Looking beyond the presidential race to find change in Montana

By now you’ve heard the refrain: This election is all about change. It’s about a change from the leadership of the past eight years, a change away from partisan bickering and a change that rises above divisive campaign politics. With the recent economic crisis, mounting energy needs and the ongoing war in Iraq, it’s also about an inevitable change in how we operate and thrive as a country. More immediately, if things continue to go as the polls suggest, it’s about a historic change in the election of the nation’s first black president.

We get it. Lots of change. But how much of that change will trickle down to Montana? All three of the major offices in play at the top of our ballot are virtual non-races, with popular incumbents—Gov. Brian Schweitzer, Sen. Max Baucus and Rep. Denny Rehberg—facing middling to laughable competition. We expect to see very little change there.

That leaves the so-called down-ticket races to get excited about, and, perhaps, to usher in some of that change that we keep hearing about. With that in mind, we’ve dug into some of the statewide and regional elections, and offered—after considerable debate, candidate interviews, and more debate—our endorsements. And in some cases, we’ve chimed in on races we’ve never cared to touch before. See? That’s the sort of change we’re talking about.

Governor/Lt. Governor

When Brian Schweitzer declared a new day for Montana four years ago, expectations couldn’t have been higher for the state’s first Democratic governor since the 1980s. Since entering Helena with boundless energy, a showman’s flair, a Republican lieutenant governor, a sneakily involved brother and, of course, his trusty border collie, Jag, Schweitzer has largely succeeded. The state has operated under a budget surplus, thousands of new jobs were created, taxes have remained low, four new wind farms—with more in the works—sprang up across the state, and educational spending increased across the board. Those are just a few of Schweitzer’s accomplishments; hand him a microphone and he’ll surely rattle off more.

That’s the thing—the Schweitzer spiel comes with a few drawbacks. His gregarious ways have caused him trouble, most recently with his “joking” remarks about rigging the 2006 election for buddy Jon Tester. He’s also been rightly labeled a bully by the Republican Party, someone who strong-arms opponents, is difficult to work with and sometimes breaks the rules to get his way, as was the case with brother Walter’s influence early in his governorship. Then there’s the fact that he often tours out of state, ostensibly recruiting new businesses to Montana while appearing on every talk show with an audience above a dozen. His Hollywood appeal landed him a prime time spot at the Democratic National Convention in August and now has Schweitzer short-listed for various cabinet positions should Obama win the presidency. (Schweitzer claims he’s not interested.)   

We’re sort of over the jeans-and-bolo-tie routine and wish he’d work more constructively with the legislature, but we can live with those aspects. We’re more concerned with Schweitzer’s blanket claim of “more of the same” in his second term. Even he can admit there’s room for improvement.

For starters, Schweitzer has to fix the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. The agency has been rife with managerial problems throughout his tenure and has hurt the Democratic governor’s claim of protecting Montana’s vast natural resources. On a similar note, we’re clearly not sold on Schweitzer’s main energy issue: clean coal. While we like what he’s done with alternative resources like wind power, we fear this half-baked plan will get us all burned.

That said, Schweitzer and John Bohlinger clearly deserve a second term. Their opponents, former Republican legislator Roy Brown and his running mate, Steve Daines, mounted a solid campaign that smartly attacked some of Schweitzer’s weaker points, and we appreciate that sort of healthy constructive criticism. But Brown, known as “Big Oil Roy” to some, comes from a background in the oil business and raised substantial cash this election from the oil industry. That’s not the sort of change the Indy can support.

Endorsement: Schweitzer.

U.S. Senate

It’s hard for anyone to take this race seriously. Perennial candidate Bob Kelleher, 85, has run campaigns across the state for nearly four decades in hopes of pushing an agenda based on a parliamentary form of government. He regularly speaks of a nonviolent revolution to overthrow our 232-year-old republic, and believes a parliament would have avoided mistakes like Vietnam.  
After Kelleher improbably won a crowded Republican primary earlier this year, the GOP relegated him to a side room at their state convention. Even they have trouble seeing him as anything but a sideshow.

In the absence of a legitimate contender, we endorse Max Baucus. Montana’s senior senator is far from our ideal legislator, but his ranking as chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance makes him one of Washington’s biggest power brokers. That means bringing federal money to Montana, which Baucus touts at more than $8 billion in the last 10 years alone.

