Natelson Unbound 

UM professor, conservative activist launches governor bid

Rob Natelson is his name, and cutting taxes and reducing big government is his game. Or so went the political clamor at Tuesday’s announcement by the University of Montana law professor and self-described conservative that he is taking on Lt. Gov. Judy Martz for the Republican nomination in the June primary election for governor. Natelson also formally announced his running mate as state Sen. Tom Keating (R-Billings) for the post of lieutenant governor.

Natelson, who until last December was a regular fixture on the statewide conservative AM talk radio show “Today in Montana,” ran against incumbent Marc Racicot for the GOP nod for governor in 1996. Arguably, Natelson is better known among Montana’s electorate as the founder of Montanans for Better Government, the political action committee responsible for putting CI-75 on the ballot. That constitutional initiative required voter approval before any governmental entity could impose new taxes, surcharges or fee increases of any kind.

The measure, which had popular appeal among many Montanans who were skittish about government of any shade or stripe, was approved by voters by a 51-49 margin and sent state, county and city offices into a veritable tailspin over how to interpret the nebulously crafted law. Increased library fines, park user fees, you name it, it all had to be filtered through the CI-75 lens before being acted upon. For nearly three months, virtually every governmental step was hog-tied by this Gordian Knot in the purse strings until the Montana Supreme Court finally ruled it unconstitutional last February.

Natelson, dissatisfied with the court’s unanimous decision because he said it violated the rule of law, became an outspoken critic of both the ruling and the court itself during his radio broadcasts and in the mainstream media, calling the ruling “atrocious” and one of the most arrogant decisions in 30 years. His attacks became so inflammatory that it sparked a stern rebuttal letter signed by 18 of his fellow UM law professors, who labeled his behavior unprofessional, uncivil and disrespectful to the state’s highest court.

At Tuesday’s campaign kick-off at the Jokers’ Wild Casino in Missoula—and no, there was no explanation of the significance for that particular choice of venue—Natelson repeated many of the same themes that have made him a popular figure among Montana conservatives: fiscal conservatism, reduction or elimination of many government regulations, more school choice for Montana families, reform of the judicial system, opposition to gun control, and reclaiming power from Washington policymakers. Natelson was especially outspoken against President Clinton’s decision to designate 55 million acres of public land as permanently roadless areas.

“I don’t see that decision by the Administration as an environmental decision at all,” Natelson says. “What it is is an issue of whether Montanans and Westerners will have control over their own future, or whether that control will be established by a lame-duck president or by unelected folks in Washington, D.C.”

Natelson added that he sent a letter to the president inviting him to come to Montana to explain that decision, and said he would go so far as to challenge Clinton’s decision with a federal lawsuit if need be. As yet, he has received no response.

On the subject of economic development, Natelson repeated a popular refrain among Missoula conservatives, that government has created an environment unfriendly to the business community through one of the highest income tax rates in the nation, as well as a punitive capital gains rate and high tax rate on business equipment.

“What we find over time is that the level of wages follows the level of capital investment very, very closely, and this occurs if you’ve got a minimum wage law or not,” says Natelson. “Ultimately, I think that when you’re dealing with living wage ordinances, it has the unfortunate effect of dealing with the symptoms rather than the causes. If we raise capital investment in Montana, we will raise wages.”

Natelson was less specific on ways of increasing the quality of Montana’s educational system. He acknowledged that the opportunities for teachers to improve their professional skills are poor in Montana and favors school choice for families, though he opposes the idea of school vouchers, saying they are inappropriate for Montana’s needs.

“There has been a definite slippage in some student achievement indicators over the last 20 years versus the rest of the country,” says Natelson, pointing to a recent report that shows Montana has lower SAT and ACT scores relative to other states in our region.

“We can develop structures where teachers are paid well, as well as they deserve, which is a lot, and where poor teachers are moved out of the system,” says Natelson, a professional educator. “We need to move away from a system where everybody is paid the same not matter how well he or she teaches.”

Not surprisingly, a disproportionate number of Natelson’s supporters in the room were members of the Centrum Silver set, i.e., retired ranchers, loggers and other kind-faced seniors. Nevertheless, if the claim made by Natelson’s finance director, Missoula resident Susan Reneau, is correct—that his is the fastest growing gubernatorial campaign in terms of dollar contributions—then Natelson will be a vigorous force worth watching. Besides, you can’t beat AM talk radio when it comes to juicy quotes.

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