The Western Governors Association, one of the region's leading political organizations, has earned a reputation for trying to take a moderate approach to divisive issues.

Governors of 18 Western states and three Pacific islands have met regularly for years to devise regional policies on wildfire, energy development and other issues, such as environmental protection. They're supported by 16 staffers in the association's offices in Denver and Washington, D.C., and an annual budget of $6.5 million.

But in June, the current governors made a stunningly unwise decision: They selected Montana Gov. Judy Martz as their leader. Hands down, of all the governors of Western states, Martz is least qualified in terms of experience, personality and results.

The other governors built their careers in state legislatures, the U.S. Senate, big-city mayor jobs, courtrooms, the military, other public service or in business careers such as banking, insurance and construction.

The only elected office Martz held before her governorship was a single term in a figurehead job, lieutenant governor. Before that, her career mostly amounted to running a garbage company in a town of 35,000 and competing in the 1964 Olympics as a speed skater.

Picture Martz on skates in a tuck and that defines her earnest and gutsy style. But when it comes to politics, including the need to listen and act thoughtfully, she wobbles and she blames.

She barely got elected governor, winning just 51 percent of the vote in a state where her Republican Party rules. And in her two years of running Montana, she's proved incapable of uniting Montanans or leading them anywhere. To put it bluntly, she's made one bizarre misstep after another.

One example of many: After her chief policy advisor, Shane Hedges, drove drunkenly and caused a wreck that killed the majority leader of the Montana House of Representatives, Martz continued to rely on Hedges to help her run Montana, even while he was doing time for felony negligent homicide.

Much of Montana suffers from a dismal economy, with average per capita income lurking among the bottom states, despite Martz's infamous campaign vow to be "a lapdog of industry."

Public education, an instrument of progress, has been forced into deep cuts and many teachers are deserting. But when thousands of parents, teachers and students staged an impressive pro-education rally at the state capitol, the governor wasn't around: She'd ducked out of town to attend a prayer breakfast at a women's prison. She's the only state governor in the West who never earned a college degree, and she often acts as though education isn't worth much in her eyes.

Many parents worry about teenage drivers, and Martz shocked them, too, by vetoing a bipartisan bill that would have phased in driving privileges from age 15 to 18. Montana remains a rare state where a carload of teens can be on the road at 3 a.m. with a driver who's just turned 15.

Martz's performance in Montana is so glaring and disappointing, her own party may dump her before the next governor's race * not a great risk, since there are effective Republican moderates already holding state offices who can move up. In the words of one Republican I know, an accountant who works for loggers and voted for Martz, "I never imagined a governor could be so bad."

Only with cynicism could the other governors in the Western Governors Association choose Martz as their new chair. The day she was chosen, she continued her negativity, telling Montana reporters that the wildfires sweeping the West were the result of "environmental terrorism."

Anyone with an open mind understands that most environmentalists now call for thinning and other forest management to reduce wildfires, and that the ashes are the result of decades of misbehavior by the entire system - including logging companies, government agencies that pursued their own agendas, market forces and politicians of both parties.

The Western Governors Association may continue issuing policy papers that are scripted to sound reasonable, but Martz's ascendancy indicates a change. The association seems to be losing touch as the West grows more diverse and pragmatic. Or perhaps the other governors are just too busy with their own states to care much about their association anymore.

Either way, the association is losing credibility, and the region is losing an effective too.

 

Ray Ring is High Country News Northern Rockies bureau chief in Bozeman, Montana.