Choose wisely 

The Independent’s 2012 election endorsements

U.S. Senate: Jon Tester

Jon Tester is fond of complaining that Washington, D.C., is broken. Both sides of the aisle have become increasingly entrenched, refusing to compromise and holding proposals hostage for election- year gain. All too often our leaders get sucked into partisan squabbles that rarely reflect the opinions and desires of citizens. So it behooves Montana to select a candidate who will actively represent as broad a base as possible.

Congressman Dennis Rehberg, Tester’s challenger, has failed to draft a single substantial proposal in six full terms—a troubling stat to say the least. He’d like voters to think that his opposition to Rep. Paul Ryan’s disastrous budget proposal makes him a party maverick. Yet his voting record and party-line campaign platform say otherwise.

Tester has accomplished much more in his single term, drafting bill after bill benefiting special interests, like combat veterans, who have subsequently supported his reelection bid. He’s done so while being one of the most transparent politicians in D.C. That’s not to say Tester doesn’t have his downsides. His silence on gay marriage and medical marijuana have been a constant source of frustration for us. And the Indy hasn’t been the strongest proponent of Tester’s flagship bill, the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. But our stance there has more to do with our doubts about the demand for processed lumber than anything else. The important thing here is that Tester has proved he’s willing to work with both sides, and that he’s not representing one side over another.

Bottom line: Tester is working for the broadest base of Montanans possible. Sometimes we’re not sure Rehberg’s working at all. That’s why we endorse Tester for a second term.

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U.S House of Representatives: Kim Gillan

In the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans picked up 63 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and John Boehner, R-Ohio, took the speaker gavel from Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Ever since, House Republicans have resorted to political sabotage, nixing even the most moderate policy proposals. It seems compromise has never been more elusive.

We don’t believe Republican U.S. House candidate Steve Daines, a businessman from Bozeman with no lawmaking experience, would do anything to solve the gridlock. Considering he wants to repeal Obamacare, slash the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget and keep tax rates low on the wealthy, he’s more likely to be a rubber stamp for Boehner and company. Daines’ “More jobs, less government” slogan may resonate with disaffected voters, but it shows, as did his debate performances, that he grossly oversimplifies the challenges facing our country.

Gillan, a Democrat from Billings, is better suited to work across the aisle in Washington, D.C. It’s what she has done for 16 years as a state legislator. Only twice in her eight sessions were Democrats in the majority, yet she was able to pass important legislation, such as requiring insurance companies to cover those with diabetes and autism. Unfortunately, despite her legislative leadership, Gillan isn’t well-known, and her campaign, which has raised about $1 million less than Daines’, has struggled to convey to voters her problem-solving track record. She hasn’t run a superior campaign, but she’s clearly the superior candidate.

Governor: Steve Bullock

Montana is about to experience one heck of a culture shock. For the first time in eight years, the governor’s mansion will not double as the green room to the state’s most entertaining political performance. No more bolo ties. No more grand colloquialisms. Fewer national television appearances. Brian Schweitzer (and Jag) are leaving—and, as the termed-out governor might put it, he’s leaving a big pair of cowboy boots to fill.

We may have grown tired of Schweitzer’s shtick back in 2005, and remain critical of some of his policies (“clean” coal), but overall the guy provided some impressive results. We’d like to see that momentum continued, and not slide back to the dark days of Judy Martz.

Former Congressman Rick Hill strikes us as a step backward. The Republican served in the U.S. House of Representatives for two terms, from 1997 to 2000, before deciding not to run for reelection due to health issues. His return to the political spotlight at age 66 has been highlighted by a desire to tap Montana’s natural resource potential, reform K-12 education and institute something called “priority budgeting.” None of that sounds appealing: the state’s already reeling from years of reckless natural resource development, in need of more education funding, not less, and currently carries a $400-plus million budget surplus. Hill’s plans sound stuck in the ’90s, when he voted with Republicans 92 percent of the time in Congress. His more recent insistence on keeping a dubious $500,000 donated by the state GOP during a temporary loophole does nothing to improve our view of him.

Bullock, 46, isn’t perfect, but he often ends up on the right side of issues we care about. We particularly like how he’s protected middle-class Montanans by fighting to raise the minimum wage, vowing to veto any right-to-work bill if elected governor and guaranteeing access to public lands. He has also provided innovative ideas for combating the state’s drunk driving problem—something that’s long overdue—with his 24/7 Sobriety Program. We could pick apart his selective decisions to stand up for state rights—it’s apparently paramount when fighting Citizens United, but less so with medical marijuana or, as his critics vigorously point out, universal health care—but not to the point of changing our minds. Hill had his time to lead, and did so with dubious results. When it comes to filling Schweitzer’s boots, we believe Bullock is the best choice.

Secretary of State: Linda McCulloch

We’ve seen this race before. Four years ago, McCulloch narrowly defeated Republican Brad Johnson when he was the incumbent. Now Johnson’s vying to get his old job back.

We’re simply not comfortable with that prospect. After McCulloch’s victory in 2008, Johnson attempted to issue $58,000 in bonuses to nine of his staff. McCulloch blocked the bonuses, which were later ruled illegal by the Department of Administration. McCulloch also noted substantial budgetary problems when she inherited Johnson’s office.

