Middle Man

Is Lieutenant Governor John Bohlinger a bridge builder or a bridge burner? The answer depends on who you ask.


John Bohlinger turns 73 in April. But he isn’t the type to slow down. His day starts at 6:30 when he rifles out 100 sit-ups and 50 pushups before washing down a bowl of cereal with three cups of coffee. Then, Bohlinger, the lieutenant governor of Montana, and his new wife Karen, both practicing Catholics, hold a daily Bible study. He’s at the capital by 8:30 where—despite his religious conviction and political affiliation—he sides with liberals when it comes to gay marriage and other forms of conservative kryptonite. Yet to see Bohlinger, you wouldn’t know it. The man sports a wardrobe more traditional than Christmas; he prefers to wear bowties.

He is an aging newlywed, a spry senior citizen, a traditional progressive, and a liberal Republican who works for a Democrat—a collection of contradictions that paint a picture of an individual who’s never been afraid to buck the status quo, so long as it’s the right thing to do.

Bohlinger has defined his career by thumbing his nose at his own party—more so than any other politician in Montana. He claims politics have never played into his decisions; a good idea is a good idea, he says, no matter which side of the aisle promotes it. In fact, he spent so much time as a legislator banging heads with other Republicans that in 2004, when Gov. Brian Schweitzer invited Bohlinger to take a run with him at the governor’s office, he accepted. For that, the state GOP pretty much excommunicated him—but that’s probably how he wants it. You see, the dichotomy extends to his temperament as well. John Bohlinger, a man whose handshake is firm, whose smile is genuine, who rarely speaks a bad word to anybody, is not afraid to kick your ass.

“Let me tell you a story,” says Schweitzer, recalling one Friday afternoon on the campaign trail in 2004 when Schweitzer and Bohlinger shoved their way into a crowded Bozeman bar to shake hands.

“So I’m working my way down and this place is shoulder to shoulder, completely full,” he says. “But there were two really big guys there.” Turns out the two were brothers, the younger of whom played offensive line in the National Football League. “The older brother,” Schweitzer says, “was just drunk.” As Schweitzer circulated through the bar, he noticed that Bohlinger hadn’t moved since they walked in.

“The little brother had walked up to John,” Schweitzer says, “and the first thing out of his mouth, he says, ‘Mister, I don’t like men who wear bowties.’ And John, he’s about 70 years old, and he looked right at him—well, not right at him, because he had to look up quite a ways—and he said, ‘Well mister, I don’t like people who tell me that they don’t like people who wear bowties.” Schweitzer hustled Bohlinger out of the bar before the situation could escalate.

“That’s John Bohlinger,” Schweitzer says. “He’s a perfect gentleman, but he doesn’t back down from a fight. He’s cut right out of the middle of what’s best about Montana.”

Schweitzer certainly loves the idea of John Bohlinger, a man who looks to his conscience rather than his party to shape his politics. And so, apparently, does the electorate. But whether Bohlinger comes across as a truly principled statesman or the ultimate ploy in Schweitzer’s political machinations is a question that probably won’t end in a bipartisan consensus.

In 2003, as the state Senate considered HB 2, the general fund appropriations bill, a tight budget forced the legislators into an ideological battle. Should they strip services or raise taxes? Senate Republicans had decided to cut daycare funding for young mothers and drug funding for the mentally ill, Bohlinger says. Those cuts troubled him, but “the straw that broke this camel’s back” came when Republicans axed 50,000 meals from the Meals on Wheels program. “What do you tell someone if that’s their means,” Bohlinger says. “That they have to go on a diet?”

Rather than assuage his Republican counterparts, Bohlinger stepped left and threw up his dukes. He jabbed the funding problem with a 1-2-3 combo: SB 309 would have raised taxes on cigarettes from 18 cents per pack to 60 cents, generating $54 million per year for education; SB 353 would have boosted the state’s hotel/motel tax from 4 percent to 9 percent; and SB 466, a selective 4 percent sales tax. Bohlinger’s sales tax didn’t target groceries, pharmaceuticals or thrift store purchases—necessities for the impoverished, Bohlinger says—but it would have generated more than $500 million, despite a concurrent 25 percent reduction in property taxes.

