When the Florida recount fiasco was in full-throttle, the Bush team called in one of its top fixers to deal with the media and help put the finishing touches on the brusque strategy that helped seal the election. That man was Marc Racicot, the former governor of Montana. Many thought Racicot would be rewarded for his efforts with a top post in the Bush White House. Although he was on the short list for both Secretary of the Interior and Attorney General, Racicot ended up in the cushy post as head of the Republican National Committee, where his deft fundraising abilities fattened the RNC vaults with a record $250 million in soft money contributions for the 2002 election cycle.
Racicot didn’t just sit on that mountain of cash; he used it like a MOAB bomb on Democrats. He is credited, along with Karl Rove, with devising the media strategy that yielded such great triumphs for the Republicans in the 2002 elections.
In early June, Bush tapped Racicot as the chairman of his reelection campaign, and already the corporate loot is pouring into the Bush campaign coffers. It was an astute choice. Although his name is hard to pronounce (Ross-Co), Racicot presents a kinder media presence than the other Visigoths in the Bush camp. One Republican staffer called him “the white Colin Powell, [one of] only two Bush advisers with any kind of sex appeal.”
Racicot, whose hair is as delicately managed as John Kerry’s, may look benign next to the frightful visages of Rove and Rumsfeld, but he’s a ruthless politician who is as far to the right as anyone in the Bush inner circle. Just ask those who know him best: the people of Montana.
Racicot served as governor of Montana from 1994 through 2000, where he slashed taxes, carried water for big timber, deregulated the state’s electric utilities and moaned ceaselessly about the oppressive hand of the federal government. Prior to that, Racicot served two terms as attorney general for the Big Sky state.
These days, Montana’s once robust economy is in ruins. The current governor, Racicot’s bumbling protégé Judy Martz, gets most of the blame for the crisis and lumbers along with an approval rating of 23 percent. But Racicot’s savage economic policies laid the foundations for the wreck that now plagues the state: record deficits, bankrupt schools and a senescent economy.
While Racicot slashed services and taxes, he also funneled what little money remained in the Montana treasury into costly projects that benefited political donors. For example, Racicot spent tens of millions of dollars on a new software system for the state government that was supposed to minutely track agency budgets and expenditures. Nearly a decade and $50 million later, the system still doesn’t function, and the workings of the state’s budget (now deep in the red) remain as opaque as the rituals of Eleusis.
Although the state of Montana was veering toward bankruptcy, Racicot sank $100 million into the construction of new prisons, which were built by political donors. The problem was that Montana was one of the few states that already had an overcapacity of prison beds. The prisons went up anyway, and despite a slate of harsh new laws passed under Racicot and Martz to lock up more Montanans, the new prisons remain underbooked. Now, Montana is desperately looking to rent out its empty cells to other states.
His cavalier approach to the state’s health care services was even more disastrous. Racicot pushed through a $400 million scheme to privatize Montana’s mental health care system. But less than two years after it was put into place, the new program collapsed, pushing schizophrenics and other patients out onto the streets and off of needed medications. The state is now faced with recreating a system that Racicot destroyed.
When Montana’s schools began to falter from the budget squeeze, Racicot offered a quick fix: log off the remaining old growth on state lands and cycle the receipts to the schools. This scheme, dubbed “clearcuts for classrooms” by local environmentalists, ravaged Montana’s forests, but did almost nothing to help the state’s beleaguered school system. Using the same rationale, Racicot also began selling off state park and forestlands near urban areas to his corporate cronies for shopping centers, office buildings and subdivisions.
Montana once enjoyed the toughest clean water laws in the country. Racicot dismantled them in 1995 when he signed a bill backed by mining and oil companies which raised limits on the discharge of toxins and carcinogens into Montana’s streams, allowed corporations the right to police their own conduct, and, at the behest of the coal methane producers, expanded the luxury to foul groundwater to the very boundaries of polluters’ property.
This was followed by Racicot’s big gift to the strip-mining lobby. Despite the fact that Montana, which bears the historical scars of the strip-and-run coal companies, is the only state in the nation whose constitution requires the reclamation of all lands disturbed by mining, Racicot signed into law a measure that exempts open pit mines from any responsibility to restore the messes they make, often contaminated with cyanide and other toxic debris.
But perhaps the biggest fiasco of Racicot’s tenure as governor was his role in deregulating Montana’s electric utilities, which allowed Montana Power Company to sell off its generating stations, dams, powerlines and water rights to PPL (Pennsylvania Power and Light). In exchange, Montana ratepayers saw their utility bills soar by more than 50 percent, from one of the lowest in the nation to the highest.
Racicot forged a close friendship with Bush in 1995, when the two men began working together on anti-regulatory initiatives for the Western Governor’s Association and the National Governor’s Association. The relationship between the two governors proved so cozy that there was speculation in Montana that Bush might pick Racicot as his running mate in 2000. Ultimately, Cheney picked himself for that position, and the golden boy from Montana went to work in the D.C. office of Bracewell & Patterson, a Houston law firm closely tied to Bush that specializes in advancing the agendas of oil and gas companies.
One of Racicot’s chief clients during those tumultuous early days of the Bush administration was in dire need of a well-placed hand: Enron. Even after Racicot was selected to head the RNC, he refused to drop Enron as a client. His efforts to protect Enron during its time of tribulation certainly paid off for the company’s executives. While Martha Stewart faces federal charges over a $200,000 stock deal, Enron executives Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling, who bilked investors out of billions, enjoy afternoons on the most exclusive golf courses in Houston.
After Racicot became chairman of the RNC, he moved his office to the party’s headquarters a couple of blocks from the White House. Even though he rarely went into the law office and had no official roster of clients, Racicot continued to pull down a six-figure paycheck from Bracewell & Patterson.
“I have certainly provided advice and counsel to some private people with private business activities that have not been governmentally related,” Racicot said. “So I have done some things, but it has been very limited. So as a result of that I have honored the terms of the employment agreement and they were in such a frame of mind that they thought [leading the Republican Party] was something constructive for me to be engaged in, and they acquiesced to my involvement.”
The new head of the Bush campaign sees no reason to recuse himself from such easy money now.
Jeffrey St. Clair is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green To Me: the Politics of Nature (Common Courage Press) and coeditor, with Alexander Cockburn, of The Politics of Anti-Semitism (AK Press). Both books will be published in October. “The white Colin Powell” was originally published in the Aug. 9 issue of CounterPunch.