Ochenski: Oh, what a tangled web 

The problems of bipartisanship

When Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brian Schweitzer launched his novel statewide search for a running mate, people speculated that it was nothing more than a clever ploy to garner attention. Sure enough, in the months that followed, Schweitzer milked the “search” for bits of press here and there as various potential running mates were interviewed. Last week, the speculation ended when Schweitzer announced he had decided to pick Sen. John Bohlinger of Billings to fill the slot. Bohlinger, however, is a Republican—and that’s causing more than a few problems.

Right out of the chute, many are finding it simply unbelievable that Schweitzer could search the entire state of Montana and not find a single Democrat he thought worthy of filling the post of lieutenant governor. Considering the pounding that Democrats have endured at the hands of the Republican majorities for the last decade, Schweitzer’s decision to pick a Republican as his running mate is a bitter pill to swallow.

But the problems don’t end there.

When Schweitzer’s choice was announced to the press, Bohlinger told reporters he did not intend to switch parties, would remain a Republican, and was quoted as saying, “I hope the people in the Republican Party don’t have this perception that I’m running against them.”

Although John Bohlinger is a good and honorable man, and perhaps the single most progressive Republican in the Senate’s majority of decidedly un-progressive Republicans, it’s tough to figure out how he could possibly think he could run as a candidate on a Democrat gubernatorial ticket and not run against his fellow Republicans.

But the problems don’t end there.

Before Bohlinger can run against those Republican colleagues of his, he and Schweitzer have to win the Demo primary race. Given Schweitzer’s long run of statewide fundraising and organizing, there is little doubt that he is considered the top dog in the Demo primary. But according to those who know election law, it will be impossible for Bohlinger to become the Democratic party’s nominee for lieutenant governor unless he changes parties and becomes a Democrat.

Montana’s law says each person must file a declaration with the Secretary of State prior to certification as a candidate. Specifically, the law says that in primary races, “each candidate for governor shall file a joint declaration for nomination with a candidate for lieutenant governor (MCA 13-10-201).” Further, the same law goes on to state: “The declaration, when filed, is conclusive evidence that the elector is a candidate for nomination by the elector’s party.”

Given that Bohlinger is required to file with Schweitzer as a team, and that the law says such filing “is conclusive evidence that the elector (Bohlinger) is a candidate for nomination by the elector’s party,” it seems impossible that either Schweitzer or Bohlinger could doubt that Bohlinger must switch party affiliation to run in the primary in which they hope to become the Demo Party’s nominees for the general election.

But the problems don’t end there.

The guy with whom Bohlinger must file, Secretary of State Bob Brown, also happens to be a Republican, and also happens to be a candidate for governor. In Brown’s mind, at least, there seems to be no question that Bohlinger must become a Democrat to run with Schweitzer. “His decision to switch parties does not surprise me,” Brown told reporters, and then went on to say that he wished Bohlinger had consulted him before choosing Schweitzer.

Bohlinger, you see, is a sitting Republican senator with two years left in his four-year term. If he has to change parties to file, and if the Schweitzer/Bohlinger team is successful in their bid for the governor’s office, that means Bohlinger will have to resign his senate seat. And that means it will be the Democrats who pick his replacement and thus, without the hassle of an election, wind up taking a precious senate seat away from the Republicans—which very well may tip the balance of the majority in what is expected to be a tight election year. And if he loses, does he return to the Senate as a Republican or a Democrat?

But the problems don’t end there.

If Bohlinger has to change parties and run as a Democrat, there is also the issue of sales tax, which Bohlinger supports and has sponsored legislation to enact. The Demo party platform, however, is pretty straightforward on the sales tax, which most Democrats consider to be regressive: “The Montana Democratic Party strongly opposes a general sales tax.” Oddly enough, the only other entry in the Demo primary race for governor, John Vincent of Bozeman, is also supporting a sales tax. Although Schweitzer doesn’t say he supports a sales tax, he has said he wants to leave all of the options open.

Billings businessman Pat Davison, a candidate for governor in the Republican primary, says he will not support any new taxes, including the sales tax the Republicans have coveted for so many decades, but which Montana’s voters have repeatedly rejected.

So, in a truly Faustian twist of political irony, come the general election Montanans may well be faced with pro-sales-tax Democrats running against no-sales-tax Republicans, completely flipping the traditional party positions. Given the crushing burden of runaway utility bills heaped on their bottom-of-the-barrel wages, how many Montanans do you figure are anxious to support any new tax?

But the problems don’t end there.

Bohlinger has also supported using the Coal Tax Trust Fund to pay for ongoing government services, something the Republicans have tried to do since the Trust was first established, and which, except for the Democrats, they would have accomplished long ago. Is it conceivable that the Democrats would now put a Coal Trust buster a mere heartbeat away from the governor’s office?

Schweitzer’s choice of a Republican running mate may prove to be a canny way to weave the web that catches our votes. But for now, it is a tangled web, indeed.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent. Contact Ochenski: opinion@missoulanews.com

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