Life of Brian 

On the campaign trail with U.S. Senate candidate Brian Schweitzer

It’s a chilly, crystal clear Saturday morning in mid-October as I make my way through downtown Missoula in search of Brian Schweitzer, Montana’s Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate. Walking north on Higgins Avenue, I pass cheerleaders and Rotarians applying the finishing touches to the parade floats queuing up for the University of Montana homecoming parade. Throngs of maroon-clad Griz fans are unfolding lawn chairs and staking out territory along the parade route. Children with Halloween baskets are jockeying for curb-side real estate and mauling each other with novelty foam bear claws while their parents warm their hands on Styrofoam coffee cups or hop up and down in place to stay warm.

At 9:30 a.m. I spot Brian and his campaign team on Railroad Street inflating a yellow, light bulb-shaped campaign balloon that reads, “Brian Schweitzer—Plain Talk, Good Ideas.” Unlike the legions of political operatives milling around in wool caps, winter coats and campaign paraphernalia, Brian is without jacket or gloves, clad only in jeans, a flannel shirt and running shoes, looking—quite literally—like a candidate ready to run.

“Great day for a parade,” he says, offering me his signature Charlie Brown smile and a brisk handshake, then handing off a football to a campaign aide and sprinting across the brick. His aide, Mark “Moonlight” Graham, throws him a deep spiral, which Brian catches over his shoulder with an impressive one-handed grab.

“Waa-hoo! Brian, you rock!” howls a college-aged woman wallpapered in campaign stickers from half the Montana Democratic ticket. Brian trots back to say hello to John Morrison, the Democratic candidate for state auditor, who just arrived.

“John, I need to find a good lawyer to do something about these people telling lies about me on TV,” says Brian, only partly in jest, referring to a recent barrage of attack ads accusing Schweitzer of accepting money from the pharmaceutical industry. Brian pitches Morrison the football and sprints long for another pass.

“The man’s got boundless energy,” Moonlight tells me. “Boundless.” I introduce myself to Brian’s driver, Phil Toomajian, an Ohio native who heard about Schweitzer while studying political science in college in upstate New York and relocated to Kalispell to work on the campaign. In the last three weeks alone, he and Brian have crisscrossed the state, racking up more than 4,000 miles on the campaign’s ’89 Grand Prix, an otherwise expensive travel itinerary were it not for the 2,000 or so relatives Brian claims statewide who might occasionally be called upon for temporary housing.

I offer Brian a cup of coffee but he politely refuses, explaining that since he decided to run for office 15 months ago, he has sworn off both caffeine and alcohol. “I need my energy,” he says. Phil tells me that Brian has been up since 3:30 a.m. reading the statewide and national newspapers—a daily ritual—and by 6 a.m. making business calls to the East Coast.

Reviewing the day’s itinerary, I see the Schweitzer people have me scheduled to follow Brian all day, as I requested. One would think that a reporter from the state’s biggest alternative newspaper would have little trouble scheduling time to travel with a Democratic hopeful looking to unseat the Republican incumbent. But ever since Schweitzer launched his highly publicized “runs for the border” to help seniors buy less expensive prescription drugs in Canada and Mexico, Montana politics have been enjoying a rare stint in the national spotlight. As a result, what has been a huge boon for Brian Schweitzer has also left me vying for his time against reporters from the Chicago Tribune, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

By 11:05 a.m. the political floats relegated to the tail end of the parade still haven’t budged, allowing a smattering of local politicos to bend Brian’s ear. I listen as he fields questions on genetically modified organisms, Sen. Burns’ opposition to CARA—the Conservation and Reinvestment Act—and Montana’s economy, a topic Brian speaks on at length, having visited 27 other countries to work on economic development.

What piques my interest is his concern about personal privacy. Brian launches into a story about how for $79 he accessed an Internet website and was able to pull up a frighteningly detailed litany of personal information about himself: his Social Security number; the names, addresses and phone numbers of all his neighbors; bank transactions involving his farm; a list of every vehicle he’s owned for the last 20 years, and everyplace he and his wife have lived, even a Wyoming motel his wife stayed in with her sister for one night back in 1983.

“In Montana we’re still concerned about having our Social Security numbers on hunting licenses, which is nothing,” Brian says. “These people are selling private information like it’s chattel. It’s wrong.”

For a candidate whose critics have accused him of running a one-issue campaign, Schweitzer shifts easily from issue to issue without resorting to either empty sound-bite platitudes or the convoluted, noncommittal responses endemic to some of this year’s more seasoned (i.e., less informed) candidates.

“The 1996 Telecommunications Act was an outrage,” Brian explains to a circle of people discussing campaign finance reform. “We gave away the airwaves—conservatively worth $8 billion—to the largest corporations in America. We could be running a Senate race in Montana for $150,000. Well, $150,000 is a reasonable sum of money to raise for a congressional seat in a state like Montana. But $5 million? $6 million?”

