In This Farewell Interview, the Governor Pulls No Punches
BY PAT HILL
After consistently remaining one of the ten most popular governors in the United States during his eight years in office, a term-limited Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer is now retiring the reins in Helena.
Though speculation runs rampant regarding Schweitzer’s next move, the governor is holding his cards close to his vest on that issue. Schweitzer spoke with the Pioneer a few days before Thanksgiving, reflecting on his time as governor and his thoughts on the future of the Treasure State.
“It’s a 24 hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week job, running a business, the business of Montana, and you’ve got about a million bosses,” Schweitzer told the Pioneer. “It’s often a balancing act, trying to get things right. I enjoyed my time [as governor] most when I was outside of Helena, visiting with business leaders, community leaders, education leaders…learning about new innovative products and projects across Montana…that’s what I enjoyed the most about this job.” While acknowledging that he hasn’t always managed to please all the people all the time, Schweitzer believes he’s done a good job managing Montana’s business for all those bosses.
“Most people who review this, they’d say, ‘Well, you had eight consecutive years, and every single year was the largest budget surplus in the history of the state,’” said Schweitzer. “And they wonder how I was able to do that when I also cut more taxes for more Montanans than any governor in [the state’s] history…and markedly increased the investment in K-12 and higher education, which led to the longest time period in the history of Montana with no tuition increases at our universities. At the end of the day, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Montana, during the last six years, has increased the percent of our adult population with a college degree at the fastest rate in the country. We made historic invest-ments in education and reforming education, cut taxes, never raised a tax or a fee during eight years, and built large budget surpluses…even through the Great Recession. Most people would say, ‘I don’t know how he did it, but he’s pretty good with money.’”
The job of governing Montana goes beyond dollars and cents, however, and Schweitzer said that struck home the second day on the job, when he flew to Troy to try to help a family and a community make sense of why one of their young men was killed in action.
“About four dozen times since I’ve been governor, I’ve gone to funerals,” said Schweitzer. “I refuse to speak [publicly] at any of those funerals. I don’t speak to the press on those days as well. They are the toughest days, because I can’t do what a lot of other politicians do, which is go to these [funerals] and whisper in the mother’s ear that her son died making our country freer, protecting our flag and our liberties. I can’t say that because I don’t believe that. I lived in the Middle East. I lived in Libya…I lived in Saudi Arabia. I knew well before we went into Iraq that this thing was a big hoax, and I knew it wasn’t going to make the Middle East any safer, and that it wasn’t going to protect anything having to do with the United States. In fact, what we’ve done is destabilize the Middle East: Iraq was fighting a war with Iran, and we were supporting Iraq, and now we’ve destabilized Iraq, which has strengthened Iran. The real enemy in most people’s minds in the Middle East has always been Iran…and now we’ve created this monster. I go to these funerals and I grieve with the families, and I say to them, ‘I don’t know why God selected your family for this…I don’t know His plan, and I don’t understand it.’” Schweitzer added that he does leave those families who have given the ultimate sacrifice of a family member his cell phone number, telling them to call “next week, next month, next year…if there’s anything I can do, just call me.”
Schweitzer said he thinks part of the reason the country is so politically polarized today is due to “the nature of political contributors that fund our elections.”
“Those political contributors come from the far left and the far right,” Schweitzer said. “They know that in order for them to have a voice after you’re elected, they need to put money down before you’re elected. Once they get you elected, they come back and say, ‘Now, now, let’s make this thing square…give me a tax credit, fund my pet project…do what you need to do.’” Schweitzer added that 24-hour news cycles just compound the problem.
“I hate to call MSNBC and Fox News ‘news,’” he said, “because they really aren’t. They are ‘Shout TV.’ They are places where the far left and the far right try to influence the middle electorate…and that’s not news. That’s yellow journalism…that is propaganda. And that’s where a lot of people get their information.” And though there’s not much to be done about political coverage by the media, Schweitzer said the influence of money in politics can be dealt with.
