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In 1978, voters elected the 29-year-old Van Valkenburg to the Montana Senate for what would become a 20-year legislative tenure. His former colleague, Democratic Rep. Dorothy Bradley, says that Van Valkenburg was a natural lawmaker. That's why his peers repeatedly voted him into senior positions, including Senate president and Democratic minority leader.
"When it came to leadership, he was one of the greats," Bradley says. "When it came to style, I always thought he was two-thirds gifted debater and one-third rascal."
Van Valkenburg's rascally side came out when a Great Falls legislator introduced a bill aiming to require newspapers to sign their editorials. At the time, Carol Van Valkenburg was employed at the Missoulian, writing the newspaper's opinion pages.
Van Valkenburg argued that constitutional protections ensure a free press, but was making little progress and decided to change tactics. He pointed out that the bill was flawed because it omitted a penalty provision. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, he proposed an amendment to make the penalty death. The move showed Van Valkenburg's sense of humor and his relentlessness.
"He thinks it's his job to go to the mat for an issue that he holds as important," Bradley says. "I really respected his ability to fight, even if I wouldn't go that far myself."
Van Valkenburg's commitment to "go to the mat," as Bradley says, is perhaps best illustrated by his support of a statewide sales tax, one that aimed to increase funding for the Montana University System, among other priorities. When Bradley ran in 1992 for governor, her sales tax plan was central to her platform. The pitch was politically volatile, one likely to alienate some voters. But Van Valkenburg told Bradley that if she won the election, he'd like to carry the legislation. "I can tell you this: He was the only one that ever said that," she says. "It's the worst of the worst issues."
One of Van Valkenburg's most contentious debates stemmed from his goal to prohibit insurance companies from setting gender-based rates. As Van Valkenburg recalls the issue, insurance companies had deemed women inherently sicklier than men and also more prone to automobile accidents and, therefore, were charging them more for coverage.
In 1983, he won that fight, persuading his colleagues at the legislature to create the Unisex Insurance Law. It constituted the first such prohibition against rate discrimination in the nation. During the past three decades, attempts to reverse the mandate have occurred at nearly every legislative session, most recently this year.
Van Valkenburg's efforts to create a public defender system—his original reason for entering state politics—were unsuccessful, but a 2002 lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union led to the creation of something similar to what Van Valkenburg proposed in 1977.
As for the ERA, Montana did not reverse its ratification, as other states did. But the legislation fell short of the 38 states required to become law.
Bradley says that Van Valkenburg's imperviousness to political fallout—his fearlessness—makes him an unusual politician, especially in today's hyper-partisan climate.
"I have thought in a lot of my career that there are two types of legislators, and I'm sure there's more than that, but there are those that go to the mat and those that go to the wind," she says. "And what it's always meant to me is that, when you go to the mat you're not obsessing about the next election—it's the furthest thing from your mind. You're obsessing about that issue and the importance of it, and what its mark is, what its milepost is in the history of Montana. And he was a go-to-the-mat legislator."
On a recent weekday morning, it's hot and smoky outside, but cool in Van Valkenburg's office at the Missoula County Courthouse. The prosecutor wears glasses and a checkered shirt. His grey hair is messy in the back. Sticky notes are affixed on legal filings piled on his desk, not far from a gold coin branded with the Montana state seal. White boxes filled with court documents are stacked in corners. Hanging on the wall is a picture of two bison, horns locked. It seems a reminder of the antagonism inherent to Van Valkenburg's position.
Today he's reviewing charging documents filed by law enforcement the night prior. One of the allegations comes from a 5-foot-3, 130-pound woman who alleges that her 6-foot, 310-pound husband assaulted her.
Roughly 25 percent of the cases that came through Van Valkenburg's office are related to sexual and domestic violence. Like so many other things the county prosecutor deals with, the details in these types of cases are ugly.
"Sometimes it's just unbelievably horrible," he says. "You just think, 'Where do these people come from?' I don't live in this world. It's just amazing."
Van Valkenburg's skin has thickened since 1998, when he was first elected Missoula County Attorney and charged with overseeing all felony prosecutions within Missoula County, along with misdemeanor offenses that occur outside of city limits. "You sort of get numb to it over time," he says.
When he first became a prosecutor, Van Valkenburg had a harder time sending people to prison, he says. That's typical of the profession.
"When you first start out, it can be really emotionally difficult," he says. "The first time you get up and argue that somebody should go to prison, and they actually go, and you hear the handcuffs getting put on them, and they're hauled off, it can be kind of taxing."
Even now, Van Valkenburg is admittedly emotional. He cares what people think about him. His wife says he reads online comments posted on news stories about his cases. He's nervous about being profiled by a newspaper because it may open him up to even more criticism. He likes to think of himself, and the people who work for him, as the good guys—or women, as is the case with roughly half of his 17 deputies.
"The prosecutor is wearing a white hat, because the prosecutor by and large is representing victims of crime that through almost no fault of their own have been subjected to injury, to theft of their property, to intimidation by other people," Van Valkenburg says. "And the only way that they get any justice is if the state, in the person of the prosecutor, stands up and makes their case on their behalf."
Van Valkenburg's time wearing the white hat is coming to a close and Carol, for one, is excited about the opportunity to travel with her husband. She expects they'll spend more time with their two children and four grandchildren, who live in Baltimore and Denver. But she's also apprehensive about her husband growing bored quickly. He's not a "tinkerer," she says. And he doesn't have any real hobbies outside of golf.
While she's strikingly candid about her husband's idiosyncrasies, she's also fiercely protective. She gets angry when she feels he's been unfairly targeted. For instance, she respects her husband's stance on the DOJ investigation and has spoken with others who do, too. She notes that the National District Attorneys Association has lent him support, with NDAA President Michael S. Wright in June opining that the DOJ was treading into dangerous territory by attempting to exert its oversight upon autonomous district attorneys. She also notes that her husband has been the only one to stand up to outside investigators who descended on Missoula the last two years.
"There are a lot of people who would have liked to stand up to the Department of Justice, who didn't, or to the NCAA, or whatever, who didn't because they politically couldn't," she says.
Support such as that helps alleviate the sting of the criticism, but it doesn't change what's been a challenging stretch at the end of her husband's long career.
"He always loved his job. And in the last couple of years, he hasn't loved it," she says. "It's so much stress—and that questioning about well, 'Are you really doing your job correctly? Are you really an ethical, principled person?' And that's how he sees what he's being asked—that his ethics aren't really what they should be, that he's not charging cases that he should. And to be under that criticism, with no evidence, I think it's very pressing on him. And I think he comes home kind of mentally exhausted."
Fred admits he's looking forward to a period of recuperation. In fact, he actually smiles when talking about the future. "Hopefully it doesn't involve arguing with people," he says.