NY Times Magazine does a feature on Brian Schweitzer
C'mon Democrats--here's a winner.
October 8, 2006Go here to read the rest.
The Big-Sky Dem
By Mark Sundeen
NY Times Magazine
It’s fun being governor of Montana. Just watch Brian Schweitzer bouncing around the streets of Helena in the passenger seat of the state’s official S.U.V., fumbling with wires, trying to stick the flashing police light on the roof. When he spots some legislators on the sidewalk, he blasts them with the siren, then summons them by name on the loudspeaker. The men jump, and the governor tumbles out of the car, doubled in laughter, giving everyone a bear hug or a high-five or a soft slap on the cheek. Schweitzer, a Democrat in his first term, marches into a barroom in blue jeans and cowboy boots and a beaded bolo tie, and his border collie, Jag, leaps out of the vehicle and follows him in. The governor throws back a few pints of the local brew and introduces himself to everyone in the place, down to the servers and a small girl stuck there with her parents. He takes time from the backslapping to poach cubes of cheese from the snack platter and sneak them to the girl, who is now chasing his dog around the bar. “This is how you make friends with Jag,” he advises her. “Just hold it in your hand and let him take it.”
As soon as Schweitzer was elected in 2004 — the same night that George W. Bush carried Montana by 20 percentage points — pundits began declaring him the future of the Democratic Party. Never mind that it was his first elected office: the 51-year-old farmer and irrigation contractor had folksy charm and true-grit swagger. He shot guns, rode horses, took his dog to work and decimated his opponents with off-the-cuff one-liners heavy on the bull-and-horse metaphors. He didn’t act like a Democrat, in other words, and to many Democrats, reeling from consecutive losses to Bush, that seemed like a pretty good thing.
Schweitzer’s grandparents were homesteaders who immigrated to Montana from Ireland and Germany. His parents were ranchers who never completed high school. And until 2000, Schweitzer and his wife, Nancy, were farming in Whitefish and raising their three children. And then, despite the fact that he was a virtual unknown in politics, Schweitzer began a quixotic bid to oust Conrad Burns, a two-term incumbent Republican senator. To the surprise of Montana’s political class, he came within four percentage points of succeeding. Almost immediately, he began campaigning for what would be an open governor’s seat. Even after choosing a Republican as his running mate, he thumped his primary opponent by a 52-point margin, then won the general election by four points.
Within months of his election, bloggers were clamoring for a presidential run, and his popularity transcended the wonk journals to include coronation as “Hot Governor” by Rolling Stone magazine, while “60 Minutes” called him the Coal Cowboy. On camera he persuaded Lesley Stahl to take a whiff from a vial of diesel fuel synthesized from coal — a product that Schweitzer claims will not only fill Montana’s coffers but also help end the nation’s dependence on foreign oil peddled by “sheiks, rats, crooks, dictators.”
Schweitzer’s “Montana miracle,” in which Democrats took back the governor’s seat after 16 years and ended 12 years of Republican majorities in both state chambers, has been cited as evidence that the Republican bastions in the Western states are losing ground to a new, Democratic brand of libertarian-tinged prairie populism. No fewer than four recent books by Democratic strategists have mentioned Schweitzer as the kind of guy Democrats need to win back rural America. A fifth book, Tom Schaller’s “Whistling Past Dixie,” published earlier this month, also singles out Schweitzer and makes the previously heretical claim that the Democrats’ future lies in ignoring the South and embracing the West and Midwest, where voters are less evangelical and more independent.