Tuesday, October 28, 2008


One week to go! And to highlight the run-up to the November 4 election, members of Missoula's Kiwanis Club heard predictions of what will happen from a pair of prominent political figures.
Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg, who once served in the state Senate, predicted that Barack Obama will win both the popular and electoral vote for President next Tuesday. Van Valkenburg figures Obama will win 320 electoral votes, 50 more than he needs to win.

That Van Valkenburg would pick Obama is no surprise. What was surprising was when Republican Bob Brown, who served two terms as Secretary of State and ran for governor four years ago, agreed. Although he acknowledged McCain is a fighter who could defy odds and pull out a Harry Truman-like victory at the last minute, he said it's unlikely. He expects Obama to win because the country really does want change--from Republicans to Democrats.

Could Obama win Montana? Van Valkenburg thinks so, but only if Ron Paul--who is on the ballot only because Montana's Constitution Party put his name there against his wishes--draws enough votes away from McCain.

(Interestingly, a large majority of Kiwanians raised their hands when asked if they planned to vote for Obama, while only a few expressed similar support for McCain. Yet, when asked who they thought would win the Presidency, the hands vote was fairly evenly split.)

I also was surprised at how similar Brown's and Van Valkenburg's predictions were in other areas. For instance, both men predict that Democrats will extend their slim majorities in both houses of the U.S. Congress. In fact, they believe Democrats could come close to a "magic number" of 60 in the Senate, which would allow them to close debate on any bill with a party-line vote.

Both predict a comfortable victory for governor Brian Schweitzer as he seeks a second term. Both expect Democrats to maintain a majority on the state land board, giving their nods to Steve Bullock as Attorney General and Denise Juneau as Superintendent of Public Instruction. Both men feel Republican Duane Grimes has an edge for State Auditor, but are split on who will win the Secretary of State's race. Van Valkenburg feels Democrat Linda McCulloch will prevail; Brown is confident that Republican incumbent Brad Johnson will earn a second term.

Both men also believe the Montana legislature is ripe for a reversal, with Democrats poised to take over a majority in the House, while Republicans will earn a razor-slim lead in the Senate.

Seven days until we find out.

Monday, October 20, 2008


I've been wanting to share thoughts on the final presidential debate ever since it ended Wednesday evening. But time and work and home and other things being what they are, I'm just now getting around to it.

First of all, now that we've done the Sarah Palin/Tina Fey comparisons to death, does anyone else find John McCain's smiling face more than a little creepy? Especially on a high-definition television? I don't cast a vote based on appearance, but in Wednesday's debate, McCain gave Dick Cheney competition for "most likely to be cast as emperor in a Star Wars movie." In fact, the Obama campaign would be well-advised to stop linking McCain with Bush and start linking him with Cheney, both in terms of looks and policies.

As for the Wednesday debate itself (and all of them, really) I was bugged by what I didn't hear. I wanted McCain to advocate for things that aren't bedrock Republican policy. I wanted to hear him say, essentially, "Damn the Republican Party and damn the status quo, we need to do this for the good of the country." In other words, truly put country first ahead of politics or the individual interests of "Joe the Plumber." references.

But at least McCain went off script with Joe and threw in something I didn't expect. (And apparently neither did Obama, who should have countered by asking specifics of Joe's situation, which we now know is a real-life one.)

Obama seemed stuck on standard campaign messages and cliches about the American people and working hard for them. And when he did venture off the message, I felt he did so poorly.

I wanted him to stop accusing McCain and his supporters of harboring hate and speak to how he intends to bring out the better angels of our nature. I also wanted him to talk about the value of interaction, engagement, conversation and thorough discussion, as opposed to the politics of confrontation.

I wanted him to stop explaining William Ayres and say that it's important to understand all kinds of Americans, not just those who look like us and think like us. I wanted him to speak the way Michael Douglas did in "The American President" about free speech and free association and tolerance of views we might find abhorrent.

I wanted him to respond to Bob Schieffer's question on abortion by talking about the need to heal the divisions in the country on many issues. I wanted him to offer himself as a vehicle for new thinking on difficult issues like race, religious intolerance, morality and, yes, abortion. I wanted the kind of passion I saw in Missoula last spring, combined with knowledge and policy positions that he should have developed since June.

Colin Powell is the latest to call Obama a "transforming figure" for the country. I wish the candidate had lived up to that identity. Meanwhile, McCain did quite a bit to polish his image as the man America's enemies would least like to be in a room with.

Thursday, October 9, 2008


It happened this past Saturday in Helena at the annual Associated Press Broadcasters meeting. Republican Denny Rehberg, Democrat John Driscoll and Libertarian Mike Fellows sat down together for the first time to answer questions about this year's campaign for Rehberg's seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. I moderated and a panel of reporters (from the AP, Montana Public Radio and Billings station KTVQ) asked the questions.

You should have been able to see it on television. In fact, the Montana Broadcasters Association went to some pains to arrange for a Butte-based production company to record the event and even deliver it live via satellite to Montana television stations. Ultimately, the satellite feed was cancelled because no station wanted to air the debate live at 10 a.m. Saturday morning. But the debate itself was both interesting and revealing and I looked forward to sharing it with our viewers.

Then yesterday, the bad news arrived. A malfunctioning video recorder had rendered the television program unairable and unwatchable, despite the production company's efforts to find a fix. Disappointing as that news was for me and my group of television stations, it truly is a loss for Montana voters.

Fortunately, you can listen to the debate on the radio. Montana Public Radio of Missoula and Yellowstone Public Radio of Billings were smart enough to make their own audio recordings of the proceedings. Listeners to Missoula-based KUFM and its various translators around western Montana can hear it Friday, Oct. 10 at 1 p.m.

You'll hear Rehberg say that the United States should exit Iraq as quickly as possible. You'll hear Driscoll announce that he'll vote for Rehberg (because of Denny's "No" vote on the financial bailout) but won't endorse him. Driscoll also offers some fascinating details about links between China and Al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan. You'll also hear Fellows expound on his party's view of the financial bailout and other issues.

From my view, this was the most civil, on-point and enlightening debate of this political season. It's too bad you won't be able to see it.

Thursday, October 2, 2008


Montana Democratic Party executive director Art Noonan says this week's challenges of voter residency by his Republican counterpart Jacob Eaton represent a direct attempt to intimidate and suppress Democratic and Native American voters. He also told me that his party recently conducted a 56-county survey of election supervisors and concluded that there are no concerns about voter lists, the registration process or anything else regarding Montana elections.

Noonan told me the party is reviewing legal options and might try to halt the challenges of some 6,000 voters in seven counties. However, time is running out since county election officials have until Monday to mail notification letters to affected voters. Noonan also said Democrats might offer to help voters cope with the challenges. In Missoula County, voters who have been challenged must fill out a residency affidavit, get it notarized (which some associates have told me is the most challenging part of the process) and send it back to the county. Then, voters who have changed their residence must re-register in the precinct, county, or state to which they've moved.

