Williams leaves, Montana scrambles

  • Pat Williams

  Williams leaves,

Montana scrambles

The script in Montana will read like it does every election year: Candidates will debate how much of the state's mountains and forests should be protected and how much should be open to industry. But for the first time in nearly 18 years, the moderating voice of Democratic Rep. Pat Williams won't be heard among them. Citing homesickness, the man who defended both jobs and wilderness areas announced Jan. 13 he would leave Congress.

Now, the three Republican candidates who started campaigning against Williams three months ago suddenly see the possibility of winning the state's lone congressional seat; Democrats, as of late January, were still searching for a candidate approaching William's stature.

During his nearly 18 years in Congress, Williams introduced four Montana wilderness bills, and this December he convinced the Clinton administration to issue a development moratorium on 1.7 million roadless acres. "He would sit down with people, and they would roll out their maps," says Montana Wilderness Association's John Gatchell. "People were enfranchised."

"Williams was the first elected statewide politician in Montana who recognized that the future of the timber industry does not depend on (logging) roadless areas," says Steve Thompson, also of Montana Wilderness Association. Still, Congress never passed a wilderness bill for the state.

Before Williams' announcement, many in Montana expected the election year to be a shoo-in for incumbents, including Democratic Sen. Max Baucus.

The influx of self-employed and retired newcomers may give moderate Republican candidates an advantage. "The most rapidly growing areas, such as the Flathead Valley, vote solidly Republican," says University of Montana economist Thomas Power. At the same time, Power says, many recent immigrants say they moved here for the natural environment and want it protected.

This might spell trouble for Alan Mikkelsen, Dwight MacKay and Rick Hill, the three pro-industry Republicans vying for Williams' seat. "If elected, I will work with (Sen. Conrad) Burns to pass a wilderness bill with strong release language and a component of jobs and multiple use," says Republican frontrunner MacKay.

The departure of Williams, one of 38 congresspeople to retire, resonated with his peers. Rep. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., told the Billings Gazette, "It makes being a progressive Westerner in the House very lonely."

*Heather Abel