Montana's New Governor Takes Fresh Approach
By Charles S. Johnson, Special to Stateline
He once dumped wads of cash in the Capitol to embarrass a political opponent. He has driven elderly citizens to Canada to buy prescription drugs in defiance of federal regulations. His campaign logo this year was a light bulb, the universal symbol of bright ideas, and he likes to boast, "We'll steal ideas from anybody."
You like unconventional? Meet Gov.-elect Brian Schweitzer.
Just now, between castrating calves at his ranch and vetting the names of future Cabinet members, he's preparing for inauguration as the first Democrat elected Montana governor in two decades.
"I think I'll be a governor that challenges the status quo," Schweitzer, 49, told Stateline.org.
He'll start out as the first Montana governor ever to select a lieutenant governor running mate from the opposing party, in this case Republican state Sen. John Bohlinger. He's assigned Bohlinger to get things going by forming a "Corps of Recovery" -- a takeoff on the Corps of Discovery led through these parts some 200 years ago by explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark -- to audit state agencies for waste and duplication. The target: $60 million in savings without cutting services.
Montanans aren't quite sure what to expect from the flamboyant Schweitzer, who has never held any elective office but who has a flair for grabbing attention.
He narrowly lost a U.S. Senate race to Republican Conrad Burns in 2000, but not before Montanans came to know the smiling, round-faced, farmer-rancher from Whitefish with all the ideas and energy.
Schweitzer galloped onto the Montana political stage in 1999. Surrounded by security guards, he dumped out $47,000 in money in the Capitol to show how much he claimed Burns had taken in tobacco industry donations. Then Schweitzer became one of the nation's first politicians -- if not the first -- to take busloads of senior citizens across the border to Canada to buy prescription drugs at steep discounts.
To win the governor's race, Schweitzer relied more on cowboy boot leather and handshakes than gimmicks. After a grueling 22-month campaign, he defeated Republican Secretary of State Bob Brown, 50 percent to 46 percent.
Schweitzer has plenty of questions about how well Montana's government is run.
"We're dead serious," he said. "We think government can be run more efficiently." His administration will be looking to what's worked in other states to improve government efficiency and attract private investments to boost the economy.
"We don't care where the ideas come from," he said. "We'll steal the ideas from anybody."
As to his innovative approach in selecting a Republican lieutenant governor, Schweitzer says, "We took a lot of abuse from both Democrats and Republicans. I think the great middle ground of Montana is as frustrated with this political bickering as I am. We think we can bring this state together."
Schweitzer will succeed Republican Gov. Judy Martz, another inexperienced politician whose early missteps dropped her job performance ratings to the low 20 percent range.
With Montana ranking 50th in average wages, Schweitzer said his top priority is economic development. He envisions a future Montana that adds value to the products it exports -- whether it's grain, cattle, lumber or precious minerals. He wants ethanol plants, wind power and factories to build catalytic converters and furniture. To boost the economy, Schweitzer wants a revised education system that produces graduates trained in the fields Montana employers desire.
As he assembles his administration, Schweitzer seeks chips off his block.
"I'm looking for curious people," he said. "I'm looking for bright people. I'm looking for people that will challenge the status quo."
While conceding that Schweitzer is an excellent campaigner and a hard worker, Montana Republican Party Executive Director Chuck Denowh is skeptical.
"I am anticipating that his administration is going to be marked by a little bit of arrogance," Denowh said in an interview for this article. "He kind of has some characteristics of a bully. He's going to be a very hard-nosed governor and very uncompromising governor, and that's both good and bad."
After receiving a bachelor's degree in agronomy from Colorado State University and a master's degree in soil science from Montana State University, Schweitzer went to work overseas for a U.S company. He helped set up the irrigation for a 15,000-acre farm in the Sahara Desert in Libya and launch the world's largest dairy farm in Saudi Arabia with 10,000 milking cows with some heifers flown from the United States in a Boeing 747 jet.
He and his wife, Nancy, returned to their native Montana in 1987 when they wanted to start a family. They have two sons, Ben and Khai, and a daughter, Katrina. A self-made, well-to-do farmer and rancher, Schweitzer has raised cattle and a variety of crops, including hay, from his two places.
Johnson is chief of the Lee Newspapers of Montana State Capitol Bureau.