Still fighting 

County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg stands firm in the face of mounting criticism

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Wolken, who previously served on the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws board in Montana, first became interested in marijuana prohibitions when her mother fell ill with pancreatic cancer. The drug's stigma kept her mother from using it to ease symptoms of pain and nausea, she says.

Wolken felt that Van Valkenburg was actively working to trump the will of the local electorate with HB 391. It's telling, she says, that he had to recruit a lawmaker from the eastern part of the state to sponsor the bill. "It's a bit troubling, I think, when an elected official so clearly goes and tries to get the sentiments of his own voters overturned at the legislature."

She also notes that it's somewhat ironic to compare how the county attorney responded to medical marijuana and cases of sexual abuse.

"I don't understand why, when it affects victims of violence, there is a huge jurisdictional issue, but not when it's over non-violent marijuana possession and growing. That's a puzzling angle for me," she says

In response to such criticisms, Van Valkenburg says he examined how Missoula voted on Initiative 2 and that it was city residents who supported the measure, not voters in the county. He says that doesn't make a whole lot of sense in light of the fact that the initiative directed county law enforcement, not the Missoula Police Department, to back off marijuana arrests.

HB 391 ended up passing.

click to enlarge Carol and Fred Van Valkenburg celebrated their 42nd wedding anniversary earlier this month. They have two children and four grandchildren. - PHOTO COURTESY OF CAROL VAN VALKENBURG
  • photo courtesy of Carol Van Valkenburg
  • Carol and Fred Van Valkenburg celebrated their 42nd wedding anniversary earlier this month. They have two children and four grandchildren.

Despite his position on the issue, the prosecutor says he personally doesn't have a problem with marijuana. If the pro-cannabis community wants to legalize it, there's a way to do so that doesn't require passing local initiatives that conflict with federal law. The more direct approach is to lobby the U.S. Congress to change federal drug laws.

"I don't think marijuana is really something that really is a scourge on society," Van Valkenburg says.

•••

Van Valkenburg wasn't always such a lightning rod for criticism. In fact, he made his mark in Montana politics by fighting for such popular issues as equal rights and fair representation.

Van Valkenburg grew up in Billings and attended Catholic school during a volatile time in U.S. history. His adolescent hero was John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic to be elected president. In 1963, when Van Valkenburg was a sophomore at Billings Central Catholic High School, Kennedy was assassinated. Five years later, Martin Luther King was gunned down in Memphis. The next year, a jury convicted Sirhan Sirhan of killing Bobby Kennedy.

While attending high school, Van Valkenburg played quarterback on the football team and served as student body treasurer and class president. His penchant for leadership surfaced early.

He met his wife, Carol, at Gonzaga University in Spokane, where they were both students. He was a junior. Carol was a freshman. She applied for a job with the school food service, where Van Valkenburg was a manager. Van Valkenburg initially didn't want to hire her.

"He knew that my father was a doctor," Carol says. "He decided therefore I didn't need a job, and so somebody else should get it."

Fred's supervisor overruled him. Carol got the job and set to work running utensils from the food service kitchen to the dining area. Carol wasn't initially smitten with her future husband, but she was drawn to his ability to lead.

"I liked the fact that he was a sort of a boss," she recalls. "He was a student, but was one of the bosses. He was the student-manager boss."

In 1970, Fred Van Valkenburg earned a bachelor's degree in business administration from Gonzaga. He and Carol returned to their home state (Carol is from Great Falls), and they both enrolled at the University of Montana. Carol studied journalism and Fred started law school. The couple married in 1971.

After graduation, Fred Van Valkenburg worked as an assistant city attorney for Missoula and then went into private practice. Through his practice, he began accepting public defender work.

Carol recalls that Van Valkenburg was far from calloused at the beginning of his career. He invited his first public defender client to store his belongings in the family's garage. When Van Valkenburg lost the case after a trial, his client was sent to prison.

"Fred actually cried about it, because he really felt for this guy," Carol says. "I think that he felt that he was not guilty."

In the course of defending indigent clients, Van Valkenburg quickly realized that prosecutors were receiving significantly more funding than public defenders. Aiming to remedy the inequity, he crafted a bill to fund a statewide public defender system and found a lawmaker to carry it. During the 1977 Montana Legislature, he headed to Helena to make his pitch.

A hopeful Van Valkenburg waited at the Capitol for more than two hours before his bill was called. It was late, maybe 9 p.m., when he presented the idea to the House Appropriations Committee. Within minutes, the body tabled Van Valkenburg's proposal. They barely even considered it.

click to enlarge “He’s one of few people in the state of Montana when the dust settles the state will be a better place because of him,” former state Rep. Dorothy Bradley says of Van Valkenburg. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • “He’s one of few people in the state of Montana when the dust settles the state will be a better place because of him,” former state Rep. Dorothy Bradley says of Van Valkenburg.

The admittedly naïve Van Valkenburg stewed, as is his nature. "It was a real eye-opener to go in there and find out that your bill could be killed within five minutes of the time you made a presentation in front of a committee," he says.

Unwilling to give up, Van Valkenburg took note and made a plan. If he wanted to change the system, he figured he had to do it from the inside. He set to work planning an electoral campaign and declared himself a Democratic candidate for the Montana Senate.

After winning the primary by just 40 votes, Van Valkenburg took on Republican Bill Murray in the general election. Murray had an inconsistent track record voting on the Equal Rights Amendment, which was among the most contentious issues of the time, and had alienated female voters, according to Van Valkenburg.

"I had a whole squadron of women who wanted to take out Murray who got behind my candidacy," Van Valkenburg told Bob Brown during a 2009 interview conducted for the Montana Oral History Project.

The ERA, as passed by the United States Congress in 1972, sought to implement stronger prohibitions against gender discrimination. In order to codify the legislation, a supermajority of states was required to endorse it. During the '70s and '80s, battles raged over ERA ratification throughout the nation, and Montana was no different. In 1974, Montana lawmakers signed off on the amendment. During nearly every subsequent legislative session through 1982, however, "pro-family" groups, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution, the John Birch Society and the National Council of Catholic Women, lobbied lawmakers to reverse that decision.

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