Sen. Burns' Verbal Attack Draws Fire
Thursday, August 3, 2006; 6:43 AM
HELENA, Mont. -- Sen. Conrad Burns' recent verbal attack on a firefighting team for its work on a Montana blaze angered some firefighters, drew harsh criticism in state newspapers and has left the three-term Republican scrambling to repair the political damage.
Burns, one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the fall elections, confronted members of a firefighting team at the Billings airport on July 23 and told them they had done a "piss-poor job," according to an official state report and the U.S. Forest Service.
The Hotshot crew had traveled 2,000 miles from Staunton, Va., to help dig fire lines for about a week around a 143-square-mile wildfire east of Billings.
The crew was awaiting flights home when Burns made his comments. The senator, who has a house in Billings, said he was expressing the frustration of ranchers who were critical of the way the fire was handled. He later apologized for his harsh remarks.
The report by the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation said Burns pointed to one firefighter and said, "See that guy over there? He hasn't done a g-- damned thing." The Forest Service dispatch log said, "Conrad Burns at BIL airport verbally attacking Augusta IHC crewmember."
Burns, a third-term lawmaker already facing questions about his ties to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, is trying to turn back a challenge from Democrat Jon Tester. At least one likely Montana voter was offended by Burns' confrontation with the crew.
"I think it's just terrible. Why in the world would he attack the firefighters who are the ones out there doing the work?" said Patricia Michaels, 71, of Montana City. Michaels said she had already planned to vote for Tester.
Annabelle Richards, 72, a Democratic Party volunteer, said the issue has lingered with Burns.
Last weekend, Richards was working a fair booth in Helena and had displayed a Democratic sign, "We support the firefighters." Richards said she offered to shake Burns' hand. As he did, "he kind of snorted or scoffed and just said, 'You people, where do you people dig up this crap?'"
"Where he gets with people who are maybe not his supporters, he blows the opportunity to make a few points," Richards said. Burns would pick up some votes and more people would like him "if he wasn't so antagonistic and insulting."
Burns' comments have gotten him into trouble in the past.
In 1999, Burns issued a written apology after referring to Arabs as "rag heads" during a speech while commenting on oil prices. In 1994, Burns repeated a story that included the word "niggers" and commented that living with blacks in Washington, D.C., was "a hell of a challenge." He also onced asked a woman who was wearing a nose ring what tribe she belonged to.