Who is Denny Rehberg, really?

by Ray Ring

The three candidates look too formal for Montana, dressed in suits and neckties for the first debate in the state's most important race this election season. But the setting is classic Montana: A pine-paneled room in a lodge on the edge of the Big Sky ski resort, beside a trout-filled river surrounded by mid-June wildflowers. One of the candidates is a Libertarian Party long shot, so the other two are drawing most of the attention: Montana Sen. Jon Tester, a hulking bear-like Democrat, who's considered vulnerable as he runs for a second term, and Denny Rehberg, the state's sole congressman, an intense, almost wolf-like Republican who's served six House terms and now wants Tester's seat.

The outcome of this race will affect the whole nation. The Republican Party needs only four seats to take control of the Senate, and it sees a good chance of winning here. Tester won by just 3,500 votes in 2006, and polls show him currently in a dead heat with Rehberg. What the two candidates think about national issues should matter. But rather than discuss their policy differences, they start by establishing their ties to Montana's land and culture.

"I am a farmer, a third-generation farmer," Tester begins. "I have the honor and privilege of farming the land that my grandparents homesteaded." That history has left its marks: His left hand, draped over the top of the podium, lacks three fingers, lost in a meatgrinder in the farm's butcher shop when he was 9 years old. His supporters wave signs that say, Montana Farmer -- Montana Values.

Rehberg responds by emphasizing his ranching credentials, with a political spin. "People ask me what got me involved in politics in the first place? Why did I want to serve the people of Montana?" He explains, "In 1974, my great-grandmother passed away and left the ranch to my mom, my dad, my sister and I ... As a result of the estate tax, we had to sell a third of our ranch, our homes, the corrals, the barns, our centralized water system, and we started over. ... No family should have to go through that. It took us (Rehberg and his wife, Jan) 10 years before we could even (re-establish) a house up on the ranch. I would drive from town out every day to the ranch and back -- I didn't even have a shed for a hammer, I started from scratch."

Gesturing vigorously, Rehberg denounces "the hand of the federal government, state government and the local government that sometimes didn't understand that a fee was a tax, and that a tax was a tax, and a regulation was a tax, and all of the costs added up (to a) cumulative effect ... that came down on us, the stifling effect of ... government."

The candidates spend the next hour answering questions, mostly about predictable policy differences. Both sides of the audience seem riled up about one issue in particular: campaign finance restrictions. Tester wants to restore the limits that the Republican U.S. Supreme Court destroyed with its 2010 Citizens United decision. Rehberg prefers no restrictions. During closing statements, though, the debate returns full-circle to where it started. Tester reinforces his farmer credentials: "Look, I'm very proud of my heritage," he says. "I talked about my grandparents coming out and making a farm out of nothing, and my parents taking that ball and going with it, and then in the late '70s Sharla (his wife) and I took it over, and we've run it ever since. Agriculture is the number-one industry in this state and I'm very, very proud to be a part of it." Then Tester goes for the jugular: He charges that Rehberg is really a "mansion rancher" -- subdividing his land and developing high-end homes, behavior that many Montanans view as worse than fishing with a worm. "The congressman has not sold a cow or a goat in years and years and years."

Rehberg defends himself: "When I think about my own heritage, and cracks like, well, I haven't ranched ... See, I have a herding operation, (cattle many years ago, and lately hundreds of cashmere goats). I guess somebody doesn't understand the difference between farming and ranching. Because if you're in ranching, you have livestock and guess what, they eat every day, and we have to know the difference between ... branding and castrating them."

This is identity politics, Montana-style. Popular second-term Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat with a master's degree in soil science, often talks about his ranch. He even takes it to work with him, bringing his herding dog on stage during speeches and using a branding iron on the Capitol steps to smoke legislative bills that he vetoes. Six-term Democratic Sen. Max Baucus has a Stanford law degree but wears a cowboy hat at political appearances and talks up his ties to the Sieben Ranch, which his great-grandfather started in 1897.

Despite my familiarity with Montana politics, I'm surprised by both candidates' apparent obsession with Rehberg's identity. I was already interested in writing about Rehberg. Now I wonder, on a basic level, who he really is. And I wonder if Western "identity" holds the key to the future of the Senate.

