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Schweitzer Takes Aim

A progressive populist has Hillary in his sights

Dec 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 15 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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Even if that space includes Hillary Clinton? The shadow of the former secretary of state looms over the unformed Democratic primary field, something Schweitzer acknowledges. In 2012, he told the AP that if Clinton ran in 2016, “she walks away with the nomination and then beats whichever Republican.” When asked on MSNBC about that assessment, Schweitzer said it’s still “probably true” before launching a barrage at Hillary, Barack Obama, and the state of the Democratic establishment.

“The question that we have is, will it be the Hillary that leads the progressives?” he said. “Or is it the Hillary that says, ‘I’m already going to win the Democratic nomination, and so I can shift hard right on Day 1.’ We can’t afford any more hard right. We had eight years of George Bush. Now we’ve had five years of Obama, [who], I would argue, in many cases has been a corporatist.”

No doubt that sounds sweet to grassroots progressives who view Hillary with suspicion and have been disappointed by what they perceive as Obama’s move to the center. But it’s even harsher since it comes from the man who gave a rousing address at the 2008 Democratic National Convention that placed him in the national spotlight. Clearly Schweitzer is trying make enough noise to position himself as the voice of the progressive populist wing of the Democratic party.

Brian David Schweitzer was born in 1955 in Havre, a railroad town in north-central Montana. Descended from German and Irish homesteaders, Schweitzer pursued two degrees in the agriculture sciences and shipped off to the Middle East for seven years in the 1980s to develop irrigation systems there. Among the places he lived were Libya and Saudi Arabia, giving the young Schweitzer a worldliness not enjoyed by most sons of Montana. (On a recent TV panel discussion on the Middle East, Schweitzer showed off his Arabic with a hearty “marhaba,” or “welcome.”) 

He returned to Montana to ranch and farm, later working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. His first foray into politics came in the race against Burns in 2000. Hoping to capitalize on outrage over the high cost of prescription drugs, Schweitzer made headlines when he packed buses full of senior citizens and drove them to Canada, where they could buy cheaper medicine.

“When they got on the bus, I didn’t ask if they were Republican or Democrat, Libertarian or vegetarian. I didn’t care,” Schweitzer told the AP at the time. “I wanted to know if they were fed up with the high cost of prescription drugs, and they trusted a farmer they didn’t know to take them to Canada.”

His impulse to make bold statements with stunts would pop up again later on in his political career. His thin margin against Burns, in a state where George W. Bush won in a landslide at the top of the ticket, encouraged Schweitzer to try again. In 2004, Montana’s unpopular incumbent Republican governor declined to run for reelection. Schweitzer ran as a populist outsider against Republican Bob Brown, a veteran state legislator and the secretary of state. In an effort to burnish his nonpartisan credentials, Schweitzer selected a Republican legislator, John Bohlinger, as his running mate. (Bohlinger has since switched parties.) Despite Bush cleaning up once again in the state, Schweitzer eked out a four-point win to become the first Democratic governor since 1989.

Schweitzer became known for his endearing folksiness. Frequently dropping the traditional necktie for a bolo tie, he instituted an open-door policy for reporters in his capitol office. There, they were likely to see his black-and-white border collie, Jag, dubbed the “First Dog of Montana.” In 2008, Jag had an approval rating of 80 percent, higher than Schweitzer himself. The governor once traveled to Opheim, a town of 85 and a short drive from the Canadian border, to give the commencement address at the local high school. Unremarkable, maybe, except there was only one student graduating. The AP reported on the event.

The spectacles continued, often designed to embarrass the Republican legislature. At one point, Schweitzer fashioned a cattle brand with the word “VETO” and used it to dramatically burn bills in front of crowds outside the capitol. People loved it. Democrats overflow with praise for Schweitzer’s “political gut.” Nathan Daschle calls him “one of the most instinctively political people” he knows.

“He had a knack for reading what the general population was wanting,” says Jon Sesso, a Democratic state senator who was minority leader in the statehouse for part of Schweitzer’s tenure. Even Republicans grudgingly give him his due.

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