Will Montanans reject their bagman?

The answer may determine which party controls the Senate

  • Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., faces off with Democratic challenger Jon Tester in a debate in Whitefish

    Karen Nichols, Daily Inter Lake
 

BOZEMAN, MONTANA — One Montana senator has jokingly referred to black people as "niggers" and Arab oil sheiks as "ragheads." He’s insulted Indians, immigrants and working women. This summer, he scolded battle-weary federal firefighters for doing a "piss-poor job" on a ranchland blaze, although he later apologized.

In 18 years in the Senate, he has failed to push through any major policy-oriented bills. He’s tainted by scandal, having accepted about $150,000 from clients of sleazy lobbyist Jack Abramoff — more than any other member of Congress. And he has voted against environmental interests 96 percent of the time, according to the League of Conservation Voters.

Meanwhile, there is a Montana senator who’s a master of tapping the federal treasury. He’s worked his way into key seats on appropriations committees, and brought an estimated $2 billion home to Montanans, at the rate of $200 million per year recently. That money has helped to bring new technologies into rural areas, build tribal housing, assist low-income students, and construct a hypersonic wind tunnel in Butte to develop faster aircraft, among other things.

Both senators are up for re-election in November. And both are Republican Conrad Burns.

At Montana State University, political science professor Jerry Calvert sums up the senator’s appeal to many Montanans: "Burns’ whole pitch is, ‘I bring home the pork.’ "

But the recent scandals, combined with a leftward shift in Montana politics, have made Burns one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the U.S. Congress. Democrats need to gain six seats to win control of the Senate. In 2004, Democrats won the Montana governorship and control of the state Legislature. And they’ve come up with a strong challenger: Jon Tester, a third-generation farmer who’s president of the state Senate. Tester sports a crew cut and a down-home grassroots style, and the populist policies he’s embraced include clean energy and expanded health-care coverage.

Early-summer polling put Tester ahead by seven points. But recent numbers show the race has tightened to a dead heat. Voters in the political middle, who will decide this race, appear to be struggling with a fundamental question: Should they vote for policies and ethical standards, or just go after the dollars?

Gary Strobel, a professor of plant sciences at MSU, says, "There has been no person in Congress in the history of Montana that has done more for this university than Conrad Burns." But many of the faculty, and other people who benefit from Burns’ funding ability, are Democrats. And that, as Strobel says, presents "a terrible conundrum."

Idealism vs. pragmatism

Throughout Burns’ time in office, Montanans have received at least a $1.43 return on every dollar of federal taxes they have paid, according to the Washington D.C.-based Tax Foundation. At the university and associated science centers, Burns has gotten money to erect buildings and do research on trout diseases, clean-energy technology, biomedical advances, barley and cattle breeding, improvements in mining, and on and on.

Burns was also key in setting up a local NASA Techlink Center that has helped more than 150 companies commercialize federally developed technologies and research. He’s the go-to guy in other centers that assist entrepreneurs, and he’s funded public television.

The federal money creates "a very complex web" throughout the economy, and "there’s tremendous public benefit," says Strobel, whose office is in one of the buildings Burns helped create. Some university officials and faculty openly support Burns, yet last winter, when the university held a dinner in his honor, many faculty members who get funding from him didn’t even show up. Strobel, an admirer of former Democratic President Bill Clinton, admits, "I’m really tossed" — torn between voting for Burns or Tester.

"A lot of people at MSU are as conflicted as I am," says another researcher, also a political liberal, whose program has received millions from Burns. Like many at the university, he’ll talk politics only off the record. "This comes down to a classic case of idealism versus pragmatism," he says. If Montanans send Tester to the Senate, they may never regain their financial leverage. "(Tester) would be a fully above-board politician. But he would be pretty ineffective at bringing in appropriations for many, many years. He’s suggested, ‘I can do that,’ but that’s naive." Burns, a former livestock auctioneer, knows how to play the game, trading favors with other senators to win support for his pork.

Even some environmentalists are uncertain, though they’ll only say so off the record. Despite his poor conservation rating, Burns has helped deliver more than $34 million to land and river restoration projects, where ranchers collaborate with groups like The Nature Conservancy.

Still, Theresa Keaveny, head of Montana Conservation Voters, believes environmentalists need to focus on Burns’ pattern of voting for the interests of oil drillers, radioactive-waste companies and other potential polluters. There would be less need for restoration, she says, if Burns "voted to protect those areas to begin with. He’s missing the boat on many opportunities to prevent (environmental degradation)."

By late August, Burns was ahead of Tester in one predictable area: campaign money. Burns had raised about $7 million, while Tester had come up with about $2 million.

Steve Kirchhoff, a Democrat on the Bozeman city commission, rattles off the community projects Burns has funded, including library construction, a parking garage, a parking lot for a popular rock-climbing spot, restoration of a historic mansion, and a new interchange on Interstate 90. But Kirchhoff has decided to vote for Tester. "I’m not ungrateful for that (funding)," he says, "but I’m going to be looking the other way when I vote."

The author is HCN’s Northern Rockies editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • MATADOR RANCH STEWARD
    The Matador Ranch Steward conducts annual stewardship projects at the Matador Ranch Preserve and occasionally supports stewardship projects elsewhere in Montana's Northern Great Plains. The...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a motivated individual to help build public support for key strategic initiatives in northern Idaho through public outreach and...
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Foundation seeks a steward/educator to lead backcountry volunteer projects and community outreach. FT $36k-$40k, competitive time off. ALSO HIRING OPERATIONS MANAGER. More...
  • ASSISTANT RANCH OPERATIONS MANAGER
    WANTED: ASSISTANT RANCH OPERATIONS MANAGER ~ UTAH/COLORADO border ~ Looking to immediately hire an experienced and clean hardworker to join us on a beautiful, very...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty