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.

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