Eaton has said the challenges are a direct response to Governor Brian Schweitzer's remarks to an audience of lawyers in Philadelphia that he influenced the outcome of the 2006 U.S. Senate election. The governor has apologized for those remarks, saying they were a joke. Noonan says the GOP simply is using the remarks as an excuse to target voters in Democratic counties and, rather than embarrassing the governor, is embarrassing Secretary of State--and fellow Republican--Brad Johnson. Noonan says since Johnson is the state's top election official, is responsible for the voter registration system now in place, and was responsible for certifying the 2006 vote, the challenges and the rationale for them are slaps in the face.

With Republican Roy Brown now basing a television campaign ad on Schweitzer's Philadelphia remarks, expect this issue to come up the next time the two face off.

By the way, full interviews with Missoula County elections administrator Vickie Zeier, Jacob Eaton and Art Noonan will be posted on the KPAX website later today.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


Montana Republicans are using the "F-word" more often these days.
Fraud. As in "election fraud."
Get used to it. We're going to hear a lot more of it, perhaps from both parties, all the way to election day and, maybe, beyond. For now, though, the GOP is the side using it.

On Monday, the executive director for Montana's Republican Party, Jake Eaton, dropped more than 3,400 challenges of registered voters to Missoula's elections office. In other words, Eaton is challenging whether 3,400 Missoula County voters are eligible to cast a ballot in November. (To put it in context, Missoula has about 68,000 active registered voters.) He's also filed challenges in Lewis and Clark, Silver Bow, Hill, Glacier, Deer Lodge and Roosevelt Counties, involving some 6,000 voters in all.

What's the issue? Where registered voters live. The state GOP compared U.S. Postal Service "change of address" requests with county voter lists. And compiled lists of registered voters who reported changes of address to the post office without doing so to the county. What Eaton wants to know is whether those people only had their mailing address changed temporarily (think college student or contract worker who leaves home for a given period of time) or whether they truly have moved their residence. If they have moved, they very well may not be eligible to vote in the county where they are currently registered. In Eaton's worst case scenario, voters might be registered in two places and could vote twice. Or they might simply be allowed to vote on a ballot they have no right to get.

Missoula County had the largest list of "discrepancies" of all 56 counties, so Eaton made sure it was among the first to be tested. The result is that the county elections office must generate more than 3,400 voter notification letters (plus residence affidavits and other information) that must be mailed by next Monday. By the way, that's the same day the county will send out more than 12,000 absentee ballots, begin "late registration" and open up the courthouse polling place for in-person absentee voting. In other words, Eaton's challenges could hardly come at a worse time.

Voters who receive letters will have an opportunity to resolve their residency status by filling out the enclosed affidavit, getting it notarized and then returning it. Residents who have moved within the county and haven't filed a change of address can do so and vote for a final time at their former polling place before officially changing precincts. People who acknowledge that have moved out of the county for good will be removed from the county's voter lists and will have to register in their new location. (There are exceptions, notably for people who already have requested an absentee ballot. I won't go into that here.)

It may be that Eaton's challenges actually point out shortcomings in state election and voter registration databases. I sense, however, there's another point to this exercise--to embarrass Gov. Brian Schweitzer and, presumably, rouse public outrage over the governor's much-discussed remarks about monkeying with the 2006 U.S. Senate election. The governor has said he was joking, but the GOP and its gubernatorial nominee, Roy Brown, are not laughing. Eaton told me the challenge project is a response to Schweitzer's remarks and an effort to make sure every voter in the state is registered according to the law. Sooner or later, however, I expect their message to inconvenienced voters and harried election administrators will be "blame it on Brian."

Eaton isn't the only one talking about possible irregularities in the election process. Republican primary also-ran Patty Lovaas continues to claim that fraud in absentee ballots delivered the GOP Senate primary to Bob Kelleher. So far, she has not filed suit to nullify the vote, but she told me she will. (Her main legal effort of late was a pro se effort to get on the November ballot as an independent Senate candidate. The Secretary of State turned her down; federal judge Sam Haddon of Butte agreed on Tuesday and threw out her petition.) Lovaas says she has evidence to prove her claim; whether that evidence is anecdotal or analytical, how extensive it is, and whether it's been interpreted correctly are questions yet to be answered.

Missoula County elections administrator Vickie Zeier also told her elections advisory committee Wednesday that the Obama and McCain presidential campaigns are calling regularly with questions about polling places, election judges and other aspects of the November vote. She expects unprecedented numbers of poll watchers and election attorneys--of both parties--to be closely monitoring polling places on election day.

And what will they be looking for? The "F-word."

Thursday, September 25, 2008


The candidates for governor debate again tonight in Helena and I wonder if it will be a repeat of what we heard in Missoula--Brian Schweitzer touting his record ("the best in 16 years, if not ever"), Roy Brown trying to undermine those boasts, and Stan Jones poking his finger in the eye of both parties. I hope not and I hope the questioners make sure it's not.

To that end, here are the questions I would ask the candidates in light of last week's University of Montana debate.

To Governor Schweitzer:
State Senator Brown has compared himself to you by saying he's a "work horse, not a show horse." It seems to me that "show horse" is a euphemism. What he's really saying is that you're a "show-off", "windbag" and "blowhard." And that you are more concerned with self-promotion and creating a cult of personality than with governing. Would you have us ignore your personality as we evaluate your administration, or should we embrace "Brian being Brian"?

To Roy Brown:
You've pledged "the most open, honest and accountable administration in Montana's history." We can see that you don't approve of what Governor Schweitzer has done over the last four years. But your statement also indicates that recent Republican governors have fallen short of your standard. I'd like you to specify where Governors Martz, Racicot and Stephens fell short and what specifically you would do better.

To Stan Jones:
There are many in Montana who would question whether you really belong in a debate such as this. Although the Libertarian Party in Montana is a legitimate political organization and has earned its place on the ballot, it has yet to make a significant showing in any statewide race. And your perennial candidacy for governor and U.S. Senate has, frankly, made you more of a gadfly and an annoying diversion than a real candidate. Isn't it time for you to step aside and let us hear more from the candidates who actually have a chance of winning?