We still shake our heads at some of Baucus’ votes, such as his support of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (a blow to the Fourth Amendment). But his work in Libby, his vote to halt Medicare cuts and his promise to make health care his first priority in 2009 are enough to make Max okay with us for another term.

Endorsement: Baucus.

U.S. Representative

We enjoyed meeting Democratic nominee John Driscoll during this election and found him to be a decent man with earnest intentions. His record of service, as a 28-year veteran of the National Guard, a state legislator and a member of the Public Service Commission, is commendable. And we admire his passion for running a campaign truly about change, going so far as to not raise or spend a single penny in his bid to win this race.

But a candidate must demonstrate solid leadership throughout a campaign, and that includes showing at least some evidence that you actually want the position you’re running for.

Driscoll’s no-budget pledge was cute and his steadfast commitment to it noble. We’re willing to respect his purist mentality. But what we can’t wrap our heads around is Driscoll’s promise to vote for Denny Rehberg if his opponent held firm in voting against the $700 billion bailout bill. That blunder begat another, when Driscoll explained to us that, basically, if his wife were home when he thought up the idea of the promise, he may not have said it. That attempt at a folksy spin didn’t exactly assuage our doubts about Driscoll’s abilities if he made it to Washington. We can’t assume his wife would be present for every one of his tough decisions.

Then there’s Rehberg. There’s no question the Republican stalwart has carved himself a considerably cushy niche in Washington as Montana’s only voice in the House of Representatives. But his four terms have also included blind support of the Bush administration, a pattern of flip-flopped votes (Cuba, Real ID, children’s health care, etc.) and a consistently offensive view on gay rights. With that last point—something that’s bothered us since he used gay marriage and religious division as wedge issues late in an already decided 2004 campaign—he reminded us of his appalling views by sending a “gay gift bag” earlier this year to Congressman Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, which included a Village People CD, a book on cross-dressing and a T-shirt that read, “My Senator may not be gay, but my Governor is Butch.”

Despite Rehberg’s record and views, we’re not sure we can responsibly endorse Driscoll or long-shot Libertarian Mike Fellows. And that’s a shame because it would have been nice to have a more serious competitor hold the incumbent accountable for his actions.

That leaves us without a solid choice. Again. For the second time in three elections, we have decided not to endorse in the race for Montana’s sole representative.

Endorsement: None.

Public Service Commission

This choice should be a no-brainer for Montanans. We’re in the corner of well-known Missoula resident and former Democratic legislator Gail Gutsche.  

Gutsche’s record is clear and, most importantly for Montana’s future, green. Conservation, alternative and renewable energy, and maintaining a clean and healthful environment have long been her answer to our energy problems. Environmental advocates favor Gutsche’s voting record across the board.  

Likewise, her record on supporting human rights and care of Montana’s citizens is unblemished. Since the PSC oversees the Universal System Benefits Program that helps out
an increasing number of Montanans struggling
to pay their heating bills and funds weatherization, efficiency, conservation and renewable energy projects, it’s imperative to have commissioners who espouse both conservation and
compassion. That would be Gutsche, hands down.

We’re not feeling Doug Mood. If you like what deregulation did to your utility bill and, most recently, your IRA, then cast your ballot for the incumbent Republican who voted for utility deregulation as a state representative in 1997. Mood thinks global cooling, not warming, is the real problem and, according to his campaign website, says we may have “to release enormous floods of methane [a potent greenhouse gas] from the hydrates under the Arctic permafrost and on the continental shelves, perhaps using nuclear weapons to destabilise (sic) the deposits.”  No, we’re not making this up. It’s all there at Mood makes this an easy decision.

Endorsement: Gutsche.

Chief Justice

The race for Chief Justice is, for good reason, a non-partisan affair.

That almost seems an unnatural consideration this election season because one candidate for the bench, current attorney General Mike McGrath, embodies the Montana Democratic Party as much as anyone short of Schweitzer. Yet, both McGrath and his opponent, Helena attorney Ron Waterman, would be regarded as liberal in their political leanings. Both also appear well qualified to take a judgeship in the state’s highest court. Considering the circumstances, we defer to history, where we have major qualms with a counter-progressive streak in each candidate.

