Montana's New Gov Out To Ignite State Economy

 

HELENA -- Several weeks remain before former Olympic speed skater Judy Martz officially becomes Montana's governor, but she's already developing a reputation as a leader who will be a lapdog for big business and industry. And she isn't bothered by it.

Martz, the state's Republican lieutenant governor since 1997, says if being a lapdog means she'll help create jobs for Montana workers, then she's happy to wear the label.

After all, she points out, the state ranks at or near the bottom nationally in wages and income, Montanans are moonlighting more than ever and the economy remains in the doldrums. New businesses aren't opening in the state, old ones aren't growing and some are even leaving, she says.

Montana's first female leader edged out Democratic Auditor Mark O'Keefe to keep the governor's chair in GOP hands. For the last four years, she's been the understudy to Gov. Marc Racicot, a moderate Republican whose approval ratings hovered around 80 percent.

Martz says it was her values, honesty and strong work ethic that clinched her victory over O'Keefe. Her opponent, whose wife is a department store heiress, outspent her 3-to-1.

Martz says any way to improve the state's standing is positive and that she would gladly open up the door for whatever business comes knocking. If this provides jobs, that's good enough for her.

"If we don't have industries, we don't have jobs in the state of Montana," says Martz, a Butte garbage business owner for 31 years. "Do they want us not to pay any attention to these people, to these businesses? Those are businesses that create jobs."Martz, 57, ran largely on the issue of economic development in her campaign for governor -- creating jobs, improving education and changing the state's tax system. Although many of the specifics have yet to be worked out, Martz says her first order of business is to figure out why Montana's economy lags behind.

"There are theories," she says. "But how do you fix things if you don't know what's wrong?"

Webb Brown, president of the Montana Chamber of Commerce, says the state's business community is optimistic that Martz will do what she vows.

"My impression is she sees business as a very important player in the economic development efforts she's trying to make," says Brown. "As for making it a primary focus of her administration, it sends a clear message she is going to do what it takes to move Montana's economy forward."

Montana's top Democratic lawmaker, Senate Minority Leader Steve Doherty of Great Falls, says the jury is still out on how Martz will lead. He says while he wants economic improvement, he hopes Martz won't push a business agenda at the expense of other needs, including those of workers and safety.

"One of the things that a governor has to do is weigh competing ideas against the values and our Montana laws," says Doherty. "That involves making critical analysis and making decisions. One hopes that there will be some serious thought processes, some serious thinking going on.

Serving in the state's top office "is not for sissies," Martz says. "This is for people who will stand in the gap for what they believe. My involvement with people and understanding of people will make me a better leader."

Martz knows whereof she speaks. In 1964 at age 21, she competed in the winter Olympics as a speed skater. Although she fell during the race, she didn't give up. She got up to finish with her head high.

She also took the courageous step of calling Racicot out of the blue six years ago to ask that he consider her as his running mate. At the time, Martz was working in Republican U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns' Butte field office, but had never held or run for political office.

Martz says she was drawn not to politics, but to public service. She says she doesn't enjoy politics. "I decided (to) run because I felt I could make a difference for Montana people," she told Stateline.org.

As a symbol of her approach to political life, Martz almost always wears a turtle pin on her lapel. When asked its meaning, she says it reminds her of an appropriate saying: "Behold the turtle. It only goes forward when its neck's stuck out."

Many consider Martz more conservative than Racicot, who often allied himself with Democrats on state spending and tax policy issues. Martz challenges the perception, but acknowledges she has a very different gubernatorial mandate than did Racicot, who came into office at a time when state budgets were in the red.

Today, she says, the state's mission is different. Montana now has in place the proper regulatory and tax climate to stimulate growth and has cleared away problems in the state welfare and workers' compensation systems.

Although Martz admires Racicot for his honesty and character, she says she won't take the same approach to policy making. For instance, the outgoing governor's recommended budget includes two proposed tax increases, but Martz has no plans to push for them.

In the end, Martz says she hopes her style and vision will lead to a reversal in the state's downward economic trend.

"As governor, you can do anything, but you can't do everything," she says. "You have to choose what you are going to do. I hope when I'm done people say, by golly, she did what she said she'd do."

 
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