The Quiet Republican 

In 1995, Bob Brown thought he was done with politics. Now he's his party's best hope for the governor's office.

Keila Szpaller’s profile of Bob Brown is the first in the Independent’s two-part series on Montana’s gubernatorial candidates. Next week: Mike Keefe-Feldman on Brian Schweitzer.

The clerk behind the cash box at the Broken Arrow Casino and Steakhouse in Deer Lodge inadvertently lets one customer slip past her. Now, she needs to know whether he plans to have lunch, but she can only identify him as a man in a navy blue blazer. The man wearing the blue blazer is Bob Brown, current secretary of state, Republican candidate for governor and guest speaker at the Deer Lodge Rotary Club’s luncheon. Brown, 56 years old, stands roughly 5 feet 6 inches tall and wears beige trousers and the navy jacket with three gold buttons sewn on each sleeve. He wears no tie and his collar button remains undone. He stands in the buffet line in back of the room reserved for the lunch. It’s Sept. 29, and for the Brown campaign, it is Deer Lodge day. He will visit the sawmill and the prison, the two main industries in a town that has seen its population drop almost 10 percent in the past six years.

Lunch is roast beef and mashed potatoes. The cook slices a thick slab of the meat, slips it onto Brown’s plate and informs him that the beef was sliced only half as thickly when his opponent, Democrat Brian Schweitzer, visited. It probably isn’t true, but it is a gesture: Brown is in friendly territory, Powell County, where he earned almost twice as many votes in the primary as his closest opponent, Billings businessman Pat Davison.

About 35 people filter into the room. A head table is set with a lectern, a seat for Brown and seat for the Rotary host. Brown asks the host if it’s just the two of them sitting up there. It is. That seems fine with Brown. He stays there, either curbing the campaigner’s instinct to work the room or simply not having that instinct.

After lunch and an introduction, Brown stands behind the lectern. He opens with a lengthy joke about an old woman who sidesteps a speeding ticket; he himself, he explains, is not interested in being issued any tickets on the campaign trail. The audience, mostly 50 and older, laughs in all the right places. Then Brown launches into the meat of his talk. He mentions lowering taxes and increasing the number of taxpayers. He calls for more reliance on natural resources. His gesturing hands never rest on the lectern for long.

At the end of his talk, Brown takes questions. At first it is quiet, as if the governor-hopeful were again in the role of teacher—he taught for years in the Flathead Valley—and had asked for questions from a classroom full of unprepared students. Finally, one man asks Brown if he supports a sales tax. Yes, says Brown, a revenue-neutral sales tax that would help lower personal income taxes, and only if it was successfully put to a vote. The crowd warms up and the dialogue begins. There are questions about tourism, the cost of energy and property taxes.

One man lobs Brown an easy one: “What are the main differences between you and your opponent?” It’s juicy bait, a plump fly hanging in the air. There is the proverbial pregnant pause, the quiet audience eager and ready for a dig. With his opponent nowhere in sight—it isn’t a debate; the Republican nominee could sling mud with impunity—Brown smiles and chuckles. He doesn’t bite, though. “I’d let you be the judge of that,” he says.

Several factors collided to thrust Brown into the Republican nomination. Republicans realized early during the Judy Martz administration that the inexperienced governor was faltering and not likely to prevail if nominated for a second term. She had a pitifully low approval rating compared with her predecessor, Marc Racicot, who essentially appointed her. She made unprofessional slips, like her infamous promise to be a lapdog of industry.

Brown, in the secretary of state’s office, seemed to possess qualities antidotal to the Martz administration’s foibles. Beneath his belt he had 26 years of experience as a legislator and one term as secretary of state. He had earned a reputation as a bridge builder in the Senate and as someone who could reach “across the aisle.” Colleagues encouraged Brown to run. And while his friends say he did not express ambition to be the governor of Montana, he felt a sense of duty to public service.

One friend, Sen. Bruce Crippen, R-Billings, with whom he roomed for six sessions in Helena, explains. “It is in his blood. Anybody like that feels like they’re called.” Brown’s campaign manager and former student Jason Thielman agrees: “I think the conclusion Bob finally came to is that he had really spent his whole life preparing himself to be in a position to be a good governor for Montana.” Brown explains the realization as though it had surprised him: “I suppose if anybody has the background to do this and the interest to do this, and, I hope the ability to do this, it’s me.”

