The Hour of Decision 

An insider’s look at the race for the governor’s office

Comes now the Hour of Decision, when Montana voters must cast their ballots for those who would steer the ship of state into an uncertain future. Term limits are sweeping the Old Guard downstream, like ancient cottonwoods tumbled from undercut banks, as a flood of new faces remakes Montana’s political landscape. On the bright side, our last, best economy, dredged from landscapes dotted with unreclaimed mines and scarred by clearcuts, bears mute testimony that our would-be leaders have nowhere to go but up.

Republicans Blew It

After controlling the governor’s office for 12 years and both houses of the Legislature for much of the last decade, Republicans are running out of steam this year. Judy Martz, a political unknown prior to becoming Racicot’s lieutenant governor, leaves a great deal to be desired as a visionary leader—or even a non-visionary leader. Her primary with Rob Natelson seems to be a contest of who can come up with the most backward-looking prospects for Montana’s future. A decade of corporate tax breaks, decreased regulation and increased pollution has taken the state nowhere but down. Yet, Martz says we should keep doing more of the same. If your vision of the future is making the rest of Montana look like Martz’s hometown of Butte, you’ll probably want to vote for her.

Then there’s Rob Natelson, ever the darling of the “wing nuts” from the Republican Party’s far right wing. Although Natelson labels himself a “true conservative,” he parrots the same schlock as Racicot—reduce regulation, lower environmental standards, “free up” natural resources for more exploitation, and the old favorite of conservatives everywhere, “shrink government.” While Natelson has a great deal of energy and a loyal band of followers, he has absolutely zero chance of accomplishing such campaign promises.

Republicans came into power promising to “shrink government,” but even with total control of the Legislature and governor’s office, they were unable to hold the line on government growth. Is it realistic to believe government will shrink as the political pendulum swings back toward the center? Of course not. Rob and Judy are both recycling old, tired economic theories, and neither deserves to lead the state.

So why did Republicans pick Martz when they had so many well-known, highly experienced potential candidates they could have run? Perhaps it is part of a larger plan. Governor Racicot spent profligately during his administration, borrowing and bonding to acquire cash up front for massive capital construction projects like prison expansions, while saddling future leaders with the loans. Coupled with the hits local governments are taking due to previous tax breaks, the next governor may well be forced to raise taxes to remedy the situation. The Repubs may just “throw the election” to a Demo governor, who then finds himself raising taxes to clean up Racicot’s fiscal mess. Four years later, the R’s come back with a vengeance using their good old “tax and spend Democrats” theme and re-take the statehouse.

But who will be the follow-up candidate once Martz fizzles out? Early indicators point to Bob Brown, a decidedly moderate Republican now running for secretary of state. The former teacher has strong ties to education and a middle-of-the-road conservation voting record during his nearly 30 years in the Legislature. He is personable, articulate and, given the inordinate amount of support he is receiving from the party, a likely horse for Republicans to ride back to the Governor’s Office in 2005.

Can Demos Turn the Ship of State Around?

Repubs may be having a thin year for candidates, but Democrats are experiencing a candidate glut, as termed-out legislators and statewide office-holders seek new jobs. The three-way race for Governor pits Mark O’Keefe, the state auditor, against Joe Mazurek, the attorney general, against Mike Cooney, the secretary of state. All three are capable individuals who held legislative seats prior to their statewide offices and served on the State Land Board for the last eight years. In short, they are well informed on the panoply of issues facing the state.

During debates, they agree more than they disagree—but there are differences. Take Clinton’s roadless proposal and a new national monument classification for the Missouri Breaks. On both issues, O’Keefe has pledged absolute support. Mazurek says he supports some form of protection for the Breaks, but isn’t sure what. On the other hand, it was Mazurek who advised Racicot not to join Idaho’s failed lawsuit against the roadless proposal. If talking about “collaborative solutions” is your cup of tea, then Cooney is probably your man. In their battle for primary votes, O’Keefe’s recent endorsement by the Montana Conservation Voters came only after he launched a full-court press on environmental issues. Recent polls show O’Keefe and Mazurek running neck-and-neck while Cooney slips behind.

Sound like a tough choice? It is. But when all is said and done, any of the Demo choices would be better than either of the Repubs. Why? Because the Demo candidates have years of experience in how government works (or doesn’t). This in-depth knowledge of budgets, agency structures and the legislative process is something Martz and Natelson simply do not have and can not get prior to the next election.

Resurrecting Montana will require both a vision of a better future and the working knowledge to get us there. But don’t hold your breath. Government is like a Supertanker—even with the best of captains, any changes in direction occur incrementally. I’m voting for the candidate who will keep us off the reefs till the bow comes around.

George Ochenski has lobbied the Legislature since 1985 primarily on environmental, tribal and public interest issues. He works as a writer in Helena. The opinions expressed in “Independent Voices” do not necessarily reflect those of the Independent.

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