“There was a little something in there for everybody,” he says. Nevertheless, Bohlinger lost. None of the three bills made it to Gov. Judy Martz’s desk. Instead, the legislature adopted SB 407, Martz’s bill, a much-amended compromise which raised taxes on a variety of goods and services, lowered income taxes and frustrated pretty much everybody.

“I was disappointed,” Bohlinger says now, “but that’s just the way it goes.”

Bohlinger says such disappointments are a fact of life in the legislature, where lawmakers guard their bills “like babies.”

“You can’t carry hard feelings because somebody doesn’t agree with you,” he says. “That’s just the way it is.”

Easy for him to say, perhaps, but harder to live. His daughter, Jeanne Cox, says her father suffered from the legislative battles.

“He would feel strongly about something, and people would come down on him, and he’d be very upset,” she says. “I can remember lots of times he’d just agonize over things. But I asked him later when he was lieutenant governor, I said, ‘I bet you’re glad you’re off the floor and away from all that fighting’ and he said, ‘You know, I kinda miss it.’”

In 2004, as Schweitzer prepared for his first run at the governor’s mansion, he let it be known that he sought a running mate, Schweitzer says several people suggested John Bohlinger, the Republican who had stood up to his own party, so the two arranged a meeting in Billings.

“We discovered that although I’m a moderate Republican and he’s a conservative Democrat, our values are really very closely aligned,” Bohlinger says.

In a political gamble, Schweitzer named Bohlinger as his running mate, drawing the ire of both parties.

“I was naïve enough to think that people would say, ‘Oh that’s a great idea,’” Schweitzer says. “But I had underestimated the level of partisanship that had grown in this state and this country over the years.

“He got calls right away from people that said ‘what in the heck is the matter with you?’” Schweitzer continues. “I got calls. We just quit taking calls. My mother, who is a lifetime Democrat, called me and asked if I had lost my mind.” 

Despite the backlash, the two won the primary and then, the general election. It was the first time since Montana adopted a new constitution in 1972 that voters had elected a governor and a lieutenant on a bipartisan ticket.

The statute establishing the office of the lieutenant governor is quite loose. Here is what John Bohlinger (or any other lieutenant governor) may do:

a) Prescribe rules for the administration of the office.

b) Hire personnel for the office and establish policy to be followed by personnel.

c) Compile and submit a budget for the office.

That’s it. The last clause of the statute delegates the authority over Bohlinger’s job to Schweitzer:

2) The lieutenant governor shall perform the duties provided by law and those delegated by the governor.

When Martz appointed Karl Ohs as her lieutenant governor, she gave Ohs some advice: “I said, ‘Karl, this can be the best job you ever had, or it can be a job where you just ride,” Martz says. She had served as lieutenant governor under Mark Racicot before assuming the top executive role herself. She lobbied for the governor’s office, advocated for volunteer service, took on water issues, and addressed community concerns.
“I spoke throughout the state about what the governor’s office was doing. I attended hearings. You’re very, very busy,” she says.

The hardest part, she says, is to avoid screwing things up for the boss. “I think the most important job [of the lieutenant governor] is to work for the people and not get the governor in trouble,” she says.

Common sense says that particular facet of the job, watching the governor’s back, would be more challenging with a bipartisan ticket. After all, how does a Republican remain true to his party without angering his Democrat boss? Martz offers a simple explanation.

“If you check Bohlinger’s record, he voted Democrat most of the time anyway,” she says.

Rep. Denny Rehberg, who served as lieutenant governor under both Stan Stephens and Marc Racicot, says toeing the line can be difficult even when sharing the political corner with your boss.

“What’s hard is not saying something counterproductive or contrary to what the governor is trying to accomplish,” Rehberg says. “If you have a rogue lieutenant governor out there doing their own thing, it doesn’t work so well.”

During his stint in second chair, Rehberg recalls helping reform workers’ compensation in Montana, creating a family residency program and heading up the drought advisory committee. He assembled a group of agencies to help finance a program to get state employees to focus on how their agencies affected economics, and he also vetted all the governor’s nominees for boards and commissions.