In 2005, Waterman helped Canyon Resources sue the state over its refusal to allow the corporation to build an open-pit cyanide heap leach mine in the Blackfoot River watershed. McGrath, meanwhile, has taken an adversarial stance to Montana media and watchdog groups trying to uncover alleged misdeeds by public officials.

If McGrath were campaigning against Waterman in defense of his current AG position, we would consider the first of these two concerns with greater weight due to the office’s role in enforcing environmental damage liability. However, we feel the constitutional issue of open government—especially pertaining to official and police misconduct—constitutes a more significant issue facing the Montana Supreme Court. (Major environmental lawsuits are almost always based on federal law and, as a result, appear in federal court.)

On the other hand, we appreciate Waterman’s active involvement with the Montana Freedom of Information Hotline. We also appreciate his genuine interest in getting Montana on the right side of the death penalty debate and his dedication to pursue justice even after a case has run its natural course. Most of all, we’re less wary of his ability to dutifully execute the position for which he aspires. Going from AG to head of the Supreme Court proves a troublesome progression, as McGrath would preside over some cases he himself instigated as a Justice official—a possible conflict of interest.

Various endorsements of Waterman from the Montana legal community paint him as a pure legal scholar. We agree, and for that reason he earns our endorsement.

Endorsement: Waterman.

County Commissioner

Listening to the commissioner candidates speak, it’s obvious that both Larry Anderson and Michele Landquist are keenly aware of one consideration on the minds of independent voters: balance.

Until someone sees fit to correct it, Missoula County’s directing board consists of just three seats. With such a small representative body holding the reins over growth issues in a booming county, voters must remain vigilant in maintaining political balances. Let a majority of no-growth or pave-the-way cohorts gain control and the region either becomes a confederation of overpriced bedroom communities or a terrarium for leap-frog developers.

This particular board spot is important for two reasons. First, Commissioners Bill Carey and Jean Curtiss are, for good or ill, prototypical gentile, urban Missoula Democrats. Second, Barbara Evans, who stepped down from her position in 2007 after serving on it since the Civil War (which we’re convinced she found a way to fight in), was anything but. Before retiring, the pugnacious Republican handpicked Anderson to succeed her and we know balance was a consideration then.

It still is today. Ultimately, balance is why we think Anderson proves the more appropriate candidate.

Voters may look at the incumbent’s experience as a more compelling reason to vote for him. Frankly, we consider that a wash. Although Anderson’s resume gives him greater command over the issues than his challenger, some history proves equally detracting. Staunchly conservative views defined his single term on the Missoula City Council and likely prompted
his campaign involvement with the less-than-savory Denny Rehberg and the unsavory Conrad Burns. Landquist brings none of that baggage to the table, but doesn’t bring much else either.

Part of the thing that made these deliberations so difficult is that balance is not merely a concern of party affiliation. We regret, for example, that Evans’ departure left the county’s rural sphere without a supporter on the commission. However, just because Landquist hails from Lolo rather than Lolo Street doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll represent the interests of Frenchtowners or Clintonites any more than the two sitting Democratic commissioners. Anderson, on the other hand, very clearly counterbalances Carey and Curtiss as a fiscal
conservative and a friend of business interests.

We like Landquist’s fresh take on transportation and land planning, and would like to see her involved in future local races. Yet, in this election, we fear that ticket might create an unhealthy homogeny. We know who Anderson stands for and, while we might not always like where that places him on issues, we believe the business community deserves a voice in a time of unprecedented growth.
Endorsement: Anderson.

Constitutional Amendment 44

Sometimes, reality trumps perception. In the case of CA 44, the reality of the recent stock market dive has pulled the rug out from under free market ideologues who see risk as opportunity and economic failure as rough justice. Their oversimplified worldview ignores the peril that alternately greedy-then-panicked markets pose to social stability and long-term prosperity.

Not that CA 44 represents an outrageous proposition. It’s actually a pretty modest, bi-partisan proposal advanced by the state legislature to allow up to 25 percent of some significant state funds, including the public schools’ money, to go into the stock market.  The proposed cap on the amount of stock the funds can hold limits the downside, but we don’t like the suggestion that our school system should take on more financial risk in order to maximize returns. The authors of the state constitution recognized the paramount importance of government stability, and that’s why they strictly prohibited the kind of investments this amendment contemplates.