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


By any standard, Barack Obama has received more money from Montanans than any other candidate for president this year. According to the Federal Election Commission, Obama's campaign has brought in more than half a million dollars in Montana through the end of July. John McCain is a distant second, with less than half that amount. And until July, McCain was third in fund-raising in Montana behind Democratic runner-up Hillary Clinton. Interestingly, Republican Ron Paul finished fourth in the money contest, with more than 100 thousand dollars. Well ahead of caucus winner Mitt Romney. Obama has a similar lead in figures published by the Center for Responsive Politics. Although its overall numbers are lower than what are on the FEC's website.
So where is Obama's support based? A CNN analysis shows that through June 30th, Obama led McCain in every major Montana county. And raised more money in Gallatin County than any other place in Montana. More than 116 thousand dollars. That's more than a third of his statewide total at the time. Missoula County was next, but generated less than half that amount. And actually provided more money for Hillary Clinton. Next in line for Obama, Yellowstone and Flathead Counties. Both coming in under 25 thousand dollars.
So what about McCain? Like Obama, his greatest support also came from Gallatin County, followed by Yellowstone. Flathead County was next in line, but McCain not only finished behind Obama there, he also was $10,000 behind money champion Ron Paul.
Looking across western Montana, Obama was the overall fund-raising leader in Lake and Ravalli Counties. While Clinton won in Missoula and Mineral. Ron Paul took honors in Flathead, Lincoln, Sanders and Granite Counties. While McCain did not win the money battle in any county west of the Continental Divide.

Friday, August 29, 2008


It's that rare combination in politics that can make the difference for a successful campaign. The perfect combination of contrasts in running mates. Conventional wisdom is that the lead candidate--for governor or president--should pick someone with appropriate contrasts, either in political philosophy, regional identity, or experience. And if that person brings a certain bloc of voters along for the ride, all the better.

Occasionally, there's the rare winning combination of people very alike--think Stan Stephens and Allen Kolstad in 1988. (Both conservative High Liners who served together in the Senate.) More likely, though, a running mate brings something the lead candidate doesn't have and should appeal to people not necessarily in the lead's corner.

This year, we have seen a remarkable use of those contrasts. Skin color. Hair color. Gender. Age. Geography.

Of course, visual symbolism can only go so far. Ideas do matter and a candidate's words and deeds can make or break a campaign. As September opens, I think about the teams that will be competing for Montanans' votes in November.

Schweitzer and Bohlinger. This team still plays on what it considers the ultimate contrast--a life-long, if moderate, Republican playing second-in-command to a fiery, passionate, Democrat. Bohlinger the avuncular gentleman with his shock of white hair and bow ties, running with the youthful, jeans-and-bolo-wearing Energizer bunny. Together, they seem to delight in the harrumphs that their partnership has drawn from people in both parties who just don't approve. And they seem to have more fun than any other chief executive team ever.

Brown and Daines. In the limited times I've seen them together, Roy Brown represents thoughtful solidity, while Steve Daines presumably brings the energy and restlessness that every campaign needs. Brown seems to move and speak slowly. And to eye and ear, he's not typical. The hair is nearly a pompadour, the voice in an upper range that is hardly commanding.
Daines offers a more standard look and sound, and I'm sure Brown & Co. hope that--and his link to the electronic world that today's youth inhabit--will be an asset to younger voters who will turn out to vote for president but who aren't sure about the governor's race.

McCain and Palin. This is a picture we've never seen before. The aging and scarred warrior whose face and story we all know, backed by the young and, let's face it, attractive female confidante who bursts on the scene from nowhere. This is not Mondale-Ferraro. It's something different. Radically different, coming from the Republicans. Putting aside what each half of the team represents in policy and potential voter appeal, the picture of McCain and Palin together must make political cartoonists drool. Even if it's just the older man, younger woman stereotype. And the combination of two such iconic western states--Arizona with its Grand Canyon and Alaska with Mt. McKinley--should give satirists and campaign image-makers alike a lot to work with. Add in all the news about Palin in the last few days, and cartoonists must be dizzy.

Obama and Biden. Youth and energy head the ticket, age and wisdom back it up. Black skin and white skin--a first. Close-cropped black hair next to thick white hair. Winning smiles, both, with attractive spouses, also with contrasting hair and skin. Cartoonists may eventually portray this team in ways similar to Bush & Cheney, with the elder and more experienced VP controlling the man in the Oval Office. Rather than showing Biden as puppeteer, though, the satirical image I see is the coach driver holding the reins, not choosing the direction, but rather making sure his powerful horse doesn't run off the road or fly out of control while charging ahead towards his destination.


Just when you thought the presidential campaign could not be any more ground-breaking, McCain picks his running mate. A woman! A first-term governor! Younger than Obama! Photogenic as heck! From Alaska no less!
Immediate first impression: on symbolism alone, it's an incredibily astute, bold move. For the short term at least, Sarah Palin may give a lot of women voters pause to think. And by choosing a running mate who also represents the far west of America, McCain could make western voters take notice. (You can bet the calls are coming in from state party organizations all over the Mountain and Pacific time zones, wanting Palin to visit.)
Of course, Palin's record and experience (or lack of it) will be extolled, bemoaned and generally dissected over the coming days. And by November, her appeal to female voters, especially those who are not conservative, may diminish as they learn more about her.
It's also possible that over the next two months, Americans' unvarnished values and beliefs about race and gender will show themselves in ways that aren't pretty.
But for the moment, it's hard to look at what the American political system has shown the world in recent days and not say, "Wow!"

Thursday, August 7, 2008


The dog days of August are over now, and with the national convention scene almost to the halfway point, there are some things to talk about.

Brian Schweitzer sure made an impression at the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday night. Too bad the major commercial networks condensed their coverage so much that we missed the fireworks. NBC's Tom Brokaw, who certainly knows Montana, helped steer his network's coverage toward Schweitzer's rallying, call-and-response, address. By the time NBC cut to the podium, the Montana governor was wrapping up. Brokaw and Brian Williams spoke a bit more about Schweitzer afterward, but the country missed quite a show. (I wasn't tuned in to public television or radio, but apparently, Schweitzer's entire appearance was broadcast live on those stations.)
Put simply, Montana has never had a governor who was in a position to make that kind of speech. Nor have we had a governor capable of pulling it off and bringing everyone in the arena, including Bill Clinton to Michele Obama, to their feet.

How will Roy Brown & Co. respond to that kind of performance? My guess is that we'll start hearing the "work horse vs. show horse" theme on a regular basis, as Brown asks voters whether they really want a celebrity governor who performs for national audiences and television cameras or whether they'd prefer a quiet, thoughtful governor who stays home and tends to business. Expect a lot more of this theme if the Democrats' national organization puts Schweitzer on the campaign trail for Obama.

Brown also may go after Schweitzer in another way, by pointing out small issues, magnifying them and then hoping voters turn them into larger issues of character and trustworthiness.
Whether it's Schweitzer's definition of when a document is "signed"--namely, whether it's when he puts pen to paper or when he actually releases the inked document--or the investigation into a radio public service announcement, I predict Brown and his campaign will attempt to sow seeds of doubt about the state's popular chief executive.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


Yes, it's been awhile since I've posted. But it's summer, darn it. Time for vacations, baseball, enjoying the pre-forest fire season heat and the long days. Definitely NOT time for partisan politics. Nonetheless, there are some things worth mentioning, if for no other reason that they're so...well...amusing.

