Wednesday, August 27, 2008
One of the big stars to emerge at the Democratic National Convention last night was bolo-wearing Montana governor Brian Schweitzer. As usual, OPC was all over this phenomenon a long time ago. Back in 2005, I persuaded Rolling Stone to commission a piece by me for the Hot Issue with Schweitzer cast as the Hot Politician. Also as usual, my perspicacity was not fully appreciated: A little thing named Katrina came along, and Sean Penn went down to New Orleans, and long story short, there wasn't room for my Schweitzer story.
Rolling Stone readers' loss is your gain, however. Here, in its entirety, is the coverage of the Hot Politician of 2005, Brian Schweitzer:
“Let me tell you why I can change the world,” Brian Schweitzer is saying from Beulah, North Dakota, home of the only plant in the U.S. making clean gas out of coal. “Montana alone has enough coal to use this process and produce all the fuels that we need for this country for the next forty years. Then the sheiks, the crooks, the dictators and the rats, they can drown in their own damn oil.”
It’s that kind of energy and forward thinking, combined with the fact that he’s a progressive in a traditionally red state, that has catapulted the man who’s been in the Montana governor’s mansion for less than a year to national attention. John Kerry dropped by Helena for a visit in August. “He speaks the truth, and he gets things done," says Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean. “I hope he’s got a future in the Democratic party nationwide, although he doesn’t seem like he wants to leave Montana.”
Schweitzer, 55, who grew up on a farm in central Montana and still wears bolo ties, scoffs at the idea that he could be a presidential contender in 2008. “I got the best doggone job in America,” he says. “And I can still fish the best trout streams in America anytime I want to.” After getting his degree in international (!) agronomy from Montana State, Schweitzer decamped for Asia, South America and eventually Saudi Arabia as an irrigation consultant. Schweitzer returned to ranching in Montana in 1986, then decided to enter politics. “It graveled me when I would see folks that I considered not particularly bright people representing the interests of the people,” he says.
A near-miss run for Senate in 2000 led to his triumph as governor in 2004, as Bush was carrying the state by almost 20 points. Schweitzer credits his victory to ads that combined his liberal ideas with his Montana nature. “They’d see me sitting on a horse or even carrying a hunting rifle, talking about something other than riding a horse,” he says. “For those who weren’t listening, they looked at me and said, ‘There’s a Montana guy.’ For those that were listening, they could understand what my plans were.”
So when he took office, Schweitzer was able to bulldoze his progressive agenda through: a child health insurance program, a renewable energy standard, a targeted tax credit for small businesses to provide health insurance, a scholarship program. The only attack dizzied Republicans have been able to raise against Schweitzer is a pseudo-scandal over who paid for his inaugural ball. “They also don’t like it that I wear jeans to work and bring my dog,” he says.
Schweitzer has also taken on bigger foes. Earlier this year, he asked the Department of Defense to not deplete his National Guard services when it came to Montana’s forest-fire season in July and August. “Homeland security in Montana means fires,” Schweitzer says. “Our Guard has twelve Blackhawk helicopters; eleven of them were in Iraq.” Despite Schweitzer’s entreaty, or maybe because of it, only two other states in the nation now have more of their Guardsmen deployed overseas than Montana.
That didn’t turn Schweitzer against Bush’s Iraqi adventure, however; he was opposed from the beginning. “How are you going to turn around 2000 years of cultural history by sending in the military?” he says. “And in Iraq, he was one of the dictators that we had a thumb on. He couldn’t move a truck from McDonald’s to change oil without us knowing it. So it didn’t make sense to me, and it’s not making much sense now.”
Still, he has resisted calls to move his act to a national stage. The last Democratic president was also the governor of a small, conservative state, but Schweitzer says his situation is different. “It’s a lot easier to leave Arkansas,” he says, “than it is to leave Montana.”