Marc Racicot, first elected governor in 1992, left office Jan. 2 after serving two terms as the state’s chief executive. He was prevented from seeking a third stint in office by voter-imposed term limits. Racicot, a Republican, served as Montana’s attorney general from 1988-1992, and previously worked as an assistant attorney general, as a Missoula County prosecutor, and as a prosecutor for the U.S. Army.
Racicot, 52, won re-election to the governership in 1996 by the largest margin in Montana history. His lieutenant governor, Judy Martz, was elected governor over Democrat Mark O’Keefe in November.
Racicot, a personal friend and close adviser to President-elect George W. Bush, last month withdrew from consideration for the position of U.S. attorney general. He’s now considering other job options in the private and public sector. He took time from his transition schedule last week to discuss his future and his past with the Missoula Independent at the Capitol in Helena last week.
What was the first thing you thought on Jan. 3, the day after you became a private citizen again? About making certain that I returned all of the phone calls to the people that I have served over the course of these last eight years, that I had not been able to return prior to the time that I actually had my term in office expire. I knew I still had an obligation to return those calls, and I needed to make sure certain that I responded to the correspondence that was left and returned those phone calls.
Did you think anything about being a “free man”? No, I really haven’t thought about that at all. It all seemed to be just right to me. It’s been a wonderful privilege, and it was an incredible blessing for me to be able to be of service in this way over the last eight years and even longer than that in public service. It all has seemed to be just entirely appropriate. The rhythm of it all felt very comfortable. I have enjoyed it immensely. But I haven’t felt melancholy about it coming to a close, and I haven’t been anxious for it to come to a close. I knew—and I know now—that I did everything I knew how to do and in the best fashion that I knew how to perform. As a consequence of that, I don’t have any regrets. ...
What do you see as your biggest accomplishments during your eight years as governor? Anything that’s been accomplished has been accomplished as a result of people from a number of different venues working very hard in the best interest of the people of this state. Republicans and Democrats, Independents, those in the executive branch, those in the legislative branch. I think that we have provided an atmosphere within which people have been willing to take risks and were willing to do what they thought was right. We tried not to be in any way coarse or harsh in our discussions or our relationships because we knew that even though we wanted to act of the basis of principle constantly and continually, that it was very important for us to keep a civil dialogue available to people and to us. So we tried to create an atmosphere in which good people, through their efforts, could bring about success.
Our finances were in terrible disarray when we first began, and we’re now stable financially as a state. Workers’ compensation would be another one. Tax reform. I haven’t totaled up all the different numbers, but we probably had between 15 and 20 different forms of incremental tax reform over the course of the last six or eight years totaling hundreds of millions of dollars. The investments in the infrastructure that we made on our university campuses, our state hospital, this Capitol building, roads, bridges, highways, all of those things. Those were the result of people deliberating, working together, and coming to a resolute conviction about what ought to be done.
We made historic investments in education, but not enough in my view. I think we need to be continually investing in education. What were the biggest disappointments? Probably that we thought from a tax-reform perspective, a comprehensive tax-reform plan [that included a sales tax] was best for our state, and that it had compelling logic. But the people of Montana saw it differently, and I think you learn very quickly that the ultimate arbiters, those who make the decisions ultimately, are the people who own this government and for whom you work. And you learn to accept their will, and to understand that this is a representative form of government. [The tax plan] was a disappointment because we thought there was great logic to it. They didn’t agree, so we went about in other ways in an incremental fashion.
Even though we worked very hard bringing about a more diverse economy, more economic vibrancy in the state of Montana and did that on a daily basis, the fact is that you don’t get as much accomplished as you want to accomplish. You have to work with a lot of other people. You learn that. You also learn that you don’t have near as much authority that resides in the office of governor as what you initially may envision. It’s not as if you’re without authority. There’s a great deal of discretion, but it’s not enough to allow you simply to proceed unilaterally. It can’t be done. So we didn’t do as much with the economy as what we wanted to do. But I do think we placed ourselves during this period in a position of being competitive. We want to be selective in Montana. We like our way of life. We like our environment. That means that we want to be able to be selective in terms of how we proceed economically. To do that, you have to be competitive. We are much, much more competitive than we were eight years ago. That means we’re poised. But we did not make as much movement in that regard as I would have liked, but a lot of that is a function of variables that we don’t control. We can’t order Intel here to construct a clean industry manufacturing facility.... We were in many ways the fixers of problems that prevented us from being competitive. We had to sustain where we were, we had to fix a lot of problems, and we had to get ready for the future. But I don’t think that we were able to reach as far in that direction as we’d originally envisioned.
