Who Cares?

Well, yeah, we all do. But Montanans have a lot of things to vote on in this primary election other than Hillary and Barack—including the future of the state.

It’s the sexy race, and we know how hard you’ve worked to keep up with it.

You may have waited in a shivering line of guitar-playing, photo-snapping fans in the bitter cold outside the Butte Civic Center just to see them. You may have stood with hands in the air, confused, bewildered, and a little flattered as Secret Service agents appeared, wanded your torso and patted you down, just so you could shake their hand. You may have found yourself slumped over a drink listening to them beamed in via conference phone at the Doubletree Hotel on a caucus night in Missoula that never seemed to end. You may have filed through a metal detector at the Adams Center, or hit up multiple times for money from their campaigns, in person and over the phone.

In short, you’ve heard about, read about, cheered over—or perhaps even had your baby kissed by—Sen. Hillary Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama, or both. You’ve put in the time to know the two presidential hopefuls—and, if you’re a fan, enjoyed the elation—of their long, amazing primary fight to capture the Democratic nomination. If there’s one subject you don’t need help on, it’s the Clinton-Obama battle, and we here at the Indy know where our advice is not wanted.

That said, we think several non-presidential contests on this year’s primary ballot warrant your attention. Whether you’re in Missoula or other parts of western Montana, there are names and issues on each party’s primary ballot that will affect public schools, drug prevention programs, law enforcement, environmental issues, the future of state political leadership—and whether your property taxes rise. The winners of two races in particular will have a chance this November to win a seat on the State Land Board, which makes decisions about the state’s most prized resources and hottest issues, including logging, mining, and oil and gas exploration. Toss in some tight contests and unusual political personas, and you’ve got an epic horse race. Consider this a highlighter stroke across the June 3 ballot and a not-so-subtle reminder to do the most primary thing of all: Go vote.

Attorney General
Montana’s Attorney General (AG) makes decisions on a wide range of issues, from elderly abuse and stream access to labor, energy development, public lands, crime, conservation and agriculture. The AG’s role in state government is sweeping: Whoever wins in November will be head of the state Justice Department, the chief law enforcement officer and a member of the state Land Board, among other duties. The AG can also write legal opinions that carry the weight of state law.

Given all the clout it offers, it’s not surprising that the AG seat can be a conduit to higher office—boosting Marc Racicot to the governor’s office and an appointment as chair of the Republican National Committee, for example. Historically, it’s been a position for prominent political veterans, including heavyweights like Republican Bob Woodahl and Democrats Joe Mazurek and Mike Greely.

Perhaps most important this political season, the winner of the AG race in November will take one of two open seats on the influential Land Board (with the other vacancy to be filled by the winner in the state superintendent of public instruction race).

Now dominated four-to-one by Democrats, the Land Board decides how Montana’s 5.1 million acres of state-owned land and 6.1 million sub-surface acres of state-owned mineral rights are developed. So if you think energy development, timber sales and public lands management are important issues, keep those things in mind when you cast your vote for attorney general and the superintendent of public schools.

The Democratic lineup of AG hopefuls boasts impressive and competitive candidates with rock-solid credentials. They’re so well qualified, in fact, that many Democrats privately lament having so many of them in one political basket.

Steve Bullock, from Helena, has an impeccable resume, including a law degree from Columbia University and a professorship at George Washington University School of Law in Washington, D.C., Bullock will tell you he built his career in 400-person law firms in D.C. and New York before returning home to Montana to specialize in public interest law. He eventually served as a deputy attorney general and helped write an influential opinion on stream access law. He’s also worked on labor issues, notably his 2006 directorship of Raise Montana, a group that proposed and lobbied for Montana’s minimum wage increase, which was approved by 73 percent of voters.

In 1990 Bullock ran the Montana Democrats’ Coordinated Campaign, a grassroots machine that delivered statewide races through old-school field organizing. He was also a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1992 and ran Joe Mazurek’s successful first campaign for AG that year.

