There’s nothing shameful about the Rehbergs' history. It demonstrates the family's great perseverance, whether the Rehbergs were riding the range at 9 years old or milking cows or flipping burgers or flourishing in the political cauldron. They played the hand they were dealt, determined to ranch in a challenging part of the world, then acting swiftly to capitalize on the urbanization of Billings, turning agricultural land into real estate.
"I don't see that as a negative -- and people I talk to are not necessarily negative about it," says Jim Peterson, another Republican who mixes politics with ranching. Peterson is president of the Montana Senate and a former head staffer of the Montana Stockgrowers Association; I reached him on his cell phone in mid-August while he was driving a combine on his spread in rural central Montana. Peterson acknowledges the importance of identity politics, though. Montana voters "want to know where (a candidate's) feet are planted ... and they view agriculture favorably. Montanans relate to other people more by who they are than what they want to do (politically)." Identity politics are not just fluff. For many voters, a candidate's honesty and values are as important as policy positions.
That's why Tester's camp has run months of TV ads accusing Denny Rehberg of being a multimillionaire developer, not the rancher he claims to be. (Tester's ads also tackle policy differences, but make sure to portray Tester as a farmer taking a stand.) One ad, by a D.C. political-action committee, stars an anti-Rehberg rancher; as he rides his horse through his cattle herd, he charges that Rehberg is "looking out for the Wall Street bankers." It's still too soon to tell if such ads are effective, says poli-sci professor Parker. "Nothing will change until after Labor Day -- despite all the money they're spending on ads, most Montanans are out in the woods (during summer) and not paying much attention."
Parker won't say whether he thinks the candidates' identity politics are fair. But he observes that, "What works in politics is not what life really looks like. Reality is not that simple -- it's about nuances and gray."
My dive into the Rehberg history reminded me that every family experiences troubles over the generations, and that family histories can be edited to form almost any message. President Obama's father was an African polygamist with a vicious temper and a drinking problem, who split up with Obama's U.S.-born mother a few weeks after Obama was born. President Clinton's stepfather was an alcoholic who abused Clinton's mother. Like Rehberg, both Obama and Clinton use their histories to talk about overcoming adversity. The difference is that the two Democrats see government as part of the community, helping families like theirs, not as the implacable enemy Denny Rehberg wages war against. My father died when I was 13, and I had a brother who was incapacitated by schizophrenia, so when I talk about the future of the Social Security program, I remind people that it's not just for the elderly -- it also provides financial support for fatherless children and mentally ill adults.
Denny Rehberg could compose a different message from his family history: "My father was a banker and an oil-industry lobbyist, so I'll represent those industries very well." Or, equally true: "The government has helped my family in many ways, beyond the airport expansions and road-building that increased the value of our land. My great-grandfather bought thousands of acres from the county and federal governments. Now the state government gives me a bargain on my leases of more than 2,000 acres of state land (about $1.15 per acre per year). The county government gives me great property-tax breaks. (More than 2,200 acres of my private land are classified as livestock grazing land, so the property taxes are less than $1 per acre per year, even though some of the acreage is adjacent to high-end homes and all of it is certainly destined to be subdivided.) I got a subsidized education at a public university supported with tax dollars, as did my father and grandfather. My uncle made his living as a professor at a state university. The government has also been nice enough to employ two other Rehberg family members as public schoolteachers."
Denny Rehberg invites people to consider his family history, to stoke anger against the government, but he leaves out some of the most striking facts, particularly when it comes to his great-great grandfather, Edward Rehberg, also known as Stephen Edward Rehberg -- the family's first generation in Montana. Edward's hardships aren't spoken of, but the facts I discovered complete the picture in a startling way.
Edward Rehberg emigrated from Prussia and settled on a small ranch north of Helena, at the mouth of Little Prickly Pear Canyon, around 1879. Montana's 1880 census showed seven children in that household, including 6-year-old Albert (A.J.), and a woman named Amelia who apparently was the biological mother of some of the children, if not all. On Aug. 9, 1885, Edward Rehberg loaded 10-year-old Clara into a wagon and drove her to Helena, seeking medical care. Doctors treated Clara for weeks, but she died in a Helena hospital on the night of Sept. 5, a few days after her 11th birthday. On Nov. 2, a Helena grand jury indicted Edward Rehberg and his wife at that time, Louisa Rehberg -- Clara and A.J.'s stepmother -- on murder charges.
The indictment said that with "malice aforethought" and "great force and violence," they had beaten Clara with their hands, thrown her down on the ground and kicked her, and struck her with a piece of wood, and a leather strap fitted with a metal buckle, and an iron tool called a "stove-lifter," inflicting wounds on her "head, neck, stomach, breast, belly, back, legs, arms and sides."
One doctor testified that Clara "was in a high degree of pain ... The surface of the skin was red and inflamed and looked to me as though there had been hot water thrown upon her ... the child seemed to have blisters all over her leg and arm." Another doctor testified that "the inside of (Clara's) right leg from near the thigh to near the ankle was all one running sore. The skin had sloughed off to the muscle, and the muscles were bare except in one or two places." Both doctors said the beating had caused fatal infections.
Louisa Rehberg was acquitted of murder charges, but the jury members could not agree on a verdict for Edward. Convinced of his guilt, prosecutors put him through a second trial, trying to nail him for his daughter's violent death, but that resulted in another hung jury. In a third trial in October 1886, Edward testified, "I never at any time struck my child Clara with any blunt instrument, strap, stick of wood, wooden shoe, stove lifter or any other instrument named in the indictment ... I guess I have whipped all my children sometimes a little with the hand, but I cannot remember ... ever whipping them with any other instrument." That trial ended with Edward's conviction for manslaughter. By then, the Helena Daily Herald was reporting that "the 'Rehberg case' has become a celebrity in the legal annals of Montana."
That's how the great-great-grandfather of Montana's congressman ended up in the territorial prison, sentenced to five years of hard labor. His lawyers appealed to the Montana Supreme Court, arguing that the trial had been conducted improperly. (The trial judge had refused to allow testimony about anyone else beating the child, even though, in a deathbed statement, Clara allegedly said, "My stepmother did it. My father didn't hurt me at all.") The Montana Supreme Court decided in 1887 that the trial judge should've allowed testimony about the stepmother beating Clara Rehberg, and ordered that Edward be released from prison while prosecutors debated whether to have a fourth trial. At that point, prosecutors apparently gave up on that case. But in a different case eight years later, judges found that Edward had both assaulted a hired hand with a "plowshare" and made threats wielding an iron rod and a pitchfork.
It's a good bet that today, almost no one -- other than the family itself -- knows about the troubles of the first generation in Montana and their connection to Denny Rehberg. Yet the little-known facts reflect the randomness of anyone's family history, as well as the strengths and the weaknesses passed down through the generations. When 9-year-old A.J. Rehberg left home in the 1880s, he was escaping from both his father and his stepmother, according to other family members. A.J. "was a tough guy. He was very tough on the men (in his family), the way his father was tough on him," says another relative. The truth is: If A.J. had not struck out on his own so early, he might've been the one beaten to death, and today there would be no Denny Rehberg. It may not be an uplifting tale, but in many ways it's a classic Western.
Ray Ring, an HCN senior editor, has been based in Bozeman, Montana, for the past 17 years.
This coverage is supported by contributors to the High Country News Enterprise Journalism Fund.
*The paragraph about the wildfire in the Rehberg Ranch Estates subdivision is web-only, not included in the story printed in the hard-copy High Country News magazine.