I’m prowling the streets of Big Sandy, Montana, a dusty farm town on the Hi-Line, looking for somebody who doesn’t like Jon Tester. Even Tester tells me it shouldn’t be hard. Tester is a nice guy, and he’s a farmer who grew up around here, and he’s done good work as a state legislator and president of the Montana State Senate, but still: he’s a Democrat, and a liberal, and though he may be a farmer he’s an organic farmer, and in these parts such things can be counted on to earn at least a few enemies.
In front of the grocery I find an old fellow getting into the big Chevy pickup with the Conrad Burns sticker on the bumper. Burns, a gruff, conservative Republican and three-term U.S. Senator from Billings, is the one Tester wants to unseat. I figure this guy will surely have something to say.
His name is Fred Bitz. “I’m 77-years-old. I’m a Republican and live in the same place I was born. That’s the truth. And I drink beer every once in awhile.” So what do you think about Jon Tester? “He’s a Ted Kennedy liberal Socialist,” Fred offers. What about Jon Tester, the person? “Oh, Jon’s okay,” Bitz says with a smile. “I just don’t like his politics.”
That’s about as close as I came to finding a Tester-hater, and that goes a long way toward explaining why Jon Tester has suddenly emerged as a man of the moment not just in Montana, but on the national political scene. For Democrats enamored with the success of Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat who has parlayed a folksy, down-home style and common-sense politics into electoral victory and sky-high approval ratings in a red state, Tester looks like a possible encore.
The Tester campaign should enjoy quite the kick-off this week, courtesy of another Big Sandy native – Pearl Jam bass player Jeff Ament. The band will play a benefit concert for Tester Monday night in Missoula, an event that’s worth a lot just for the buzz and should be good for north of $200,000 in the campaign till. Tester is getting more than his share of attention from some national opinion-makers, notably the liberal blogger Markos Moulitsas, who runs Daily Kos (and who spent some time at the Tester farm this summer), and that should help bring in money and campaign talent too.
Still, it remains a long voyage from the farms of Big Sandy to the halls of the U.S. Senate. Tester must first win what promises to be a hard-fought primary with State Auditor John Morrison, who is no slouch of a candidate himself and probably remains the front-runner at this stage. Morrison, a lawyer, hails from a respected political family (his father was a state Supreme Court justice and his grandfather, Frank Morrison, was a 3-term governor of Nebraska) – an advantage that Tester will surely attempt to turn into a liability.
Burns, moreover, remains a well-entrenched incumbent who will almost certainly enjoy a huge financial advantage. Some believe he’s vulnerable, in part because of his close association with indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, but he remains popular among traditionally Republican constituencies in what is, Schweitzer aside, still a Bush-loving state.
And Tester, for all his personal appeal, is still an untested candidate. The state legislature in Montana is very much a part-time gig, and even the job of Senate president carries nothing remotely resembling the scrutiny and the pressures of a U.S. Senate race. I got to know Tester when I covered the legislature for Lee Newspapers and I’ve always liked him quite a bit, but is he ready to go pro?
Down on the Farm
Sitting at the Tester’s kitchen table, Jon and Sharla tell me the farm’s story. Sharla is kind and mothering, but has a hardscabbled edge that you only get by working in the wind that whips a Hi-Line farm. She and Jon started dating just after graduation from Big Sandy high school. The story is that Jon asked her on a date to a football game even after she did a little damage to his batting average.
They were playing softball at a picnic and Sharla was pitching.
“I said, Tester, I’m gonna strike you out. And I did,” she says. “And he still asked me out.”
“I was just building her ego,” Tester says.
While we chat, they point to where the old homestead used to be, Jon’s childhood home still standing, framed by the Testers’ bay window. Tester’s father passed away a little more than a year ago, and his mother lives in Hayden Lake, Idaho. She calls every Sunday to talk politics, and she sometimes travels with him while he campaigns. She’s a staunch Democrat and isn’t shy about it.
“Let’s just say she’s not a big George Bush fan,” Tester says with a laugh.