McCulloch has accomplished a lot in her tenure as Montana’s chief election official. Absentee voter participation has sky-rocketed. The election-night reporting system has improved dramatically. And McCulloch landed an endorsement from the predictably conservative Montana Chamber of Commerce.

Johnson wants to do away with same-day voter registration and implement a voter identification law in Montana. He claims the state’s elections are under threat from voter fraud by Canadians, a popular mantra among conservatives masking attempts to disenfranchise legal left-leaning voters. By comparison, McCulloch continues to work toward an election system that’s smoother, easier and more efficient for everyone. Sounds like a solid choice to us.

Attorney General: Pam Bucy

The state’s next attorney general will have significant sway in how Montana law is interpreted and enforced, from assisting local criminal prosecutions to investigating alleged law enforcement corruption. The job is made even weightier by the fact that Montana’s AG is automatically appointed to one of five seats on the Montana Land Board, which is charged with managing the state’s timber and mineral resources, including coal and natural gas extraction from publicly owned lands.

Republican Tim Fox has more than 25 years experience in Montana’s court system in criminal and civil law. We find it notable that he’s worked on behalf of Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly the Alliance Defense Fund) and the Montana Family Foundation. Both are conservative organizations that draw from biblical values while working to shape legal policy. As Montana debates whether to grant same-sex couples domestic benefit rights, we worry that Fox’s socially conservative leanings could further hinder progress toward equality. We’re also concerned about promises he’s made to champion resource extraction from his seat on the Land Board.

Democrat Pam Bucy takes a more temperate approach to resource extraction, one that’s earned her support from the Montana Conservation Voters and contributed to our decision to endorse her. Bucy’s seven-year tenure as an executive assistant attorney general is also worth noting, as is her extensive work with the Department of Labor and Industry. We believe Bucy is best equipped for the job.

State Auditor: Monica Lindeen

This one’s easy: Carefully and completely fill the oval next to Monica Lindeen’s name. Her opponent, Republican Derek Skees, is simply unelectable.

Skees, a state legislator from Whitefish, is the epitome of what’s wrong with the Montana Legislature. Last session, he sponsored 23 bills, all of which were too extreme even for the Republican-dominated House and Senate. A few examples: He proposed allowing students to take firearms to school, rendering conservation easements meaningless, nullifying any federal law that the state deems unconstitutional and repealing the state’s renewable energy standard. A man so opposed to various forms of basic regulation doesn’t seem suited for a position that requires oversight of insurance and securities regulation. Nor is he fit to sit on the state Land Board, a body that decides how best to generate revenue from School Trust lands.

Lindeen is not the most inspiring candidate, but her work is solid. She has handled well the tough job of implementing the federal Affordable Care Act as hostile legislators—Skees among them—have futilely tried to obstruct it. And we support her efforts to give the state auditor power to review health-insurance rate increases. We’d like to see more proactive work from her during a second term.

State Superintendent: Denise Juneau

Another easy one. No other politician has impressed us as much as Juneau, who four years ago became the first American Indian woman to be elected to statewide executive office in Montana. During her first term, she helped increase student test scores in math and reading, promoted more sustainable local foods in school lunchrooms, stood up against cumbersome No Child Left Behind reporting policies, and had the courage to be the only member of the Land Board to vote against leasing state-owned coal tracts at Otter Creek.

We’re not the only ones who recognize a bold, innovative and articulate leader when we see one. President Obama invited her to speak at the Democratic National Convention in September. That address was a sign that Juneau is bound for bigger things. In the meantime, we’re going to appreciate her work overseeing Montana’s schools, and strongly endorse her for a second term.

Missoula Board of County Commissioners: Jean Curtiss

Three Democrats currently fill the Missoula Board of County Commissioners, which causes some concern about lack of differing viewpoints. But that’s not reason enough to oust Curtiss, who has built a strong track record during her 12 years on the board.

Curtiss deftly balances economic development and environmental protection. She’s a founding member of the Missoula Economic Partnership and president of the BitterRoot Economic Development District’s board of directors, and has advocated for the cleanup of the Milltown Dam and former Smurfit-Stone mill site. She also has backed the protection of agriculture and open space around the county.

Curtiss’ balance is in stark contrast to the growth-at-all-costs ideology of her opponent, Republican Mark Brady. A staunch supporter of the free market, private property rights, lower taxes and limited government, Brady’s isn’t the sort of differing viewpoint we think reflects Missoula County’s diversity, nor would it likely foster moderate approaches to economic development and other issues important to rural and urban residents alike.

We’re confident that Curtiss is the better candidate, and believe she deserves another term.

Montana Public Service Commission: Gail Gutsche

The PSC is charged with regulating how much we pay for water, power and phone service. As such, it significantly impacts the financial lives of Montanans.

During her first term as a PSC commissioner, Gutsche, a Democrat, demonstrated a commitment to looking out for locals. That was clear in her decision last year to vote in favor of vetting the sale of Mountain Water to the nation’s largest private equity firm, the Carlyle Group. Her challenger, Republican Bob Lake of Hamilton, says the PSC should not have intervened. We disagree. Had the PSC not stepped in to scrutinize the sale, the city of Missoula would have had even less say in the future of its municipal water source.

