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Ochenski: An inauspicious beginning

Incoming speaker Doug Mood thrashes his own party

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Doug Mood, the newly-elected Speaker of the Montana House of Representatives, stunned and baffled longtime politicos when he recently ripped the hide off Gov. Martz and state Sen. Mike Taylor in a speech before the Missoula Pachyderm Club. In targeting Martz and Taylor for seats Republicans lost in the legislature, Speaker Mood threw down the gauntlet with the Governor’s Office and the Senate only weeks before the 2003 legislative session convenes. He also blamed environmentalists and the federal government for Montana’s economy. Heading into what is likely to be one of the most contentious sessions in recent times, these actions provide an inauspicious beginning, indeed.

Mood came out swinging during his speech, blaming Martz for the loss of seven seats in the House of Representatives because Demo campaigners “tried to tie the legislators to Judy Martz.” According to an AP article, Mood told the Pachyderms: “We can’t deny how unpopular she is in the state. With 20 percent approval ratings, she’s not even holding the Republican base.” Mood then predicted: “If we’re tied to Judy with that kind of unpopularity in the next election, it’s going to be very hard to hold the Legislature.”

According to Speaker-elect Mood, Gov. Martz has “a certain naivete about politics” that has created what he dubbed a “disturbing” degree of isolation between the Governor’s Office and the rest of government. Just for good measure, the Speaker-elect also blasted Martz’s inability to communicate effectively by saying he could “understand what she means, but she says it in a way that sounds terrible in print.”

Having warmed his audience with such accolades to Martz, Mood then turned his sights on former U.S. Senate candidate and sitting state senator Mike Taylor, calling his losing campaign “an enormous disappointment” and blaming both Martz and Taylor for “weak leadership.” Adding insult to injury, Mood blasted Taylor, who spent more than a million dollars on his campaign, for garnering “fewer votes than Steve Kelly, who spent just $10,000 on his campaign.”

Considering his audience of Republican stalwarts, such statements from the incoming Speaker of the House have got to hurt. Whether Mood is right or wrong in his assessments, one really has to wonder what he is trying to accomplish. Did he think Republicans might not know about Martz’s massive unpopularity? Or Taylor’s campaign debacle? Unless those Pachyderms have been living in a cave—and it takes a big cave to hold elephants—there’s no way Mood’s pronouncements could be news. Instead, the double-barreled blast merely reinforced what they already knew—and further eroded the ability of either Martz or Taylor to command respect or exert effective political leadership.

Which brings us back to questioning why anyone, especially the Speaker of the House, would seek to further weaken and divide his own party right before the session begins?

Perhaps there are clues to be found in the rest of Mood’s comments, in which he lashed out at environmentalists and the federal government.

Environmentalists came under Mood’s already hot-barreled gun with this mis-aimed blast: “We have allowed the credibility of the environmentalist movement to destroy the basic economy of the state.” Obviously, Mood decided to ignore the fact that Montana’s “basic economy” has in its top two slots agriculture and tourism—neither of which has been particularly hard hit by environmentalists. To the contrary, Montana’s tourism sector has, if anything, been helped by those who believe a clean and healthful environment is vital to the state’s best interests.

Unhindered by facts, Mood continued his harangue with the assertion that “the radical environmentalists who have no interest in seeing the state of Montana maintain its economy are losing their credibility overnight.” Needless to say, Mood provided no factual support for his own radical assertions that environmentalists have no commitment to the state—or that they have lost any credibility in the courts, the press, or among their many, loyal, statewide supporters.

Nor did that perennial favorite, the federal government, escape unscathed: “I think we’d be much better off if we were supporting ourselves than if we’re dependent on the federal government,” he replied to a question. “Federal subsidies are not economic development—I don’t buy that. When it owns 65 percent of the land, the federal government has an obligation to participate in the local economy. I don’t mean giving us money. Make the resources available.”

Is it possible that Mood has already forgotten that his former family-owned Pyramid lumber mill in Seeley Lake is alive today because of more than $4 million in federally-guaranteed loans and grants that saved it from bankruptcy only two years ago? Is it possible that the new Speaker of the House is unaware that a huge proportion of Montana’s ag receipts are, in fact, federal subsidy payments? Can he simply discount the significant revenue that federal government jobs bring to our state?

These seeming lapses in logic from a person who is ascending to one of the most significant leadership positions in the Montana legislature are not reassuring. We can debate about the effect environmentalists have had on Montana’s economy, but I’d bet it’s a wash. Those hundreds of millions of dollars in reclamation jobs are directly attributable to environmental laws. Without them, we’d still be living under the old “rape and run” scenario so familiar in Montana’s past. Even with Montana’s dedicated environmentalists, there are “new” mines that are abandoned, bankrupt, and leaking toxins—and it will be the public’s wallet that picks up the tab for millions more in cleanup costs.

The Speaker of the House has traditionally sought to bring together disparate views to ensure some level of legislative productivity. Obviously, the new Speaker is breaking that mold. In just one short speech, he has alienated at least one Senator, the Governor’s Office, hundreds of thousands of Montanans who support a clean and healthy environment, and thousands of federal employees. An “inauspicious beginning” is putting it mildly.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.

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