Democrat John Driscoll, who faces incumbent U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg in November, told fellow Dems at last weekend's platform convention in Miles City that he'd pull the plug on coal if elected. Not exactly the thing to say in coal country, or to an audience that has hopped on Gov. Schweitzer's coal train. But could it win votes from the global warming crowd? It certainly got him quite a bit of free media. (The only kind he's willing to get.)
It's really too bad Driscoll isn't campaigning more. Is he eccentric? Sure. Impolitic? Absolutely. I don't always understand whence his views come. But he's still one of the most interesting politicos I've ever met.

Republican Senate also-ran Patty Lovaas of Missoula continues to rail at the admittedly unexplainable victory of Bob "Eyebrows" Kelleher in the GOP's June Senate primary. (Can't we just do the obvious and question the intellect and political knowledge of this year's GOP voters?)
Lovaas believes Kelleher won by fraud, based on her empirical observation that she hasn't met a single person who voted for him. Under the law, Lovaas (or anyone) can go to court to challenge an election, as long as it's filed within one year. So far she hasn't done that, but she has asked the Secretary of State for an audit comparing voter registration records with polling place logs.
Lovaas says she never met a Kelleher voter during her petition campaign to put herself on the November ballot as an independent. That effort also has gone nowhere, since state law doesn't provide for it. Now, Lovaas is banking on a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision and a federal ballot access lawsuit by Montana environmentalist Steve Kelly.
Put simply, Lovaas' name is becoming a household word at the Secretary of State's office, where she's taking the "gadfly" role to a whole new level.

As in Nader. Yes, The Man Who Gave Us Bush is back on the ballot in Montana in the race for President. What's more remarkable is his organization claimed to have gathered twice as many petition signatures as they needed to put him on the ballot. Maybe they signed up all the Ron Paul voters who had nowhere else to go.

Democratic nominee for Attorney General Steve Bullock should write a really nice thank-you card to the Missoulian for its recent series on prescription drug abuse. That subject is a centerpiece of Bullock's campaign. It's always nice for a candidate when a major newspaper decides your issue is relevant and compelling. Meanwhile, Bullock's opponent, Republican Tim Fox, was recently in the Missoulian, too. With an Op-Ed advocating guns in national parks. I don't think I've ever met a statewide candidate who has made Second Amendment issues such a hallmark of his campaign.

With August heat still ahead and the national Presidential conventions a month away, I hope the only political stories I see in the next 30 days are amusing ones. Summer just ain't the time to be serious about anything except pennant races and forest fires.

Friday, June 20, 2008


I spent part of the morning at the Republican state convention in Missoula, talking with statewide candidates and other GOP leaders. One of the things I wanted to know was what party leaders think of the idea that some candidates--from John McCain on down to GOP state legislators--aren't "Republican" enough.

On the subject of the presidential race, former U.S. Senator Conrad Burns (wearing a McCain button) only said that both the Democratic and Republican parties had "the most diverse groups of people running...than we've seen in many, many years. People coming from different positions and taking different positions." In other words, diversity is good. (Even if Republicans have to hold their nose when they vote.) Then, without mentioning McCain, he said the next president will be a Republican who will follow the party platform and "stay within the Republican bounds." One wonders if there will be an effort to force McCain either to step to the right or else yield to someone else who will.

In the race for U.S. Senate, GOP primary winner Bob Kelleher was relegated to a meeting room for an hour Friday afternoon, while second-place finisher Mike Lange was given a table and wall space in the lobby to promote his write-in campaign. That's a pretty clear message.

Finally, I asked House Speaker Scott Sales (R-Bozeman) if he was taking a position on fellow Bozeman Republican Roger Koopman's successful efforts to unseat a trio of GOP legislators considered too liberal. Sales said "absolutely not" and said the party has always had people who fit on different parts of the political spectrum. But when I asked about the need to groom new leaders in the legislature, he specifically mentioned two of the GOP challengers who unseated the "liberal" incumbents, saying they had potential for leadership.

Friday, June 13, 2008


Just whose fault is it that Bob Kelleher and John Driscoll are their party's nominees for U.S. Senator and U.S. Representative, respectively? Following the concept that the simplest explanation is probably the right one, voters simply didn't pay attention to who was running in those primary races and did what voters often do when they have no idea: they voted for the names they recognized from past campaigns or past news stories.

On the Democratic side, Driscoll won the right to face Denny Rehberg with a non-campaign that practically was strenuous in its inactivity. Driscoll has vowed to do the same in the general election season--he will raise no money, will do no self-promotion and make no campaign trips. The only thing he hasn't said is that, if elected, he'll refuse to serve. (Now THAT actually could be a vote-getter in Montana.)

Ironically, we may actually see a debate between Driscoll and Rehberg, but only because organizers are working to schedule the debate at a time and place convenient for the candidate's summer trip into the Bob Marshall wilderness. Even if we only get one Rehberg-Driscoll debate, that may be one more than we get in the U.S. Senate race.

Driscoll's win was a slap in the face to Jim Hunt, the Democrats' presumptive nominee. But Hunt has taken the disappointment, at least publicly, with class. He's not claiming dirty tricks or hoping to somehow salvage a spot on the ballot for November.

Compare that response with Republican U.S. Senate also-rans Patty Lovaas and Mike Lange. One week after the votes were counted, Lovaas announced that she'll gather petition signatures to endorse her candidacy as an independent. The only problem with that is that state law doesn't provide for anyone to petition themselves onto a ballot once the March filing deadline has closed. Lovaas considers that unfair and illegal. So, assuming she gets any signatures and turns them into the Secretary of State, she'll be refused, leaving her with two choices: go to court or ask to the 2009 legislature to change the law.

In making her argument, Lovaas essentially told me that Democrats had crossed over in the primary to hand the GOP race to Kelleher, who has switched party affiliations more than once in recent years just to get attention. The result, she says, is that Republicans didn't get a Republican candidate and deserve another choice on the November ballot. To illustrate her argument, she points to Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, who lost the 2006 Democratic primary (because of his support of the Iraq war) and then was able to get on the November ballot as an independent and win, thus keeping his Senate seat.

Lovaas told me she's taking on this fight because the other Republicans in the race have too much baggage. Meanwhile, the guy with the most luggage of all, Mike Lange, says he may mount a write-in campaign for November. That kind of effort doesn't involve the legal issues that Lovaas' does, but it also won't do much to unseat incumbent Democrat Max Baucus. All it would do is give Lange a soapbox (a small one) he could drag around the state in one last attempt to be relevant. The question for journalists is what to do if Lange shows up at their door asking for coverage. Those with a highly developed sense of fairness (or a slow news day) may give Lange another 15 seconds of fame. Others may well say they're limiting coverage to candidates who actually are on the ballot (and actually won a race) and put the onus on Lange to promote himself.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


Do Montana voters have a sense of humor or what? Bob Kelleher as the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate? John Driscoll for Congress? What a slap in the face of the major parties' leading candidates for those offices. Democrat Jim Hunt must hurt terribly that an eccentric former Public Service Commissioner beat him in the Congressional primary without lifting a finger to campaign. And what does political journeyman Bob Kelleher's victory in the Republican Senate opener mean for the state GOP? For one thing, it may lead to deafening silence from Mike Lange. Can you spell "repudiation"? It also may mean that the state party has to start grooming statewide candidates immediately.

