Friday, April 29, 2011

Rehberg: “I am land rich and cash poor”

The Montana Democratic Party posted a video on YouTube clip this morning from an event in Missoula in which Rehberg tells an attendee that he is “land rich and cash poor.”

An unidentified man asks Rehberg a question about his priorities--and presumably took a shot at Montana’s Republican Congressman for being rich because Rehberg references “gratuitous shots like ‘the rich like myself.’”

Here’s the clip, which I’ll discuss further below.

The tape is only clip so we don’t know what the full context of the man’s question was, but Rehberg was obviously irritated at being labeled “rich.” Democrats have repeatedly played the “rich” card and no-doubt will continue to play it throughout the 2012 Senate campaign as they try to draw distinctions between “Big Sandy Farmer” Sen. Jon Tester and “Millionaire Congressman” Denny Rehberg.

Since this is going to be one of the major sub-themes of the 2012 U.S. Senate Race, I’ll take a few minutes to look as just some of the fact available in the public record.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Tester’s net worth in 2009 was estimated at $602,004 to $1,280,000, which is well below the Senate average in 2009 of $13.4 million.

Rehberg’s net worth in 2009, according to the same source, was estimated at $6,598,014 to $56,244,997, which is well above the House average of $5 million.

According to the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives, the current salary for all Senators and Members is $174,000. The salary for the Speaker is $223,500 and the salary for the Majority and Minority Leaders is $193,400.

According to the USDA Department of Economic Research, the median household income in Montana in 2009 was $42, 222.

I doubt voters will feel much sympathy for Rehberg’s claim of being “land rich and cash poor,” because by Montana standards  one could argue both Tester and Rehberg are “rich.”

Friday, April 22, 2011

Liberal bloggers feuding over Tester’s record

Tester campaign photo

Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, once a darling of the Montana and national liberal blogosphere, appears to be having some trouble with the netroots as he embarks on a tough reelection campaign against Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg.

On issues ranging from wilderness to immigration reform to wolves the past several months have seen liberals’  irritation with Tester go from a slow simmer to a rolling boil in the blogosphere. 

National blogger Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos fame—one of Tester’s most ardent and influential netroots supporters in the 2006 election—slammed Tester in December for voting against the DREAM Act, a bill that would have created a path to citizenship for undocumented aliens who were brought to the United States as children. The bill was a top priority of Congressional Democrats last session, but Tester and fellow Montana Sen. Max Baucus joined three other Senate Democrats and in voting against the measure, which Tester referred to as “amnesty” for illegal immigrants.

Wrote Kos:

“Not only will I do absolutely nothing to help his reelection bid, but I will take every opportunity I get to remind people that he is so morally bankrupt that he'll try to score political points off the backs of innocent kids who want to go to college or serve their country in the military.”

More recently a fiery debate erupted on the Missoula blog 4&20 blackbirds over a post by frequent anonymous liberal blogger JC. In the post JC criticizes Tester for breaking key campaign promises dealing with wildness protection and the use of legislative riders and accuses the senator of marginalizing liberal policy critics by calling them “extremists”:

During Jon’s first term in office he took two actions that have explicitly gone against his promises: 1) he has introduced his Logging Bill, which would release certain lands protected as wilderness under current statutes and management practices; and 2) he inserted the wolf delisting rider into the 2011 Budget Bill.

Both pieces of legislation have been heavily panned by those who supported [former progressive Democratic Senate candidate] Paul Richards in his withdrawal from the primary race, and endorsement of Tester–and by many, many others. And for that vocal criticism of Tester’s legislation, Tester labeled his former supporters “extremists.” I guess their position once upon a time wasn’t too extreme for him to shake hands with. And Jon invited “extremist” Paul onto the stage for a victory salute. But those supporters have not changed their principles, policies, or politics. Jon Tester has.

But Tester supporters were quick to fire back arguing, in part, that Tester never pretended to be the liberal the netroots hoped he’d be, and that criticism of Tester is only aiding Republican Denny Rehberg’s effort to unseat the one-term Democrat.

Wrote commenter Jake:

We must remember that the lines have been drawn and our primary focus has to be to get Jon re-elected. The alternative is not in any way acceptable. Intellectual squabbling is a waste of energy, especially as some have estimated, it could be a close race.

