Larry Jent was just quietly living life in Bozeman late last winter, practicing law and "minding my own business," when former Gov. Brian Schweitzer called up. The Democratic party had yet to produce a challenger for Republican Attorney General Tim Fox, and Schweitzer knew Jent had had his eyes on the office for some time. The nudge was all Jent needed to leap back into politics after five terms in the state legislature. Over the past 100 days, he figures he's spent one in a courtroom and the other 99 on the campaign trail.
"I'm not just doing this to be a name on the ballot," Jent says. "I'm in the race to win."
On paper, Jent seems like the kind of candidate Democrats in Montana would clamor for: a hunter, an angler, a West Point grad, a former Green Beret who doesn't constantly talk about being a former Green Beret. He's been a trial lawyer for 33 years and studied First Amendment law under Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox—a staunch advocate of campaign finance reform in his later years. During his time in the legislature, Jent carried measures on issues from poaching to DUI laws, often working closely with colleagues across the aisle. Sen. Tom Facey, D-Missoula, recalls attending weekly dinners at Jent's place alongside former Sen. Jim Shockley, R-Victor, back when the three were serving in the state House. And while Shockley says he feels Fox has done "a good job" during his first term as attorney general, he's remaining neutral on the race this year.
"Larry's a really good legislator, and he's a very good friend of mine," Shockley says. "I'm not endorsing anybody."
Despite bipartisan friendships and a strong resume, a statewide victory has so far eluded Jent. He lost a Democratic primary bid for Montana's lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives to former state Sen. Bill Yellowtail Jr. in 1996, and temporarily ran in the 2012 gubernatorial race before withdrawing his candidacy. Jent acknowledges name recognition will be his biggest challenge this time around too, particularly since voters are now at least somewhat familiar with Fox. But, Jent adds, incumbency isn't without its drawbacks.
"The disadvantage for the incumbent is unlike when he ran against Pam [Bucy] four years ago, he's got a record now," he says. "And that's an advantage to me. There's things to talk about."
- photo courtesy of Larry Jent
- Larry Jent, this year’s Democratic challenger for Montana Attorney General, will need more than a compelling resume to defeat Republican incumbent Tim Fox.
Jent is particularly fond of pointing out how often his opponent has willingly involved Montana in what he considers "goofy out-of-state stuff." Over the past year, Fox has joined other Republican attorneys general in national lawsuits challenging federal clean water rules, the EPA's Clean Power Plan and a presidential directive stating schools must allow transgender students to use whichever bathroom aligns with their gender identity. Jent believes these actions are indicative of Fox becoming distracted by ideological issues.
"I would have stayed the heck out of the bathroom lawsuit," he says. "The transgender thing was merely advice from the Department of Education ... There was no reason at all for him to be involved in that other than to appease the right wing."
Jent also takes issue with what he sees as a failure on Fox's part to defer to voters on medical marijuana. Several restrictive regulations passed by the legislature in 2011 will go into effect at the end of August after years of litigation. The Montana Cannabis Industry Association and other advocates had hoped the laws would be stayed until Election Day, when the success or failure of a ballot initiative outlining new regulations is determined, but Fox declined to get involved.
The medical marijuana issue is actually a sticky subject for Jent, who was one of the few Democrats in the state Senate to vote for the controversial 2011 reform bill. During committee hearings, he questioned a number of individuals who had provided testimony on law enforcement difficulties and pot addiction among teens. Today he chalks his vote up largely to the need to fix an industry he says had devolved into "chaos." He admits now the reform was too harsh, and that not every vote he made was right.
"You look at these patients, they're not a bunch of stoners," he adds. "They really need relief. They're on their last leg. This is the one thing that works."
Sen. Facey says Jent has a big challenge ahead. He jumped into the race late and will need considerable funding"at least $60,000"just to get television ads going in a few key counties. That said, Facey still believes Jent could turn this into "a horse race" and doesn't consider the medical marijuana vote much of a liability.
"The last thing the public wants is a politician or an office holder who is stuck in the cement on any issue," Facey says.For more information on the attorney general race, read our profile of Republican incumbent Tim Fox.