Then again, Tuesday's results may only mean that, without overwhelming advertising, Montanans will vote for names they know over names they don't know. Say what you will about Driscoll and Kelleher, but they've on the ballot enough times over the years that voters without other frames of reference will mark the names they recognize.

Now that Barack Obama is headed for coronation at the Democrats' national convention in Denver, who will be his choice for V.P.? And what will that person bring to the ticket? Could Hillary be his choice, with her 18 million voters? (And would she settle for #2?) How about Bill Richardson, who would appeal to the Hispanic voters who turned out for Clinton in droves? Even Brian Schweitzer's name has come up, although I doubt the party would ask him to give up his own race for governor, considering his popularity and his value as the "blue governor in a red state." I think Schweitzer would be more valuable as an Obama campaigner in the midwest and Rocky Mountain states. (I've also talked with fellow observers about Schweitzer getting a Cabinet post in an Obama administration. It sounds plausible on the surface, but would the national party be willing to elevate John Bohlinger to governor? I doubt it.)

It seems to me that Obama's first and biggest task between now and the convention is to reach out to women--a contituency that is hurt, angry and wondering what they have to do to get a female nominee. Naming Clinton as V.P. is not necessarily the answer. While she brings voters, she also brings the family baggage and triggers blind rage in many Republican and independent circles, incuding those who set their political compass by talk radio. Obama doesn't need to wave more red flags in front of those bulls.

What he needs is a woman with national credibility and name recognition who brings something to the electoral map. How about Dianne Feinstein? As senior senator from California and former mayor of San Francisco, she has the pedigree, the legislative experience and could put the ticket over the top in Electoral State #1.

Meanwhile, John McCain also should consider choosing a woman for V.P. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine would be an attractive choice. I've known women (especially minority women) who are smitten with Condoleeza Rice.

Half the country is waiting.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Chairmen, The Mayor and Being On Time

I had the chance last week to sit down with the chairs of Montana's two major political parties. Much of what they said was not a surprise, but some was. To wit:

*Democratic Party Chair Dennis McDonald admitted he didn't know much about some of his party's lesser candidates--namely, those ostensibly hoping to upset either Brian Schweitzer for governor or Jim Hunt in the primary for U.S. Representative. Sure, Don Pogreba, William Fischer, Robert Candee and John Driscoll essentially have wasted their filing fees by not mounting actual campaigns, I'd have thought that McDonald could have said something constructive about their presence on the ballot.

*In contrast, Republican Party Chair Erik Iverson said he was pleased at the variety of GOP candidates vying for the right to challenge U.S. Senator Max Baucus in the fall. One presumes that Mike Lange of Billings will earn the right to face Baucus, but anything is possible. Iverson also acknowledged that while GOP candidate for governor Larry Steele will not win the nomination, he is "a serious guy." At least he threw him a bone on behalf of the party.

*McDonald also offered a surprising opinion regarding Libertarian Stan Jones' place in the fall campaign for governor. When I asked him what we can expect from Schweitzer and Roy Brown in debates after June 3, McDonald added Jones' name to the mix, saying he will play a Ron Paul-type role and take votes away from Brown. The new Lee Newspapers poll seems to contradict that idea, giving Schweitzer a comfortable lead and giving Jones a very small per centage.

*Along with predicting victory for his ballot-toppers, Iverson also spoke candidly about why Denny Rehberg must win his bid for a sixth term in Congress. Essentially, the party needs him to carry down-ticket candidates on his coattails. Translation: as Rehberg goes, so will the party. Meanwhile, when I asked Rehberg recently about being the titular head of the party, he was hardly enthusiastic, as if it were just one more item on a long list of responsibilities.

When is the last time the mayor of a Montana city has played a significant role as endorser for statewide candidates? Especially a mayor who technically is a non-partisan office-holder? Missoula's John Engen not only helped introduce Barack Obama in Missoula in April, he's in Attorney General candidate Steve Bullock's television commercials. Meanwhile, his support of county commissioner hopeful Dennis Daneke has spawned a contretemps with Daneke's Democratic rival Jeff Patterson over campaign signs in a construction zone.
If Engen's endorsement really is important (even if only in Missoula) then could it be the state party has its eye on him for bigger things? The elections of Schweitzer and Jon Tester certainly have altered the image of what Montanans think a successful candidate looks like; perhaps Engen's sizable good humor and his obvious enjoyment of being a very public mayor would overcome any negative first impression from non-Missoulians over his girth and goatee.

(Random thought--speaking of facial hair, when is the last time two candidates for statewide office both had it? Between Denny Rehberg's black mustache and Jim Hunt's white beard, Montanans haven't had so much razor-free space in a big race in probably 80 years or more.)

What a spring it's been for Montana Democrats. But beyond the euphoria at having honest-to-goodness presidential candidates in the state on multiple occasions, should voters be upset at Hillary Clinton (and her husband, Bill) for being chronically late? The Senator kept her Missoula and Pablo rally audiences waiting for the better part of an hour; Bill did the same in his Missoula appearance. By contrast, Barack Obama's Missoula appearance was right on time, with better warm-up. So far, I haven't spoken with anyone who is making his or her choice based on timeliness and event organization but, as someone whose life revolves around being on time and making deadlines, I'm irked when political events start late.
Note to candidates: You may still win my vote with substance, but please try to respect my time.

Friday, May 16, 2008


After Bill Clinton's Missoula visit this week, I heard one Hillary Clinton supporter describe Barack Obama's apparent march to the nomination as a triumph of emotion over intellect--that voters are making their choice with their hearts instead of their heads. Translation: Hillary has the intellect, experience, competence and guts to make a very good president. But America wants to be inspired and is willing to take a chance on someone whose credentials and policy positions aren't quite as impressive.

I've also read a lot during this campaign about how race and gender are impacting the Democrats' race for the nomination. It's dangerous to read too much into primary election results, but I now believe that Obama's triumph means that Democratic voters--by a narrow margin--are saying that healing racial divisions is more important than healing those between men and women. In other words, we need a minority president more than we need a female president. Obama already has broad support among African-American and Native Americans. If he can make that idea resonate among Hispanics, Asian-Americans and Arab-Americans, he could get the mandate he needs.

Monday, May 5, 2008


With less than a month to go before the June primary, here are some questions that won't be answered until June 3--or even November 4.