While Brown had accumulated the experience to run the governor’s office, a campaign posed challenges. Brown could not rely on the accomplishments of the Martz administration to carry him to victory, as Racicot’s weight had pushed the relatively unknown Martz to office. And Schweitzer, his rival, had almost unseated incumbent U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns in 2000 with little political experience but plenty of panache. Brown does not have a personality that rallies crowds and inspires masses—a concern among some Brown supporters who shudder at Schweitzer’s smile. To run for the governor’s office, Brown would have to build his campaign the old-fashioned way, on his résumé and experience.

Brown spent two years in the House, 23 in the Senate and his final year in the Legislature as president of the Senate. His political mentors include Jean Turnage, who spent 20 years in the Senate and subsequently 15 as chief justice of the Supreme Court before retiring in 1991.

“When he was there [in the Senate], Jean Turnage was probably the most powerful man in the state,” says Crippen.

“What [Turnage] wanted, he got,” he says. And Turnage didn’t get what he wanted by “playing power politics,” says Crippen. “He’s fair. He plays the game in the right way. He made friends.”

Brown seems fond of sharing one lesson Turnage taught him about being effective in the Senate: “Everybody is entitled to their say, but no one is entitled to their way.” Sen. Matt Himsl, R-Kalispell, another mentor, served in the Senate from 1973 to 1990. He was well spoken. Himsl could stand in front of the Senate, talking about the most partisan bill, says Crippen, but “the way he talked, you’d never know it.”

In the Senate, Brown moved up quickly. He became Senate education chairman in 1977 and served in that capacity through 1983. He served as chairman of the taxation committee in 1987. He became chairman of the committee on committees, one of the most innocuously named but powerful Senate committees, in 1989. He sat on the judicial committee from 1975 to 1993.

The same year, Rep. Jon Mercer, R-Polson, was president of the House. Historically, says Mercer, the House and the Senate were in disagreement and in competition. Members of the House believed that senators treated them as a less integral branch of the Legislature. According to folklore, the tension had existed “since time began,” says Mercer.

“Bob Brown basically eliminated that conflict through his ability to take the time to communicate with the other body,” says Mercer.

With Brown as Senate president, the Republican leadership of the House and the Senate met twice daily, says Mercer. The joint meetings, he says, were unprecedented. Under Brown, says Mercer, “each body [tried] to treat the legislative branch as something that was operating in a unified way.”

He continues: “We had respect for him because we knew he took our viewpoints into account whenever possible.”

That’s part of what made Brown appealing to Republicans, says Crippen: “What Bob has, and the people recognize it immediately…they recognize that this guy has appealed to both sides of the aisle for a long time.”

And he demonstrated integrity. The first two weeks of Senate are like rush week, says Sen. Hal Harper, D-Helena, who served in the Senate with Brown and was Brown’s opponent for secretary of state in 2000. The lobbyists for big corporations host dinners, attempting to draw legislators into their respective camps. Legislators, says Harper, call the dinners “free protein,” and some brag that they never pay for a drink. “[Brown] wasn’t one of those,” says Harper, though he does say that Brown has established closer ties to corporations over the years.

In 1995, Brown finished his career in the Legislature as president of the Senate. “When I became president of the state Senate, I was at the end of the line politically,” says Brown. “I’d decided that was the capstone to my political career.”

Observers say Brown finished his career further to the right on fiscal, environmental and labor issues.

“There’s no question that’s true, and I can’t think of an area where it’s not true,” says Harper.

In his final year in the Senate, 1995, Brown earned a 19 percent voting record on the Montana Environmental Information Center scorecard. He supported legislation the same year that favored the mining industry—legislation that opponents refer to as “dirty water bills.” He voted against raising the minimum wage.

Brown himself does not disagree that he began his career as a more moderate sort of Republican. “It might just be that I’m getting old,” he jokes. Then he gets serious: “Sometimes that happens, too. You tend to kind of mature your thoughts and ideas.”

At the time, he believed that he was finished with public service. He figured he’d take his father’s advice and “get a real job”—one that paid, not like teaching or legislating.

He did. In 1997, he lobbied for U.S. West and the University of Montana. In 1999, he lobbied for the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company and the Montana University System. Lobbying did not satisfy him.

“It wasn’t a pleasant experience for him,” says his friend, Whitefish resident Charlie Abell.

Crippen is more direct: “You could tell that he was not happy.”

Those who know him well say public service was part of Brown’s constitution, and he was destined to return. “I’ve known that Bob has had government in his blood. He probably was born with it,” says Crippen. Brown describes himself as more of a generalist who didn’t like following one issue in detail to the exclusion of his other interests.

“I didn’t realize how much I’d miss being involved in public service and politics. And so that’s what enticed me to run for secretary of state. I did so without the slightest intention of running for anything else again,” Brown says now.

