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Already ugly: The race is on for Denny Rehberg’s seat

Montana voters have almost 600 days before they cast their ballots to determine the fate of our lone congressional seat now held by incumbent Dennis Rehberg. So far, the only announced candidate for Rehberg’s seat—and he has yet to formally file—is Democratic Party Chair Dennis McDonald. Despite the fact that the election is more than a year and a half away, the race has already turned very ugly, with accusations flying between the candidates and political parties.

Just last week the Republican Party put out a long press release titled “Montana meets ‘The Weasel,’” which details McDonald’s past involvement defending a mobster during his legal career as a trial lawyer in San Francisco. According to the Republicans, McDonald “has a lot to hide,” including “a suspicious past of poor judgment and questionable ethics related to his sustained legal defense and close personal relationship with famed mob boss and admitted hit man Jimmy ‘The Weasel’ Fratianno.”

The Republicans build their case on references in Jimmy the Weasel’s biography, “The Last Mafioso,” in which author Ovid Demaris wrote that McDonald “admired Jimmy’s intellect and ability to maneuver, to put deals and people together; his amazing memory and shrewd calculating mind fascinated him to the point where the evil reputation became a troubling enigma.” The Republicans also offered a website ( where viewers can watch Jimmy the Weasel explain to Mike Wallace on “60 Minutes” how he strangled his first mob hit in his own living room.

The release quotes Alden Downing, communications director for the Republican Party, sounding like a figure from The Godfather (think Marlon Brando’s voice here): “They say there’s only one way to get out of the mob, and it’s not by moving to Montana and billing yourself as a rancher.” Downing goes on to add: “Not only did he defend this admitted killer, tax evader and mob insider, Dennis McDonald went on vacation with Jimmy the Weasel and routinely invited him into his home. McDonald cannot deny his mob dealings and he cannot be counted on for honest, transparent or ethical leadership. Montanans should seriously consider whether Dennis McDonald possesses the judgment and character to uphold the values, expectations and reputation of our only seat in the U.S. Congress.”

Pretty slimeball stuff from the Republicans, but obviously calculated to capture the public’s attention, smear McDonald and suddenly inject mob hit men into a Montana congressional race. McDonald has denied taking Las Vegas vacations with Jimmy the Weasel and maintains that his part in the negotiations ultimately resulted in bringing down several other mob figures.

McDonald struck back last weekend in an op-ed column released by the Democratic Party titled: “Rehberg—Tell the Truth.” In the column, McDonald assails Rehberg for plugging some $43 million in earmarked Montana projects in the recently passed Recovery Act and the Omnibus spending bill. The problem, according to McDonald, is that Rehberg stuck the earmarks in the bills, but then didn’t vote for them. “Rehberg has said that he could not vote for the Recovery Act or the spending bill because of the excess spending and earmarks therein—the same earmarks he worked to place in the legislation! More importantly, once he voted against both of these measures he then paraded around the state touting the benefits of the infrastructure improvements such as water projects, roads and bridges, school improvement projects, etc. He voted against these exact projects. In my neighborhood, that’s like talking [sic] credit for shoeing a string of horses you’ve never seen.”

Folksy barn-talk aside, McDonald is right to nail Rehberg for his apparent duplicity. But on the other hand, it shows a rather stunning lack of understanding of the legislative process that is somewhat troubling. Rehberg is now in the minority in the House and getting millions for Montana at his request is dubious. But in the halls of power, where the laws are made and money divvied up, even if you hate a bill you assess its chance of passage and do what you can to make it meet at least some of your goals—even if you plan on voting against it. In this respect, Rehberg did just that. He knew the bill was going to pass the Democrat-controlled House and Senate, so he plugged in the earmarks for the Montana projects.

McDonald went on to bolster his case: “Congressman Rehberg is traveling the state talking about the need for good paying jobs. Yet he’s voted against raising the minimum wage at his every opportunity. He voted against the Recovery Act, which will provide 11,000 good paying jobs in Montana. Only a professional politician that’s been eating out of the public trough for more than two decades could believe he could get away with talking out of both sides of his mouth. This hypocrisy must stop and there should be accountability. Montanans know Rehberg voted for polices [sic] that took a budget surplus that existed when he went to Washington in 2000 and turned that surplus into a $1.7 trillion deficit by 2008. The national debt doubled as he consistently voted in favor of the Bush-Cheney economic policies. These are the unpleasant facts and Congressman Rehberg owes Montanans an explanation.”

We’d all like to hear what Rehberg has to say about what McDonald calls his “hypocrisy,” but it’s unlikely that Rehberg will respond with anything we haven’t heard before, since “we were in a war” is the most common cop-out for the Bush years used by both Republicans and Democrats. As for trillion dollar deficits, that’s thin ice for Demos to tread given the pace of current deficit spending.

With more than a year and a half before the ads stop and our votes are cast, it’s unfortunate that Montanans are already knee-deep in these ugly, mud-slinging congressional campaigns. But as we all know, the real issues affecting Montanans aren’t hit men and hypocrisy. So the question is: When will they get to those?

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at

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