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