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.