At 11:15 a.m. the parade finally lurches forward and Brian is off and running, zigzagging the street, shaking hands and engaging the Griz fans in his spirited game of catch. He’s greeted with the occasional shout of “Give Conrad hell!” or “Take ’em down, Brian!” while one avuncular supporter pulls him aside, gives him a playful chuck on the shoulder and tucks a personal check in his hand.

At the intersection of Higgins and Broadway, Brian spots Larry Cyr, the Democratic candidate for House District 37. Brian runs up to Cyr and plants a big kiss on his cheek.

“Hey! You said you weren’t going to do that anymore!” Cyr shouts, but Brian is already half a block away on the opposite side of the street, high-fiving a rambunctious row of toe-headed boys.

“If winning elections were just about walking in parades and shaking hands, Brian would take this race hands down,” says Phil, tethered to the Schweitzer balloon and jogging just to keep up with his boss. For the next few hours, I keep a sharp eye on that bouncing yellow light bulb. It’s the only way I can maintain a fix on this candidate who refuses to rest or even slow down.

Citizen Schweitzer

Amid the nightly dinner-hour onslaught of PAC-funded ads on the airwaves, it’s easy to lose sight of what a fascinating horse race we have before us. Running on the inside-the-Beltway track is the incumbent, two-term Republican Sen. Conrad Burns. As of June 30, according to the Federal Elections Commission (FEC), Burns’ war chest amounted to more than $2.5 million, more than twice that of Schweitzer’s. Since July, that war chest has continued to swell, thanks in part to industry PAC money that gravitates towards certain committee members like metal shavings to a magnet, notably, the Commerce Committee, which oversees many of the nation’s most powerful corporations, including telephone utilities, broadcast, cable and telecommunications companies, tobacco and the airlines.

On the outside track is Brian Schweitzer, a 44-year-old Whitefish farmer of mint, dill, wheat, hay and cattle who never ran for an elected office in his life and had little or no political experience outside the field of agriculture. When he entered this race, Schweitzer had a statewide name recognition in the single digits, with 70 percent of his campaign contributions coming from individual donors. While both candidates have clearly reaped the benefits of so-called “issue” ads paid for by out-of-state PACs, Schweitzer remains outgunned in this arena, and in the 18 months leading up to the June FEC filing deadline, was outspent by nearly three to one.

The chilly morning warms into a glorious autumn afternoon and the Schweitzer people are jazzed by the results of the latest poll showing Brian has closed the gap with Burns to less than 9 percentage points, the nation’s single largest point gain by a statewide candidate.

As the parade winds to a close at the end of University Avenue, Brian makes his way across campus toward the Griz tailgate party, Team Schweitzer in tow. (Banish from your mind any visual of trenchcoated men with mirrored Ray Bans and Secret Service ear pieces. Instead, picture three guys you’d invite over to your house to reformat your hard drive.)

On the way, I ask Brian why he thinks the prescription drug issue has been so effective at lighting a fire under the chairs of ordinary Montanans.

“It’s only a metaphor,” he speculates. “One farmer and a group of senior citizens in Montana have taken on Congress and the most powerful corporations in America and changed this country. Imagine what we could do as a U.S. Senator from Montana, what we could do on resource policy, agricultural policy, foreign policy, the media.”

What we could do, I scribble in my notebook. Having worked around veteran politicians, I can wait until Brian turns off the populist charm. But it doesn’t let up.

“When I was at the Democratic convention, where all the protesters are out front, I’m reading their signs and I’m thinking to myself, ‘What the hell am I doing going inside here? I agree more with the people outside than I do with the people inside,’” Brian recalls. “They gave us lists of all the corporate sponsors of the Republican Convention, and then the exact same list for the Democratic Convention. Pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, tobacco, the oil companies. All bought and paid for by corporate sponsors.”

Real smooth, I think to myself. But he’s got to let his guard down sometime.

“Come on,” he says with a big smile as we reach the tailgate party. “Let’s go meet some voters.”

The Bratwurst Stump

I follow the campaign balloon—which I’ve privately dubbed the Airship Schweitzer—as it bobs along on a sea of maroon and barbecue smoke. Up ahead, Brian wades eagerly into the melee, shaking any hand that isn’t already clutching a child, a bratwurst or a plastic beer cup. Within 20 minutes, I’ve been introduced to four of Brian’s relatives, and I begin to suspect that his claim of being related to 2,000 people across Montana might not be an exaggeration after all.

Like moths to a porch light, it takes about 3.2 seconds for the big yellow light bulb to attract a pharmacist from Fort Benton who wants to talk about “the little old ladies” who come into his pharmacy each month to cash their Social Security checks.