With the ruinous potential for global financial failure staring us right in the face, voters should acknowledge their desire for reassuring consistency from public institutions, especially during times of crisis, and vote against CA 44.

Endorsement: Against Constitutional Amendment 44.

Referendum 118

(6-mill levy)
Perhaps the vociferous opposition to this once-a-decade, 6-mill state property tax levy that helps support the state’s university system shouldn’t surprise us. Montana, after all, has historically done a poor job of supporting higher education.

Montana ranks 47th nationally in state support for students. Until four years ago, the state paid 37 percent of the university funding, leaving students to pay the rest. That was raised to 40 percent with the help of the 2007 Legislature and Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who also froze tuition for two years. It’s still not enough, but continuing the 6-mill levy at least ensures we don’t move backward.

The 6-mill levy, which has been in effect since 1948, would raise $13.4 million a year and distribute it to 11 campuses statewide. That works out to just a fraction of the system’s $200 million annual budget, but when the bucket’s not very deep, every drop counts. In other words, if the 6-mill levy doesn’t pass, we’d be asking students to shoulder even higher tuition than they already pay. We think that’s a bad option.

Opponents claim this vote is an opportunity to hold the university system accountable for poor spending habits, such as the “island resort” owned by the University of Montana on Salmon Lake and UM’s controversial Inland Northwest Space Alliance program. Better oversight of the Board of Regents and university administrators is a great idea, but this isn’t the appropriate arena to pick that fight.

This vote will impact students first and they deserve affordable tuition at Montana’s state universities. That’s why we vote for the 6-mill levy.

Endorsement: For Referendum 118.

Initiative 155

We can’t think of any reason not to vote in favor of I-155, otherwise known as the Healthy Montana Kids Plan. The program, authored by State Auditor John Morrison, extends government-funded health coverage to as many as 30,000 uninsured kids in low- and moderate-income families. As it was described to us, I-155 essentially puts a “new storefront” on the existing Children’s Health Insurance Plan (CHIP) and Medicaid, making it easier for qualified families to enroll in coverage.

Skeptics wonder if the state can afford to pay for the plan. We think that’s hogwash considering the current budget surplus. Plus, every dollar spent by Montana taxpayers will be matched with $3 or $4 from the federal government.

With Montana currently holding one of the highest rates of uninsured kids in the nation, we think I-155 deserves approval.
Endorsement: For Initiative 155.

Emergency Operations Center Bond

One doesn’t require psychic talents to detect the air of uneasiness surrounding Missoula County’s campaign to finance a long-awaited Emergency Operations Center. County officials are nervous for good reason—the need for the facility proves real enough, but trying to float a $16 million bond now appears cursed by poor timing.

Still, is the economic climate really bad enough to deny something that’s been on the county’s wish list for more than a decade? Not to fill the stereotypical role as alarmist media, but yes, it is.

We’ll begin by giving credit where credit is due: Missoula County administrators did right by the public in planning ahead for infrastructure needs and trying to finance this project without taking a bond. Of course, those intentions hit the scrap pile when construction costs skyrocketed over the first half of the decade. The county, impressively, still managed to muster more than $8 million of the $23.5 million price tag through land sales and grants. Kudos on that, as well as on the effort to pare down the project earlier in the year when the economy began to falter.

Who would have guessed when the item received ballot approval Aug. 6 that things would dissolve so quickly? But, alas, that’s the case.

Over the course of this 20-year loan, Missoula County taxpayers can expect to pay somewhere in the ballpark of $25 million for the capital to get the facility built. We would be remiss not to note that all estimates depend on interest rates that seem more difficult to lock in now than at the end of the summer. Ideally, homeowners could expect to see a $27.82 annual increase on the tax bill of a $200,000 house beginning in 2010.

Advocates of the bond—particularly Sheriff Mike McMeekin and Bob Reid,  the county’s director of emergency services—argue that the costs of building the facility
will only increase by waiting. They also effectively make the case that the current facilities for both departments prove woefully inadequate. In fact, we encourage voters to go down to the county building and see it for themselves.

