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Putting the Big Sky In a Populist Frame
Montana's Rookie Democratic Governor Shows Party What It Takes in Red State

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 5, 2005

BUTTE, Mont. -- The Democratic governor of this red state was discussing his "God-given" political gifts while seated in his gubernatorial aircraft.

"You know, if John Kerry could do what I do, he'd be president," said Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who was a mint farmer until last November and is now being talked about as the kind of brassy populist the Democrats need to win back the White House.

Schweitzer, broad of shoulder, red of face and sure of self, was barnstorming in Big Sky country -- four towns in 11 hours, sweet-talking local Republicans, praising random Montanans for the excellence of their dogs and slapping backs in barrooms. He was advertising all that he has done for the 917,000 people of his state since they elected him as their first Democratic governor in 16 years. Schweitzer won by four percentage points, while Kerry lost here to President Bush by 20 points.

In the airplane between the mining town of Butte and the ranching town of Dillon, Schweitzer raised the altitude of his pronouncements and diagnosed the Big Picture: how Democrats could change their losing ways, seize the levers of power and be, well, like him.

"Be likable, be self-deprecating, don't be a know-it-all using a lot of big words," said Schweitzer, 50, who mixes plain speaking with ranch dressing: blue jeans, a bolo tie, cowboy boots and, always somewhere nearby, a border collie named Jag.

"In politics, it doesn't matter what the facts are," he said. "It matters what the perceptions are. It is the way you frame it."

In Montana, he continued, the best way to frame an issue is to get horses and guns into the picture. Schweitzer arrived at this epiphany, he said, after getting beaten in 2000 in a race against Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.).

That was Schweitzer's first go at elective politics and, in the wound-licking that followed, he found that men in Montana were 11 percent less likely to vote for him than were women. For his gubernatorial campaign, Schweitzer hired focus groups to find out why.

He learned that a significant percentage of Montana men are mule-headed, unwilling to change their minds on issues, even when presented with information showing that their views are not supported by facts.

"So, I started doing my ads while I was sitting on a horse or holding a gun," Schweitzer said. "I spoke to men visually and showed them I am like them. Hell, I can be on a horse and talk about health care.

"Ninety percent of them don't ride horses and many of them don't shoot a gun, but my ads said visually that I understand Montana. My gender gap disappeared. I think I have just summed up why Democrats lose elections."

Schweitzer had something else to add about Kerry, who had visited him here in Montana just the week before.

"When he goes out to meet people, he doesn't come off real," Schweitzer said. "It is like you can see the price tag on the barrel," he said of television appearances Kerry made last year with a shotgun in his hand.

There is more to Schweitzer, of course, than good visuals and bottomless self-regard.

Bills he pushed through the legislature this spring -- more money for education, assistance for workers without health insurance, cheaper prescription drugs for the elderly -- have secured solid job-approval numbers.

Relentless travel across the state, together with his media-savvy populism, has padded those numbers. When a couple in a car collided with his unmarked Montana Highway Patrol car in a newspaper parking lot in Missoula, the governor got out and issued his first pardon. When a legendary Montana bar, the M&M in Butte, reopened for business after a much-lamented closure, Schweitzer showed up to hand-deliver the new liquor license and tossed back two shots of Jameson's whiskey.

Behind the lawmaking and the image-crafting, many Montanans -- including some of the governor's harshest critics -- see a natural-born populist whose gift of gab is matched by his work ethic.

David Berg, a conservative Republican who hosts the only syndicated radio talk show based in Montana, derides Schweitzer as "overly ambitious." But Berg said the governor was "a likable person, a helluva campaigner, and he has never stopped working to romance certain segments of the population."

The romancing has not stayed within state borders. Schweitzer makes speeches around the country and is often mentioned, along with a handful of other Democratic governors, including Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Janet Napolitano of Arizona, as part of a promising crop of New West politicians who are invigorating the Democratic Party.

"There is a lot of focus on governors in Democratic circles, and Schweitzer is a big, bold thinker with boundless energy," said B.J. Thornberry, the former executive director of the Democratic Governors' Association.

Schweitzer playfully plays down ambitions outside Montana: "I am just a Montana farmer. I don't know if what I say or do is exportable. It is a long way from Little League to playing for the Yankees."

What he has on his plate in this red state is hard enough for a Democrat, he said. When his plane landed in Dillon, he had a chance to demonstrate -- at a meeting with Beaverhead County commissioners about roads on federal land.

Bush, in overturning a Clinton-era order that made almost 60 million acres of national forest off-limits to road-building, has asked governors to identify areas where roads should not be built. The commissioners in Beaverhead County, where beef rules and resentment of Washington runs high, are eager to open up vast stretches of roadless federal land.

Gingerly, Schweitzer explained why that might not work. First, he said, the Bush administration has no money to maintain the roads it has already built, let alone build new ones. Second -- and this was the tricky part in a room full of Republican ranchers -- Schweitzer said that Montana was no longer a state dominated by ranchers, miners and timber companies.

He never once uttered the word "environmentalism" -- the closest he came to that was mentioning the need to protect land for "huntin' and fishin.' " Nor did he unleash statistics about how retirement and investment income from newcomers has come to dominate the state economy.

"I'm an aggie," said Schweitzer, who has a master's degree in soil science from Montana State University and who worked in Saudi Arabia for seven years helping the royal family build a dairy farm. "Agriculture will continue to be a large part of who we are in Montana. But growth depends on access to public land and quality of life."

Back on the gubernatorial airplane, Schweitzer noted that he had explained the new facts of life in Montana "without scaring anybody."

"Look, if I stand in front of voters and tell them, 'Everything you thought you knew about Montana's economy is wrong,' then who in the hell is going to vote for someone like that?" he said.

"Didn't we learn anything from Al Gore?"

© 2005 The Washington Post Company