As speculated here earlier, the call has gone out to Republicans in the remaining "open" primary states to cross party lines, choose Democratic ballots and vote for Hillary Clinton in the presidential preference race, thus giving the GOP an opponent that will enrage the party's base enough that those voters will ignore John McCain's policy shortcomings and flock to the polls in November to vote against Clinton.
In Montana, the temptation for Republicans to try to swing the Democrats' presidential race would seem to be strong, since the winners in the GOP's big primary races are more or less pre-ordained or, as in the case of Attorney General, one candidate appears as good as the other. Plus, once a Republican has voted for Hillary, he or she could vote for one of Brian Schweitzer's Democratic opponents and hope the numbers add up enough at least to be mildly embarrassing.

Republican candidates for statewide office are talking a lot about developing natural resources, especially coal. Even more specifically, coal from the Otter Creek tracts the state owns. Assuming high gasoline prices remain in place, will all the talk about coal resonate with Montana voters, especially those in populous urban areas? Also, will GOP candidates combine their pro-coal message with a public statement that global warming is not an issue?

Let's postulate that Constitutional Initiative 100--the "Montana Personhood Amendment" (read "human rights begin at conception") championed by outgoing state representative and Constitution Party standard-bearer Rick Jore--gets on the November ballot and passes. Now let's postulate that someone--the ACLU perhaps--files suit to overturn the voters' will on constitutional grounds. Will Montana's next Attorney General defend the initiative or seek to have it thrown out? That issue also would involve the new Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court. So, how would either Mike McGrath or Ron Waterman approach that issue? The judicial candidates probably won't want to show a prejudicial view either way, reserving judgment for when a case actually is before them. But the question is worth posing to both the C.J. and A.G. candidates.

This morning, I heard a Missoula radio personality shill for Barack Obama in the guise of telling listeners to register to vote on this, the last day of "normal" registration before the June 3 primary. ("Normal" meaning that once you register, you can vote at your normal polling place. As opposed to "late" registration, under which you can vote in person only at the county courthouse.)
What bothered me was not that a non-news radio announcer was injecting a personal endorsement onto the airwaves (I'll let the FCC deal with that one) but that the pitch contained some incredibly uneducated statements, including:
*The June primary was only for Democrats and that Republicans were not having one. (Wrong on every level imaginable.)
*Voter registration today is only for the June primary and not for the November general election. (False--your registration is good for both.)
Both the radio station and Obama's Missoula office should be appalled at the lack of knowledge and judgment these statements reflect onto their organizations.

Saturday, April 26, 2008


I wonder if the individuals who packed the UC Ballroom last Monday truly appreciated the diversity of the crowd around them. This may have been the largest–and most varied--assemblage of one-issue true believers.

Just walking past the long line of Paulistas en route to the press conference in the opposite part of the UC, I noted advocates of absolute gun rights and absolute parental rights along with those who want to end both the war in Iraq and the war on drugs. I saw pro-home school, anti-abortion, pro-hard money, anti-Federal Reserve, pro-isolationism, anti-foreign aid, and other kinds of folks there. The far left and the far right standing together.

My question is: have all of these folks looked at the Paul platform in its totality? Or is his agreement with their individual issues enough? I get the point that "freedom" is an issue that touches all parts of the political spectrum and that Paul fans can say (with some legitimacy) that he’s the one candidate who can truly bring together people of diverse viewpoints. However, I must wonder how that would translate when the time came to actually govern?

Paul’s press conference (and I use that term loosely) also was unusual. How many times does the Missoulian not get a single question in because Paul advocates hogged the floor, asking multiple questions to "Doctor Paul"?

I admit that Paul fanciers have a right to establish their own alternative, advocacy, media efforts (largely on-line and through distribution of DVDs) but I felt like an observer watching disciples asking the master to affirm specific articles of dogma they’ve already heard a jillion times. As a result, I learned less about the leader and more about the followers.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

On Film Incentives and Death Sentences

Two unexpected and unrelated pieces of news have come in this week that could--and should--generate attention in Montana politics, both in the race for governor and in legislative races.

First, Missoula played host this week to John Villarino, who supervises the construction of sets for Hollywood movies by the likes of Steven Spielberg. While Villarino didn't come to Missoula specifically to talk movies (he came to share his collection of Rembrandt etchings) I spent some time with him discussing Montana's efforts to get back in the movie game.

Three years ago, Gov. Brian Schweitzer and the legislature created the "Big Sky on the Big Screen Act" which gave movie companies tax rebates of up to 12% on up to $1 million in in-state expenditures. Last year, the legislature increased the top rebate to 14% (on labor costs) and removed the expense ceiling. In the months that followed, the state announced that a couple of smaller features would film in the state. Good news, right?

It turns out Montana's incentives pale in comparison to what other states are doing. Villarino specifically mentioned Michigan, which just last week announced an expansion of its tax rebate program for the film industry. Now, Michigan will rebate 40% of taxes levied on movie companies. Villarino told me (and Michigan media reports confirm) that Hollywood interest in that state has increased multi-fold. New Orleans also has eased the tax burden on movie-makers, to its benefit.

Villarino says Hollywood "can shoot anything" in Montana and bring considerable economic activity to the state each time it does. But Montana politicians may have to open the door a lot wider.


Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld lethal injection as a Constitutional form of capital punishment, will the death penalty become a larger issue in the 2008 Montana elections? Last year, the state Senate passed a bill abolishing the death penalty, only to see it fail in a House committee.

Among the Senators who voted for the bill--Republican Roy Brown, currently hoping to oust Schweitzer from the governor's office in November. Brown said at the time that his opposition to abortion led him to oppose the death penalty as well. His campaign website describes him as "a very pro-life Catholic who believes in cherishing life at all costs." Meanwhile, his primary opponent, Larry Steele of Great Falls, favored the death penalty when he ran for the legislature two years ago.

On the Democratic Party side, Schweitzer favors the death penalty ("strongly favors", according to one political issues site) while one of his two primary challengers, Helena school teacher Don Pogreba, had made abolition of the death penalty a priority even before the Supremes issued their opinion.

Elsewhere, Libertarian Stan Jones says capital punishment is OK, which means that, barring a huge primary upset, Brown will be the only opponent of capital punishment in the governor's race in the fall.

Monday, April 14, 2008


Now that the glow has faded a bit from Montana's historic presidential "wannabe weekend," some quick thoughts about that remarkable 48 hours--and a couple of more recent developments.

First, does punctuality count when choosing a candidate? If it does, then Barack Obama gets extra points. His Adams Center appearance on April 5 was right on time. Also, virtually all of the media people I know gave the Obama campaign good marks for organization. Translation: he didn't waste our time or the time of the audience. Plus, his staff warmed up the audience with a pre-speech undercard of campaign information, typically witty remarks by Mayor John Engen and that amazing "Yes We Can" music video.

Hillary Clinton, by contrast, kept her public rally audience waiting for 40 minutes. There was virtually no attempt to engage the audience before the speech and the opening remarks by Carol Williams and Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss added little to the event. Clinton's staff also left some media folks grumbling about lack of communication. To her credit, however, Clinton spent longer on stage, spoke more specifically about her agenda, took questions from the audience, answered them forthrightly and, in my interview with her, was both charming and informative.

