Among friends 

Can Schweitzer overcome his own bluster?

The holiday season is a good time to appreciate the friends we make as we journey through life. Considering what Gov. Schweitzer is likely to face in the upcoming legislative session, he, perhaps more than most, might find it a good time to think about friends—not just the ones he’s made, but the ones he’s lost. Given the recent actions of the new Republican leaders in the House of Representatives, Schweitzer is likely to suffer a crash course in the value of friends in the coming months.

By the time this column hits print, the membership of the House committees will likely have been decided by Speaker of the House Scott Sales. Already the education community is up in arms over the announced appointment of Rep. Rick Jore, the Legislature’s lone member of the Constitution Party and an avowed opponent of what he calls “government education,” to chair the House education committee.

Likewise, the appointment of ultraconservative Rep. Jack Wells (R-Bozeman) to chair the appropriations subcommittee on education has raised hackles, cries of alarm and wails of dismay. Added to this is the appointment of Rep. John Sinrud (R-Bozeman), another hyper-conservative, to chair the appropriations committee through which all spending measures must pass—or not pass as the case may be.

Then toss in the announcement this week that Speaker Sales has decided to stack the deck on other House committees by appointing 11 Republicans and eight Democrats to each—a proportion that has Dems crying foul, since the actual Republican majority in the House is just one member. What these numbers mean is that even if the Republicans lose a committee vote and the Dems hold every member, not a single bill will ever see the light of day if they don’t want it to.

Last session, as readers may recall, the House was split 50-50. With evenly divided committees, it was possible to have votes split exactly on party lines and, without a majority to move them out, bills would die in committee. House leaders decided that to be fair to both parties, they would allow legislation favored by either party that was stuck in committee on tie votes to be pulled to the floor using what were called “silver bullets.” The catch was that each party only got to use the bullets on a limited number of bills, so only the most important measures merited pulling the trigger

This session, however, with a clear Republican majority in the House, there likely won’t be any silver bullets. Any bill that can’t muster a majority vote in committee will die, and if the harsh rhetoric we’ve seen so far from the new House leaders turns out to be true, that means virtually any measure coming from the Democrats in the Senate or the House is likely to wind up dead unless it’s something the Republicans want to see pass.

What this all adds up to is a tremendous challenge for Gov. Schweitzer to enact his midterm agenda, which, by all rights, should be his most telling leadership accomplishment. Given the angry Republican swarm he faces in the House, Schweitzer will need every friend he can muster.

But as it turns out, Schweitzer has not exactly been on a roll when it comes to making friends lately. To start with, the rookie governor has taken some harsh actions with those who disagreed with him—or his policies—during the interim. In Helena, it is a common topic of discussion among those active in politics to ask: “Did you get your call yet?” That would be a call from the governor, which might come at any hour of the day, in which one can expect to be dressed down for any number of reasons, but usually because of one’s political party or what one wrote or was quoted as saying in a news article. Whatever the cause, being yelled at by Schweitzer is never talked about as having been a happy occasion, and no one comes away saying, “Wow, that guy is sure my friend.”

Add to that the governor’s aggressive actions during the campaign season, during which he spared no slack for Republican candidates—some of whom won in the end. One of the most discussed moves was Schweitzer’s admonishment to Bozeman-area voters to defeat incumbent Republican Rep. Roger Koopman. The story goes that Schweitzer, in his endless obsession with coal development, outlined for an audience how geologic caverns were formed over millions of years. Koopman allowed that in his view, the Earth was only 4,000 years old—a belief held by any number of religious fundamentalists. The governor then asked that voters send him someone who doesn’t believe the Earth is 4,000 years old.

Accounts from Bozeman-area legislators say the governor’s words were taken as a slam against certain religious beliefs and were credited with turning out fundamentalist voters who tipped the scales to return Koopman to the Legislature, where he will be waiting to even his personal score with Schweitzer.

Nor are Schweitzer’s environmental policies making many friends on the Dem side of the aisle. The administration’s plan to allow burning of both hazardous waste and used tires in the Trident cement plant has downwind Democrats up in arms. They have fought for years to prevent such toxic burning under a host of Republican governors, only to have it dished up to them by a presumed political ally. Likewise, the governor’s harsh denouncement of longtime environmental groups such as the Montana Environmental Information Center, which has fought for a clean and healthy environment for more than three decades, has infuriated hundreds, if not thousands, of Montanans.

Yes, this headstrong governor is likely to learn a hard lesson in the coming session—a lesson about tolerance, a lesson about respect, and in the end, when he’s counting those precious votes in the House, a lesson about the value of friends.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at

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