Lake has also criticized Gutsche’s vocal support of renewable energy, arguing that her advocacy goes beyond the PSC’s purview. Again, we disagree. In fact, the Independent appreciates Gutsche’s unapologetic support of green energy. We think she deserves another term.

Legislative Referendum 122 and Ballot Initiative 166: No endorsement

It may seem like a punt, but we’re not convinced a vote on either of these ballot measures will accomplish anything. Take LR 122, which prohibits the state and federal governments from mandating the purchase of health insurance. This is a not-so-subtle attack on the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. It’s a crucial debate to have, but a ballot referendum is a useless gesture. In fact, LR 122 may be unconstitutional based on the Supreme Court’s ruling earlier this year. If it passes, critics anticipate a costly legal challenge.

As for I-166, a vote for or against is purely symbolic. The measure calls for a constitutional amendment declaring that corporations aren’t people—a grossly oversimplified argument in a very complex debate. We’re troubled by the Pandora’s piggybank the Supreme Court opened in Citizens United. But a constitutional amendment is a long-shot. An initiative charging Montana’s congressional delegation with proposing one is even longer. Never mind that 166 won’t solve much; wealthy individuals can still donate unlimited cash to super PACs, and super PACs can still spend that cash limitlessly thanks to another court case, v. FEC. If you have a strong opinion one way or the other, go ahead, vote. Just don’t be surprised if nothing changes after Election Day.

Legislative Referendum 121: Against

How much time and energy do you spend worrying about Montana’s problem with illegal immigration? Like, if you were going to make a list of the state’s most pressing issues, would renegade Canadians coming south and sucking from our state services rank in the top 30? Top 50? Would it even make the list?

LR 121 calls for denying certain state-funded services to those who have entered the United States illegally. The services under scrutiny include unemployment and disability benefits, student financial aid and applications for state license. Anyone not showing proper evidence of citizenship will be turned over to the Department of Homeland Security.

We have a couple of problems here, starting with the fact that Montana isn’t exactly brimming with “noncitizens,” as the referendum politely puts it. LR 121 could discourage those few who are here from seeking medical coverage or reporting crimes for fear of being caught. It also reeks of boilerplate ballot language being used in other states, and not of something sincerely offered to serious Montana voters. More than anything, it promotes racial profiling and xenophobia. LR 121 is a waste of time and not worth the column it fills on the ballot.

Initiative Referendum 124: Against

Initiative 124, which would reverse the 2011 legislative crackdown on medical marijuana, gives Montanans a chance to be heard once more on the legitimacy of pot as a pain reliever. State voters OK’d medical marijuana by a wide margin in 2004. Then the U.S. Justice Department signaled a more relaxed attitude about the drug in 2009, leading to an unseemly green rush that added tens of thousands of patients and hundreds of providers to the rolls. Dismayed by the sudden saturation of budding businesses, the Republican legislature passed SB 423, which ended commercial sale of the drug. Coupled with aggressive federal prosecution of growers, that law has effectively broken the industry, despite getting hung up in court.

We wonder: Since when do Americans eliminate entire industries because a few people game the system or because the regulatory structure is inadequate? If that’s going to be our M.O., shouldn’t we do away with commercial banking as well? And there’s no denying marijuana is an emerging industry. During its brief flash across Montana, it employed hundreds of people and cycled tens of millions of dollars into the economy for everything from office rentals to agricultural supplies to advertising. That’s all up in smoke now, because the legislature opted to blast the golden road instead of making sensible repairs.

Marijuana policy in this country is nuts, from top to bottom. I-124 won’t fix everything. But it would give the next legislature a better shot at a better law. And that’s what should have happened in the first place.

Voters should note that the presentation of I-124 on the ballot is potentially confusing. A vote for I-124 is a vote for the restrictive 2011 statute. We urge a vote against I-124, to reverse the 2011 repeal of the original medical marijuana law.

Legislative Referendum 120: Against

If passed, LR 120 would require young women under the age of 16 to get permission from a parent before having an abortion. Medical providers found guilty of violating the law would face criminal prosecution, a $500 fine and up to six months in prison.

As it stands, girls as young as 13 can now get an abortion without parental approval. Proponents of LR 120 say that doesn’t make sense, especially considering the law now requires minors get a parent’s “OK” to have their ears pierced.

In full context, the proponents’ argument begins to falter, however. According to the state Department of Public Health and Human Services, 20 girls under the age of 16 received abortions in Montana in 2011. Planned Parenthood of Montana, which tracks abortion-related statistics at its clinics, says 92 percent of girls under 16 who sought abortion services at the nonprofit during the past 15 years told their parents about the procedure.

This referendum seeks to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. It’s clear to us that LR 120 marks just another misguided attempt to chip away at reproductive freedom.

Abortion is awful. The need for it is awful. The way it divides our society is awful. The few young women who would be impacted by LR 120 have more than their fair share of trouble. And for all we know, the parents might be a part of it.

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