John Parker is no slouch, either. His campaign strategy has been to stress his legislative and prosecutorial experience, including the fact that he’s put away a lot of bad guys, winning felony convictions in domestic violence, meth possession, attempted homicide, and child sexual abuse cases, among others. As a Cascade County prosecutor, Parker became the highest-ranking Democratic House member and chair of the Law and Justice Interim Committee. Parker got his undergraduate degree at Georgetown University and received his law degree from the University of Montana’s School of Law. At campaign appearances, and in his ads and campaign literature, he emphasizes his close relationship with the law enforcement community—ties that were forged during the 850-plus cases he says he’s handled—and offers insights on the nuts and bolts of Montana’s justice system.

Mike Wheat is another candidate who has carved out a strong base of support, in Missoula and beyond. Hours before the April 5 Mansfield-Metcalf event began in Butte, Wheat–dressed in boots, jeans, a Carhart jacket and heavy cap—joined a handful of supporters in the blistering wind and cold to hand out coffee and campaign literature to the hundreds of people huddled in line waiting to see Barack and Hillary. (Other candidates held court inside, where it was warm and the drinks and food were plentiful. But Wheat and Monica Lindeen, the Democratic candidate for state auditor, were the key people canvassing out in the freezing temperatures.)

Wheat is a decorated veteran: He volunteered to be a Marine and served as a machine gunner and sniper in the Vietnam War, receiving a Purple Heart for combat valor. Upon returning home, he went to Montana State University (MSU) and got his law degree at the UM School of Law. After working as a criminal prosecutor for Butte-Silver Bow County, he started a private law practice in Bozeman, and in 2002 was elected to the State Senate. Since then he’s served as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and as a member of the Natural Resources Committee, the Law and Justice Interim Committee and the Environmental Quality Council.

Beyond their obvious political qualifications, the Republican AG candidates share an odd combination of scientific training and legal experience: they know what’s under the earth, and also know what laws regulate its removal.

Lee Bruner volunteered to serve in the Air Force and, after his four-year stint, got his undergraduate degree in physics from MSU and his law degree from UM. In 1995, he started his legal career at one of the state’s most well known law firms, the Butte-based Poore, Roth, and Robinson; he became a partner in 2000. Bruner has also taught environmental law at Montana Tech in Butte and says he’s worked in construction and as a miner.

Tim Fox received his undergraduate degree in geology as well as a law degree from UM. His legal career includes commercial, criminal, resource and real estate law in both the public and private sector, ranging from work as an attorney for the Montana Board of Oil and Gas to work for the Helena-based law firm Gough, Shanahan, Johnson, and Waterman. His lengthy public service record includes time as a special assistant to the Attorney General, a contract public defender for the city of Billings, a member of the state banking board, and a campaign staffer for former Gov. Marc Racicot.

Superintendent of Public Instruction
A lineup of candidates equally as qualified as those in the AG’s race—all with a blend of classroom and administrative experience—are competing for the vacant seat left by current school superintendent, Democrat Linda McCullough, who is running for secretary of state.

The superintendent, elected to four-year terms, is also the head of Montana’s Office of Public Instruction (OPI), overseeing the state’s K-12 schools and school districts. The superintendent can also take the lead on legislative initiatives, such as full-day kindergarten, a hot topic during the last legislature.

The Democratic side of this race includes four strong candidates. Denise Juneau’s extensive teaching background—she’s taught everything from English to speech and debate—is bolstered by a master’s degree in education from Harvard, a law degree from UM, and experience working as a division head for OPI.

Claudette Morton, a former Glasgow high school English teacher and director of the Montana Rural Education Center, received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at UM.

Former Republican state legislator Sam Kitzenberg, perhaps best known in today’s political circles for his party switch during the last legislative session, carries himself like the principal you wished you’d had back in your trouble-making days—all warmth and smiles. He’s hammered out plenty of education legislation, after spending six years on the House Education Committee and eight years on the Senate Education Committee.