Since the debate, I've spent weeks researching Rehberg's family and ranching history and his use of it in politics. As I write, the polls still show a dead heat. I've found that like all politicians, Rehberg bends some facts to get his message across -- even facts about his own history that need no embellishment. It reminds me that reality is a lot more complicated, and more compelling, than either side's political sound bites. That's particularly true when it comes to family history -- any family's history.

Richard Fenno, a ground-breaking political scientist at the University of Rochester, studied members of Congress and found that they achieve election –– and re-election –– using three basic tactics: They adopt policies that voters like. They deliver federal money and services. And they persuade voters to trust them, with the fundamental message: I am one of you, or even better, I AM you.

"Politicians believe that a great deal of their support is won by the kind of individual self they present. ... More than most other people, they consciously try to manipulate it," Fenno said in his 1978 book, Home Style: House Members in Their Districts. "Most of the communication ... is not overtly political at all. It is, rather, part of a ceaseless effort to reinforce the underpinnings of trust in the congressman or the congresswoman as a person."

The "I am you, so trust me" message is paramount in Montana, says Dave Parker, a Montana State University political scientist who's hung out with both Rehberg and Tester on the campaign trail. "It's amazing how important identity is in Montana politics," Parker says. In other states, identity politics usually revolve around race, or gender or religion or other demographic traits. In the Interior West, the cowboy image becomes more important, but a candidate can still win in Mormon Utah or urban Colorado and Arizona without riding a horse or a tractor. But in Montana -- the fourth-largest state, with a fraction of the population of metro Phoenix -- "it's about connection to the land," Parker says.

"The Montana identity doesn't consist ONLY of farming, ranching, and hunting," says Luke Conway, a University of Montana associate professor who studies political psychology. "Most of us, while identifying with ranching in some way, do other things for a living." Candidates "just have to find an angle of approach" for reaching voters who have Montana values, Conway says. Republican Judy Martz became governor in 2000 partly by emphasizing her background as a former Olympic skater, rodeo queen and operator of a trash-hauling business. Mainly, candidates have to be perceived as "honest and straightforward ... things a lot of Montanans identify with."

So when Tester attacks Rehberg's rancher-ness, he's questioning the authenticity of Rehberg's identity. Polls consistently show that each candidate has the support of 45 percent to 47 percent of likely voters (for more on Rehberg and Tester policy differences, check the sidebar). Identity politics tend to operate in the margins, outside policy differences, and "for the small percentage of voters that haven't made up their minds yet, this might make the difference," Parker says.

And Tester, who stands in front of a barn in his TV ads, wearing a well-worn Carhartt jacket, has the edge in the identity politics. His trademark $10 flat-top haircut, along with his missing fingers, beam authenticity. His farm is 1,700 dryland acres of lentils and other crops in a completely rural area in central Montana, near a town called Big Sandy, which has only 600 people. His jobs away from the farm, besides his six years in the Senate, have included teaching music in the Big Sandy public school. A New York Times profile right after he won the seat said, "All his life (Tester) has lived no more than two hours from his farm." Tester comes home from Washington, D.C., to do farm chores, plowing fields and changing the clutch on his tractor. That's why Rehberg doesn't attack Tester's farmer credentials directly. Instead, like many Republicans who seek to brand their opponents as "not one of us," Rehberg charges that Tester is a "surrogate" of very un-Montana-style President Barack Obama.

In past Rehberg races, Democrats have tried to take advantage of embarrassing, headline-generating incidents: A spectacular 2009 Flathead Lake crash (Rehberg was a passenger in a speeding motorboat that hit a rocky shore after dark; blood tests revealed that the driver was drunk and that Rehberg had been drinking; a Rehberg aide suffered brain damage and Rehberg had broken bones). A 2004 falling-off-a-horse incident in Kazakhstan (Rehberg had been drinking ceremonial shots of vodka during a political tour, but denied he was drunk). A 1994 remark that could be interpreted as saying, "Let AIDS victims die." (Rehberg insisted he didn't mean it that way, but it landed in Newsweek magazine.) And so on. Opponents say incidents like these show Rehberg's untrustworthiness.

And yet he keeps winning, with a formula that often includes using his family history to make political points. Rehberg usually begins his presentations by noting that he's a "fifth-generation Montana rancher." TV ads show him in a denim shirt, leaning against a ranch fence, or driving a Jeep with a custom license plate: RNCHR MT. He often says that when he stays overnight in D.C., he just sleeps on his office couch -- a rancher camping out in the capital.