That being said, we don’t agree that this facility is appropriately priced for these economic times. At roughly $450 per square foot, it’s downright expensive. We also do not buy that the scant revenue it can expect to draw as a training facility for emergency response agencies will even begin to mitigate the massive costs of construction. Finally, we’re uneasy about authorizing further capital spending for prisons and police when county schools and health services face just as great a need. Why does the law constantly get moved to the front of the bread line?

These are all things we could be convinced to see past, but it’s hard to see past anything when looking down the precipice of a recession.

Under the circumstances, we think Missoula County must wait for its Emergency Operations Center.

Endorsement: Against Emergency Operations Center Bond.

Why the Land Board matters

Here’s a free civics lesson in Montana politics: The most powerful body in the state isn’t a committee of either the House or the Senate. Nope, it’s the Land Board—a five-member panel of the executive branch’s top ranking elected officials that reigns supreme over land-use issues in the state with more public turf than any other in the Lower 48. Why is that a big deal? Consider logging contracts, public land banking, road easements, land trusts and, most importantly, water rights. The governor, secretary of state, attorney general, superintendent of public instruction and state auditor make the calls on all of these important issues.

Whether or not you give a crap about public schools or insurance industry regulation, it’s worthwhile to consider how the candidates for those spots might affect the political balance of the Land Board. This election season, three Land Board commissioners are up for reelection for two spots, so 2009 will feature at least three new faces.

Attorney General

One of the state’s more contentious fights pits veteran Republican Tim Fox against boyish Democrat Steve Bullock. The race heated up in recent weeks as Fox filled airwaves with ads attacking Bullock on everything from living on the East Coast to being soft on the Second Amendment, a claim Bullock calls untrue. Bullock, meanwhile, took the high road with a television spot that simply trumps his environmental record and experience with the Montana Department of Justice; Bullock never even mentions his opponent. It’s a classy tactic by the better candidate.

We like Bullock, a Helena lawyer, for a number of reasons. At the top of the list has to be his experience defending the state’s stream-access law in front of the Montana Supreme Court. When a conservative Colorado firm sued the state in 1997, Bullock, who was working as chief deputy under Attorney General Joe Mazurek, defended the public’s access to rivers and streams, regardless of who owns the land abutting the water. It was one of four cases Bullock tried in front of the Montana Supreme Court.
As for the claim that he’s soft on gun rights, we can’t find any evidence of it. If anything, Bullock has gone out of his way to clearly explain his stance on the issues, including gun rights, while Fox has resorted to partisan punches. 

Fox, also a Helena lawyer, has practiced law longer than Bullock, but his track record is not nearly as impressive. He first entered public service in 1990 when recruited to develop a new environmental regulatory program for the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation, and was later hired by then-Gov. Marc Racicot to work in the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. He later went into the private sector after DEQ passed him over for a permanent position.

Fox has run his campaign mainly on stereotypical Montana issues like gun rights, punishing sex offenders and capital punishment. In each case, he unjustly slams his opponent’s views on the issues. The only problem is Bullock’s views are not much different from Fox’s, and, when they are, it’s usually because Bullock has simply deduced that the scope of the argument extends beyond the role of attorney general. Bullock understands the position and we think has the necessary experience to succeed.

Endorsement: Bullock.

Superintendent of Public Instruction

Denise Juneau is the clear choice for Superintendent of Public Instruction. A Montana native, Juneau attended the Montana public school and university system before going on to earn her masters at the Harvard School of Education. She then returned to Montana, taught K-12 and received a law degree at the University of Montana before becoming a Montana Supreme Court Clerk for Justices Jim Regnier and Brian Morris. Her current job is division administrator in the Office of Public Instruction, an office she should now lead.

We find Juneau, both through education and experience, to be thoroughly familiar with virtually every aspect of education, from the classroom to the laws to the legislative budgeting process where her mother, state Sen. Carol Juneau, led the fight to fund Montana’s constitutionally mandated Indian Education for All.

We think it’s neat that Republican Elaine Sollie Herman tried to raffle off her 1975 El Camino to help her campaign, but when it comes to experience the former schoolteacher and financial advisor doesn’t pass. We’d rather put our children’s futures in more capable hands.

Endorsement: Juneau.