Fourth-term State Representative Holy Raser adds to her 26 years in the classroom a variety of legislative experience, including the sponsoring of two OPI funding bills and education-related committee work.

All of the Democratic candidates slam President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act for what they say are the unfair and unfunded burdens the legislation places on schools. Each candidate also has classroom experience and lays out the importance of responsibly generating school revenue from public lands and from the abundant resources beneath them. (Revenue generated through mineral, oil, and gas leases, timber sales, and animal grazing on public lands goes directly into the state’s school trust, forming the bulk of the OPI’s budget.)

The lone GOP candidate in the race is Elaine Sollie Hermann. She’s a stockbroker and former teacher from Helena who, curiously, highlights her endorsement by the National Rifle Association before all others, including her endorsement from former OPI chief Ed Argenbright. Hermann’s campaign materials describe education as a “prized product,” and “parents as the customers.” With 23 years experience as a small business owner and registered investment advisor, she says she would slash education spending and instill more “business sense” in the education system.

Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s approval ratings are at record highs—running to more than 70 percent, according to polls. His running mate, Republican Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger, has been all but disowned by the state GOP, which wouldn’t even invite him to its last convention. Together, the two candidates appear firmly in control of the race.

The ticket’s two most visible primary challengers—Don Pogreba and Jason Neiffer—have managed to gain a bit of media attention, but we’ll likely have a hard time remembering their names after June 3. Still, the challengers are doing their best to amplify criticisms of Schweitzer and highlight key issues around the state.

On the Democratic side, Helena bloggers Pogreba and Neiffer (catch their drift at criticize Schweitzer for what they call his shortcomings in the legislature and his failures when it comes to educational funding. The two candidates, both of them high school teachers, have used the primary as a bully pulpit, making education a more prominent issue in the race while drawing attention to recent controversies surrounding the state’s constitutional obligations to provide adequate funds for schools. This all comes as the Montana Supreme Court readies to hear a controversial case in September examining whether the state has indeed given public schools the money they need to receive. Schweitzer has argued that schools have enough money; critics say schools need more funds to provide a quality education.

If the Democratic challengers are nipping at Schweitzer’s heels on various issues, GOP primary front-runner Roy Brown is going for his whole damn leg.

An oilman and former state legislator from Billings, Brown likes to talk about increased mining and resource extraction, but he likes talking about Schweitzer even more. After announcing his candidacy last fall, for example, Brown’s first statewide campaign tour was for the most part a Schweitzer slam-fest. (At a private airport hangar outside Missoula, Brown spent some 20 minutes going negative on the governor.) Although he has since expanded his repertoire to other issues, including his desire to cut state spending and expand energy development, his attacks on Schweitzer have continued.

From his first job working as an oilfield roughneck through his education in petroleum engineering at Montana Tech, Brown’s oil career has taken him around the globe. His running mate, Steve Daines, is an entrepreneur who spent much of his career working both in the United States and Asia for Procter & Gamble. In 2000, after he returned to Montana, Daines started Right Now Technologies—today Bozeman’s largest commercial employer, marketing customer service products to businesses and governments around the world. Daines is the company’s vice president and general manager for the Asia-Pacific region.

Daines made a mark in the political world in 2007, when he co-founded, a nonprofit demanding that Schweitzer return to taxpayers the state’s historic budget surplus. This election season he was also the Montana campaign chairman for presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee.

Following the GOP party line, Brown and Daines say they support more rapid (and less regulated) growth in the state’s energy development sector, especially when it comes to resource extraction on state-owned lands.

United States Senator
There’s a clear message in Max Baucus’ campaign website, which shows him standing atop a mountain in Glacier National Park, eyeing the view. He’s king of the hill. But with lemming-like fearlessness, a handful of Senate challengers aren’t getting the message.