Last February, for instance, in a House hearing on a proposal to impose child-labor laws on ranchers, Rehberg began his testimony opposing the regulations with the magic words: "I am a fifth-generation Montana rancher," and then added, "Actually, my great-grandfather was born in Montana in 1873 and left home at 9 (years old) and started breaking horses at Fort Assiniboine in a paid capacity. So you can in fact work as a young man, even back in the 1880s, and survive."

Rehberg describes his great-grandfather as both the source of the family's resilience and the creator of family enterprises that felt the heavy hand of the government. Newspaper stories and government records spanning more than a hundred years, and conversations with several family members, confirm that Albert J. Rehberg -- "A.J." -- was indeed an interesting character, who set the family's course toward prosperity. A.J.'s mother died in childbirth when he was either 4 years old, or 6, or 7 -- A.J. himself told various versions of the story. A.J. "was quite a storyteller -- and he told different stories every time he turned around," recalls one relative who prefers to remain anonymous. Shortly after A.J.'s mother died, he ran away from home -- at age 9 or so -- and began working as a ranch hand. He married a woman from another pioneer family in 1901, and then "the Rehbergs made their home for two years in Henry's Basin, on Box Elder Creek in the north Bearpaw mountains. In 1903, they moved to a site 30 miles below the Old Fort Clagget post office on the Missouri River. ... Each fall the Rehbergs would swim their cattle across the (huge river) and trail them to Big Sandy, for shipment by rail to Chicago," according to a 1963 profile of A.J. in the Billings Gazette.

A.J. Rehberg and his wife, Mary Ada, settled in Billings in 1909, when that city already had more than 10,000 residents. The family put down roots there. A.J. established the Midland Guernsey Dairy Farms on Billings' west side in 1920 and -- by selling milk for less than competitors' prices -- acquired more than 100 cows, pasture and hayfields, processing and delivery operations. He also built an empire of ranchland -- more than 7,000 acres with a log ranch house -- and ran beef cattle. He died in 1963, when Denny was 8, and his descendants took over.

Denny Rehberg sums up the rest of the history -- in speeches and elsewhere, including a YouTube series called Denny's Desk -- like this: The government ruined his family's enterprises, not only through unfair inheritance taxes on the ranchland, but also with intrusive dairy regulations.

In one Denny's Desk video, he says that the Montana Milk Board set prices that prevented his family from selling for less than his competitors. A court battle erupted: "The government came in and messed things up (so) my dad sued them ... and took it all the way to the Montana Supreme Court. He lost the case ... and shut the Midland Guernsey Dairy down," he says. "So dad, when he shut the dairy down, he opened up a restaurant (called the Milky Way). He became a short-order cook ... and for the next 20 years, dad cooked hamburgers and steaks." That experience drew both his father, Jack Rehberg, and himself into politics, he says. In the 1960s, while Jack was a fry cook, he ran for the Legislature as a "small businessman" who was "angry with government," winning two terms in the Montana House and two in the Montana Senate. As Denny watched his father labor to make government less intrusive, he decided to follow in his footsteps, he says.

My research uncovered a somewhat different story: By 1950, Billings was Montana's urban center, with more than 31,000 residents, and its dense neighborhoods were sprawling outward toward the dairy's original 70 acres. "Town was encroaching" on the dairy, recalls Jack Rehberg. Other family members were leaving the dairy business: Denny's grandfather, Wallace S. Rehberg, died in 1954, and Denny's uncle, Wallace A. Rehberg, pursued a career as a university professor out of state. ("He was not meant to be a farmer," Jack Rehberg says.) The family began subdividing the original dairy land in 1953, and shut down the dairy herd no later than the mid-1950s. After that, they ran a milk-bottling company, buying milk from other people's cows and selling it retail at the Milky Way. The decisive court case began in 1961, not with the Rehbergs suing the Milk Control Board, but with the agency suing the Rehbergs because they were refusing to raise their prices to the required minimum, undercutting other retailers who obeyed the law.

