Brian Schweitzer may be a farmer, but he is no country bumpkin. When the media-savvy 43-year-old Montanan announced his candidacy for the United States Senate, he did so from a podium at the Black Star Brewery. With him were several hundred pounds of premium Montana barley.
touted the popular Whitefish brew as a symbol of value-added
agriculture. The large crowd, many merely curious about this
Democratic novice in a Republican stronghold, nodded enthusiastic
approval, even though it was 10 a.m. and no beer
The next week, Schweitzer greeted farmers
in Arabic at a Great Falls grain elevator, blasting incumbent Sen.
Conrad Burns for referring to Arabs as "ragheads." Soon after
Burns' comment made the newspapers last winter, Pakistan cancelled
a huge U.S. wheat shipment and placed an order with Australia
instead, Schweitzer said. "Sen. Burns, stop insulting my
customers!" he demanded, noting that Egypt is America's biggest
Was Pakistan's cancelled wheat
order a coincidence? Hard to say, Schweitzer said, and that's not
the point anyway. "If your grocery store manager calls you names,
you'll soon be shopping elsewhere, won't you?" he
The result was yet another whopper media
day for the third-generation Montana farmer, who raises wheat,
cattle, mint, beets and dill in Flathead and Rosebud
The following week, Schweitzer dumped
$47,000 in bills and coins in front of an amused Helena press
corps, representing donations Burns has received from tobacco
lobbyists. Burns is the Senate's sixth-leading recipient of tobacco
money. Schweitzer pledged to accept none. "This is not Missouri,"
Schweitzer said, referring to Burns' native state. "We don't grow
tobacco in Montana."
Running full-tilt 17 months
before the 2000 election, Schweitzer has focused on rural Montana,
Burns' domain, which is reeling from low commodity prices. He's
created a buzz among leading Montana Democrats, who say that
Schweitzer is the hottest statewide Democrat in two
Schweitzer had been politically mute
while serving on Montana's five-member Farm Service Agency
Committee, which oversees county USDA offices, for the past six
years. As a politically appointed civil servant, he had been
restricted from politicking. After resigning in March, he's come
Schweitzer is particularly critical
of Republican farm policy, which he says has favored large
corporations over family farms. Schweitzer said that the vertical
integration of a small number of companies - such as the Big Three
meatpackers, Monsanto and its patented seeds, and the hog-raising
conglomerates - represents the antithesis of family-based
sounds like a Northern Plains populist, but Schweitzer has
international credentials, having consulted on farming and
irrigation projects around the world. During one stint in Saudi
Arabia, where he learned to speak some Arabic, he developed a
prized new strain of alfalfa.
While his campaign
theatrics are reminiscent of Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura,
Schweitzer's great passion is public policy, a fact he demonstrated
during a wide-ranging, four-hour interview at the large farmhouse
he shares with his wife and three school-aged
Schweitzer said that value-added
processing of grain and timber won't be enough to pull Montana out
of trouble. Among other steps, he wants the federal government to
launch a high-tech university extension system, similar to the
agriculture land-grant college, to provide computer services to
rural communities and businesses.
popular myth, Montana's economy and environment are intertwined,
Schweitzer said. "The debate over the past 10 years has been jobs
vs. the environment. The results are in, and it's clear that we're
Schweitzer said Burns has
amplified the jobs vs. environment myth. "Conrad Burns is good at
polarizing issues." Burns has inflamed Montana's forest debates,
providing neither solutions nor a candid assessment of the problem,
Schweitzer said. "We know how to do sustained-yield forestry, but
the truth is we haven't practiced it yet."
Giacometto, Burns' chief of staff and former director of the
Montana Department of Agriculture, accused Schweitzer of negative
campaigning in focusing on Burns' mistakes, such as the raghead
comment, for which he had already apologized.
"Mr. Schweitzer is putting out political
rhetoric, but when you look at Conrad's proven record on behalf of
Montana, he stands head and shoulders above his opponents."
But Giacometto also stood behind a comment he
made in 1995, when, as Montana's Agriculture director, he referred
to Schweitzer as a hero for his farming innovations. "Sure, he
still is a hero. He's done some outstanding things for Montana,"
Giacometto said of Schweitzer. "But when you compare what he has
done for Montana with what Conrad has done, there's no (contest)."
Schweitzer's hot start has already accomplished
one thing: it has scared off Attorney General Joe Mazurek and
popular Billings mayor Chuck Tooley. Both recently announced they
won't seek the Democratic nomination, despite earlier leanings in
Steve Thompson writes
from Whitefish, Montana.
can contact ...
* Schweitzer for Senate, 317 S.
Orange St., Missoula, MT 59807 (406/541-2000)