In 2000, Brown ran for secretary of state and won by a 7 percent margin. As he stepped into that office in January 2001, Judy Martz stepped into the governor’s office. By September 2002, her approval rating had fallen to 20 percent. Her lieutenant governor, Karl Ohs, publicly complained that he had too little to do. Democrats filed an ethics complaint against her, charging that she got a sweetheart land deal from the Atlantic Richfield Company. She was later cleared of the charges. Her policy adviser resigned before pleading guilty to negligent homicide when the vehicle he was driving rolled and killed House Majority Leader Paul Sliter. Her notorious eagerness to serve as a lapdog of industry inspired bumper stickers with Scottie dogs and the slogan “My Governor is Dumber than Your Governor.”

Republicans had to turn to someone for future leadership. Brown, back in government and back in the public eye, had almost 30 years of watching the machinations of government up close. Over the years he had built up coalitions of allies on both sides of the aisle, says Chuck Denowh, executive director of Montana’s Republican Party.

Brown was the logical choice.

In 2001, the secretary of state’s office became a revolving door of people urging Brown to run for governor.

“The governor’s popularity ratings were in decline, she seemed to be having difficulty, you know, so I had people come in every day in the secretary of state’s office,” says Brown. “It is no exaggeration to say literally hundreds of people from about the end of my first year in office for probably a couple years there, it was constant.”

His visitors urged him to consider seeking the nomination. He wondered why he should entertain what he describes as “the burdens of that office.” As he recalls contemplating the idea of running for governor, Brown remembers one particular conversation with then-Gov. Stan Stephens. Brown had delivered a difficult message to a stressed Stephens. Brown, a storyteller, impersonates Stephens. He stands up, leans a forearm high against a wall like he remembers Stephens doing, and remembers what Stephens said to him. “‘You think this is an easy job, don’t you, Bob?’”

“You know the enormous pressures involved,” says Brown. “You know the enormous responsibility involved. And you think, do you really need to do that?”

Finally, he decided, he did.

“It came as no surprise to me,” says Crippen.

Brown, friends say, is a careful and deliberative decision maker. He consults friends and advisers, and he weighs pluses and minuses.

Crippen says that about a year and a half ago, he and Brown sat down in a restaurant and started sketching out the pros and cons of running for governor.

The biggest “con” was losing his family life and the potential for seeing his private life turned inside out.

But, says Crippen, “the pros far outweighed the cons.”

Later, Brown had two lengthy conversations with the governor, trying to determine whether she planned to run for a second term. She was expected to make an announcement during the state Republican convention in June 2003, but afterward remained noncommittal.

“About the third week after the convention, we just decided Schweitzer is getting further down the track all the time, he’s raising more money all the time, and we either needed to get into the race or get out of the race,” says Brown.

So Brown announced his intention to run for governor before Martz had stepped aside. Campaign manager Jason Thielman feels proud that Brown announced his run before the governor had bowed out. He sees the move less as a strike against Gov. Martz than an indication that the quiet candidate has backbone.

“One of Brian Schweitzer’s favorite little gimmicks is to talk about the Brown-Martz administration,” says Thielman. “Well, you know, Bob Brown announced for governor against Judy Martz. And it takes a heck of a lot more guts to do that than it does to announce for governor when you’re a person of a different party.”

Brown explains his decision in gentler terms.

“I finally just decided that sometimes, when you feel duty beckons, you step up to the plate,” he says.

On Oct. 8, Brown stands in front of 500 people at the University of Montana’s Montana Theatre. He faces off against a tall, articulate, ruddy-cheeked foe promising change. Schweitzer’s face has more color than Brown’s does. He has more hair. He stands taller—over six feet. He’s eager for the audience. He smiles more. Today, his tie is red, like Brown’s, but just one shade brighter. Schweitzer’s smile seems almost permanent as he looks out across the sea of faces.

Brown is the studious scholar. Behind his glasses, he makes notes on a pad at the podium.

“The personal characteristics of the two candidates couldn’t be any more different,” Thielman says.

At UM, Schweitzer is on the attack. He rails against Brown’s record. When Brown fires back, he hesitates and is quieter.

“Bob is a gentleman,” says Thielman. “And in the truest sense of that word, in a way that is almost out of place anymore in today’s society.”

As such, says Thielman, Brown is not afraid to defend his honor. But, he says, “He doesn’t believe in gratuitous violence.”

During the debate, Brown touts his experience as Schweitzer criticizes it.

“You know, Brian criticizes my record, but he has none,” says Brown.