“I believe that campaign finance reform absolutely has to happen,” Schweitzer said. “We have legalized bribery in this country, and it’s got to stop. Political Action Committee money is completely legal today. I was committed to not letting any lobbyist buy their way to the front of the line, and they haven’t…I am the least popular governor in the history of Montana among lobbyists…ask any of them. That’s because they don’t have any access. They didn’t give me one damn dime, so they can’t walk in here and say, ‘Now, Brian, remember when we… No, I don’t remember when you did anything. Let’s get this straight…I work for the people of Montana, not the special interests.’”
Those days of working for the people of Montana are growing short, and though Schweitzer said he is not sure what he will do next, he added that he’s “not worried about it, either.”
“In January, I’ll take a look around and see what there is,” he said. “Virtually anything that I would contemplate doing in the private sector could be viewed by some…it could be viewed by me…as a potential conflict of interest of doing what I’m doing now. Most people would agree that this has been eight years of the least scandal, intrigue, and all of that baloney that happens with administrations any time in the history of Montana. And we’re going to go out on a high note. I don’t want anyone to get the idea, or even begin thinking, that I’m positioning myself for something else. I’m not. I’m positioning myself to pack up a bunch of boxes, move out of the Governor’s residence, and welcome the next governor in.” Schweitzer said that after that, he and his wife of 30 years, Nancy, will go home and decide what the next chapter in their life will be. Some have speculated that next chapter may be a run at the Presidency of the United States.
“Well, I never rule anything out,” said Schweitzer, “but that bar is pretty dang high for a guy whose only elected office is to be elected twice the governor of Montana. I know there’s a quest, a thirst, in this country, to have leadership that dealt it to them straight…that understands money, that knows when to say no and when to say yes. But I’m not exactly sure Washington, D.C., can be fixed. You start with 435 members of Congress —most of ’em are just goofy. Then you’ve got 100 members of the U.S. Senate—most of them are senile. I’m not goofy enough to be in Congress, and I’m not senile enough to be in the Senate. None of them are motivated to fix problems …they’re just motivated to get re-elected. That’s kind of a hopeless job, to redirect their efforts to save this country. But I think we’ve fixed most of the problems in Montana.” And Schweitzer said that he believes Montana has never had a brighter future.
“You start with leading the nation in the percent of our population with a college degree,” he said. “We’re the best-educated, best-trained work force on the planet. We have natural resources that none of the rest of the world does…nobody else has the resources that we have here in Montana…the finest wind energy anywhere, the greatest supply of coal on the planet, a very competitive supply of oil and gas, an extraordinary quality of wheat on an annual basis. We have the finest beef cattle on the planet. University systems that can compete with any university system anywhere. Couple that with the quality of life we have. We’re attracting companies to come here because their young engineers want to live in a place they can hunt, camp and fish within 15 minutes of where they live. They want to come here because they know that Montana, while we put up a good fight, and we lock the front door on most days, almost nobody locks the back door…that’s just the kind of communities we have. Kids can ride their bikes or walk to school, and you don’t have to worry about them getting there or getting home. We have the cleanest air and the freshest water anywhere in the world. We have an extraordinary quality of life here, and that’s why some of the greatest companies in the world are trying to locate in Montana right now.”
Though the governor believes the state’s best days lie before it, Schweitzer said that his best day in office came fairly recently.
“There’s no comparison,” the governor, showing his school colors, said. “It was on Saturday [Nov. 17], when the Bobcats won not only a share of the Big Sky Championship, they beat the Griz in Missoula, and now they’re headed for the National Championship.”
Editor’s note: Over the past eight years, the Montana Pioneer has published content related to Governor Schweitzer’s tenure (including his own op-eds) that has ranged from factual, to highly critical, to satirical. We have also conducted and published four interviews, written by Pat Hill (including the above), for which the governor not only made himself accessible but offered his valuable time generously. For that we express genuine appreciation to the governor, and we wish him well.