It's been a long time since Montana's lone congressman, Republican Denny Rehberg, had an interesting contender for his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. This year, however, is different. There are four Democrats vying in the primary to oppose Rehberg in the general election, and we'll take a look at those in a future column. But one of the most intriguing aspects of this year's election is Rehberg's primary opponent, Dr. A.J. Otjen, of Laurel. A talented and attractive woman, she just might give Rehberg a run in the highest-profile race of this year's mid-term elections.
Otjen is currently a tenured professor of Integrated Marketing Communications at Montana State University-Billings and, if the awards won by her students are any indication, she's a very capable mentor. Besides holding a doctorate in economics, Otjen brings real world experience to her task, having retired in her 40s from her position as vice president of the telecommunications giant, Sprint Corporation. As she told Lee's Capitol Bureau Chief, Chuck Johnson, this week: "The difference between me and Denny is I have actually experienced balancing billion-dollar budgets, and he's been part of the Congress that has failed to do it the past 10 years."
Of course having Republicans tout their fiscal conservatism is nothing new—they all do. The record, however, is quite different than the campaign pledges. From Ronald Reagan right up through George W. Bush, Republican presidents and Republican-dominated congresses have consistently spent the nation deep into debt. The two main issues driving Republican-caused debt have been onerous and expensive wars and the party's foundational belief in tax cuts for the wealthy, of which George W. Bush excelled at both.
On the tax issue Otjen's pretty straight up—and not what you'd expect. As she said this week: "When you're talking about balancing the budget, you can't cut income taxes. Right now, income taxes are 10 percent to 35 percent, practically the lowest in the history of the income tax. You can't cut taxes now."
Coming from a Republican, that's quite a statement. Unfortunately, it's also one with which many of the party faithful are likely to disagree vehemently. According to basic Republican economic tenets, the primary way to stimulate the economy and spur investment is through cutting taxes. The main recipients of this largesse, whether they actually invest anything in the economy or not, have traditionally been the largest corporations and the wealthiest individuals in the nation. Then of course there's the Tea Party, which could affect the Republican primary, and the "Tea" stands for "taxed enough already."
On war spending Otjen hasn't offered much in the way of specifics so far—nor have most other candidates or sitting politicos. Her website, however, puts forth what might be seen as conflicting views. While saying she believes we "must attack today's terrorists and the next generation's terrorists," she also says, "Our current strategy is not sustainable" and "we should use war as the last option, always and only for defense."
Given her understanding of economics and the role our current military spending plays in driving the national debt to record heights, we might have expected more. As an example, this year's military budget alone could cover almost the entire 10-year projected cost of the contentious health bill without putting us further and further into debt. Then again, since virtually none of the politicians or candidates from either the Democrat or Republican parties are offering specifics about cutting military spending, perhaps Otjen will sadly just blend in with the chorus of silence on this most important issue.
There are, however, some very significant issues on which she is less obtuse. Take the environment, for instance. Otjen calls herself "a Teddy Roosevelt Republican" and puts environmental protection as a high priority in her platform. She has already been endorsed by the national Republicans for Environmental Protection and Republicans United. The contrast with Rehberg, at least in this regard, could not be more stark.
Like all too many Republicans, Rehberg talks about "what's good for Montana." But his horrible record on the environment, one of the worst in Congress, belies his statements. When it comes to a choice between the economy and the environment, Rehberg doesn't hesitate to toss the environment overboard at the first chance. Otjen, however, believes that "environmental protection is not at odds with economic development. I believe that you do both together."
As her website notes: "Thirty years from now, we want a Montana where we all gather around the Thanksgiving family dinner table and enjoy fresh vegetables and meats from the farm or ranch right down the road. Our water is clean and crystal clear. Our view of the mountains is through the bluest sky." Little of that will be possible if Montana and the nation continue on their destructive path of coal mining and burning, but one thing is certain—she's not mouthing the standard Republican talking points.
Or how about abortion rights? Again, Otjen veers widely from the well-trod Republican path with her stance on a woman's right to choose, but does it under the rubric of individual privacy. "I have a right to my own bedroom and my body," she writes on her website. "Republicans must be consistent on this issue and make individual rights the guiding force on all public policy issues."
Although Otjen calls herself "a real Republican," it's hard to say how that will fly in a Montana Republican primary. If, as the National Republican Party seems to want, they coalesce in defiance to all things Democratic, as the "Party of No," then Otjen will likely fail in her primary bid. If, on the other hand, people are fed up with the partisan stranglehold in Washington, she might just do okay, especially if you consider the unknown potential for crossover voters and the Tea Party effect.
Win or lose, however, it seems likely we'll be seeing more of the interesting Dr. Otjen in our political future.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.