Brown plows through the boos that erupt when he talks about developing natural resources. When the audience offers thundering applause for Schweitzer’s zinging responses, Brown shows a glimpse of the sense of humor his friends know: “Gosh. Thank you. I haven’t even spoken yet.” The crowd obliges with more applause, this time for Brown.

The debate lasts an hour. After most people have filtered out of the theater, Brown flops into a seat in the empty house.

The Montana Theatre is not home turf?

“That was pretty obvious,” says Brown.

Brown doesn’t disagree that he felt reluctant to charge back at his opponent, who was obviously on the offense.

“I guess my victories have come more from bringing people together than from dividing and conquering,” he says.

“We’ve all given him a few tips,” says former state Sen. Tom Beck, now Judy Martz’ chief policy adviser. As for campaigning, and Brown’s unassuming, muted tone compared with Schweitzer’s, Beck has advised him: “You can’t take a candidate out of his comfort zone,” he says. He told Brown to remain steadfastly who he is. “You don’t think clearly when you’re out of your comfort zone,” explains Beck.

Crippen, too, warned Brown against trying to act like someone he isn’t. While his supporters sometimes worry that Schweitzer’s showmanship and energy will overshadow Brown’s quiet and deferential approach, they don’t want Brown to perform. And they want him to maintain ownership of his campaign. Don’t let some young, tough campaign manager change your style, either, warned Crippen.

Brown’s campaign manager is young but exudes more respect for Brown than desire to control his campaign. Before the primaries, Brown’s decision not to sign a no-new-taxes pledge gave Thielman anxiety. “I think a couple of us who are particularly close to the campaign’s inner decisions all felt…all discussed the need to seriously consider altering our position on that just because of the political practicality of it,” says Thielman. They begged and cajoled and expressed their exasperation when Brown refused to sign the pledge. They showed him polling data that indicated voters were more supportive of a candidate who signed. “I remember feeling almost hysterical,” says Thielman, who pleaded with Brown: “Hey, I know it’s not the right thing to do, but you’ve gotta win, and the right thing is that you win.” There was more than one conversation about signing the pledge, says Thielman, but there was never any wavering on Brown’s part. Brown, says Thielman, believes that “if you explain your thought process and you’re honest and sincere about it, [voters will] give you credit for that. And [in the primary] they did.”

While his opponents respect him, Brown represents what his detractors refer to as the status quo for Montana. The state’s meager funding of education prompted a lawsuit in 2002. A controversial initiative that proposes repealing the ban against cyanide heap leach pit mining might result in such pits less than half a mile from the Blackfoot River; Brown supports the initiative, though not necessarily pits near the Blackfoot.

Some state employees’ salaries and wages have been frozen for two years.

“If Bob Brown gets elected, we have the same cadre of Republican operatives running Montana that we’ve had for over a decade,” says Sen. Harper.

In the recent education funding lawsuit, Judge Jeffrey Sherlock’s findings paint a bleak picture of the state of education in Montana and the course it has taken under Republican leadership.

“In fiscal year 1992, Montana teachers’ average salaries were 39th in the country, while in fiscal year 2003, Montana ranked 47th in the amount it pays its average teacher,” writes Sherlock. In another section he writes, “The state share of the general fund budget has dropped from 71.44 percent in fiscal year 1991 to 60.95 percent in 2003.” Sherlock points to solutions that a Racicot task force discovered but, for the most part, failed to implement. His findings of fact point to a study an advisory council asked Gov. Martz to undertake. “It appears that no [such] study was ever completed,” writes Sherlock. In short, education in Montana is in crisis.

Brown recommends an additional $20 million for education. Eric Feaver, president of the MEA-MFT (Montana Education Association-Montana Federation of Teachers), characterizes the amount as “chump change.”

Brown has been a career member of the MEA-MFT, but the 16,000-member organization has endorsed his opponent.

“We have a very strong affinity for Bob Brown,” says Feaver, who agrees that Brown has the ability to work with Republicans and Democrats alike. And he acknowledges that Schweitzer is “far more abrasive in some people’s minds.” Nonetheless, “I guess maybe I’ve had enough of polite neglect. I’m for abrasive action.”

He acknowledges that Schweitzer lacks experience, but he respects the political newcomer’s fearlessness.

“Brian represents what Brown doesn’t, and that is change,” says Feaver.

Jerry Driscoll is executive secretary for Montana AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organization), and his organization, too, has endorsed Schweitzer. Brown, says Driscoll, earned a 50 percent lifetime voting record on labor rights. “He’s better than the average Republican,” he says. Still, though, both gubernatorial candidates have pledged to veto bills that the AFL-CIO sees as priorities, which makes the elections almost a moot point from the big labor perspective. Driscoll doesn’t see a vast difference between Schweitzer and Brown when it comes to labor issues. “They’re both pretty equal, but [Schweitzer is] more on the side of better-paying jobs,” says Driscoll.