You turned down a nomination for U.S. attorney general in the incoming Bush Administration. The current nominee, John Ashcroft, is now under tremendous personal and professional scrutiny. Have you had any second thoughts about your decision? Did you have any fears about being under such heavy criticism if you had accepted the nomination? The answer to both questions is no. First of all, I wasn’t offered the nomination. I was offered an opportunity for consideration as one of many people being considered.
Secondly, as I think I said all along, even though there were many who apparently may have found reason to question whether or not I was serious, that I didn’t think that I would be able to accept the position, I didn’t expect one, and even if one was offered, I didn’t expect that I’d be able to move in that direction and for some very simple reasons. Simple but profound reasons in my judgment.
I’ve been a public servant for 27 years. We have five children, and they have been going to college for some period of time. I have my mother, whom I care deeply about, and there are some special obligations there, as well. Even though we’ve been more than adequately compensated, we haven’t had a lot of margin to be able to help those people. So I have known all along that there would be a time where I would be called upon to respond to those family needs. And even though I had a strong urge to want to remain in the pool for consideration—and I really wanted to be of assistance if I could—I also knew that these special responsibilities required me to look in the direction of the fulfillment of those responsibilities. I know it was the right decision. It was hard to make. I have no regrets, and I wasn’t the least bit worried about being examined.
The word in Washington says you’re still under consideration for a U.S. Supreme Court nomination, a federal judgeship or a U.S. attorney post. Would you take any of these jobs if offered? I don’t know where that comes from. I’m not aware of any of those possibilities. For the present time, I have made the decision that I have made. Now that’s not to suggest that I would never be available to be of service in the event that that opportunity presented itself, but there is no shape or form to any potential or future possibilities for public service that I know of right now. I know that I’ll stay engaged with the [Bush] administration, trying to be of as much assistance as I can from the private sector. I don’t know for how long or how much need they may have for that. But other than that, I can’t bring any further definition to any of these future possibilities. I know I need to perform these family responsibilities, and how everything else fits into that, we’ll just have to wait and see.
President-elect Bush has recently appointed you to the U.S. Interior Department’s advisory committee. What does the committee do and what is your role in it? It provides some advice and intuition about the issues of importance to the West. What are they? What are the subtleties of those issues? How can we go about building coalitions of people and interests to address them? I think sometimes there’s a lack of understanding between East and West. Our way of life in the West is dear to us, something that we embrace with great enthusiasm and vigilance, and sometimes those in other places may not have a full appreciation for it. So I’ve wanted to be involved in this since the very beginning, to be able to place those issues in a proper perspective for consideration by Congress and the executive branch of government.
What would your dream job be if you could do anything? Well, the job that I just completed was something that I never envisioned I’d have the opportunity to be a part of, and it was absolutely wonderful in every respect. I’m not certain that one would ever have another job that could surpass that in terms of its satisfactions and expectations. That doesn’t mean I’m not excited about the possibilities. I just had a wonderful job, and I think it’s possible to have another. Are you committed to staying in Montana? No. Emotionally, spiritually, I will always be here, and a great deal physically. But I would anticipate that whatever I do will require some time outside the state. I certainly plan to remain a resident and citizen of the state of Montana.
You enjoyed extraordinary approval ratings during your two terms as governor and won your last election with 79 percent of the vote. What do you attribute that popularity to? I can say some things about the temperament of the people of Montana. They are very forgiving and very generous if you are honest with them. If you try to work hard and try to do your best, I think they will give you a tremendous amount of opportunity to be of good service. And they’re also very generous in their forgiveness when you make mistakes. We just tried to be honest. We’ve tried to be civil, too. That doesn’t mean we’ve compromised our principles, but there are some who think, of course, because on a daily basis we didn’t try to exact a penalty or impose sanctions or to be strong in our rhetoric that somehow we weren’t vindicating our principles. The reverse is true. In my judgment, a strong requirement of leadership is to be thoughtful and civil and recognize that one of your responsibilities is to help people get where they need to be. You have to make certain you’re careful with your discourse, as well as with your actions.
We didn’t beat our breasts a lot, and we didn’t try to sing our own praises, because, frankly, we recognized early on we didn’t do anything in isolation on anything.
