He 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 flowed.
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 wheat customer.
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 said.
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 counties.
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 decades.
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 out swinging.
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 agriculture.
He 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 children.
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.
Contrary to 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 losing both."
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."
Leo 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 that direction.
* Steve Thompson
Steve Thompson writes from Whitefish, Montana.
You can contact ...
* Schweitzer for Senate, 317 S. Orange St., Missoula, MT 59807 (406/541-2000)