On Principles, Policies and Politicians; Speaking Truth to Power: a Message to You, Jon Tester
“If you want to be a malleable politician, you campaign from the center. But if you want to be a leader, you define the center. You don’t rely on polls to tell you where to go. At best, polls tell you where people are, and it’s pointless to lead people where they already are. The essence of political leadership is focusing the public’s attention on the hard issues that most would rather avoid or dismiss.” — Robert Reich, Reason
With those words firmly planted in mind, I’m going to relate a story of how Jon Tester’s candidacy for the Senate was given a huge boost by a contingent of Montanans throwing their weight behind his candidacy in the 2006 primary against John Morrison and others.
And we start the story with a poll: John Morrison +1%.
That was the number that was staring at Democrats a few weeks before the June 6th, 2006 Democrat primary for Senate in Montana. Coupled with that number were other polls that showed Morrison at a serious disadvantage compared to Jon Tester in a one-to-one matchup against 3-time incumbent Republican Senator Conrad Burns.
Sitting back in the pack of Democrats running in the primary was Paul Richards, polling at about 2%. While 2% isn’t much, during the general election, almost 200,000 votes were cast Democrat. So around 4,000 people could have been said to support Paul. Not a large number, and not a particularly big political base from which to attempt to influence the statewide race. Or so it seems.
But let’s consider for a moment whom those 4,000 people may have been.
Paul Richards, for all intents and purposes, is a progressive environmental and social justice advocate’s dream candidate. Paul was elected to the Montana House in 1974, and was the youngest sitting legislator in history. He advocates strong progressive and environmental values. To this day Paul has been a fearless and fierce voice for the beliefs and principles he advances, and has dedicated his life’s work to that effect.
Those of us who rallied behind Paul had known him for decades, and had worked with him on many environmental issues, including wildland and wildlife issues. Suffice it to say that Paul is a known entity among what has become known as the progressive, leftist environmental movement in Montana.
While it is easy to pigeon hole those of us as “extremists” as Senator Tester has recently done, that belies the knowledge of who we are: your neighbors, farmers, ranchers, businessmen, policemen, teachers, laborers, clerks, lawyers… everyday people, but I digress (many stories, too little space).
Back to that poll number. Along with that number was the knowledge that the Montana Senate race was seen as one of the closest in the U.S., and that its outcome could well tip the balance of the Senate to Democrats. The 2004 Senate had 55 Republicans. And we were tired of them, each and every one.
A week or so before the primary, Paul Richards made the decision that if he could meet with Jon Tester, and work out an arrangement–an agreement of principles–that he would drop out of the race and support him in his primary, and if he won that, in his general election campaign against Conrad Burns.
Paul received ascension from his supporters that if Jon were to agree to certain principles, and he endorsed him, that they would follow Paul. It was an historic moment, as a leftist environmental contingent had never come out of the woodwork to work politically in this way in Montana.
Jon Tester agreed to that meeting and Pauls’ terms, and on May 31st, Paul Richards dropped out of the race and publicly endorsed Jon Tester. During that meeting, Jon agreed if elected to abide to the following terms and principles:
- 1. Help stop the Iraq War, withdraw U.S. troops in Iraq, and work for peace.
- 2. Work to protect all of Montana’s remaining roadless wildlands. Tester said he would talk with Michael Garrity of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and he would “look at” the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act.
- 3. Work to significantly enhance national applications of sustainable agriculture.
- 4. Work to significantly enhance national use of renewable energy. Tester said he would support the Apollo Alliance’s programs for renewable energy.
- 5. Work to settle outstanding Native American claims, particularly in regard to the Cobell lawsuit.
- 6. Establish public financing for all federal elections.
- 7. Support universal health insurance, specifically “Medicare-for-all.”
The rest is history. Jon Tester won a deciding primary victory over John Morrison. Paul Richard’s supporters, while relatively few in number, were a very active and participative group of people. They knew how to organize and talk policy. How to motivate people to register to vote, turn out and vote Dem. They were a politicians dream: willing to give funds, time and energy to a campaign when it was most needed.
Jon Tester won the election against Conrad Burns by 3,562 votes. The Senate swung to +1 Democrat. Jon Tester’s election gave control of the Senate to Democrats, and those 2% who swung from Paul to Jon celebrated along with the others a sweet victory. Finally, a turn away from the Bush years.
Those in Paul’s constituency felt like they had come together and overcame great hurdles in bringing together the needed coalition to get Tester over the hump. And they felt like they had helped elect someone who had given his word to abide by certain principles, to represent their interests in Congress.
As part of the above 7 points, Jon Tester had agreed to meet with Michael Garrity, Director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, which he did. In that conversation, Jon told Michael that he would not resort to using riders to pass environmental issues. They shook hands on it. Michael took Jon at his word that he would follow through, and swung his support and his Alliance’s support to Jon.
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 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.
Mind you, this is Montana, where extremists are people the average Montanan is told to be frightened of: eco-terrorists. Jon has single-handedly, and intentionally ostracized a valuable part of his base and constituency. And other supporters of his have attempted to throw that label in our faces as emotional bait to ignite a base war and discredit us.
Elsewhere, Steve Kelly made the astute comment: “will Dems be rewarded in a ‘base v. base’ election? With progressives gone fishing it’s shaping up a lot like 2010.” As Matthew Koehler put it, “the blank checkbox ballot”. It was never the intention of Paul Richards, or any of his supporters to ignite a base war over Tester’s actions. But it has been the intention of several of his most ardent supporters to attack those who have had the temerity to criticize Senator Tester for his actions that have gone against his word.
Jon Tester ran as a man of integrity and character whose word and handshake meant something. To those of us who are left wondering who this Jon Tester is–that is willing to go back on his word, enact bad legislation and bad mouth former supporters–wonder how or if he will repair his coalition. Because just stating the lesser of two evils argument isn’t going to do it. Jon Tester has done in 4 years more damage, legislatively, to the principles that many environmentalists hold dear in Montana than Conrad Burns ever did.
And now Tester’s supporters want to make the 2012 election all about the left not criticizing their incumbent senator, and rallying together and being polite–rallying around some mushy and mythical center created by the teabaggers attempting to pull politics and politicians as far right as possible.
Senator Tester laid the fuse for a base war when he violated his agreements with Paul Richards (“How can I describe my sadness that Jon Tester, a man I once trusted and helped put into office, is now officially promoting this madness?”) and Michael Garrity. It is those who would presume to know where the center is and what it wants who have lit the fuse by attacking those on the “far left” and attempting to create a false equivalency between their actions and the actions of teapublican activists on the far right.
And I’m sure I’ll be attacked again for dredging this all up. It would be so much tidier to just let bygones be bygones, and sweep it all under the rug, and apologize for being a leftist with principles. Actual things I believe in–like wilderness and biodiversity and intrinsic rights. But I won’t.
I’ll close by paraphrasing Robert Reich’s words that I opened this essay with:
Senator Tester, we need a leader who is willing to define and articulate a center towards which you would lead this state and country. Bear it in mind, that strong political allies of yours have been attacked by your supporters, and your actions have belied your words and promises. It is time to lead, or as others have said “will Dems be rewarded in a “base v. base” election?” Your choice.
And now you know the rest of the story…
ps, on Paul’s website, there is a great essay on speaking truth to power. Must read for those on the left who are attacked for doing so.