What mistakes did you make while serving as Montana’s governor? What would you have done differently if given a second chance? I’m sure we may have made a lot of tactical mistakes in terms of when you did something and how you did it. I don’t have a litany or a list of those mistakes, but I would never claim to be without blemish. But I’m not burdened by any mistakes either, because I know that I tried my hardest, and I know I always acted in good faith and in accordance with my principles. So I don’t leave with any burdens. The one regret I have is that we underestimated how fast we could move and how far we could move. Clearly, we wanted to do more. …
During your tenure as governor, the Yellowstone bison issue became one of your administration’s biggest controversies. Are you satisfied with the way the issue has been resolved so far? What more needs to be done? That has been there since 1967, but it got exacerbated over the course of the last four years. We’ve dealt with it in a principled and a thoughtful way, looking to the long run. There could have been some temporary solutions that were taken. There could have been some placebos. We could have sugar-coated the possible resolution of the issues. We refused to do that because we had more affection and interest in the long-term best interests of that bison herd than others who wanted simply to deal with it politically. We didn’t. We wanted to deal with it substantively, and we knew that unless we addressed the disease issues in a way that could bring about a healthy population—which would allow for us to have so many new options for them to be present in other places in the state of Montana and around the United States—that we weren’t doing the job the way it ought to be done.
There were some who wanted instantaneous gratification and relief from political problems, and so they pursued other solutions and they suggested other possibilities to what I think was sometimes a misinformed public. That brought tremendous pressure to bear. But we never wavered, and as a consequence, we’ve now executed an agreement [with federal management agencies].
It was painful. It was difficult. There were some who wanted to reduce it down to a case of ranchers versus those who loved the bison, between those of us who loved industry and those of us who loved nature. Those were all false choices. For those who really understood the complexity of the problem, I think they’ve understood what it was we were trying to do. We’re delighted that we have this possibility now for a management system that makes sense, that preserves the wild character of the herd, that moves toward eradication of [brucellosis], that preserves the special aspects of Yellowstone Park and offers the opportunity for people in the future for the American people to enjoy the wild bison herds not only here in Montana, but all over the country.
[From Chad Harder:] What about the policies that have caused so many bison to be slaughtered? Why do you use the word “slaughter?” The fact of the matter is that’s an incendiary device to conjure up, in my view, something that’s not taking place. The hazing is done in order to eliminate the requirement to take by lethal means any of those bison, because the area available to them now, as they’re diseased, is simply not adequate to take care of them. To suggest somehow that those of us involved from a governmental perspective are set about to slaughter or to enjoy in some fashion or to take without conscience any of those animals by lethal means is a fallacy. And quite frankly, it’s an insult. That’s because people want to understand it that way. They don’t want to understand the grays and the difficulties that were associated with reaching these solutions. But until such time we get that herd completely healthy, it’s going to require that there will be some animals taken with lethal means. But to call it slaughter is just simply not true. It’s a very, very painful decision to make. I didn’t like making it every single day. There was never one of those operations that had my express approval after being notified, and there was never one of them that wasn’t a level of last resort.
Deregulation of the state’s electrical utility industry is being called a mistake in some quarters. In light of rising utility costs, uncertain energy supplies, and the threat of continued uncertainty about prices and supply, do you think Montana was ready for deregulation? Absolutely, and you’re pointing to systems of a system that were going to manifest themselves at some point in time or another. There was no escaping deregulation. Congress set it in motion. It has swept the country, and Montana either got ahead of that particular wave of change, or Montana was going to be victimized by it. Increased energy prices, diminutions of supply, are all reflections of a market and a system that were going to manifest themselves at some point. We could have masked that over for a period of time with regulation, but inevitably it was going to be discovered. With rising consumption, we were going to be in a situation where we were going to be vulnerable. You simply have to, when all of us consume more energy products every single day, be willing to bring in more supply on line or diminish the amount that you consume. So there’s no question in my mind that our deregulation efforts have absolutely nothing to do with the dynamics that are being experienced by the nation. … Those who allege that the challenges we’re presently experiencing are the result of deregulation are hacking at the branches. They’re not striking at the root of the problem.
Economies on most of the state’s seven Indian reservations are in abysmal shape, and high unemployment continues to plague tribes. What should the state role be, if any, in helping tribes advance economic development? It should be just as strong and as focused and in many instances more intense than what occurs with virtually every other part of the state. I say more intense because there are special projects that can contribute that the state ought to be engaged in enthusiastically. I think the last Legislature took some exceedingly important steps in that direction, through the creation of the new [state-tribal economic development] commission, to bring about new economies on the reservations. You have to have a high level of cooperation that has to be maintained on a daily basis. We actually have much, much more in terms of cooperation than we ever had between the state and Indian nations. But there are some difficult issues that we’re confronted with. Taxation is one of them. Gaming. The control and regulation of natural resources is another.
