Ochenski: Dereg detritus

The long political arm of 1997

| June 24, 2004

Detritus: loose material that results from disintegration or wearing away.

When the 1997 Legislature stuffed through the bill to deregulate Montana’s electricity supply, almost every Republican legislator voted in favor of the measure that was being pushed by Gov. Marc Racicot. More than a few Democrats voted with the majority as well, particularly those from the Butte-Anaconda area who were, shall we say, “under the influence” of the Montana Power Company’s horde of lobbyists. As everyone knows, Montana Power Company is now toast, and those who did their bidding and voted for dereg are beginning to follow suit.

Last week’s news of the primary brouhaha between dereg’s supporters and opponents was perhaps a portent of things to come. Senator Ken Toole, a Helena Democrat and one of the leading opponents of deregulation, decided to take sides in an Anaconda primary race between Bea McCarthy, formerly one of Toole’s fellow Senators, and Dan Villa, an energetic, 21-year-old who challenged McCarthy in the primary.

McCarthy was in the Montana Senate back in 1997 and, like many in MPC’s sphere of control, voted the company line and supported the dereg legislation. Having served in the Legislature since 1991, McCarthy was termed out of her Senate seat and sought to return to the Legislature next winter via the House of Representatives. Since no Republican had filed for the seat—nor was one likely to win in this solidly Democratic area—it seemed a sure bet that McCarthy would benefit from the old Butte-Anaconda tradition of returning their legislators time after time.

But something funny happened on the way to the polling booth. First, Dan Villa, McCarthy’s former legislative page, decided to challenge her in the primary. Then Toole waded into the battle with a letter in which he endorsed Villa. To be exact, Toole excoriated McCarthy for corporate cronyism: “Too many legislators have listened to the corporate power brokers instead of citizen advocates,” wrote Toole. “Bea McCarthy is one of those legislators who listened to the big corporations, ignored the citizen groups, and voted for deregulation in 1997. Bea McCarthy sided with the big corporations and voted to support the deregulation debacle.”

The letter, which Toole wrote on behalf of a group called “Taking Montana Back,” was sent to Anaconda voters while similar radio ads filled the airwaves. The message, which keyed off the skyrocketing energy bills that shocked Montanans this winter, apparently hit home. When the vote counting was done, it was “Bye-bye Bea” as young Dan Villa unseated McCarthy by a significant 56 to 44 percent margin. With no Republican challenger in the general election, Villa now becomes Anaconda’s newest and youngest legislator.

“The Toole thing absolutely made the difference,” a disgruntled McCarthy later told reporters. “You could feel the atmosphere change.” Perhaps McCarthy is right, and perhaps a letter from a Helena Senator actually influenced Anaconda voters. If so, someone should contact Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, because it would be the first time in history that anyone from Helena has ever been able to exert any influence whatsoever in the famously parochial Butte-Anaconda area.

But perhaps there is another reason for McCarthy’s ouster. Perhaps Anaconda voters, those same voters who had to dig deep into their pockets to come up with the dough for last winter’s outrageous utility bills, had simply decided it was time for a change. Perhaps they were still reeling from the precipitous depreciation of their MPC stock and pensions. And perhaps they were wondering just how well the “old guard” had served their interests.

From what I hear, Dan Villa mounted an energetic, youth-based campaign. When asked why he wanted the job as a representative, Villa was straightforward about “creating better jobs for all, especially our young people, solving the energy crisis thrust upon us by deregulation, and ensuring our students and taxpayers receive a fairly funded, quality education system. It’s time for real reform and new ideas and I offer both to the voters of southwest Montana.”

To their credit, and perhaps as a sign of things to come, Anaconda voters sent Jesse Laslovich to the Legislature in 2001. At the time, Laslovich, like Villa, was only 21 years old when he took his seat in the House of Representatives. Anyone who has ever watched this young man in action, however, cannot help but be impressed by his energy and articulate commitment to the people who elected him. Like Villa, Laslovich promised to bring new ideas, new energy, and new blood to the legislative arena, and he has upheld that promise in spades. In fact, Villa will be filling the seat vacated by Laslovich, who so pleased Anaconda voters with his performance that he heads to the Senate next year, unchallenged, at the ripe old age of 25.

In yet another case of the effects of dereg on this year’s elections, Debbie Shea, a long-time Butte legislator, has apparently been defeated in her bid for a seat on the Public Service Commission by Livingston legislative veteran Bob Raney. Here again, the only reason Butte area voters would not have fully supported their home-town candidate was her record of voting with MPC’s corporate lobbyists on deregulation.

Both McCarthy and Shea say they were only doing the bidding of their constituencies when they voted for dereg. Both cite piles of letters they received from Montana Power employees in favor of the legislation. And both say if they knew the dams would be sold, the legislation would not have passed. Given the once-strong corporate influence over the Butte-Anaconda electorate, there is little reason to doubt them.

The voters, however, don’t seem in much of a mood to forgive and forget. As they say in the political arena, “money talks.” Right now, the money that’s talking is coming out of the pockets of Montana voters and going to out-of-state utility conglomerates. Say what you will, it appears dereg’s disastrous results—and not some mysterious outside influence—tipped the scales this time around.

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 opinion@missoulanews.com.

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