Surprise contender 

Just who is Democratic Senate hopeful Dirk Adams?

Former state legislator Tom Towe didn't anticipate coming face-to-face with a contender for statewide office when he showed up at McCormick Cafe in Billings early on Aug. 14. For Towe, it was just another weekly meeting of the Democratic Study Group, an informal coalition of Democrats in Yellowstone County that has met every Wednesday morning for 40 years. He didn't recognize the newcomer who introduced himself as Dirk S. Adams, Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate. The name drew a complete blank.

Adams' announcement that he'd be running for Montana's open Senate seat in 2014 surprised Democrats across the state about as much as it surprised Towe. Just one month before, former Gov. Brian Schweitzer officially declined to enter the race. Several other high-profile Democrats had since followed suit. The breakfast became the campaign rollout of a virtual unknown, something Adams insists he never meant to have happen.

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  • Dirk Adams
  • Dirk Adams introduced himself to Billings Democrats last month as the party’s first U.S. Senate candidate. Tom Towe says the reaction was predictable: “Thank heavens we got somebody.”

"I had hoped Baucus would run again," Adams says. "And then I'd hoped Schweitzer would run. I was a little distressed that so many state-level politicians didn't want to run."

One month later, Adams has toured eastern and central Montana visiting with county-level Democratic central committees. He's painting a picture of himself as the genuine Montana candidate, "the most Montana candidate," a rural rancher who grew up in Texas but set his sights on a different home.

"I paid serious dues to live in this state," Adams says. "I love Montana. I picked Montana."

Those dues are listed on Adams' resume, a document that paints a much different picture. Since 1983, a year before he established his Lazy SR Ranch in Wilsall, Adams has held various positions with savings and loan banks across the country, mostly at the executive level. The failings of several of those banks in recent years has prompted some to question just how genuine his Montana image is.

"In my mind, the 2012 Senate race between [Denny] Rehberg and [Jon] Tester was kind of ridiculous in terms of messaging," says Mark Bond, chair of the Gallatin County Democratic Central Committee, where Adams recently spoke. "The crux of the entire argument of the campaign was essentially who was more Montana ... I feel like Mr. Adams saw the messaging of the last campaign cycle and assumed that was really what was the primary prerequisite to be able to be a viable candidate. He seems like a friendly enough guy, but in my mind he's just a banker who's got a little too much time on his hands right now."

Adams' longest banking stint—13 years—came with Golden West Financial and World Savings, which specialized in option adjustable-rate mortgages. He left in 2000, and by 2002 had landed at the Santa Monica-based First Federal Savings Bank of California. First Federal failed in 2009 after an audit by the U.S. Treasury Department due to a "high-risk growth strategy executed in 2004 and 2005." That strategy, according to the Treasury's audit report, called for "excessive concentration in option adjustable-rate mortgages ... without implementing adequate controls to manage the associated risks." Adams left the bank in mid-2004.

Option ARMs—a type of loan The New York Times dubbed the "Typhoid Mary" of America's housing crisis—were also attributed to the failure of Home Savings of America in Little Falls, Minnesota, in 2012, just a few months after Adams left his position as chairman and CEO of the bank's owner, Home Savings Bancorp. Adams moved on to Guaranteed Home Mortgage Company, which fired him eight months into his role as the company's president, according to a subsequent legal dispute between Adams and the company. Adams declined to comment on the termination except to say that his work with GHMC "was done."

Bond believes that background makes Adams an odd fit for a party that's loudly denounced the predatory ways of big banks. "I really feel like he fell more into that colloquialism of the 'one percent' than he did as like a people's person, as a Montana cattle rancher," Bond says. But Adams isn't using his resume to build a campaign platform. In fact, he doesn't think anything in his banking background "lays the foundation for what I want to do in Washington." He worked those jobs "to raise money to build the ranch," he says, and commuted from Montana throughout those years. Adams feels his resume instead proves how far he's willing to go for his chosen state.

"I've never stopped," Adams says. "In spite of all the rigors of travel, I've done that work so I could be a cattle rancher in Montana."

It's not just the resume that gives Democrats pause. Bond says he was shocked to hear Adams tell the Gallatin County Democratic Central Committee recently that "no Democrat would be able to fall to the right of him" in 2014. During that presentation, Adams also stated his support for the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United. Adams defends his position, claiming Americans need to focus more on pushing for more transparency and less on the "legal structure" that caused the problem. But in a state where voters overwhelmingly favored a 2012 ballot initiative stating corporations are not entitled to constitutional rights, Bond believes Adams has staked out ground on the wrong side of the issue.

Adams wants to be clear that he's not a "left-wing candidate." He's pushing to run closer to the middle, where he feels the majority of Montanans—as well as himself—truly fall. It's a position that could make the next week particularly rough. Adams will be conducting his first campaign tour through western Montana, in an attempt to build both name recognition and trust in the state's liberal stronghold. He'll likely face some tough questions, but he's not bucking his moderate approach.

"Brian Schweitzer ran with a Republican," Adams says. "Tester looks like and is a Montana farmer. [Gov. Steve] Bullock ran with a military veteran. They're not doing it with screaming liberals."

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