When the Montana Supreme Court ruled against the Rehbergs in 1962, it cited a 1934 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that enabled states to set milk prices. The state court pointed to a history of "unfair, unjust, destructive, demoralizing and chaotic conditions and trade practices within the (milk) industry," including excess spoilage, that led to the price regulations. The regulations were heavy-handed and hard on smaller dairies, but some coped with it and kept going in Billings for another 15 or 20 years. Today, although the statewide total has declined precipitously, there are still several hundred dairy farms and 15,000 dairy cows in Montana. "The Milk Board forced us to change our prices, so we decided to get out of it," Jack Rehberg says. "We just plain didn't want to do it anymore -- we had other interests."

Here’s a totally different creation story, equally true, drawn from a fuller set of facts: Denny Rehberg is a fourth-generation Montana real estate speculator and subdivider.

Most of the ranchland that A.J. Rehberg acquired was within a few miles of downtown and the city's airport, above "the rim" -- the sandstone cliffs that run along the city's north side. When he began buying that land in the late 1930s, the airport had a new terminal and a new access road cutting through the rim from downtown, and two airlines had established service. The area was ripe for suburbanization. A.J. Rehberg began subdividing the land in 1941, carving out 34.75 acres near the airport and the rim's edge -- some of the best real estate in Montana, overlooking the whole city and the Yellowstone River Valley. (One of the houses built there is now worth about $900,000.) In the same choice suburban area, A.J. sold another 14 acres in 1942.

A.J. and his wife subdivided another 89 acres of the ranchland just above the rim in 1956, and began selling lots, averaging about $200 per acre (the equivalent of about $1,600 per acre today). In 1959 and 1960, they launched the Warbonnet Subdivision on some of the best land below the rim -- 58 acres tucked against the base of the cliffs, turned into dozens of lots.

A.J. Rehberg was shrewd and quick to recognize opportunities. He bought most of the ranchland (more than 4,400 acres) from the Yellowstone County government for about 50 cents per acre; apparently it had been seized from other landowners who couldn't pay their taxes during the Depression. He also bought 80 acres of federal land near the airport in 1951, which was eventually subdivided. He bought land where highways were being expanded to improve access, and those projects as well as the airport's continued expansion increased the value of his holdings. He got cheap leases on thousands of acres of state grazing land that formed a checkerboard pattern, mixed in with his private land. (Our map shows the Rehbergs' land purchases and subdivisions over the years.)

Other relatives subdivided the dairy land. In 1953, just before he died, Wallace S. Rehberg -- Denny Rehberg's grandfather -- launched the so-called Rehberg Subdivision, turning some of the dairy land into 32 lots. His widow, Dorothy Rehberg, subdivided more of the dairy land into many dozens of additional lots in both the Rehberg Subdivision and the Westwood Estates Subdivision, sold off in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The lots fetched at least $1,000 each, according to sales records.

With such sizable assets, the family did pay a sequence of Montana inheritance taxes and federal estate taxes -- a story Denny has told in a video for a D.C.-area libertarian think tank, Americans for Limited Government, as well as during the Big Sky debate and at many other venues. He often says the big hit came when his great-grandmother died in 1974, and the family was forced to sell one-third of the ranchland to pay the taxes. But actually, his great-grandmother died in 1976; his grandmother died in 1974.

And again, the reality isn't quite as clear-cut as Denny Rehberg's stories. As is often the case with inheritances, there were many heirs and a maze of financial arrangements as several key Rehbergs died. Basically, the Rehbergs decided that the ranchland would end up with Jack Rehberg and his kids, while the former dairy land and those subdivided lots would end up with other heirs.

The sequence began when A.J. Rehberg died in 1963. His widow, Mary Ada, assumed full possession of his estate, which included the ranchland. Mary Ada had about $30,000 in investments and savings, and the family paid about $14,000 in inheritance-related taxes to the feds and Montana -- less than 10 percent of the estate's value, according to probate court documents. It appears that the Rehbergs didn't have to sell any land to pay those taxes. But shortly after Mary Ada inherited the ranchland, she gave or sold a half-interest in it to Jack.

Dorothy Rehberg, Denny's grandmother, owned the former dairy land and some unsold lots in the Rehberg Subdivision when she died in 1974, according to court documents. She had about $38,000 in savings and investments, and people who'd bought lots owed her another $5,200. The family decided that this estate would pass to four heirs that didn't include Jack Rehberg and his kids. They paid about $32,000 in federal and state taxes -- about 17 percent of the estate's value -- and covered it partly by selling Rehberg Subdivision lots for at least $3,000 each.