State Auditor

For us, this race comes down to one thing: regulation.

The auditor serves as the watchdog for the citizens of Montana when it comes to the insurance and securities industries. Republican Duane Grimes believes private markets should help drive down costs and that the insurance industry can offer more products and choices to consumers with less regulation. Democrat Monica Lindeen believes current regulation is working and that safeguards are in place for good reason.

When it comes to Land Board issues, the candidates’ differences are less clear. Grimes aggressively calls for development of state-owned coal in the Otter Creek Valley and is a champion of more natural resource development. Lindeen is more inclined to punt on the subject, siding with the current board’s decision to see the Otter Creek appraisal in 2009 and, based on market value and public comments, make a decision then. In general, she admits she “needs time to learn more” about some of the board’s issues.

Frankly, neither candidate wows us in regards to the Land Board. Lindeen strikes us as dangerously noncommittal and Grimes strikes us as simply dangerous. But when it comes to the auditor’s main responsibilities, we agree with Lindeen’s bent toward regulation. She gets our nod. 

Endorsement: Lindeen.

Secretary of State

This race decides Montana’s top elections officer and includes Republican incumbent Brad Johnson, Democrat Linda McCulloch (the current state superintendent) and Sieglinde Sharbono, a long-shot Constitutional Party candidate who wants to refuse to certify any election she doesn’t like. Um, we’re not endorsing Sharbono.

The question comes down to McCulloch or Johnson. While McCulloch has made a big issue over Johnson’s handling of the 2006 election, we aren’t willing to make that a deal-breaker. Johnson oversaw the first election where voter registration was allowed right up until polls closed on Election Day. The fact this included some hitches should be expected. Overall, Johnson’s office did an admirable job.

For us, this race comes down to how each candidate would vote on the Land Board and we’re not excited about either. Johnson has the board’s worst attendance—he’s missed six meetings in just over three years—and he pushed hardest for moving the board to develop coal in Otter Creek. McCulloch also champions the Otter Creek development and has been consistently in favor of selling old growth lumber. Neither stands out enough in this race to earn our endorsement.

Endorsement: None.   

Ravalli and Flathead issues

Ravalli County: Referendum to Repeal the Growth Policy

Most of the recent conversation surrounding this referendum involves allegations of rampant campaign violations and state elections officials having to step in to investigate. The issue at hand: whether to repeal the county’s controversial growth policy.

The vitriol makes sense considering the Bitterroot’s rapid growth. Property rights activists want the policy repealed, saying it stymies development—and jobs—in the region. Supporters of land-use regulations argue the growth policy helps prevent the sort of rampant development that could harm the area’s pristine surroundings.

We don’t see how the growth policy harms smart, sustainable development within Ravalli County. It’s exactly the sort of community-involved plan that voters should embrace, with appropriate checks and balances throughout the process. In fact, the long-range plan was adopted in 2002 by a citizen panel and reviewed in public hearings, then reaffirmed by a 2004 countywide vote. We think voters should again support the policy.

Endorsement: Against repealing the growth policy.

Flathead County: Open Space Bond

If any part of western Montana needs to protect our region’s best attribute, it’s rapidly growing Flathead County. This $10 million bond would go toward purchasing “working lands and land for protecting clean water and recreational access.” Considering the amount of development in the Flathead—the county is home to three of Montana’s fastest growing cities—we would normally find this to be money well spent.

But the main question for voters comes down to whether the bond makes sense in the current economic climate. Over the next 20 years, the bond will cost taxpayers roughly $19 a year. That’s in line with a similar bond passed two years ago in Missoula County by a wide margin. But this isn’t two years ago.

We support open space and have endorsed it in the past, but we believe this ballot measure should sit on the shelf until the financial markets justify selling such a large bond. Bigger problems could be waiting for taxpayers down the road.

Endorsement: Against the Open Space Bond.
  • Email
  • Favorite
  • Print

Speaking of Features

Tags: ,

Today | Thu | Fri | Sat | Sun | Mon | Tue
Teach Children How To Code

Teach Children How To Code @ Imagine Nation Brewing Co.

Wed., Oct. 18, 5:30-7 p.m.

All of today's events | Staff Picks

© 2017 Missoula News/Independent Publishing | Powered by Foundation