Both of the candidates' appearances focused on hope. Obama has made it a watchword, while Clinton is more subtle. In the last 24 hours, though, the story of the Clinton-Obama race has focused on faith. Personally, I'm troubled that a candidate's church-going habits and profession of faith have become so prominent in national campaigns. Article VI of the U.S. Constitution specifically states that "no religious Test shall ever by required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

Yes, I understand the sentence refers to a government test and that the United States has no law requiring a candidate to adhere to a particular religion (or even have faith at all.) Yet the language of Article VI seems lost on the public and on the major political parties, especially the Republican.

I asked ACLU legal director Steve Shapiro about this when he came to Missoula in February. His take was that the First Amendment is the bottom line here--that the Constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion empowers citizens to talk about faith and query their candidates about it. I accept that but, personally, I'd prefer the candidates answer questions on personal and professional ethics and morality. If they choose to reference faith and religious beliefs to answer those questions, fine. But for Americans to choose a leader based on a particular spiritual approach seems antithetical to what the founders intended.

One final thought. My daughter recently attended her first Bruce Springsteen concert and, not surprisingly, was swept off her feet. Her descriptions brought back my own memories of Bruce's 2000 show in Tacoma. Which made me think of last fall's Elton John show in Missoula.

Springsteen and Obama seem to have similar approaches--lifting their audiences en masse to create a unified whole with strength, hope and the belief that, together, we'll all get through whatever trials life brings. (For me, in that pre-9/11 year, the ultimate expression of that was "Land of Hope and Dreams"; for my kid, it was "The Rising.")

Elton and Clinton focus on personal connections. When Elton sang "Your Song" last September, I felt he was singing it to me. (Although my wife swears he sang it to her.) It wouldn't surprise me if everyone in the Adams Center came away with a similar thought. That seems to be Clinton's approach--that if she can make individuals believe in her, she can build on the strength of those bonds.

We'll know in the coming weeks which approach is the more successful.

Thursday, April 3, 2008


Sure, the visits by Bill, Hillary and Obama are the big political news of the week (and rightly so.) But there are other things going on.

Tonight (April 3) I'll moderate Montana’s first candidate debate of the season--for Superintendent of Public Instruction. The forum is scheduled from 6-9 p.m. in Helena, prompting one fellow journalist to say, "Three hours? Better have some black coffee and No-Doz on hand."

Seriously, though, organizers have had this on the calendar since October and may have been wise to schedule it so early in the season, since it may be the most attention this race gets all spring. Five of the six candidates (four Democrats, one Libertarian) will be there. Only the Republican will be missing. (She's traveling.)

There aren't many issues on the agenda--the continuing legal arguments over school funding, No Child Left Behind and the usual "Why should we vote for you?" But the Libertarian's answers might be interesting. Have we ever hand a candidate to head to OPI whose mission would be to dismantle the office?


Among the last-minute filings for the legislature on March 20, an intriguing entry for the state House. James Steele, who serves as chair of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Indian Reservation, is among three Democrats running to succeed Rep. Rick Jore of the Constitution Party. Steele officially is from Arlee but, because of the creative way Jore's district is mapped, Steele will be running against Democrats from Ronan (understandable) and Heart Butte (hundreds of miles away across the Continental Divide on the Blackfeet Reservation.)

With Jore not running and with no Republican in the race, the primary winner will earn the seat, barring a write-in campaign in November. If elected, Steele would not be the first tribal council member to simultaneously serve in the legislature, but I'd be very surprised if a council chairman has done so.

Also, the fact that Jore will not return to the legislature makes the race for control of the House even more interesting, since Republican flame-throwers Mike Lange, Roger Koopman and John Sinrud won't be back, either.


One final note--in my last post, I shared the story about Kumamoto, Japan and its election toilet paper. ("Issue tissue" as an associate called it.) Now the results are in and Kumamoto's voter turnout was way up from 2004—49% compared to 39%. Co-incidence? Or is the way to a voter's head really through the...

Thursday, March 20, 2008


Spring is here and so is the filing deadline for Montana's 2008 election. Once again, the final days have brought surprises. Missoula accountant Patty Lovaas filed as a Republican for U.S. Senate, something I had told you two weeks ago.
But no one expected a 34-year-old Billings truck driver and former restaurant worker Shay Joshua Garnett to plunk down the filing fee for the same race. Garnett left only a post office box and an e-mail with the Secretary of State's office. And when I and others sent him a message asking for some basic information, his lengthy response could almost be called a manifesto. Long story short: he's God's chosen one who has been unappreciated, despite his lofty destiny to raise up nations.
Among his personality traits: dedication, aggressiveness, anger and tendencies toward both anti-social behavior and the use of swear words in conversation when he gets worked up. For my money, the Republican Senate primary could be the best--and most unpredictable--show of the primary season.

Garnett has expressed a severe dislike for Max Baucus. Which brings me to John Driscoll, the former Montana Public Service Commissioner who has joined the race for Denny Rehberg's seat in the U.S. House. Driscoll is one of those Democrats who dislikes Baucus intensely. (There are a few of them.)
He ran against him in 1978, giving up the chance for a repeat term as Speaker of the House in the state legislature, then did it again in 1990. Ten years later, he lost to Brian Schweitzer in the race to challenge then-Sen. Conrad Burns and has been on the sidelines since. This year, he's decided to change focus and go for Rehberg's House seat.
Make no mistake--Driscoll is no Bob Kelleher or Curly Thornton. He's not a one-issue guy or a Bible-toting moralist. I've always enjoyed my conversations with him. He's intelligent and articulate; he's just considered something of a flake. However, his name recognition might make his primary race against Jim Hunt a bit more interesting. Plus, if he wins, he could be just annoying enough to Rehberg to make the race worth following.
Speaking of interesting races, the battle for Chief Justice of the Montana Supreme Court is worth following closely. Attorney General Mike McGrath (who is term limited) had the field to himself for months but now has an opponent in Helena attorney Ron Waterman. McGrath has been a career public sector lawyer, first as Lewis & Clark County Attorney, then as AG.
Waterman has spent his career in the private sector, although he's been involved with enough high-profile litigation that people may recognize the name. It also won't hurt that his wife, Mignon, was a well-known state senator for many years.
In judicial races, candidates generally won't say what they'll do if elected, but McGrath can point to his many years as a law enforcer, his support as AG for gun ownership rights before the U.S. Supreme Court and the successful and historic negotations with ARCO on Clark Fork River Superfund sites. It's also worth noting that it was McGrath who successfully argued to make more of ARCO's settlement money available for river restoration projects last fall.
Waterman, meanwhile, can show a resume that shows a lot of high-profile litigation on all parts of the political spectrum. He's represented a despised mining company and fought the death penalty. He's done work for the ACLU and has been the attorney for the Montana Freedom of Information Hotline. He also has the support of retired Helena district judge Gordon Bennett and former Associated Press bureau chief John Kuglin, two of the state's open government heroes.
Watch this race, especially when questions arise about opening court deliberations to the media and the public.
Finally, the best political image I've seen this year comes from Montana's sister state of Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, where voters will elect a new governor and legislature March 23. It's--get ready for it--election day toilet paper. According to Mako Sakaguchi, Montana's representative in Kumamoto, the prefectural government has been distributing the paper in public places (presumably shopping arcades and other popular spots) to encourage people to vote. Assuming people actually use the paper for its intended purpose, it will be viewed regularly in the days prior to the vote. And after all, advertising depends on multiple impressions to work.
So, here's my message to Secretary of State Brad Johnson: In an election universe where electronics and computers play an ever-larger role, here's how to really make your mark as Montana's chief elections officer--with the ultimate paper ballot.
Just imagine the campaign slogan.
Happy spring.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Year of the Crossover?