Around the same time, from 1974 to 1975, Jack Rehberg sold more than 2,500 acres of the ranchland, mostly whole 640-acre sections. He subdivided the section that had been A.J. Rehberg's old home place, and began selling those lots. It was traumatic for the family. Jack and his wife and kids, including Denny, had also lived on that section, in a remodeled grain-storage building near A.J.'s house. Jack sold that portion of the ranchland because he was preparing to pay the next round of inheritance-related taxes, Denny Rehberg says in an email (his spokesman asked for questions in writing). Mary Ada Rehberg, Denny's great-grandmother, died in 1976. She and Jack were co-owners of the ranchland, and though other heirs are listed in the court documents, Jack inherited the estate and gave each of his kids (Denny and Denny's sister) a 25 percent interest. They paid a $28,466.65 inheritance tax to Montana's government. Court documents don't report the total value of this estate and any easily tapped cash and investments, and there's no indication that an estate tax was paid to the feds. Denny Rehberg says that the federal tax was nearly $200,000, and that he borrowed about $140,000 from a bank to pay the taxes. It took him and his wife more than 20 years to pay off the loan, he adds. It's still not clear why they needed the loan; if the 2,500 acres they sold fetched just $100 per acre, that alone would've been enough to pay the taxes.

"Be assured that my sister, my wife and I know full well what family-owned businesses go through ... when family members die," Rehberg says. In his frequent accounts of the tax hit, though, he doesn't mention that Congress and Montana have greatly reduced the inheritance-related taxes since the 1970s. This year, there is no federal inheritance tax on estates worth less than $5.12 million, so 99.8 percent of all estates are not targeted. The federal tax will increase next year unless Congress renews the current policy, but Democrats and Republicans want to keep it much lower than it was in the 1970s. The Montana Legislature and a 2000 ballot measure approved by Montana voters have eliminated the state's inheritance-related taxes.

Prominent speculators and developers, not ranchers, bought the "ranch" land that Jack Rehberg sold in the 1970s -- another indication that the land wasn't long-term agricultural. Just as A.J. Rehberg had been shrewd in assembling the real estate, the family held onto the land that was most valuable for subdivisions -- more than 4,000 acres in the area closest to the airport, the rim and downtown (the best for development) as well as an area to the west, where another road cuts through a different break in the rim. So the Rehbergs could have held onto A.J.'s old log house and the house where Denny was raised, had they not decided to shift more fully from ranching to real estate.

Jack Rehberg wasn't particularly interested in ranching; after A.J. died in 1963, he leased the Rehbergs' grass to other ranchers, he says. (Another family member says that Jack didn't visit the ranch much because he suffered from "severe allergies.") On top of his four terms in the Legislature in the 1960s, Jack Rehberg ran an unsuccessful campaign to knock a Democrat out of a U.S. House seat in 1970. Then, when the inheritance taxes came due in the 1970s, Jack Rehberg worked as the executive director of the Montana Petroleum Association from 1971 to 1975 -- "an excellent job," he says. After the oil-industry job, he became vice president of a savings and loan, was promoted to president within three years, and held that job until he retired in the early 1990s.

And despite Denny Rehberg's tales of having to start from scratch, even with the inheritance-tax hit, he had tremendous advantages. When he graduated from college in 1977, he went to work as a real estate agent and as a lobbyist for that industry, no doubt helped by his father's connections. In Denny's first run for the Legislature in 1984, the Billings Gazette called him a "rancher-realtor." His campaign signs just said "Rehberg" with no first name, playing off his father's name recognition. Denny won several terms in the Legislature, and then, in the 1990s, two governors picked him as lieutenant governor, partly because his father could help deliver votes and campaign donations in Montana's most populous county.