We have in excess of 500 agreements with our Indian nations in Montana, a very high level of cooperation, and we have to build on that. But I think there, too, we are poised to make great progress. We as a state can be great partners. But what I’ve found is that you can’t oppressively direct those activities. There has to be a matter of choice on the part of each of our individual Indian nations, all of which are uniquely different.
When you became a primary spokesman for the Bush campaign over the presidential ballot counts in Florida, some observers say you showed an uncharacteristically partisan and hardened edge. Why did your public persona seem different in Florida than it has been in Montana? Did your immersion into national politics change something inside you? No. First of all, I don’t think there was any change. Those are the perceptions, I think, of a couple of commentators, but the overwhelming response that I’ve received is that in speaking to the issues that there was a call dispatched that was utilized, there was an analysis of the issues, that there was no hysteria and no derogatory commentary.
The bottom line to me is that it was like a case, and certainly I spoke with passion about it because quite frankly, what I saw convinced me that it was a process that was inherently incapable of producing a result that was trustworthy. Not because there were bad people involved in the process. It was just simply that it was not possible to produce a result any more credible than the result that was produced by the election process itself. I did speak about those issues with a great deal of conviction, but I don’t think that the tone nor the issues that I described were in any way hyperbolic or beyond what I would have been utilizing in reference to any other issue that I felt a conviction about. I think we overwhelmingly have the facts and law on our side, and I think that’s ultimately what happened.
In 1978, while serving as chief of the attorney general’s county prosecutor services, you were involved with a controversy in the Helena School District over the banning of the popular book, Our Bodies, Ourselves. Speaking in favor of removing the book from school shelves, you were quoted as saying you were “sick and tired of hearing the cry of censorship” when publications of questionable value were under fire. At the time, you also said, “We’ve genuflected at the altar of free speech for too long,” and that the publication was “so laced with smut that it degrades the entire book.” Do you still think free-speech provisions go too far, or have the years tempered your feelings about book banning and censorship? The premise of the question is totally inaccurate and frankly, that’s an issue that has long since been settled. My point in discussing that issue was—had they done a full analysis of what it was that took place, what they would have found was that there was a discussion by parents about whether or not this particular book was appropriate to be utilized in an unfettered way within the schools here in Helena.
I went there as a parent, made it very plain that I was a parent, and listened to discussion for a long period of time. At some point in time during the discussion, someone in the audience or one of the witnesses reflected that this was an issue that the school board was not entitled to deal with because it dealt with the First Amendment. My point was that the First Amendment allows for this discussion, that you just don’t make a hollow gesture toward it and preclude further discussion, that you don’t genuflect and then thereby end the opportunity for a full and complete discussion.
So the point that was perceived by that question was the exact opposite of the point I was trying to make, and that is that the First Amendment allows for the expansion of thought and discussion, not for its contraction, and that we have a perfect right under the First Amendment to discuss that in that particular hearing in a way that we felt was appropriate for parents to be discussing those issues. And that with young people, particularly those under the age of 16, there was not a full array of constitutional rights that were available within a custodial setting like a school where there was compulsory attendance required, that it had been litigated over the years and the Supreme Court had reflected that.
We were doing nothing wrong by discussing this issue and whether or not it was appropriate to be made available within our school systems. So I think there were substantial misapprehensions of what it was the discussion was about and efforts to try and place it in a light that I don’t think was an accurate representation. ...
It’s been dissected and gone over and over again. I know what took place because I was there. I accurately reflected the law then and now. But quite obviously I probably underestimated the incendiary nature of the potential discussion, and I may have been somewhat naive in believing that I could discuss this issue in constitutional and legal terms without generating a great deal of concern on the part of other people. But I think I was right on the law then, and I think I’m right on the law now.
What’s the best advice you could give Gov. Judy Martz as she takes over your job? Do you see any role for yourself in her administration? Unless she were to call upon me and ask for some advice or counsel, I don’t see any role for me to play. I think, frankly, that it’s the same advice I’d give anybody serving in public office or doing anything else that requires a responsible course of conduct to be pursued. That is that you study very carefully, you listen closely to those that have thoughts and intuitions to offer, and then you try to do what you think is the right thing to be done in accordance with the principles that have guided your life. That’s all the advice I would give anybody, because I recognize there is a diversity of opinion and thought that should be advanced into the marketplace, always. You don’t always have the best thoughts. You have thoughts that are entitled to respect and consideration. But you have to recognize that as a matter of your own capability, you don’t have the only thoughts, and that usually the best policy revolutions that come about are a reflection of thoughts coming from a number of different centers of interest and energy and trying to accommodate the best interests of all the people who may be impacted by the decisions that are going to be made.