Helena educator and 0ne-time Democratic gubernatorial candidate Don Pogreba (well, he filed for governor anyway), picked up the discussion on his blog Intelligent Discontent where he provided a lengthy rebuttal to JC’s post on 4&20 blackbirds. Pogreba says he’s troubled by the “developing trend in which progressives seem a lot more interested in tearing down a moderate-left Senator like Tester” than in attacking his opponent.

Writes Pogreba:

“The fact remains that Senator Tester is who he represented himself to be, not the person we progressives want him to be all the time. Montana’s not going to elect Bernie Sanders; it’s not going to elect Russ Feingold (hell, Wisconsin doesn’t even elect Russ Feingold anymore). What we can do is to support a Senator who looks out for the working class, did his best to create a Wilderness Bill that balanced environmental protection with political and economic reality in the state, and who has worked to protect small businesses and family farms here in Montana.”

The comments sections of each of the blog posts I reference above are well worth reading, if not lengthy. It’s too bad I don’t have the time or space to highlight them all here.

However, one interesting nugget stood out from comments on the 4&20 blackbirds piece.

Wilderness advocate Matthew Koehler, a staunch critic of the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, was invited in November to become a front page author on the prominent Montana Democratic blog Left in the West.  He got the gig from Rob Kailey, a.k.a. Wulfgar!, who took over administrative duties of the blog after longtime administrator Jay “Touchstone” Stevens left in November, followed shortly thereafter by blog founder Matt Singer

In announcing Koehler’s elevation to front-page post status, Kailey wrote:

His issues may often be singular, and his statements may not always meet with approval. I don't care. He has a great deal to say of importance to the left.  That I do care about.

But according to  a comment Koehler left on the 4&20 blackbirds post , he apparently lost  front page posting privileges on LiTW after openly criticizing Tester for attaching a rider that removes grey wolves from the Endangered Species Act to a must-pass spending bill.

Some might argue all of this blog squabbling is much ado about nothing.

That may be true, but it’s hard to deny that the netroots played a integral role early on in Tester’s rise from obscure Montana dirt farmer to U.S. Senator…as Tester himself said in an August 2006 interview shortly after his surprising defeat of presumed front-runner John Morrison in the Democratic primary:

“I’ll tell you, I think [blogs] are critically important to this campaign…They’ve brought more people into the political process, and I have nothing but high praise for what they’ve been able to do and what they’ve given me.”

An overstatement? Maybe.

But During the 2006 Senate campaign Act Blue donors raised $342,823 from over 10,000 individual online contributions for Tester’s campaign, mostly from blogs. ActBlue donations to Tester’s 2006 campaign outnumbered donations from any single PAC, according to

There’s no question that an incumbent Senator—in what is likely to be one of the most hotly contested U.S. Senate races in the country—will rely less on netroots  enthusiasm and activism as he will on the the traditional party resources.

What remains to be seen is whether Tester—a candidate lefty bloggers almost universally fawned over in 2006—will electorally suffer from the divisions flaring up among what was once his most active and vocal base.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Kavulla ousts PSC chairman in coup


In yet another bizarre twist at the Montana Public Service Commission, Commissioner Travis Kavulla, a Republican, sided with Democrats Gail Gutsche and John Vincent to remove fellow Republican commissioner Bill Gallagher from the chairmanship.

Kavulla then took over as chairman of the board that regulates the state's utilities by a 3-2 vote.

Citing a lack of confidence in leadership, Kavulla and Gutsche engaged in a bitter back and forth with Gallagher and Republican Vice chairman Brad Molnar over a bevy of issues. The "straw that broke the camel's back," said Gutsche and Kavulla, was what they described as an effort to conceal Molnar's publicly financed trip to a meeting in Washington, D.C.

Friday's meeting started as a discussion on how to reprimand Molnar and quickly devolved into heated bickering and a bubbling over of grievances and grudges.

Gutsche and Kavulla alleged that the commission did not authorize Molnar to travel to the nation's capitol for a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission settlement conference last month that Gallagher was attending. They said Molnar and Gallagher made a concerted effort to keep Molnar's participation in the trip a secret from the other three members of the commission.