In his political career, Denny Rehberg has shown flashes of his great-grandfather's grit. In his first primary, in 1984, he beat an eight-term incumbent Republican, Harrison Fagg, a moderate who'd sponsored Montana's mine-reclamation law and backed wilderness. (After the race, Fagg said that Rehberg was out to "purify" the Republican Party.) During Rehberg's time in the Legislature, according to the Gazette, he helped write a bill that disqualified all able-bodied Montanans younger than 35 from welfare programs. (The Montana Supreme Court threw out that law.) Congressman Rehberg opposes two bipartisan wilderness bills whose terms were negotiated by Republican loggers, ranchers and centrist environmentalists. His hard-line nature is a big contrast with Tester, who is sponsoring one of the wilderness deals. But Rehberg himself isn't very effective in Congress. Few of the bills he sponsors or co-sponsors pass. (He says he concentrates on appropriations, steering federal money to his constituents, instead of law-making.) When I asked one of Montana's top environmentalists to sum up Rehberg, instead of highlighting the policy differences, he talked about Rehberg's work ethic and reputation for partying: "He'd rather be out yukking it up with his buddies."

Meanwhile, the question remains: How much of a rancher is Denny Rehberg? At times, he's owned herds -- first cattle and then goats -- but in the 39 years since he graduated from high school, he's lived away from Billings for at least 24 years, mostly to pursue his political career, including the weeknights sleeping on his D.C. office couch. From 1979 to 1982, he worked in D.C. for Rep. Ron Marlenee, and from 1991 to 1996, he lived in Helena while working as lieutenant governor. And for several years in Billings, he had other full-time political jobs -- running Marlenee's re-election campaign in 1986, and then Conrad Burns' 1988 campaign for a Senate seat, an upset victory over incumbent Democratic Sen. John Melcher. He earned $58,000 as a high-ranking Burns aide in 1990 -- the equivalent of roughly $100,000 today, more than most ranchers earn -- and then spent 1995-'96 in an unsuccessful run for a U.S. Senate seat.

Records of the Rehbergs' leases of the state land mingled with their ranchland indicate that they've also subleased that grass to other ranchers most years since the 1980s. "After he was elected to Congress (in 2000), Rehberg loaned the goats to other Montana ranchers on a kind of animal share-cropping arrangement common in agriculture," the Gazette reported during his 2010 campaign. Shortly after that campaign ended, Rehberg sold off his goat herd, and now, once again, he's leasing the grass to other ranchers. "Representing Montana is a full time job. So is ranching. Anyone who says they can do both isn't being honest," he says in his email to HCN.

The Rehbergs settled their one-quarter and one-half interests in the inherited ranchland in the 1990s, and Denny wound up with full ownership of more than 3,000 acres. In 2001, he and his wife, Jan -- at that time, a lawyer in Montana's biggest lawfirm -- launched a subdivision, Rehberg Ranch Estates, on more than 800 acres near the airport and downtown. Initially, they created 155 lots on about 100 acres, with a long-term plan that called for a golf course, equestrian center, a commercial area and a total of 1,200 housing units. The lots were selling for as much as $55,000 each to begin with, and houses there ranged between $300,000 to $500,000. The recession has been a drag on sales and prices, but even so, the Gazette estimated last February that the Rehbergs' land and lots were worth at least $7 million at current prices, and two or three times that much if the market recovers. (In comparison, Jon Tester's farm and other assets are worth about $1.2 million, the Gazette said, and his land has little or no value for anything but farming.)

Rehberg Ranch Estates itself benefits from government land programs. Denny Rehberg's leases of state land provide open space along the subdivision's edge. Some of the development even sits on acreage that A.J. Rehberg bought from the federal government in 1951. Yet the subdivision was the scene of a faceoff between Denny Rehberg and the city government. A series of wildfires broke out in the grass, sagebrush and sparse ponderosa pines in that area in July 2008. The Billings Fire Department suppressed the blazes, but there were repeated flare-ups that burned about 600 acres of the subdivision's undeveloped land, where the golf course was planned, and damaged fences and water pipelines, according to the subdivision company, Rehberg Ranch LLC. In 2010, the company filed a lawsuit against the city and the fire department, charging that mismanagement had caused fire crews to respond too slowly. The lawsuit claimed that the "economic value" of the subdivision's land was "greatly diminished," and sought payment for damages. It ticked off many people, and the Tester camp was planning to make it an issue in the Senate race, so the Rehbergs dropped the lawsuit in November 2011 -- another indication of the importance of the identity politics, and another example of Denny Rehberg's tendency to blame the government when anything goes wrong.*

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.

© High Country News