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Racicot’s ruin?

The former governor’s Libby lobby misstep

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Short of endorsing a ban on hunting, or suggesting something good about gun control, there is probably no quicker way to destroy a potential or existing political career in Montana than by failing to put 100-percent support behind anything perceived to be beneficial to Libby asbestos victims.

The Montana Democratic Party likely had this reality in mind when it issued a press release last week castigating former Gov. Marc Racicot for his lobbying efforts against a U.S. Senate bill that would provide money to asbestos victims, and Libby victims especially.

The bill was sidelined Feb. 14 when the Senate fell one vote short of the 60 needed to waive a budget objection claiming the bill violated Congressional spending limits.

One particular portion of the legislation, referred to as the “Libby Fix” by Montana Senators Conrad Burns and Max Baucus, offers special compensation for Libby asbestos victims starting at a minimum of $400,000. Compensation for asbestos victims in other parts of the country would begin at $25,000.

It quickly emerged that Racicot, as president of the American Insurance Association (AIA), had written a letter to Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, outlining the insurance industry’s opposition to the bill, and specifically to the Libby Fix.

AIA’s interest in the bill is financial; part of the proposed $140-billion trust fund to compensate asbestos victims would come from the insurance companies of corporations including W.R. Grace, which have asbestos-related disease legal claims against them.

“They made a lot of money selling insurance to these companies,” says Jim Farrell, director of the Montana Democratic Party. “Now it’s time to pay up, and they don’t want to pay.”

The Montana Democratic Party paints Racicot’s lobbying with broad strokes, asserting in press releases that Racicot flat-out opposes the bill, and that “It was a heartless act of Marc Racicot to torpedo this desperately needed help for the people of Libby.”

Libby, as most everyone in Montana is aware, is Racicot’s hometown.

The AIA responds that it’s opposed only to certain of the bill’s provisions, and remains committed to a bill that would help asbestos victims. A call for comment to Racicot was returned by an AIA spokesperson. But the damage to Racicot in Montana may have already been done.

Nothing makes that probability more obvious than recent statements on the matter by Sen. Burns.

As recently as December, Racicot had come to Burns’ defense, telling the Helena Independent Record’s editorial board that it was “highly unfair” for anyone to associate Burns with former Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Last week, in the wake of news about Racicot’s efforts on AIA’s behalf, Burns returned the favor by telling the Associated Press, apropos of Libby, “If I have to do battle with (Racicot), I’ll do battle.”

Speaking with the Independent, Burns spokesman Matt Mackowiak downplayed the senator’s comments. As for doing battle with Racicot, Mackowiak says, “We’re not there yet.”

Makowiak also notes that the asbestos bill is not partisan, echoing an argument made by the AIA: 70 percent of Senate Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy, Harry Reid and John Kerry, voted against the bill.

While attacks by the Montana Democratic Party never overtly connect the sidelining of the asbestos bill to Republicans, they do attach it to high-profile Republican Racicot.

But why go after a former politcian?

Jim Farrell, director of the Montana Democratic Party, notes the stumping Racicot did for Burns this winter.

“If only on that basis, he’s relevant politically in Montana at the moment,” says Farrell.

And, although Racicot has denied it, Farrell and others suspect the former governor may have been considering a run for Burns’ Senate seat if Burns were to drop out of the race as a result of the Abramoff scandal.

Further explaining the Democrats’ motives, Farrell connects Racicot’s lobbying actions, at least in spirit, to the Abramoff scandal.

“Again and again we see Republican policy dictated by lobbyists. Racicot holds a comparable position to [Abramoff] as chief lobbyist for the insurance industry,” Farrell says. “It’s hard not to mention Racicot and Abramoff in the same breath.”

Which perhaps explains Burns’ comments about doing battle with Racicot. Montana’s junior Senator told a Montana TV station last year that “this Abramoff guy is a bad guy, I hope he goes to jail and we never see him again.”

Helena political strategist David Sirota, who served as press aide to Gov. Brian Schweitzer during his 2000 senate run against Burns, and as senior strategist for Schweitzer in his campaign for governor, says the Democrats’ point is that “Racicot’s behavior is representative of Montana’s Republican Party, and the national party.”

Both nationally and locally, he says, “You regularly see public servants like Racicot cash in to shill for corporate interests.”

Sirota says he’s not at all surprised at Racicot’s actions.

Having worked in Washington, D.C., Sirota says, he “would not underestimate the ability of a politician to be arrogant, to be totally out of touch with reality. I no longer can be amazed.”

Montana Republican Party Executive Director Chuck Denowh says Farrell and Sirota are wrong to think Racicot’s lobbying will tarnish the Republican image.

“The real Montana policymakers are on the same side of this issue,” he says. “[Racicot] is not creating the policy on this issue. He’s no longer governor.”

But Denowh concedes that to be perceived as against a bill that aids Libby asbestos victims carries the whiff of political suicide in Montana.

Whether or not his lobbying damages the Montana Republican Party, it appears that the damage to Racicot’s potential political future in Montana looks to be done.

ppeters@missoulanews.com

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