Republican Senate Minority Leader Bob Keenan was hoping for a different swan song in his final term as a legislator. Keenan, who owns the Bigfork Inn, was first elected to the Montana House of Representatives in 1994; he spent two terms there before his 1998 election to the senate. He was re-elected in 2002, and in 2003 he was elected Senate president. But during his decade-plus of public service in Montana, he has never had to face what he’s staring down today: A Republican party ousted from the governor’s office, a Democratic majority in the Senate and a split House under Democratic leadership.
“There’s no question that I didn’t want to be the minority leader,” Keenan said by phone from the Senate floor Thursday, Feb. 17. “I’ve been the big dog, so I’ve stepped down a couple notches.”
Though he’s no longer the “big dog,” Keenan has accepted a different role—namely, that of Republican attack dog and attentive watchdog on the Democrats. Since shortly after the election, Keenan has engaged in a crusade to politically destroy Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
That campaign started when Keenan announced that staffer Christie Wilson was helping Keenan compile of scrapbook of Schweitzer’s campaign promises. Keenan says the book was completed in December and now thinks “we might publish it.”
“I’ve watched Brian Schweitzer for seven years around the Flathead,” Keenan says. “He was a regular on John Stokes’ radio station for several years until that looked like it was going to be a negative for him, so he backed away from it. I’d listened to all that stuff, because obviously I’m a political person, and I was just stunned that Brian Schweitzer had never been on a school board or county commission or anything and yet he seemed to have all the answers. So then when he was running a campaign, I made a mental note that I wanted to keep track of all the promises that he makes.”
Already, Keenan has found apparent inconsistencies in Schweitzer’s statements about what to do (or not to do) with the coal tax trust fund (invest it in Montana business, or don’t touch it for anything), and he decries Schweitzer’s call for natural resource extraction “only when it’s done carefully” as “weasel words.”
Keenan took his monitoring to the next level during a legislative meeting with the governor Tuesday, Feb. 15, when Keenan accused Schweitzer of ethical violations for allowing his brother, Walter Schweitzer, use of a state office and phone.
“It’s absolutely an in-kind contribution by taxpayers for his brother to have an office in the governor’s office—and I don’t mean just a little office,” Keenan says. “He’s got the nicest office outside of the lieutenant governor and the governor. It’s a premium piece of real estate. And he also has a phone. Well, that phone is paid for by the taxpayers.”
The phone cost is no different than that allotted to other volunteers or interns, says Schweitzer communications director Sarah Elliot, who argues that Walter Schweitzer’s efforts as an unpaid adviser to his brother allow the Schweitzer administration to get more work done. Contrary to news reports, she says, Walter Schweitzer will be reimbursed for his work only if, for example, he wrote “a personal check to pay for napkins” for the governor’s inaugural ball.
State nepotism laws prevent Schweitzer from appointing his brother to a paid position, but an unpaid volunteer spot is legal.
Keenan says he’s called the phone number assigned to Walter Schweitzer many times, but that after he publicly confronted the governor about it, the voice message was changed from Walter Schweitzer’s voice to that of a woman.
“So they’re playing defense,” he says. “They changed that.”
“In about three weeks, I know some people in the press who are going to get the phone records for that phone number,” Keenan says. “And I’m willing to bet you dollars to doughnuts that that phone was a very active phone until Bob Keenan brought up the issue to Gov. Schweitzer.
“But you know,” Keenan continues, “I don’t spend a lot of time doing this. It’s not my mission. This is not a ‘Drudge Report’ brought to you by Bob Keenan. I’ve got better things to do. I just wish the governor would act a little more like a governor and a little less like a fraternity boy.”
Keenan calls the governor a “fraternity boy” because, he says, Schweitzer has turned the governor’s mansion into “a night after night Animal House party house.”
“I drive by the governor’s house every night when I leave this place and I can only speak for the five or six nights of the week when I’m here, but there’s cars all over the street and a party there every night.”
Despite his criticisms, Keenan says it’s not his job “to keep the governor squeaky clean or to watch over him.”
“It’s not fun being a watchdog and a pest” for a governor who has a “superiority complex” and is “not a man of great humility,” Keenan says.
But is Keenan’s watchdog work taking time away from his legislative duties this session?
“That sounds like that would be the opinion of people who are supporters of Democrats,” Keenan says. “I think that cuts both ways. If we had a Democrat that was picking on Judy Martz, it sure didn’t bother those same people two years ago. That’s just the nature of the beast on both sides of the party.”
Besides, Keenan says, he has already spent more time on the phone with the Independent airing his ethical concerns about Gov. Schweitzer than he’s spent actually researching those concerns.
As the interview wraps up, the Independent reporter announces the last question.
“It better be,” Keenan says from the floor of the Montana Senate. “I’ve missed about six votes here. I mean, I’m voting, but God knows what we’re talking about.”