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Ochenski: Leaderless in Montana

With the governor stumbling and parties in disarray, who’s in charge?


If you’re like most Montanans, you’re probably wondering what happened to our leaders—Republican, Democrat, New Party, Green or Independent. Suffering from a plethora of ills, our beloved state continues to fall in an out-of-control death spiral to the bottom of the heap. On the bright side, we won’t have far to fall, since we’re so close to the bottom already. But gallows humor aside, a quick look at Montana’s political parties, and the glaring inability of our so-called leaders, raises far more questions than answers.

Starting at the top, big changes recently occurred in the Governor’s Office when communications director Mary Jo Fox and press secretary Anastasia Burton—both Racicot leftovers—turned in their resignations. Ed Bartlett, former MPC lobbyist and the governor’s chief of staff, explained the resignations saying the administration wants to take “a different direction” with their communications office.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, it should come as no surprise that Governor Martz might want to make some changes. Six months into her term, Martz has garnered more bad press than any governor in recent memory. Granted, many of her negative reviews in editorials, letters to the editor, and even news stories have been generated by the governor’s own quotes. In a prime example, Martz dubbed herself a “lap dog” for industry. Most Montanans really have nothing against industry, especially since Montanans work more jobs than anyone else in the nation. But “lap dog” is not the kind of image we would choose for our governor. Had Governor Judy learned from this mistake, perhaps Fox and Burton might still have jobs trying to spin their way out of the bad press morass. But instead, the governor seems doomed to blurt out some horrendous quote on an almost weekly basis, far surpassing the “spin quotient” of Fox and Burton’s limited skills.

With Fox and Burton out, young Shane Hedges, the governor’s campaign manager turned chief policy advisor, has now taken over the communications office as well. Anyone who has spent time around Hedges knows he is a very bright young guy—and certainly he deserves a tremendous amount of credit for pulling off a Martz win when they were outspent three-to-one. But Shane is only 27 years old, and in spite of his talents, it is unrealistic to expect one so young to bring the kind of deep experience in government structure, funding, and operation that it would take to keep Governor Judy afloat in the stormy seas of conflict. On the other hand, since Hedges is now both thinking and speaking for the governor, perhaps he ought to just take over the job and save the $80,000 Judy is going to spend on her bodyguard. While it might seem rash to hand Montana over to a twentysomething, just ask yourself, could he do much worse?

If the Gov’s office seems to be in disarray, the Republican Party itself is likewise in the midst of significant changes. On the last day of the legislative session, House Majority Leader Paul Sliter (R-Kalispell) told Democratic critics that Republicans were “driving the bus” in Montana. When it came to which party had the most votes on legislative issues, Sliter was right. But after the Legislature adjourned, and perhaps because the R’s took it in the shorts over a session that was generally appraised as an abject failure, Republican Party executive director Mike Kiedrowski and party chairman Matt Denny decided to bail out. Granted, leadership changes in political parties are not exactly rare. What is unusual however, is that top-level operatives normally don’t leave when their party is in charge.

So why did they go? Perhaps because electricity deregulation was enacted under Republican control of the Legislature and governor’s office and the ensuing economic disaster threatens to wash that control away. Faced with such political quandaries, it is often very handy to find someone to blame—and past “leaders” make wonderful scapegoats.

Finally, there are the hapless Democrats. If you can’t remember who the Democrats are, that’s understandable—they have been silently ineffective for so long it’s not surprising that many would forget they even exist. Given every opportunity to offer viable alternatives to the Republicans’ continuing policy blunders, one would think the D’s would have no troubles these days. But that’s not the way it is. After more than a decade of losing major offices and faced with mounting pressure from within and without for new leadership, the D’s, as stubborn as their donkey mascot, refuse to change. Instead, executive director Brad Martin and party chairman Bob Ream are bunkered up in Helena, holding fast to their posts and the illusion of power that accompanies them. The recent moves by the AFL-CIO to replace their top staffers with more Republican-friendly faces—and the quick announcement that long-time taboos like a sales tax were now open for discussion—can only further weaken this stumbling party.

So what’s going on? Changes where no changes should be occurring and no changes where change seems mandatory. In the meantime, Montana flounders along like a ship with no captain, no rudder, no compass and no power. We are taking on water as the waves crash over us, but there’s no one to even pump the bilge and keep us afloat—much less lead us to a safe harbor. According to the laws of physics, Nature is supposed to abhor a vacuum, yet in our case Nature seems to have made an exception. Then again, perhaps our leadership vacuum is not a product of Nature at all, but exists simply because our current batch of politicians sucks so much.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski contributes to the Missoula Independent as its political analyst.

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