They should be. The Baucus machine boasts statewide campaign offices, a television and radio campaign, and a mountain of political capital. In a June 2007 Mason-Dixon poll, 60 percent of Montana voters surveyed said they’d re-elect Baucus. Little has happened since then to suggest his popularity has waned.

Baucus’ last challenger, Republican Mike Taylor, in 2002, won only 103,000 votes to Baucus’ 204,853. Taylor had withdrawn from the race after oppostion television ads showed early 1980s footage of him wearing gold chains and an open-necked disco-style suit while applying lotion to a man’s face. The ad implicated Taylor in a student loan scam. Taylor thought it made him look gay.

So who’s going under the bus this time? A Democrat with any sense or hope of a political career knows better than to challenge Baucus. So Democrats have only one choice on the ballot: Max.

Of the Republicans eager to get slaughtered there is State Representative Mike Lange. You might remember his curse-ridden temper tantrum caught on tape during the last legislative session and widely viewed on YouTube.

A more serious candidate, Kirk Bushman, brings another MSU engineering degree to the statewide ticket. Bushman’s stance, following traditional conservative lines, is pro-gun and anti-abortion; he also says he aims to cut government spending, protect the country from terrorists and keep illegal immigrants out.

Missoula’s own Patty Lovaas is also itching to see the front bumper of the Baucus bus right up close. The local accountant has criticized what she calls Baucus’ ties to big donations and big companies. Her bumper stickers declare, “Give Max the axe. Montana is not for sale.”

If you’re not looking for mainstream GOP appeal, though, check out 84-year-old Bob Kelleher. Now in his 16th run for public office, Kelleher first made a bid in 1964 and has graced the Democratic, Green Party and, now, the Republican ticket; he’s arguing, meanwhile, for a parliamentarian form of government. His website displays him wearing a black-and-white striped railroad conductor’s cap, a bright red bandana tied around his neck, and an American flag in his hand. Kelleher is actually the only candidate on this GOP ticket who’s gone up against Baucus before. The last time, in 2002, he fetched 7,653 votes.

St. Regis trucker Anton Pearson is probably the most working-class of any of the candidates. His website tells a life story probably better cast for a book than a campaign–including years of logging, farming, hauling timber, picking rocks, and trucking across the northwest. He worked as an oil rigger, as well, and doesn’t hide the fact that he logged old growth forests in both Oregon and Montana.

County and district levies
Two levies will also appear on your Missoula County Ballot. The first, the Missoula County Prevention Programs Levy, seeks a permanent tax that would raise $368,920 annually to support county substance abuse prevention programs. Early prevention is all the buzz in drug rehab and social service circles, and the hope of getting permanent funding for a Missoula County startup is both noble and a worthy a cause. Yet raising property taxes to support such programs is precisely the kind of thing fiscal conservatives, and low-income or fixed-income homeowners generally don’t like. On the other hand, the county is not asking for much. The measure would raise annual taxes on a $100,000 home by just over six bucks per year, and on a $200,000 home by $12.28. According to the measure, the programs would actually reduce the costs of substance abuse, preventing young people from getting involved with drugs and addiction in the first place.

The Clinton Rural Fire District Levy proposes to permanently increase Clinton’s tax levy by 12.89 mills. This would boost taxes on a $100,000 home by $26 a year, or by $52 annually for a $200,000 home. The funds would go to the Clinton Rural Fires District to supplement its general budget.

Rural fire district funding has become an ever-more-controversial issue at the federal and state level, and also in communities like Clinton, which still rely on volunteer fire departments. Federal and state grant funding that typically finds its way to these volunteer outfits has dwindled in the past two years, while fire seasons have grown more fierce and expensive (Montana’s season last year was one of the costliest to date).

Levies themselves are highly contested and seen by many as a tax, something not popular in areas where fixed- and low-income families and retirees have a hard time shouldering extra financial burdens.