Kavulla said the majority of the commission — himself and the two Democratic members — did not believe Molnar could be trusted to represent the commission at the conference, and they would have objected to his participation. Molnar knew that, which is why he kept the trip off his travel calendar and told Gallagher to keep it from the others, Gutsche said.

Molnar disputed those claims, saying that his trip was posted on the calendar and he made no effort to conceal his participation.

"What the hell did I do wrong? I went to a conference I was supposed to be at, as a majority member," he said during a break. "This is the harpy, partisan sniping that has brought this commission almost to a standstill."

A compromise had been worked out where Molnar would have paid about $800 in travel expenses out of his personal travel budget and he could keep his position as vice chairman.

But that deal fell apart when neither Molnar nor Gallagher expressed remorse or acknowledged wrongdoing, Kavulla said.

Kavulla dives into a great detail about his role in yesterday’s circus over at Electric City Weblog:

I do regret that this could not be solved through other means. But, sometimes, when you’re very clearly in the right—and others are very clearly in the wrong—you just need to draw a line. That’s just what happened here.

Click the link above and read the post. It has some good insight.

The current commission, of which Republicans gained a 3-2 majority with the November election, has suffered from hyper-partisanship and bickering from all sides since they convened in January. Republican commissioners Molnar and Gallagher accused Kavulla of making self-serving power plays behind closed doors with the Democrats on the panel in order to advance his own political career.

"Twenty years I have been doing this. In 20 years I have seen some of the biggest issues in the Legislature," said Molnar, a former legislator. "I have never, ever seen this level of infighting, back stabbing, self-aggrandizement, personal vendetta building. I have never seen anything like this in 20 years. If you want to have a partisan moment and say it's not a partisan moment, go right ahead."

Gallagher ascended to the chairmanship in January after a bitter two-day battle in which Kavulla, citing concerns about Molnar's "temperament and leadership abilities," refused to vote for Molnar as the chair. As a compromise, Gallagher agreed to serve as chairman only if Molnar would serve as vice chair. That arrangement was tenuous throughout the ensuing three months.

Gallagher said he never wanted to be chairman and never really had control of the body.

"I want it publically on the record the circumstance that I've been dealing with since day one, and that is your partisan politics, your joining with two (Democratic) members of the commission and playing party politics from the get go. I have not been in control of this commission since day one. You have been," Gallagher said. "It doesn't bother me to lose the chairmanship, with the exception in being disappointed that you didn't actually make the motion yourself."

Gallagher said Kavulla doesn't have the integrity, character or maturity to run the commission effectively.

Kavulla countered that Molnar and Gallagher have consistently put partisan politics and party loyalty above the work of the commission.

"This shouldn't be and isn't a partisan issue," Kavulla said. "Any Montanan would be outraged at the notion that one commissioner had asked another commissioner to keep their publically funded travel secret and that that had happened."

Kavulla said he's sick having the "party card played all over Helena."

"I'm happy to be a Republican. I'm proud to be a Republican. I will not run for office as anything else," Kavulla said. "But if you think party loyalty is going to keep me from speaking my conscience on an issue like this, Mr. Chairman, you really are sorely mistaken."

After removing Gallagher as chair, then vice-chairman Brad Molnar took the gavel and preempted an inevitable motion to remove him from that position and opted instead to resign from his leadership post.

The commission then elected Kavulla as chairman and Gutsche as vice chair by 3-2 votes, with Gutsche, Kavulla and Vincent voting "yes" and Molnar and Gallagher voting "no." Gutsche cast Vincent's vote by proxy as he was not at Friday's work session.

In an interview after the commission meeting, a visibly irritated Molnar called Kavulla a "sociopath" who gladly accepted Molnar's help during the election season and then stabbed him in the back.

"He was my creation," Molnar said. "Anybody could have beat (Democratic opponent) Don Ryan, but he never would have beat Jerry Black in the primary if it wasn't for me."

Molnar said Kavulla's actions Friday took control of the board away from conservative Republicans and handed it over to "liberal environmentalists" on the panel.

Gutsche, who along with Vincent refused to vote for Kavulla as chairman in January when the battle over control of the PSC first ignited, said she has faith in Kavulla's ability to lead the board going forward. She said Friday's events demonstrated that the panel can work together in a bipartisan way.

