for my irrigation ditches. Does the scoop swivel?"
He inspects the bulldozer, climbs in, voices his immense satisfaction to nobody in particular. As he walks the line of dozers, he looks back.
"You know the difference between men and boys?" he asks. "Bigger toys."
Asked just how often these impromptu side trips happen, O'Neill chuckles. "All the time."
Proof Research is packed by the time Schweitzer rolls up. He disappears amid a flurry of beer, wine and high-end appetizers. Proof Research is actually a merger of four companies: Kalispell's Lone Wolf Riflestocks, Missoula's Jense Fabrication, Lewistown's Lawrence Rifle Barrels and ABS out of Lincoln, Neb.
Proof Research is in the business of making lightweight weapons to keep our peacekeepers and our warriors safe in the field, explains co-founder Pat Rainey. Carbon barrel technology has been around for upwards of 20 years, but the process was never reliable. Barrels had limited durability and were far from combat ready. Rainey intends for this new company to revolutionize the tech, and he's glad the governor is on board.
"I think this falls in line with a lot of the things he's talked about," Rainey says. "We're science-based, we employ about 29 locals. And it's a growth industry."
Schweitzer is ushered past a door with an intimidating security system and into a state-of-the-art firearms lab. A flock of company executives and press personnel cram into a tiny indoor shooting range. There are two rifles on the table. One's an assault rifle. Schweitzer picks up the first and fires at a target downrange. His grouping isn't great, but he's grinning like Ralphie from A Christmas Story. Next comes the assault rifle. He blasts through a clip, stands up and turns around with a smile.
"Say, that could get fun!"
Later, he regales the lobby with humorous political stories and chats with longtime friend and lead Proof investor Mike Goguen. It's no surprise the company extended Schweitzer an invitation. He's a powerful political endorsement wrapped up in a shell of free entertainment. It's no surprise Schweitzer agreed to come, either.
"I'm here because you have the things I love to play with," Schweitzer tells the room. "Guns and a little booze."
There'll be plenty of time for both in a few weeks. Schweitzer's days will be filled with whatever mundane tasks his cabin on Georgetown Lake affords. Maybe he'll buy that bulldozer.
There are 26,210 fans in Washington-Grizzly Stadium for the Brawl of the Wild, and they're just as interested in Schweitzer as they are in the biggest annual sporting event in the state. Standing on the Montana State University sidelines, Schweitzer looks like he got another six-hour sleep after Whitefish. He's chipper, working a crowd that keeps leaning over the railing to catch his attention.
The governor sports a Bobcat jersey today. It says Schweitzer on the back, right above the number one. Yesterday he said that, when he first entered the capitol eight years ago, lawmakers criticized him for wearing jeans to work, saying he was disrespecting the office. He countered that he was simply being genuine. He uses the same logic to justify why he and Nancy are decked in Cat gear today. They both went to MSU.
The pre-game crowd is bustling along the sidelines, and a man walks up to shake Schweitzer's hand. He claims to be former Republican Gov. Judy Martz's cousin. "I just want to thank you for eight years of fantastic service," he says. "I even voted for you."
A man in a cowboy hat shouts down to the governor from the stands. "Heard you were in Whitefish the other day," he says. "You never call me anymore!" Schweitzer strolls over to him.
Nancy appears more than ready for all this to endthe shouting, the traveling, the constant criticism.
"I'm just looking forward to getting our privacy back," she says.
They'll be getting a jumpstart by having Christmas at Georgetown Lake instead of in Helena. As for the prospect of an extended vacation with her husband she said, "I'm going to hold him to that promise."
Schweitzer's been cracking jokes about the Griz and their rash of criminal dust-ups since he arrived at the stadium. As Dave Barry's account of the castration demonstration indicates, Schweitzer rarely limits himself to the confines of political correctness. He's especially candid when his alma mater's team goes toe-to-toe with its biggest rival.
Just before kickoff, the game's announcer screams into the microphone. "Give me a G!" The crowd gives him a G, and, as prompted by the announcer, proceeds to give an "R", "I" and "Z." "What does that spell?" the announcer yells. As the stadium roars, Schweitzer leans in close with an answer of his own.
Every year, the Cats just want to beat the Griz so they can "piss in their campfire," Schweitzer tells an onlooker on the sidelines. This year, the rolls are reversed. With the Cats potentially heading to the playoffs, it's now the Griz who want to do the pissing.
UM scores a touchdown with two minutes left in the first quarter. A fan leans over the rail and screams at Schweitzer.
Just before halftime, Schweitzer hustles out of the stadium and past a crowd of rowdy tailgaters into a ritzy RV. Hardwood floors, mirrored ceiling, plush leather furnishings. "It's like Las Vegas on wheels," Schweitzer says as he and Nancy squeeze into the dining booth.
"You got one of these in your future?" the owner asks.
"No," Nancy answers. "He's too cheap."
Schweitzer picks at a pan of prime rib for a few minutes, dodging questions about what he plans to do next in his political career. He turns down a mixed drink. After a bit of idle conversation, he heads back onto the field. The shouts resume. Someone screams, "Boo term limits!" Schweitzer smiles.
This is the man's element. He draws energy from the attention, milking his populist status for all it's worth. Everything about him seems homegrown. Chinwagging comes as natural with a stranger as it does his own wife.
Schweitzer doesn't have a clue where all this talk about his presidential goals started. "Here's the thing," he says, keeping his eyes trained on the field. "You have to want it to run for it. Well, I don't want it."
But if he were on a campaign trail right now, he'd be winning votes at the game through sheer character and charisma. Outside the stadium, people rush over to shake his hand or pat him on the back. He smiles, but doesn't stop walking toward his car. He's headed back to Helena, to more packing and a state land board meeting on Monday. It doesn't take long before he's gone, and the roar of the crowd has faded.