Other races of import
This November, voters will elect 25 state senators to four-year terms and 100 House of Representative members to two-year terms. Among the candidates are some surprising political personas whose signs are showing up on lawns around this part of the state. Among the more intriguing contests, there’s:

House District 91
Democratic State Representative Kevin Furey, who grew up in the Bonner area, first came onto the radar screen back in 2004 when the then 21-year-old UM ROTC cadet scored a State House seat in this primarily rural, working class swing district, where residents have been hit by layoffs, a declining timber industry, and a massive federal Superfund cleanup. Furey won the seat again in 2006. But when he was shipped out to Iraq in 2007, he nominated his father, Tim Furey, to replace him, and Democratic leaders approved the appointment. Today the elder Furey, a former Stimson mill worker, is campaigning for the seat.

Tim Furey has been consistently and noticeably involved with local political groups and progressive organizations, and has a well-developed career in nonprofit and foundation fundraising, most recently as director of development for Opportunity Resources, a group that provides services for the disabled. (Kevin, now back from Iraq, has moved to Helena to take a lead job developing energy projects with the Schweitzer administration, and did not want to run for office again.)

Furey’s Democratic challenger in the primary is Missoula’s Dustin Hankinson, a UM senior who has spent seven years lobbying the state legislature on behalf of the disabled, and is eager to get a shot at crafting health care legislation. Hankinson has muscular dystrophy, which leaves him wheelchair bound. With his legislative know-how and personal experience, he promises to be a strong voice for patients and the disabled.

Only one Republican, Walt Hill of Seeley Lake, is a candidate for this seat. In 2006, Hill—a professor in UM’s biological sciences department—ran unsuccessfully for the Rattlesnake’s House District 92 and lost by more than 1,000 votes to Democrat Robin Hamilton.

House District 97
Another young Democrat and UM graduate, State Representative Michele Reinhart, is the incumbent in the Democratic primary. After working as a lobbyist, planner and graduate student, she became the legislature’s youngest female representative, entering the House as a 26-year-old after crushing her 2006 GOP opponent, Pascal Redfern, by more than 1,700 votes. An accomplished legislator, she has sponsored 12 bills, seven of them enacted; she also boasts a 100 percent voting record with the Montana Conservation Voters, a group that grades politicians on environmental issues.

Her Democratic opponent, James Boone, an arts and crafts salesman, has little political experience aside from supporting ballot measures like the 2006 Healthy Kids Initiative, which sought to expand health care coverage to more than 30,000 uninsured children in the state, and the 1993 Homeowners’ Bill of Rights, which attempted to give homeowners more power in their relationships with homeowners’ associations. Boone says he’s looking to cut government spending and increase oil drilling on public lands, and wants to investigate the state’s recent student loan crisis. He’s also concerned about Montana’s high suicide rate and is in favor of measures like the Missoula County Prevention Programs Levy, in order to support such things as substance abuse prevention programs.

The Democratic winner will face “conserva-blogger” Republican Carol Minjares (the woman behind, who is unopposed in the primary.

Senate District 47
On the Senate side, many Missoulians who enjoy using the vast patchwork of public lands to the south and east of town are keenly tuned in to the race pitting current State Rep. Ron Erickson against former Missoula City Council member and four-term State Rep. Rosie Buzzas. Both Democrats have formerly represented House District 93, the rural half of a district that includes the Pattee Canyon Recreation Area, the Lolo National Forest and other recreation hotspots. As a result, both have largely been campaigning on conservation issues, trying to look like the best pro-environment candidate.

Erickson nabbed an endorsement from the Montana Conservation Voters. Meanwhile, both he and Buzzas have served on the House Natural Resources Committee, a key channel for enviro-action. This will be a race worth watching, as no Republican opponent faces them after the primary—whoever wins gets the prize.

And who wins the prize in the bigger picture? The voters, one should hope. Or, as the old saying goes, be careful what you vote for, because you just might get it.

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