"We need to move this commissioner forward," Gutsche said. "We need to get down to doing the people's work instead of wasting time dealing with one rogue commissioner who never should have been in a leadership position in the first place."

Gutsche praised Kavulla's work ethic and tenacity in the job and said he will help the PSC "turn the corner."

"His work ethic is solid," Gutsche said. "He is the hardest worker, most studied, understands and asks highly technical questions of staff and legal questions of attorneys and he is always prepared."

Friday, April 15, 2011

Branding stunt goes national

Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s theatrical “VETO branding” ceremony has caught the attention of the cable news networks.  FOX News and MSNBC aired clips from the Lowdown video last night and this morning.

Schweitzer has never shied away from making a big splash to make a political point, yet Wednesday’s performance was perhaps Schweitzer’s most brazen in-you-face political stunt since 1999, when the then hardly known Democratic U.S.  Senate candidate dumped $47,000 in cash onto the floor of the Capitol Rotunda to highlight the campaign cash his opponent, Republican Sen. Conrad Burns, received from tobacco companies.

Last night MSNBC host Rachel Maddow fawned over the veto branding during a nearly five minute segment on “The Rachel Maddow Show.”

“How much does this dude love his job?” Maddow wondered.

Giving the spectacle rave reviews, Maddow said: “I could watch this all day. This is so much better than politics has any right to be.”

Here’s the video from the show:

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

FOX News picked up the story this morning, calling it a “must see moment.” I can’t find the video on their website so I posted a  camera phone clip from today’s “Happening Now” program. Sorry for the poor quality. You’ll have to turn up the volume a bit. If I find a clip from FOX I’ll post it.

While Schweitzer’s theatrics have garnered a lot of attention and praise from Democrats, Republicans, predictably, weren’t impressed.

"I think it's deeply disrespectful," Republican Sen. Jason Priest of Red Lodge said.

Schweitzer vetoed three of Priest's bills Wednesday, including a bill to revise energy efficiency building code requirements, a bill to prohibit the creation of health insurance exchanges under the new federal health care law and a bill to require cost-benefit analysis of mandated health insurance coverage.

"Some of those bills had bi-partisan support," Priest said. "I think not only is it bad political theater but bad policy."

Priest has a brand of his own: “BS.”

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

RAW Video: Schweitzer brands GOP bills

As promised, Gov. Brian Schweitzer on Wednesday fired up his infamous "veto" branding irons on the front steps of the Capitol and put the brand to seven GOP-backed bills. (video below)

In one of the most spectacular pieces of political theater in the Democrat's six years in office, Gov. Brian Schweitzer applied red-hot branding irons to wooden plaques representing bills ranging from elimination of same day voter registration to a bill that would allow new open pit gold and silver mining using cyanide leach process.

"These bills are either frivolous, unconstitutional or in direct contradiction to the expressed will of the people of Montana," Schweitzer said to a cheering crowd and a throng of reporters and television cameras.

As of Wednesday morning Schweitzer vetoed three bills and issued 10 amendatory vetoes. After the ceremonial "branding," Schweitzer vowed to go back into the Capitol and use his veto pen to officially veto 17 more bills.

"When I swore to uphold the Constitution I meant it," Schweitzer said.

I’ll have more on this later, including reaction from the GOP.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Video & images from today’s rally at the Capitol

Approximately 1,200-1,500 people rallied at the state Capitol today to protest GOP budget cutting proposals for public workers and services for children, the needy and the elderly.

I’ll have a complete story in tomorrow’s Great Falls Tribune.

In the meantime, here are some videos and photos from the event.







Here’s a video of demonstrators marching around the Capitol. It gives you a taste of the signs people were carrying as well as the size of the crowd:

Thoughts on the ‘End Game’

The arrival of April means we’re heading into the final furious weeks of the 2011 Legislature.

While this session has already been about as contentious as anyone could imagine, I suspect the final weeks could turn the dial up even more as majority Republicans begin to implement whatever strategy they have for getting their major budget and policy priorities past Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s “veto brand.”

chessThere are plenty of rumors about the GOP strategy floating around the Capitol these days. One is that Republican leadership will try to get the budget bill out of conference committee early next week and get it to the governor’s desk by Friday, April 8. At that point, so the rumor goes, the Legislature will temporarily recess until after the governor either signs or vetoes House Bill 2. That would allow them to bank legislative days in the event that Schweitzer vetoes the bill. That way they could reconvene and address HB2 without having to come back for a special session, thus facing the wrath of voters whose patience for lawmaking grows thinner as the days grow longer.

