Bloggers for governor: Helena teachers aim bytes at Schweitzer

This week brings us news that two Helena bloggers, who are teachers in their professional lives, have decided to jump into the Democratic primary race against incumbent governor Brian Schweitzer. Rumors are flying hot and heavy about how this all came about, especially at such a late date, but whether the bloggers run a real campaign or not, one thing is assured—giving Schweitzer a primary opponent means he gets to keep about a quarter million bucks in campaign contributions that would otherwise have to go back to donors.

Don Pogreba, a 36-year-old high school teacher and one-time Carroll College assistant debate coach, says he’ll be filing for governor with his 34-year old pal and running mate Jason Neiffer, who also teaches high school. Both men grew up and went to college in Montana and say they represent the views of working people living on teachers’ salaries with the same financial concerns of most Montanans.

Those familiar with Montana’s blogging community will recognize Pogreba as the main man on his Intelligent Discontent blog (http://intelligentdiscontent.com), where the banner reads: “Serving Up Snark Since 2005.” I’m not exactly sure what a snark is, but according to Wikipedia, it could be a fictional animal from Lewis Carroll’s 1876 story “The Hunting of the Snark,” or a type of graph, an intercontinental nuclear cruise missile, a lightweight sailboat, a bug-like species of alien, or a race of fictional aliens from Marvel Comics, among other things.

If you go to the blog, you might even find those snarks somewhere, but for sure you’ll find plenty of discussion and dissection of Montana’s political scene with a heavy emphasis on progressives over, say, Republicans. In a recent post, Pogie (Pogreba’s blogger identity), whacks Republican gubernatorial candidate Roy Brown right between the eyes over the lack of discussion about education issues on Brown’s campaign website.

Instead of talking about school funding issues, which are once again back in court, or mentioning teacher salaries, school district consolidation, or cleaning out top-heavy administration, Brown’s big education proposal is this: “Roy will urge the Montana High School Association (MHSA) to establish tournaments of champions, so athletes in virtually all sports, and in all communities have a chance to perform and succeed on a higher level.”

It’s this kind of frustration with the current candidates for governor that motivated the two teachers to consider raising the bar by entering the race. And while they say Schweitzer has done “a great job” as governor compared to the Republicans before him, they also think the entire education debate would be well served by bringing it to the forefront of the campaign. If it’s just Schweitzer versus Brown, they say, “we’re not overwhelmingly optimistic there is going to be a great discussion of education in a general election campaign.” Because Roy Brown is so far to the right, Pogreba says he thinks it would be “good to engage Governor Schweitzer right now.”

Pogreba and Neiffer set up their own campaign website (www.pogrebaneiffer08.com) and, going straight to the issues, say Montana could come up with solid funding for education, do a better job with college prep courses in high schools, and provide better guidance on standards for teachers and students. Their campaign statement on quality education says they “are committed to ensuring that Montana’s students receive a fully funded, quality education, and that Montana’s taxpayers are certain that their tax dollars for education are spent efficiently on direct student instruction.” They also highlight educational technology, a clean environment and a strong economy for all.

These are good issues and good positions and, while I’ll admit to some initial skepticism over their motivation to run, it’s the kind of discussion that may bring more clarity and even some progress to the state’s ongoing debate over education. They also say they want to deepen the discussion on the environment and energy policy, which could make for some interesting debates with Schweitzer, who has been dubbed the “Coal Cowboy” by East Coast media and who’s concentrated on turning Montana into an energy colony for the nation.

Of course, most political watchers will say the teacher-bloggers have no chance whatsoever to unseat Schweitzer, who has already raised nearly a million dollars for his re-election bid. As Pogreba told reporters this week: “It’s certainly a long shot. But in a state that elected Conrad Burns three times, isn’t anything possible?” Like much of what you’ll find on his blog, Pogie’s got a point there, doesn’t he?

Despite the high spirits and positive energy the two have put forth so far, there remains an undercurrent of suspicion as to whether they are simply being used by the governor or the Demos to hang onto Schweitzer’s campaign stash. A quarter million bucks, after all, isn’t chicken feed, and giving it back would undoubtedly bring tears to the governor’s eyes.

On this point, Pogreba says both men came up with the decision on their own after thinking about it for months. There are plenty of whispers in political circles that it’s all a calculated sham. But even were it so, what do Montanans have to lose by bringing the issues of the Pogreba-Neiffer campaign into the media spotlight? Nothing, I’d suggest. Plus, since they obviously have a late start for the June primary and aren’t rolling in the six-figure range of donations, they intend to use their Internet skills to reach out to interested voters—a campaign plan that’s been increasingly successful nationwide.

We’ll see what ensues in the coming months, but they’ve already succeeded in catching the attention of the state—and in making history by being Montana’s first bloggers to run for the governor’s office.

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.
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