Who is Denny Rehberg, really?

  • Denny Rehberg in his Washington, D.C., office, where, he often says, he spends his nights away from Montana sleeping on the couch.

    Tom Williams, Getty Images
  • Reminders of Montana in the Washington, D.C., office of Congressman Denny Rehberg.

    Pete Marovich
  • Denny Rehberg and Jon Tester during their June debate, when Tester charged that Rehberg is a "mansion rancher."

    Kurt Wilson, Missoulian
  • Denny Rehberg stresses his Montana values in TV ads and other videos, such as "Rancher," seen on the Montanans4Rehberg channel on YouTube.

  • On the Rehberg for Senate website, Denny Rehberg stresses his fifth-generation rancher credentials. But some of his personal escapades have made the biggest headlines, including a 2009 drunken boat crash on Flathead Lake (he was a passenger) that left one of his aides with brain damage.

    Courtesy Katrin Frye, Montana Public Radio (right)
  • Billings, Montana, c. 1915. When A.J. and Mary Ada Rehberg arrived a few years earlier, the population had already topped 10,000. "Our best guess is they were looking for a little more security than the wild frontier life offered for their family," Denny Rehberg says in an email to HCN.

    Haines Photo Co., Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
  • The Rehberg Ranch Estates website shows the family history starting with A.J. Rehberg. But a records search shows that even early on, A.J. was a land speculator. "I remember him telling me that he owned no land that wasn't for sale," Denny Rehberg says.

  • Homes dot the hillside on the Rehberg Ranch Estates development, where many dozens of lots have been sold so far, and the plan calls for a total of 1,200 housing units.

    Larry Mayer, Billings Gazette

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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.*

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