Cheryl Messerman was having second thoughts. A hall secretary in UM’s Residence Life Office, Messerman was standing in the foyer of Missoula’s Barrett Productions’ Orange Street offices waiting to meet with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brian Schweitzer. With no political experience and lukewarm political aspirations, Messerman was moments away from interviewing for the position of lieutenant governor based on nothing but a “silly, attention-getting” letter she wrote to Schweitzer responding to his public call for a campaign partner.
Schweitzer has committed to running an atypical campaign. Some of his unorthodox campaign strategies aren’t so new—he’s refusing political action committee (PAC) money, just as Jerry Brown did in his 1992 presidential bid. Others, like trolling the public for a running mate, are fresher.
State GOP Executive Director Chuck Denowh has called Schweitzer “a master of the gimmick” just looking for press. But Schweitzer says his effort is earnest and hopes to meet with every one of the 125 applicants that have applied thus far. He’s already met with politicos including county commissioners and state senators and “regular Montanans” like paint contractors and flooring store employees. On Wednesday, Oct. 22, Schweitzer was in Missoula to meet his latest batch of applicants, including former Missoula County Attorney Dusty Deschamps, Missoula State Rep. Gail Gutsche and Cheryl Messerman.
When it comes Messerman’s turn to meet with Schweitzer, she shakes his hand and is led to a private room—just Messerman, Schweitzer and a single reporter. Once alone, she immediately demurs that her letter hadn’t been a totally serious proposal. But before she can explain, Schweitzer highjacks the interview.
“Your letter is the single best one I got,” he tells her. Messerman blushes.
“Well I have to tell you, I didn’t know that you didn’t write that personal ad in the Independent,” she says, referring to a mock Schweitzer personal ad this paper published in the Etc. section of its Oct. 2, 2003 issue. In part, the ad read:
“MAN SEEKING MATE. Running mate, that is. Democratic candidate for governor seeks Lt. Gov. to share ticket, ice cream socials, long talks about how the international agro-industrial complex can be harnessed to better Montana’s economy…No whiners, head games, control freaks or convicted felons. Discrete tattoos and former male hairdressers OK.”
In response, Messerman wrote:
“I studied accounting technology at the University of Montana College of Technology where I learned accounting principles. I would use these principles to help you and the Legislature balance the state’s budget (it works most of the time for balancing my family’s budget)…Finally, I have never been convicted of a crime and I have no tattoos. If you would be interested in discussing the possibility of a future together, please call me.”
With her face still a little flush, Messerman asks: “Do you know that ad?”
“Oh, yeah,” says Schweitzer with a big smile. He got a chuckle out of it. But he’s not hung up on why Messerman wrote the letter—either he doesn’t know she wasn’t serious or he doesn’t care.
“What do you think is the most important issue facing Montana?” he asks.
Like it or not, Messerman has been coaxed into talking state politics with an old hand. Becoming increasingly more comfortable on the expensive black leather couch, Messerman relaxes and the two begin to gab about the failures of the party in power, Schweitzer’s plan to build Montana’s economy from “Main Street out,” and Messerman’s son’s dream of working as a Lego engineer in Belgium.
During their 20 minutes together, Schweitzer makes repeated references to her letter. Every time she downplays her qualifications, he mentions her volunteer work at local schools or her devotion to her family. He also mentions that if elected governor, he’ll have to install a thousand new faces in state government. He’s in search of not just a running mate, but hundreds of support positions and appointees.
“How mobile are you?” he asks. “Could you move to Helena?”
This is Messerman’s chance to bow out and admit she was never truly serious about being lieutenant governor. That she showed up simply to explain her letter and get a chance to meet the man.
There is a long pause.
“Yes,” she replies.
Schweitzer then explains to Messerman why he lost to Conrad Burns in the 2000 Senate race. And he tips his hand as to one of the reasons for his quest to solicit everyday Montanans.
“The reason I lost the election was that 6,300 single moms didn’t vote.”
Messerman isn’t currently a single mom—she’s divorced and remarried—but she could still be this campaign’s poster voter: a working mother who votes, and can encourage others to vote.
As the interview wraps up, Schweitzer tells Messerman that the camera crew will arrive shortly. She’s going to have to provide a 15-second sound bite.
“What you need to say is, ‘I believe in moving Montana forward by…,’ and then tell them what you think,” he instructs. “Don’t say what you think they want to hear, draw deep from your personal experiences, say it like you believe it.”
Voters can sense disingenuousness, he says. And he should know—Schweitzer comes off smooth but not slick, earnest but not egotistical.
As Schweitzer meets with Rep. Gail Gutsche in the private room and Messerman waits nervously in the foyer, saying that she “doesn’t want to do this,” the press sets up. Messerman tells Schweitzer she can’t do it, she’s too nervous, she’s not qualified, she wants to get back to work. Schweitzer takes her by the arm, telling her quietly that she’ll do fine.
Sandwiched between an everyday Montanan and a state representative, the camera and tape recorders rolling, Schweitzer is asked how his search is going.
“We have over 120 people that we have to interview from across the state,” he says. “People have got experience in the Legislature like Gail, great leaders who have got experience in Helena, and people like Cheryl, people who haven’t been involved in government. But the thing that people share across Montana when they apply is a passion for moving Montana forward.”
The press conference is short. Gutsche talks about health care and Messerman talks about her willingness to work with Schweitzer to move Montana forward. And then it’s over, the 15 seconds filled.