Marc Racicot: One of the would-be president's men

 

You never know who you're going to meet on an airplane. Last summer, on a flight to Helena, Mont., as the seats in coach class began to fill, a handsome, middle-aged man walked up the aisle and slipped into the seat next to me. He appeared exhausted. His name was Marc Racicot, and he was the governor of Montana.

I had just written newspaper columns criticizing Racicot and his staff for their treatment of Yellowstone bison that roam beyond the national park boundary into Montana. More than 1,000 of the rangy animals had been slaughtered by the state. I'd suggested that readers send the governor a rock to protest his Stone Age-style management. Through the grapevine, I heard that his staff was not amused.

Now, staring the state's highest-ranking public official in the eye, I expected the worst.

But he was friendly and even-tempered. He said he understood where I was coming from, and the next day dropped a note in the mail suggesting he respected me for calling things as I see them.

Maybe they shouldn't, but gestures like that carry weight with journalists, and certainly they resonate with citizens in my state. The question is, how does the rest of the West feel about Marc Racicot? Consider this:

When I met him, Racicot was returning from a meeting with one of his closest friends, presidential candidate George W. Bush. If Bush prevails this autumn, he might ask Racicot to become the next secretary of the Interior, overseeing the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey. Or possibly, Racicot could be nominated for U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, where he would oversee our national forests and farm policy. Under either scenario, Racicot would have a huge influence over how our region is stewarded from Washington, D.C.

Such a prospect is ironic, given Racicot's overt hostility toward Washington and the federal government. He has been critical of the Endangered Species Act, efforts to reform the 1872 Mining Law, attempts to tighten the clean air and water acts, mandatory federal compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act as it pertains to timber sales, and efforts to reform the management of public-lands livestock grazing.

The governor's principal critics, who almost always are Democrats, say Racicot's charm has enabled him to skate around controversy. Jim Jensen, executive director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, asserts that Racicot also has the media eating out of his hand. Some of that, Jensen says, is due to wily manipulation by former New York Times reporter Andrew Malcolm, who left the paper to become Racicot's key policy advisor and who now works in the press office of the Bush 2000 campaign in Texas.

But the real key to Racicot's Teflon armor is his likability. His number is listed in the phone book. He delivers commencement addresses to one-room school houses with a single graduate; he visits death-row inmates in prison and tells them he will consider commuting their sentence if they show contrition. When they don't, he tells the executioner to proceed but afterward writes an open letter to citizens explaining his decision. He flies coach class by himself.

With his public approval ratings soaring at times into the 80s over the past eight years, Racicot has been the most popular elected official in Montana's history. Had he wanted it, many pundits believe that he could have easily taken the U.S. Senate seat long held by Democrat Max Baucus.

A modest man

Racicot prides himself on the fact that he once held the collegiate record for number of assists in a basketball game. He possesses an almost ministerial presence, like a parson counseling his flock.

Until the late 1980s, Racicot positioned himself as a political independent, voting on the ideas of candidates rather than their affiliation. "My dad was raised during the Depression," Racicot says. "He was substantially impressed with Franklin Roosevelt's concerns for the people of this country and his efforts to improve the prospects for economic survival. That's where his sympathies were. He would have called himself a conservative Democrat. My mother was a Republican."

Today, the governor calls himself a moderate Republican and he remembers when he broke the disappointing news to his father in 1988 that he wanted to become attorney general under the GOP banner. He made the decision after carefully studying the platforms of both parties.

"I like the presumption of self-determination and the absolute trust in the people of this country to make the right decisions," Racicot says. "I identify with the party's belief in promoting economic expansion by using public lands."

Daniel Kemmis, executive director of the Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana and a former Independent mayor of Missoula, sizes up Racicot this way: "People believe what they see in Marc Racicot - a depth of character and trustworthiness ... In politics, those things matter."

But Kemmis notes that the mark of a good politician, like, say, Montana's former U.S. Sen. Mike Mansfield or Congressman Lee Metcalf, is a willingness to burn political capital on issues deemed important to citizens. And Racicot, he says, hasn't done that.

On funding for higher education (where Montana ranks nearly last in the country, spending as much on prisons), on the issue of average income (again, the state ranks almost last with its moribund farm economy), on overhauling the state's regressive tax system, and on matters of environmental protection, Racicot has been unwilling to go to the mat.

During his administration, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality continually downplayed concerns that a giant cyanide heap-leach mine operated by a Canadian consortium was causing problems for Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribal members on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. Critics also point out that a bond imposed by the state on the company to insure cleanup was insufficient.

When the company went belly-up, leaving Indians with worries about water quality and taxpayers stuck with a multimillion-dollar mess, the state turned silent. Critics say Racicot is too responsive to mining and logging industries. His current Lt. Governor, Judy Martz, recently voiced support for loggers sending shovels to protest Forest Service closure of the Jarbidge Road outside Elko, Nev. (HCN, 10/25/99: Nevada rebellion ends with a whimper).

While the economies of some states flourish with an injection of high-tech, computer-related jobs, Montana has been in the doldrums. If not for the thriving tourist economy, inspired by the state's trout streams and national parks, things would be worse.

The Racicot administration and Montana's Republican-controlled legislature seem stuck at the turn of the last century, preaching that resource extraction - mining, logging, and livestock - will lead us once again to prosperity. Only cities like Bozeman and Kalispell, which have used their natural amenities to lure high-tech industry to town, have prospered.

Perhaps the governor's biggest embarrassment came last winter, when news surfaced that hundreds of residents of Libby, Mont. - the governor's hometown - died or became seriously sick from asbestos poisoning at a local vermiculite mine owned by W.R. Grace & Co. Racicot claimed he had no idea the mine had been a major health hazard. But former nine-term Rep. Pat Williams said that was preposterous; health concerns in Libby had been known for decades.

Then there is the brouhaha over Yellowstone bison. The governor and the Legislature pushed through a bill that shifted the authority to manage wandering bison from the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to cowboys at the Department of Livestock. Racicot claims that cattle need to be protected from brucellosis, a disease bison carry, but rather than making room for buffalo to roam outside the park, perhaps on Forest Service land, the governor has brazenly endorsed their killing, even when the closest cows are dozens of miles away.

Racicot has remained unflappable in the face of the controversy. Two winters ago, a protester, angry over Montana's policy, threw a pile of buffalo offal at a table where Racicot and Sen. Conrad Burns were sitting. Burns seemed to rise out of his chair to counterattack. Racicot sat calmly with bison blood spilled on his pants.

Recently, his office attracted ridicule from the docile press in this state when it was revealed his staff was spending tax dollars to document "the Racicot Legacy." Most of the state's newspapers reacted with incredulity, and the response from the Bozeman Daily Chronicle was typical. If Racicot's legacy as governor does not speak for itself, the paper said, then perhaps he hasn't created one yet.

Todd Wilkinson lives in Bozeman and writes for a number of national newspapers and magazines.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Todd Wilkinson

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.