What would it take for a Republican to vote for Hillary Clinton? Or for a Democrat to vote for a Republican for U.S. Senate? Answer: when your vote would help embarrass the opposing party without causing any real damage to your own.

With that as prelude, consider this scenario: It's June 3 and the polls are about to open for the statewide primary election. On the national scene, Clinton and Barack Obama remain locked in a desperate struggle for presidential convention delegates and, incredibly, Montana's could make the difference. Down the ballot, Democrats and Republicans alike have only a couple of contested statewide races to worry about and, on the Republican side, whoever wins the nomination for November's U.S. Senate race has a very uphill battle ahead.

So, why not vote on the other side and commit a bit of political sabotage? Since Montana is an "open primary" state, you can walk in and request either a Republican or Democratic party ballot. So, there's nothing to prevent voters on either side from crossing over in the hope of undermining a strong opponent or creating a victory for someone who would be an embarrassment to the opposing party.

Montana's Republican Party director Erik Iverson already has told me that if Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination, Montana Republicans will flock to the polls in November to vote against her. That, he told me, could be bad news for Senator Max Baucus. Assuming the vote in the Democratic presidential preference primary will be close, would it be in Republicans' interest to cross over and vote for Clinton, as a way to encourage November turnout? Plus, if Clinton wins, Republicans will find any way possible to link Baucus with her.

Meanwhile, Democrats already know that Baucus and Governor Brian Schweitzer are unopposed in June. So is Jim Hunt, who will challenge U.S. Representative Denny Rehberg in the fall. Sure, there are contested races down the ballot, but the marquee races have no drama. So, why not try to influence who will challenge Baucus in the fall? A Bob Kelleher upset primary win, for instance, would be a poke in the eye of the GOP.

Admittedly, Democrats may look forward to the Clinton-Obama race so much that the idea of crossing over will not be attractive enough. And there may be enough party loyalty and interest in local and lesser statewide races that voters of both parties will stay true to their default leanings. But if Hollywood can imagine elections turning on more fanciful plots, and if Ron Paul supporters can stack some local Republican presidential caucuses, is some cross-party electoral sabotage unthinkable?

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Candidate Who?

Max Baucus must be chuckling to himself. As the leading man of the Montana Democratic Party, with a multi-million dollar campaign war chest, and the title of Chairman of the Most Powerful Committee in the History of the American Congress (at least it seems that way sometimes) he must look at the roster of Republicans lining up for the June primary and think, “This is too easy.”
State Rep. Mike Lange of Billings, the only recognizable GOP hopeful so far, gave Baucus a ready-made television spot with the now-legendary obscenity-laced end-of-the-session rant in the House Republican Caucus last April. Six years ago, the Baucus campaign drove Mike Taylor right out of the race with footage Taylor probably thought he never would see again. This time, the Senator’s opposition research guys only have to go to YouTube to get Lange’s most embarrassing moment.
Meanwhile, the other three announced GOP candidates are political unknowns from the small business community, including the latest entrant, Missoula small business accountant Patty Lovaas. I spoke with her Thursday about why she’s running. “I don’t like what I see going on,” she said, pointing to concerns over small business, taxes, and the amount of money “out of state special interests” have contributed to the Baucus campaign.
Her written statement, which she intends to release when she files on St. Patrick’s Day, finishes with the following message for Baucus: “You have become a victim of the ‘political machine,’ she writes. “You have been bought by special interest groups and have lost sight of what and who you are representing. My message to you is Montana is not for sale.”
Having unknowns try to jump from private business into high office in Montana’s isn’t unusual. Over the years, I’ve found some of them to be interesting and engaging people. And frankly, I’ll take the “citizen candidate” to the Stan Jones “perpetual candidate” any day.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008


Want to serve democracy (and maybe even get paid doing it?) Want to become more involved in the electoral process without being tied to a candidate or party? Want to make a personal connection with voters without the stress of running for office? Read on.

For the last four years, I’ve served on an elections advisory committee for Missoula County. Our clerk and recorder (and elections supervisor) Vickie Zeier has been a statewide leader in election management and has shared the challenges, successes and frustrations with new laws and technologies.

From our most recent meeting, it seems obvious to me that Montana faces a true crisis of democracy, at least in its larger counties.

High-tech vote counters? No. They deserve continued oversight but, as long as they still require marked paper ballots to read, there always will be physical evidence of how people voted.

Lack of candidates? Maybe for low-level local positions. But even those can be filled by write-in if nothing else. Meanwhile, the jobs that really mean something always will have people wanting to fill them.

No voters? Apathy may be alive and well among many eligible citizens but mail-in ballots and absentee voting are drawing more, not less, people to elections.

The real question may be: What if they held an election and nobody was at the polling place to take your vote? That’s a crisis that is not far from reality. In Missoula County alone, Zeier believe she’ll need some 650 people to serve as polling place managers and workers. She’s not even close to having that many. Expand Missoula’s situation into Montana’s other urban counties (and maybe even some more rural ones) and there’s a need for thousands of people to staff polling place doors and tables.

And not just any people. Elections officers need workers with the same qualities as political candidates–energetic, smart, communicative, politically engaged, willing to spend long days serving the public and sacrifice even more of their personal time to prepare. Plus, these people have to leave their personal ideology at the door.

Make no mistake–these jobs involve more than just gathering at the polling place and casually signing in your neighbors as they walk in vote. Between laws on voter ID, late (and same day) registration, provisional ballots and voting machines for the disabled, today’s poll workers have a lot more on their plates than they did just a few years ago.

Quite honestly, election workers have historically been a gray-haired lot. If polling place elections are to continue, Montana needs a new "Election Corps" of younger people willing to serve democracy and bring their energy, passion and techno-friendly 21st century vibe to the polling place. The 2006 general election and the number of young faces at this year’s Republican caucuses tell me that more young people are engaging in the electoral process.

Take the next step. Don’t just participate in the process. Become part of it.