Ochenski: Head to head 

Primaries over—bring on the debates

Tuesday’s primary elections are over, with the winners celebrating their victories while the losers lick their wounds. The winnowing of the wheat from the chaff is done, and now Montanans will get to see just what those who would lead our state in the future have to say.

The race for our next governor will pit Secretary of State Bob Brown against Democrat challenger Brian Schweitzer. While there was little surprise that Schweitzer took the Demo primary, the Republican primary was a brutal battle, with four candidates battling for a single slot. Not in recent times have Montanans witnessed the normally cohesive Republicans go at each other like they did in the last six months.

Billings businessman Pat Davison emerged as the hand-picked Republican candidate shortly after a visit to the state by former Gov. Marc Racicot and Vice President Dick Cheney. In times past, Racicot’s nod of approval would have sealed the deal—after all, it was his support for Judy Martz that carried her far above her capabilities and into the governor’s office. But in this go-around, Racicot’s magic didn’t work.

Davison found himself challenged from both the moderate side of the debate by Brown and from the hard-core conservative side by former state senators Tom Keating of Billings and Ken Miller of Laurel; neither had a real chance of winning their party’s nomination, but both sucked votes away from Davison.

The game got nasty when Brown and Davison went after each other over the ethics of their campaigns. Davison filed a complaint alleging Brown was misusing public funds and his office for campaign purposes. Meanwhile, Brown’s supporters dealt a huge blow to the Davison campaign by alleging that Davison’s running mate did not meet Montana residency requirements.

In the end, the Commissioner of Political Practices wound up deciding Davison’s complaints against Brown’s campaign were unjustified. Unfortunately for Davison, the same conclusion was not reached on his running mate, former Glacier Park superintendent Dave Mihalic. Noting that Mihalic had filed California income taxes, the Commissioner’s office upheld the complaint that Mihalic did not meet the residency requirements and ruled him ineligible to run on the ticket with Davison.

There’s no doubt that the ruling hurt the Davison campaign, as many Republicans wondered whether their party would have no candidate in the general election if Davison won the primary. Although some have said Davison could have negated the ruling by having Mihalic re-file his income taxes in Montana, Davison doggedly ignored such suggestions, clinging to “legal advice” he had received that apparently assured him Mihalic’s candidacy would pass muster.

While the rulings, which came just days before the election, threw the Republicans into disarray, it is more likely that the cluster of candidates—and not the residency issue—tipped the election to Brown. Although neither Keating nor Miller stood any chance of winning their party’s nomination, both refused to drop out of the race and toss their conservative support to Davison. And so, even though Brown had refused to sign the “no new taxes pledge” that seems a litmus test for Republican candidates, he carried a plurality of the vote.

On the Demo side, former Speaker of the House John Vincent came late to the gubernatorial race, but ran a good, issues-oriented campaign that did little to hurt Schweitzer’s overall standing. While the Republicans were tearing at each other’s throats, the Democrat candidates generally agreed on most issues and were supportive of each other. Had Vincent entered the campaign a year or even six months earlier, the outcome may have been closer. But Schweitzer, who has literally been campaigning across Montana non-stop since he first challenged U.S. Senator Conrad Burns almost four years ago, had built a broad and active political base.

Now, Montanans will get the chance to see what happens in the Brown v. Schweitzer match, and that’s where it’s going to get interesting. Brown augmented his own considerable knowledge of state government by picking Dave Lewis as his running mate. Lewis served as budget director for both Democrat and Republican governors before becoming a legislator and is widely held to be one of the most knowledgeable people in the state when it comes to the complex intricacies of the state’s $6 billion biennial budget.

Schweitzer, while full of ideas, has no practical experience in how state government actually works. He has covered this weakness, in part, by picking John Bohlinger as his running mate. Having served in both the House and Senate, Bohlinger brings the hands-on experience to the campaign that Schweitzer lacks. While the main theme of Schweitzer’s campaign has been that he is “listening to Montanans,” the time has now come for him to explain in detail where he would take the state and how he is going to get it there.

Right out of the chute, Brown says he wants to tap the state’s Coal Trust to invest in Montana infrastructure and create thousands of new jobs. It would be great if this was a new idea, but this same concept has been floating around the Legislature almost every session for the last 20 years—and has yet to muster the votes necessary to significantly tap the Trust. Schweitzer, on the other hand, believes the Trust is one of Montana’s best assets and opposes tapping it for ongoing expenses of general government.

Given the recent District Court decision on school funding, it’s likely both campaigns are going to have to come up with a workable plan to raise significant new revenue—perhaps as much as $300 million annually—while neither campaign should count on outgoing Gov. Martz’ budget, since it will likely be as full of holes as her last budget.

Fixing Montana’s fiscal situation will be tough. Given the quality of the candidates seeking to lead our state, however, nothing would be better than a series of stimulating debates to give Montanans a chance to fully weigh their options.

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 opinion@missoulanews.com.

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