“I get half of it. You know where the other half goes to, don’t you?” he tells Brian. “Rent, and maybe a little food.”

“It’s a question of fairness,” says Brian, launching into what is by now familiar terrain. “These medicines are manufactured in the United States, the research and development is conducted in the United States with American taxpayer assistance, and they’re sold all over the world for a fraction of what they’re sold for here. So, the American taxpayer is subsidizing the health care system of every other country on the planet.”

A few minutes later, Brian is approached by a woman angered by the latest Republican-funded TV ads attacking a comment Brian made about the breast cancer treatment drug, Tamoxifin. The ad features three breast cancer survivors who say they’re insulted that Brian Schweitzer is suggesting women should buy their Tamoxifin from a veterinarian.

In fact, the Schweitzer ad simply points out that Tamoxifin, which is sold by pharmacists, is also sold by veterinarians for half the price. In 1994 Congress passed legislation instructing the Food and Drug Administration to automatically approve for animal consumption any drug already approved for human consumption. That bill was co-sponsored by Sen. Conrad Burns.

The woman soon reveals to us that she, too, is a breast cancer survivor. “I don’t know what part of their anatomy their doctors took out,” she says. “They removed my breast, not my brain.”

Not far from a table staffed by the Missoula Republican Party, Brian runs into a familiar face, “Montana Bob,” a self-described Republican who likes to bend Brian’s ear at regular intervals on the campaign trail. Montana Bob shakes Brian’s hand, pulls him closer and says, “Tell me next time you’re going to move over to the Republicans.”

“Oh, I can’t do that,” Brian says. “They’re bought and paid for by big corporations.”

“Who cares?” says Montana Bob, stuffing a cigar in Brian’s shirt pocket. “They pay taxes.”

As Montana Bob heads toward the stadium, Brian turns to me and smiles. “He’ll vote for me. You watch.”

The Running Man

At 2 p.m., while en route to Brian’s radio interview with KUFM, I ask him about an article that appeared recently in The New York Times Magazine about the role of Native Americans in the 2000 election. He hasn’t seen the article but makes an interesting observation.

“I honestly believe that O’Keefe, Keenan and Schweitzer will win or lose by no more than two to three percentage points,” he says. “With Native Americans making up five to six percent of [Montana’s] population, they will decide this election.”

Meanwhile, I’m still watching for a chink in the populist armor. Thus far I’ve yet to see the man eat, drink, sit down or even break a sweat. If Schweitzer views this race as a marathon, he’s just hitting his stride.

We’re greeted at the studio door by KUFM News Director Sally Mauk, who leads Brian into the studio while we watch through a glass partition in the engineer’s booth. Since the interview is being taped and will be edited for broadcast, the pace is relaxed and the format informal. Still, Sally pulls no punches.

Launching into a series of questions about Brian’s stance on the re-importation of prescription drugs, Sally asks Brian to respond to the argument that since FDA standards are higher than the rest of the world, drug re-importation could compromise the safety of our drug supply.

“Germany, France, Switzerland, England, Canada. They all have very sophisticated health care systems. The don’t have a medical supply that is dangerous or adulterated in any way,” Brian answers, ticking off a list of pharmaceutical firms located overseas, which, he notes, spent $134 million last year lobbying Congress with one lobbyist for every two members of Congress.

Sally moves on, probing Brian’s assertion that he has not accepted any contributions from the pharmaceutical industry. The National Democratic Party receives money from pharmaceutical firms, she says. Couldn’t some of that money be getting back to the Schweitzer campaign?

“It’s against the law for the Montana Democratic Party to accept corporate dollars,” Brian says, unfazed.

She presses the point. “Can you say that there are no ads in support of Brian Schweitzer that were paid for by the pharmaceutical industry?” “I don’t see how there could be,” Brian answers.

Phil leans over and mutters, “Man. She’s good.”

And so it goes for the next 35 minutes, a tough barrage of questioning that spans the portfolio of state and federal political issues, from the privatization of the Social Security system (he’s against it) to the approval of RU-486 (he strongly favors a woman’s right to choose) to the Clinton Roadless Initiative (he opposes the Clinton plan and new road-building, but supports a process that engages all Montanans.)

Inevitably, Sally hits upon the breast cancer attack ad. Clearly, the ad is the political equivalent of a kidney punch: cheap but damaging. Still, Schweitzer takes it in stride.

After the interview, Brian emerges energized, like an Olympic runner who has just won a qualifying heat but who knows enough to conserve his energy. His next stop is a debate prep session, the only event of the day I’m denied access to.

As the campaign crew drives me back to my car, creeping along at 15 mph to keep the Airship Schweitzer on the roof from escaping our tenuous grip, the car passes under a low tree branch. In seconds the car is blanketed in yellow rubber. No problem, Brian says. They’ll patch it later and move on.

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