Anyone who was in Montana’s Capitol last week will tell you straight up—it’s a new day in Montana politics with the ascension of Democrat Brian Schweitzer as the governor-elect, the Demo takeover of the state Senate, and the too-close-to-call 50–49 split in the House. Having personally watched governors from both parties come and go, seen the legislative chambers switch hands, and experienced the sweeping changes that ripple through the state agencies when such tidal shifts occur, the new energy and hope being generated by the recent elections can’t be anything but good for our beloved state.
The epicenter of the change in the Capitol is definitely the transition offices of our new governor. Brian Schweitzer is a big, gregarious man who likes to smile, laugh and kid around—but who takes his new job with a seriousness that is reflected in the constant hustle of those on his transition team. Both of the rooms flanking the Capitol’s rotunda are filled with people busily talking on phones, clacking away at computers or holding interviews with the hundreds of Montanans who are showing up every day to help the new administration get going.
While much has been made of “volunteerism” by preceding administrations, the reality is readily apparent in the number of people who are literally volunteering to work on the Schweitzer team. They come from all walks of life, from all corners of the state, and their single commitment seems focused on getting the job done for Brian. Like their boss, who is obviously more comfortable in jeans, boots and a work shirt than in suits and ties, those working on the Schweitzer transition reflect what Montana actually looks like: men, women, young, old, Indians, cowboys and everything in between. Anyone wondering whether Schweitzer intends to keep his campaign promise to embrace the great diversity of Montana can rest easy; these truths, as they say, are self-evident.
But Schweitzer is not the only large and in charge dude roaming the halls these days. One floor up, the legislative offices are likewise abuzz with the vital energy of change. In the Senate offices, new Demo leaders are now meeting in rooms that have been the exclusive domain of Republican majorities for a decade. Chief among those is Sen. Jon Tester, the Big Sandy organic farmer who was just elected president of the Senate.
Like Schweitzer, Tester is a tremendously affable man who likes to laugh and generally walks around with a smile on his face. Considering that Tester personally bore the brunt of the highly partisan “my way or the highway” politics that characterized the Montana Senate for the last decade, wearing a smile instead of a scowl is a very good sign indeed.
But then Tester has lots of reasons to smile. For one thing, all the Senate committees will now be chaired by Demos. That means that for the first time in his political experience, Tester will be able to plan what will happen in the coming session from a position of control, not simply reacting to whatever vagaries of scheduling, debate or voting the Republican majority chose. While it may seem like no big deal to many, those who can recall the days when power was more evenly shared in the halls of the Capitol know how vital the ability to schedule hearings and debates can be to the legislative process.
Of course not everyone is turning cartwheels in the halls. Incoming Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger, a Republican senator, faced a harsh reception when he told his fellow Republican senators that they would always find an open door at the governor’s office. Instead of taking his peace offering at face value, Bohlinger was generally derided for joining Schweitzer on the Demo ticket and is obviously being held responsible for the first ousting of Republicans from the governor’s office in 16 long years.
Perhaps, given that they are the ones losing their control, their offices and their chairmanships, it would be expected that the Senate Republicans would be less than happy. Thanks to term limits, the Republicans are just as unfamiliar in their minority role as the Democrats are with being in the majority. It is likewise understandable that, given the iron-fisted control the majority has held—and the rather ruthless manner in which it was sometimes exercised—that they would expect no less in return.
In this, however, there is reason to believe their fears are overblown. For one thing, the House remains under Republican leadership pending the Lake County recount of a two-vote win by Constitutional Party candidate Rick Jore. But neither party will truly control the Legislature—at least not by the definition of control we have seen for the last decade, when Republicans held both legislative chambers by as much as two-thirds majorities. Those days, for now at least, are over.
Instead of one party running the entire legislative process, Montanans can look forward to a more balanced approach to policy making. Sure, the Senate can pass bills over the objections of the Republican minority, but once they hit the House with its evenly divided seats, you can bet there will be some negotiation going on if those bills are ever to see the light of day. Likewise, the House Republicans will soon discover that they, too, had best be thinking more carefully about how they treat those Senate bills—or their legislation will likely find itself “Dead On Arrival” in the Senate. The old adage that “what goes around, comes around” will take on particular and beneficial significance in the coming session.
The new energy in the Capitol is good for Montana—and the restoration of balance to the legislative process can’t help but reduce the partisan nature of recent politics. For that, in and of itself, all Montanans can give thanks as we help each other make the best of our lives in this wonderful state we call home.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.