The state either candidate will lead has seen unemployment decline to 4.8 percent from almost 5.5 percent in 1999. The poverty level has risen, however, and Montana has a higher number of citizens without health insurance. Brown, a historian and teacher, is familiar with the statistics. He knows that while Montana may have more jobs, the jobs do not pay well. He likes to talk about the Treasure State. He sounds like he almost cannot fathom that per capita income has fallen so far behind. “Back in the 1950s, we had one of the strongest economies in the country,” says Brown. “Well, then we had a booming natural resources-based economy. The mines were all running in Butte. The saw mills were all running across the western part of the state.”

Back at the sawmill, Sun Mountain Lumber, Inc. in Deer Lodge, wheels spin, cables turn and Brown asks questions. He wonders if only 2 x 4s come through one particular slot. Owner Sherman Anderson tells him “the sixes” do, too.

“As you look at the future, what do you see?” Brown asks Anderson.

“We cannot continue to exist,” says Anderson. “We have to have federal lands for existence.”

They talk about dead standing trees and agree they don’t support clear-cutting. Brown seems puzzled: “It seems to me that we could agree on a lot of this.”

But Anderson says there are radicals on both sides.

“I suppose,” says Brown. “I suppose. And that’s too bad.”

He seems to feel nostalgic for the days when Montana had jobs that paid well, but says he doesn’t want to sound like he favors returning to the economy of the 1950s. It’d be impossible, he says. Brown would like to attract high-tech jobs to Montana, too. But he also believes there are responsible ways to harvest timber and to mine.

Brown points to early America’s desire for copper and draws a parallel with the country’s need for energy today.

“It is the height of folly for our great nation to be as dependent as we have become on the Middle East for our sources of energy,” he says. As the country endeavors to become more energy independent, as Brown believes it will, “there will be an increased demand for Montana coal, for Montana wind, for Montana oil and gas.” In part it is these jobs, Brown believes, that Montana should look to for increased wages.

Thomas Power, chairman of the University of Montana Department of Economics, refutes the idea that an increase in mining or timber harvest will necessarily bring an increase in the number of jobs.

“We need fewer and fewer workers,” says Power. It’s true for both the mining and the timber industries, he says.

For example: In the 1990s, Power says Nevada increased its gold production by 50 percent. Over the same time period, the number of people employed in the industry declined by 27 percent.

“Even increasing production doesn’t increase the number of jobs,” he says.

As Power turns the economic argument on its head, Theresa Keaveny, executive director of Montana Conservation Voters, Inc., points to well-known environmental concerns. Brown supports drilling on the Rocky Mountain Front, and he supports open-pit cyanide heap leach mines. “His economic plan calls for expansion of extractive industries but fails to address the necessary water and air quality protections,” she writes in an e-mail.

The Brown campaign, however, prefers to talk about the Treasure State’s natural resources, avoiding the word “extractive” on the campaign trail.

“Extractive” says one of his supporters, is “a nasty word.”

Both his supporters and his opponents agree that stylistically, Brown and Martz are vastly different, yet Brown’s political vision for the state does not differ from that of mainstream Republicans as exemplified by current leadership. Brown, however, is not afraid to break with his party when necessary. When the state anticipated a general fund surplus, he recommended—publicly—that some of the money be directed toward the Children’s Health Insurance Program. The recommendation displeased the governor. Brown chuckles a little at that: “Maybe she was understandably affronted by the fact that I advised her publicly on what I thought she should do. But I just thought it was a wonderful opportunity that we shouldn’t overlook. And since then, she’s come to agree with me on it,” says Brown.

Insiders say Brown must walk a fine line: His campaign cannot alienate mainline Republicans; neither can it present a candidate who is too closely associated with the failed Martz administration. Campaign manager Thielman maintains that the Martz administration’s successes or failures do not play a role in Brown’s campaign. Rather, says Thielman, the candidate and his character are the campaign.

Rep. Mercer, too, believes Brown has established a reputation of his own, one independent of the Martz administration.

“I think he’s a person of his own right already,” he says.

Brown’s quiet refusal to act the chameleon shows a calm sense of optimism. He believes his supporters will hear his message, though it is delivered plainly. Unlike his opponent, Brown does not champion change. Montanans who look favorably upon the state’s journey these past 10 years should have few qualms about casting their votes for Brown. Voters seeking change might choose to look elsewhere.

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