U.S. Senate candidate Brian Schweitzer says Montanans are embarrassed by Republican incumbent Conrad Burns, and they’re ready for change. But the Democratic farmer and businessman from Whitefish admits it will be an uphill pull to the 2000 primary and general elections.
Schweitzer, 43, has little statewide name recognition, has never run for political office before, and has spent much of his career as an agronomist and soil scientist working out of the country. Besides that, he knows he’ll need truckloads of cash to make a serious run on Burns, a two-term incumbent with ties to millions of dollars of GOP and special-interest support.
Still, he says, the obvious obstaclesare fueling his fire.
“Give me 15 minutes with a potential voter,” he says. “If they don’t vote for me, they’re either a Republican or they’re brain-dead.”
Since announcing his candidacy in March, Schweitzer has dogged voters like a hungry hound on a fox. The early effort, he believes, is already paying off, and before he’s done he wants to shake 850,000 hands and raise at least $2 million for his campaign larder. Schweitzer figures Burns may raise up to $6 million for his re-election race. So far, no other contenders have surfaced from either political party.
“I’m fighting a war here,” he says. “We’re going to go after Conrad with any weapons we can find. There will not be any issues left unturned.”
Before the Legislature adjourned in April, Schweitzer showed up in Helena to dump $47,000 in cash onto the floor of the Capitol Rotunda. The money, he says, represented the campaign dough Burns received from tobacco companies during his past runs for office. Schweitzer contends the tobacco support has a death-merchant taint. Burns has countered that it’s all a part of doing political business.
Schweitzer, who boasts being a third generation native, also blasts Burns for his agricultural stands, being a “carpetbagger” from Missouri and the senator’s penchant for making racist and bigoted remarks, which Schweitzer contends is part of a overt strategy to polarize and divide the populace. He also dresses Burns down for not abiding by an earlier pledge to limit his Senate tenure to two terms.
“People fundamentally think Conrad snookered them,” Schweitzer charges. “People in Montana think a deal’s a deal,” he says.
Schweitzer also contends that Burns “has taken race relationships back 40 years” with comments about “niggers” and “ragheads,” as well as various “attacks on Native American sovereignty” through legislation backed by Caucasian landowners within the state’s Indian reservations.
“The man has the cultural tolerance of a bullfrog,” Schweitzer says. “This is not 1959. It’s 1999. I’m disgusted.”
For his part, Burns refuses to snag Schweitzer’s bait, at least for now. Matt Raymond, the senator’s press secretary, says his boss has decided not to address the Democratic contender’s accusations.
“Conrad is too busy 17 months out from the election working to help Montana’s farmers and ranchers to respond to political attacks,” Raymond says.
Schweitzer, however, is not shy about expounding on what he contends are impeccable credentials.
Soon after being born in Havre on Sept. 4, 1955, Schweitzer and his family moved to Judith Basin County, near Geyser, where they continued farming. Schweitzer says he and his five siblings all worked at home until going off to college. Neither of his parents, who are still alive, ever received a high-school diploma. His father, however, gained notoriety by being an organizer for the National Farmer’s Association. In the early 1970s, his dad found himself on President Nixon’s “enemies” list for his efforts.
“When you have an experience like that, it gives you a healthy distrust of government,” Schweitzer says. “Our government is only as good as the people who step forward to serve in it.”
If elected to the Senate, Schweitzer says he’ll work to reform the cabal of corporations that largely controls livestock and crop prices, so farmers and ranchers can get a better shot at the marketplace. More clout and better prices, he contends, will give producers even more incentives to take care of their land and promote more sustainable practices. He also wants to raise loan caps for some agricultural products, especially wheat, and reform other farm policies, as well.
In an effort to further strengthen rural economies, Schweitzer wants Congress to allocate at least $5 billion to Montana and other Great Plains states to help attract high-tech firms, which he contends will help pull in spin-off industries that will in turn keep Montana kids and their families in Montana. The investment would be no different than the money the federal government put toward revitalizing Eastern seaboard cities in the 1980s, or continues to pour into foreign aid, he says.
Regarding land-use issues, Schweitzer says that in general, he doesn’t believe the nation’s environmental laws need to be relaxed any further. On the issue of timber harvesting, he says the U.S. Forest Service and major private landowners in Montana, such as Plum Creek Timber Co., have overcut their stocks the past few decades, in part causing the current downturn in harvests that is crippling mills throughout the Northwest. The downturn, he maintains, can be altered once land managers truly adapt to managing natural resources on a sustained-yield basis.
Schweitzer has been married to the former Nancy Hupp of Billings for 17 years. The couple has three children. On abortion issues he says he’s pro-choice.
“The government,” he explains, “doesn’t have any business making decisions for a family.”