But the rumored recess doesn’t necessarily solve the Legislature’s problem with the governor. Sooner or later they have to make a deal with the the lame duck with the veto pen.

And that brings me to the point of this post.

Republicans have taken a hard-line on the budget and other policy priorities. Still riding high on the “mandate” they say voters handed them in November to cut government spending. So far they don’t seem willing to back down and acquiesce to Schweitzer’s demand that they fully fund his human services and education budgets.

But does a body of 150 individual voices have the juice or experience or political savvy to beat Schweitzer at a game he has mastered?

I had a lengthy conversation with a Capitol insider and trusted source about the looming battle. It was a background conversation and not for attribution. But with the source’s permission, I thought I’d share some of the insight on Lowdown.  I can’t tell you the source’s name, but I can tell you this source has broad legislative experience and a background in politics. I think the analysis is sound, but since you don’t know the source you should take what follows with a grain of salt, of course…

Lowdown: Are the Republicans betting that they have public opinion on their side when it comes down to a budget battle with the governor?

anonapunditAnonapundit: The bottom-line problem any legislative body has when they find themselves at odds with a governor—either on policy, politics, public relations, or a healthy mix of all three—is that it is impossible for a consensus to rise above the din of 150+ policy makers to challenge an individual voice who has staff in tow, a disciplined spokesperson, and typically an entire executive branch of career employees who must, at the very least, give a bold public face to the policy agenda of the governor. This is the institutional disadvantage of the legislative branch nationally, with public opinion polls always showing a legislature well below their counterpart governor regardless of party affiliation (save for a major scandal at the Blagojevich level). (Republican Gov.) Scott Walker in Wisconsin might yet prove to be a new paradigm, but overall this principle holds. 

Lowdown: Given that paradigm, how do you handicap these particular sparring partners: The GOP-Controlled Legislature and the powerful Democratic Governor?

Anonapundit: Regardless of one's take on Brian Schweitzer as Montana Governor, only his most ardent detractors would argue that he is not a strong governor. This is not a policy position or a scorecard on the administration's record, but rather a reflection that he is always on offense and has a a finger on the pulse of both state and national public opinion. Add to this the fact that Schweitzer is heading into the second half of a decade in this gig—with most of key staff and department heads in place—and you have a comfort level with process and policy that the legislature simply cannot match. On the surface the numbers from the election would seem daunting: 68-32 in the House, and as a special affront, a Republican representative in Butte, America of all places! The somewhat chagrined chief executive of the federal government called his much lesser loss a "shellacking." Yet the Governor has negotiated as though he has all the cards, with it remaining to be seen if this is bluff, buster, confidence, or a end game plan that is well thought out.

Lowdown: So what about 150 lawmakers occupying the red corner?

Anonapundit:  Newly elected legislators who received a couple of thousand votes (38 newbies in the House alone) may have driven to Helena secure in the knowledge that they have a mandate to implement what their core supporters have as an interest, whether driven by local concerns, national issues, or political and media narratives, but this needs to be considered within a state-wide policy context. To be fair, the aforementioned context of public opinion towards state legislative service is a bit unfair. Most "citizen" legislators run and serve because they want to make a positive difference in their districts. Their gig involves long hours at low pay  in a stressful situation that puts additional pressure on their main jobs and families back home,  with the cynicism of the public at the end of the day for their efforts. That said, people watching the legislative show have plenty of examples of bills, debate, and dialogue to take issue with. Hunting with spears and/or a silencer on a FWP license that you purchased in gold coins (assuming the agency hasn't been eliminated) might well be hyperbole, but not by much of a stretch. Once again, the legislative branch is not a disciplined machine. It has never been pretty, but if you get elected you get to have your say. What remains to be seen is whether or not legislative leadership has their own end game plan that will match or perhaps surpass the purported institutional advantage of the executive.

So there you have it. Of course we’ll all have to wait and see what happens from here on out, but I think it’s safe to say that the biggest fireworks are usually saved for the end of the show.