Like Martz, Bohlinger represents the governor’s office around the state. Last year, speaking engagements included the West Yellowstone centennial celebration, the Montana hydrology conference, the White Sulphur Springs High School graduation and the Montana Indian Education Alliance, to name a few.

And like Rehberg, he also chairs or co-chairs a heap of committees: the Corrections Advisory Council, the Drought Advisory Committee, the Council on Homelessness, the Montana Canadian Provinces and Relations Advisory Council, the St. Mary’s Canal Rehabilitation and the Work Comp Labor Management Advisory Council.

“I’ve got plenty to do,” Bohlinger says. “I think some lieutenant governors in the past weren’t as busy because the governor didn’t want them to have as high a profile job. But I get to do a lot of important things. It’s surely a privilege.”

Ironically, Bohlinger attributes his busy workload to his membership in a rival political party—and a close friendship with Schweitzer.

“Ours is a friendship that unlike a lot of governor/lieutenant governor relationships, is unique because he knows I’m never going to run against him,” Bohlinger says.

On the surface, Bohlinger’s ascent to the lieutenant governor’s office represents a startling disruption to partisan politics as usual. He’s the all-time quarterback in a game of touch football—not concerned with the outcome, only that the game is played well. But Rep. Scott Mendenhall R-Clancy, says that despite the appearance, winning, not sportsmanship, is the only motivation for Bohlinger’s appointment.

“This governor is about sound bites, and he knows that giving the appearance of bipartisanship plays well with the electorate,” says Mendenhall, the House minority floor leader. “You’ll notice that Lieutenant Governor Bohlinger clearly is not in on anything substantive. They’re careful about where and how they utilize him, and he serves a role. And that’s to give an appearance. I think if John was honest with himself, he’d recognize what it is and what it isn’t.

“John is a gentleman and a nice guy and likeable,” Mendenhall continues. “I think we can all agree about that. I think that John is about the only one in Montana that agrees that he’s a Republican. I think he’s frankly just arm candy for the governor.”

As Bohlinger sips a cup of soup in the Capitol cafeteria, two Senate Republicans, Kelly Gebhardt and Keith Bales, take a seat at the adjacent table. With the duo in earshot, talking politics feels uncomfortable. It’s a relief when they leave.

Bohlinger will tell you differently, but his relationship with the Republican Party is frosty. In fact, aside from Mendenhall, no member of the Republican leadership in the House or the Senate spoke on the record about Bohlinger. Liane Johnson, the chairwoman of the state GOP, also declined comment through the woman who answered the phone at party headquarters: “Is this about Bohlinger?” she asks. “I think we’re going to decline to comment since he isn’t really in the party anymore.”

In the summer of 2007, the state GOP barred Bohlinger from attending the Republican State Convention. Yet in December, U.S. Sen. John McCain tapped Bohlinger to chair his Montana presidential campaign. The following January, Erik Iverson, chairman of the state GOP at the time, invited Bohlinger to speak at the Republican Winter Kickoff to answer questions from fellow Republicans, but Bohlinger, honeymooning with Karen in China, declined the invitation. Shortly after, McCain dumped Bohlinger in favor of former U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns.

Despite the history, Bohlinger says he holds no ill will toward Republicans.

“Those two gentlemen we were sitting next to [Gebhardt and Bales], I served in the Senate with them, they’re good friends,” he says. “I think there are people on the management team that don’t like me. They think that I’ve crossed the line by joining with Brian.”

Rehberg, who says he’ll campaign for anyone in the GOP, dodges the question when asked if he would campaign for Bohlinger.

“There are different kinds of candidacies and campaigns and such,” Rehberg says. “I stay out of primaries. I always like to support the victor of our primary. If he were to run for office, I would assume there would be a Republican primary, and I would have to wait and see how it turns out.”

In January, Bohlinger wrote to Johnson, the state GOP chair, to congratulate her on her appointment.

“I hope you will consider inviting me back into the fold,” he wrote. “Ever since I joined Brian Schweitzer, party operatives have denied me the right to attend functions and speak at gatherings. Please reconsider this stance.”

