Montana Gov. Steve Bullock speaks during a campaign stop in Newton, Iowa, on Friday. (Steve Pope/Getty Images)
Opinion writer

If Montana Gov. Steve Bullock is going to have a chance in a field approaching two dozen strong, it’ll be because the engaging governor of a rural state connects with Iowa voters. That’s why, in his first week in the campaign, he went straight to Iowa, holding 10 events. He’s quick to remind you that he had been to Iowa six times previously. He lives up to his reputation as a policy wonk, agreeing to sit down for an interview that covered campaign finance reform, climate change, judges, abortion and health care.

Bullock entered the race only last week because he needed to complete the legislative term. Had he started earlier, “We wouldn’t have gotten Medicaid expansion through,” he said. Sticking to his day job, he was able to push through education reforms and beat back extreme restrictions on abortion. Part of his appeal in the presidential election rests on that record as a Democratic governor, the only one in the Democratic primary elected in a state that went for Trump. He’s also the only one with a legislature that is 60 percent Republican and might also be the only one to have argued before the Supreme Court (in a water rights case against Wyoming.)

Bullock might be the best-kept secret in the race. In person, he’s more animated than on TV, quite engaging and relaxed. A youthful-looking 53 years old and taller than I anticipated, he has the regular-guy demeanor (and a slight rural accent) to potentially thrive in Iowa retail politics.

And Iowa will be key. He headed there after his announcement, but he’s a newcomer. “I’ve been to Iowa six times before,” he says, both campaigning for others and as head of the National Governors Association. He tells me, “We went to a whole lot of places, look at Dubuque, that haven’t voted for a Republican since Eisenhower until ’16.”

His view is that Democrats have failed to show up in some places, leaving those people feeling that the party doesn’t care. “I don’t have the luxury in Montana of just saying all right, we’re going to pockets of blue.” He argues that “people want to believe that you’re going to wake up each day and fight to make their lives better,” and if you can relate to them on that level, fine gradations of ideology tend not to matter. “The Twitterverse and punditry want to say here are all these bright lines or litmus tests. And I don’t think voters care about litmus tests. Voters care if they’re going to be able to go to the same doctor.”

He attests to the gap between Washington and social media, on one hand, and real voters he encounters. “There is a lot of energy out there to try to do something different, that’s beat Donald Trump,” he says. “I wasn’t asked once in three days in Iowa about the Mueller report.”

On a range of issues, he advocates a center-left agenda that reflects the needs of a rural state (not unlike President Bill Clinton). On trade, he notes that without foreign markets, Montana farmers would need every residents to eat 400 loaves of bread a day. Seventy-percent of their output goes to the Pacific Rim. Montana needs venture capital from San Francisco and markets for chickpeas and lentils. (Montana grows more than any other state.)

Bullock favors trade deals but argues, “Worker and worker protections, figuring out how someone can have a better shot in a global marketplace, has always been the stepchild of trade.” (He points out that the United States spends about one-fifth of other countries on trade adjustment.) Those worker protections should be built in from the start, he argues. Now, in a tariff war, Montana farmers and ranchers will be hurt, and, he warns, Brazil will take over our markets.

Bullock is sensitive to the concern that he is a white male from an overwhelmingly white state who will be campaigning in an increasingly diverse party. “The opportunity I had growing up in Montana isn’t the opportunities for a whole lot of people,” he offers. “I’d never presume to understand what it’s like to be in a community I’ve never been a part of, but I can show up, listen and learn.” While he says, “No community is the same,” he points out that about 7 percent of his state’s population is Native American. When he became governor, he initiated a health study, which found the life span of Native Americans was 20 percent less than the lives of non-Native Americans. He went on to set up the Office of American Indian Health and specifically targeted suicide, which is a greater problem among Native Americans than among other state residents.

Regarding the recently passed abortion bans, he says, “I begin from the premise that a woman should be able to make her own health decisions, in consultation with her doctor, if she chooses her family and faith.” He calls the Alabama and Missouri bills “not only an attack on Alabama but an attack on women having domain in over their body.” Democrats need to be competitive on a state level, Bullock argues, so we’re “not fighting the fights we had 45 years ago."

On judges, Bullock says he has tried to maintain the belief that the judiciary is independent and above politics. (He has appointed more than half the judiciary in the state.) He’ll ask, “Is the criminal-justice system fair for Native Americans?” He tells me, “I want to hear ‘there are economic disparities, that there are sometimes disparities in sentencing, that there are . . . inherent biases.'” He says he cannot ask specifically how a candidate is going to rule, but it is important that the judges he appoints “are consistent with not only my values but the values I think are good for Montana . . and to keep the politics out of it.”

Given where things stand with the current court, he says he “would not foreclose” options such as term limits or rotating terms on the Supreme Court.” With the raw exercise of power in denying Merrick Garland even a vote, he appears to subscribe to the view Democrats cannot play by the rules the other side won’t follow.

As for climate change, Bullock reacts with obvious disdain that Republicans won’t even acknowledge climate science, pointing to President George H.W. Bush who promised to lead on greenhouse gases. “I had the second-worst fire season of my state’s, 1.3 million acres burned. I had one fire that was the size of 8 1/2 Districts of Columbia. Our farmers growing seasons are different,” he says. “We have to address climate change.” Bullock points to his efforts to expand solar energy 400 percent and wind 200 percent, and says he thinks it is possible to reach carbon neutrality “a lot earlier” than 2050. To do that, he says, we must regain our international role and reenter the Paris agreement. He’s convinced that donor money has driven the GOP to extreme positions, noting that even auto companies didn’t want to roll back emissions standards.

You cannot have a policy discussion with Bullock without discussing campaign finance reform. He’s written and argued vociferously that so long as massive amounts of undisclosed money are being spent, it will be impossible to move lawmakers on a range of issues including climate change. As attorney general, he tried to defend the state’s 100-year-old stringent campaign finance law. He won at the state supreme court, but was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. Bullock has championed a law requiring full disclosure of independent expenditures within 90 days of an election and signed an executive order requiring all state contractors to disclose election spending. These experiences have convinced him that some reforms can be accomplished even with Citizens United still on the books.

In a normal presidential cycle with a half-dozen candidates, a seasoned governor with a strong record and natural appeal in Iowa might be a heavy favorite. This election, however, is anything but normal. Whether he can break through the noise, raise his visibility among 23 candidates and finish strongly in Iowa is anyone’s guess. Democrats could do a lot worse than to nominate Bullock ― and probably will.

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