In her reply, Johnson wrote: “First, and most importantly, your decision appeared to be a public rejection of the ideals and standards that Republicans, and voters, expected you to represent and uphold as a self-professed Republican.

“Second,” she continued, “although you continue to call yourself a Republican, candidates running for federal, state, county and local offices on the Republican ticket did so without any support from you in your position as lieutenant governor.”

Mendenhall shares the sentiment. “When the governor unleashes on the Republicans in the legislative branch and paints us with broad brush strokes—quotes that we’re up here drinking whiskey and eating thick steaks and on the take from lobbyists, John goes along with that through his tacit approval,” he says.

Democrats, however, can’t get enough of him.

Assistant Senate Minority Leader Jesse Laslovich: “I think he assists the governor in a very compelling and credible way because John is extraordinarily well respected.”

House Majority Whip Shannon Augare: “John is a man who stands by his values and lives each day serving the people of Montana well.”

“I think the world of John Bohlinger,” says Montana Democratic Party Chair Dennis McDonald. “I think he’s one of the finest people I’ve ever known.”

Ask any Montana Democrat. If he or she knows Bohlinger, chances are, you’re likely to get the same response.

Today, John and Karen visit a Helena veterans’ clinic, a bright, welcoming place a far cry from the battlefields most of the patients there endured. They fought in Vietnam, Korea, World War II and, in one case, Iraq. Bohlinger, who served in the Marines, draws heavily on his enlisted experience and also that of his stepson as he meets them. An improvised explosive device in Iraq left Karen’s son with a traumatic brain injury. Bohlinger’s experience helps him empathize with the patients, but he is quick to distinguish his service from theirs. His active duty coincided with the peace of the late ’50s, after Korea and before Vietnam, and he likes to say that the only shooting he saw took place on the rifle range. Without a battlefield, Bohlinger fought inside the boxing ring as a bruising welterweight, which may or may not have shaped his future legislative career.

After his discharge, he returned to the University of Montana to finish a degree in business. He also married Bette Cobetto and moved back to Billings where the two would spend the next 47 years together and raise six kids. All was well until 2006 when Bette died of leukemia, the same disease that took Bohlinger’s father.

Life with Bette and the children contrasted sharply with Bohlinger’s own adolescent years, which, for all intents and purposes, ended when he was 14. His father died that year, leaving him with a slew of extra responsibilities.

“His mother really had a tough time,” says his daughter. “I think there was a time for him when it was really hard for him to figure out where he fit. So joining the Marines and boxing, I think he was trying to figure out, who am I?”

Bohlinger took over the family business, a women’s apparel shop called Aileen’s in downtown Billings. He ran the place for 33 years, but politics, Bohlinger says, always attracted him. He served in student government for the first time in seventh grade, and wanted to continue the service where it mattered, in Helena. However, shirking the responsibilities surrounding six kids and a small business would have enraged his wife and “pissed off about half my customers,” he says. So he didn’t even bother asking Bette. Politics waited.

When he retired at 56 years of age, Bohlinger finally threw his hat in the political ring. Ultimately, he spent three terms in the state House before entering the Senate. From the beginning, though, he struggled with Republican ideology.

“He’s a fighter,” says Aaron Barnhart, a family friend. “Here’s a guy who establishes right from the get go that although he agrees with Republican principals, he’s not going to be a Judy Martz kind of Republican. He was just not that conservative.

“John’s opponents often talk trash about him not realizing that he gives as good as he gets,” Barnhart continues. “I think right-wingers in the party know this. It’s hard to imagine John Bohlinger as anything other than a Republican, but it’s hard to imagine a Republican like John Bohlinger.”

Bozeman Democrat Franke Wilmer’s position as a political science professor arms her with academic insight to complement her political observations. Wilmer, the House speaker pro tempore, contends that Bohlinger’s estrangement from the Republican Party is not a result of his politics moving left, but of the GOP moving right.

“Generally, people talk about the pendulum, which I think is largely a myth,” she says. What does happen, she says, is that when one party sits in power for a time, it starts to slide away from the moderate core of the party’s position and cater more and more—“It’s an indulgence if you will,” she says—toward the extremes.

Bohlinger is a Montana politician, but Wilmer frames his place within a national political context. In 2000, she says, as the GOP sought the presidency, party operatives rallied the conservative right. The strategy worked, handing George W. Bush the presidency, but as a result, Wilmer says, the Republicans emerged as a party of conservative ideologues. In that sense, Wilmer says, John Bohlinger’s Republican values aren’t moderate, just antiquated.

Despite his politics and his running mate, Bohlinger does not equivocate about his party affiliation and still refers to himself as a Republican. When asked why he identifies with the GOP, he sounds a predictable, statesman-like, chord.

“I don’t think the concerns I have should wear a political label,” he says. “I think everyone—Republican, Democrat, Libertarians—should be concerned about caring for the most vulnerable among us.”

But when it comes down to it, Republicans, like Bohlinger, are traditionally Spartan with their spending. His success with Aileen’s, he says, arose from his careful financial management, a traditional bulwark of the Republican platform. So when it came time to choose a political party, Bohlinger chose the one that reflected his own penny-pinching values.

Bohlinger never directly mentions it, but his faith plays into his politics as well. But he avoids the rigid moral judgment that stereotypically characterizes religious politics, emphasizing Christian charity instead. During Bohlinger’s 2003 Senate scuffle, he quoted scripture in his closing arguments. He reminded the senators that the 25th chapter of the gospel of Saint Matthew says feed the hungry, clothe the naked and care for the most vulnerable among us. “You’re ignoring that,” he says he told the Senate. “How can you allow that?”

Barnhart, the Bohlinger’s family friend, remembers one instance that drew Bohlinger’s faith into stark relief.

During Barnhart’s freshman year in high school, his father, who taught physics at Eastern Montana College (now MSU Billings), divorced Barnhart’s stepmother. Seeking an escape, the young Barnhart found solace in the book-lined basement of the science building. It became his second home.

“I remember one day, that John Bohlinger came down and he and my father talked about the marriage and how it hadn’t worked out,” Barnhart says. “And then they prayed together,” he remembers, noting that he’d never seen his father pray before. “That was for me, such an unusual act of compassion at the time. And although I would become very familiar with that act of compassion later on, at the time it was just out of the blue. It expressed a form of caring that I’m not sure I knew existed then.
“What sticks out in my memories is…this act of spiritual compassion and that wonderful silvery baritone voice booming out, and very confident, very warm. That’s the guy I know.”

After the visit to the veterans’ hospital, Karen climbs behind the steering wheel of her black Cadillac and takes a deep breath before she starts the car. Bohlinger, sitting shotgun, is clearly on a high after the visit. “That was really great,” he says—more than once.

“They were really happy to meet you, John,” she replies.

He’ll bring the same enthusiasm to a Missoula clinic a week later, but his trip to Missoula has other significance as well; he plans to move here in 2012. Unless he switches parties (he has no intention of doing so) Schweitzer’s last term will mark the end of John Bohlinger’s political career. Here again, Bohlinger strays from the pack. Martz, Rehberg—in fact, every lieutenant governor for the past 20 years —used the position as a springboard. (George Turman, whose term ended in 1989, was the last lieutenant governor to retire after his term.)

But Bohlinger, who stands one step below the top office in the state, burned the bridges he would need to get there. No matter. Once in Missoula, Bohlinger plans to return to college at the University of Montana. Cox, his daughter, who also teaches science at Hellgate High School, says her father has already started bugging her to keep an eye out for a condo that’s within walking distance of the University and also downtown. It’s not that Bohlinger wants to earn another degree; he’s happy with the one he’s got. He just wants to keep learning.

You can bet that Missoula’s liberal establishment will love the idea of John Bohlinger—an aging college student, an elderly newlywed and a progressive aficionado of bow ties—moving west after his term ends in 2012. Perhaps it’s fitting that he’ll immerse himself in academia, the world of ideas. If he can’t bridge the partisan divide in the real world while he’s in Helena, he can at least think about it in the contemplative sanctuary of the university, talk about it in class, and perhaps stir his fellow students to consider whether the idea of John Bohlinger, centrist statesman, exceeded the reality, or if personal principles really can trump politics.

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