The house Jon and Sharla live in now is your standard western plains farmhouse. It’s modest and warm and there’s a TV in the kitchen showing Bonanza reruns. Sharla makes us a pitcher of Crystal Light lemonade and heats up a pizza. “It’s organic,” she says with a laugh. (It’s DiGiorno, which embarrasses her a bit, but she says, “I was working all morning on your campaign stuff and didn’t have time to make lunch, so this is it.”)
We talk for a little bit about the farm I grew up on, which after 26 years my parents sold. The house and 1,500 acres went for just enough to pay off operating loans and the other debt the farm had taken on over the years. It’s a sad state of affairs that Jon thinks about with a long face and then tells me that really gets him. It happens far too often and he doesn’t think thing should be that way.
He’s an organic farmer, so his fields look a little different than the rolls of golden wheat stretched out to the horizon in just about every other direction. He and Sharla decided to go organic in the 80s, just as folks up here started hearing about how they could play in the organic market and get more bang for the bushel.
“The handwriting was on the wall – we needed to add some value,” Tester says. A woman had visited the farm from Eden Foods in Minnesota and told the Testers if they could grow her some organic Durham, she’s give them $7 a bushel. On top of that, the herbicide sprays were making them sick, and the seed treatments on conventional grain made Sharla especially sick, so the Testers took a chance, knowing that the butcher shop his parents had started and run for so many years would be a good fallback if the organic experiment didn’t pan out.
Turns out, it worked so well that the butcher shop is all but closed now, just a side gig for friends, family and old customers who refuse to take their beef anywhere else. (The Testers have been cutting meat for a long time. In fact, that’s why Jon is missing a couple of fingers on his left hand.)
Still, his farming practices continue to raise a few eyebrows. It very often gets back to Tester that folks say, “That Tester, he’s just growin’ a bunch of weeds out there.”
He takes me out to the bins, opening each carefully and taking hands full of grain out to show me what it is that keeps his farm afloat while others around him go under. He hands me kernels of purple barley, which looks like diseased wheat, but will go to making an energy drink overseas. He then hands me a grip of lentils, which taste good even raw and hard. They’re his favorite, he says, and grabs another handful.
That morning I sat through the Testers’ organic inspection. As Jon filled out piles of paperwork and Sharla flipped through pages of her journal to give the inspector dates on when they cleaned out the combine, harvested peas and the like, the intricacies of organic farming started to come clear. One leaky tractor and you’re liable to lose your certification, so you’ve got to stay on your toes.
I am fascinated by all of this because it is so familiar to me, but so different. A few days before, I had spent the afternoon on a combine with my Dad, who now custom harvests for the neighbors who border our old farm. The wheat is conventional and although the yields being recorded on the computerized screen in the cab of my Dad’s combine are no doubt many bushels higher, the grain in Tester’s bins will be worth much, much more.
The Testers built their house in 1992, about 10 years after they decided to go organic. Sharla says people kept asking what kind of loan they got to build the house.
“We didn’t get a loan,” she says. “We just built as we went.”
That’s just plain unheard of in farm country, but Jon says one good year for lentils was all they needed to get started.
He has just finished with harvest so he’s still a little flustered, and he picks at a blackened finger on his left hand as we talk. Sharla says it’s a nervous habit and tells him to quit. He smiles and puts his hand on the table. It’s been a stressful few weeks. When you get one chance a year to make a living, there’s no stopping to stump, something his campaign staff was no doubt frustrated with. The day before my visit, he made his last grain dump, showered and drove to Great Falls to interview for an endorsement.
Tester’s political career began on the Big Sandy School Board, and it was a bit of a roller coaster. In the mid-80s, the district was slapped with lawsuit after lawsuit, starting with one from the ACLU about the dress code, which was followed by one filed by a fired principal who claimed it was age discrimination. The uproar and division within the community taught him that sometimes, you just have to listen to what you think is right and make the decision, regardless if people will like you afterward or not.
“Sometimes you just call it and hope you’re right,” he said.
Too many leaders these days get caught up in building political capital rather than trying to fix things that are broken, Tester says. “I’m not running this race to run for governor – I’m running it because I think the country is in pretty damn poor shape. I’m running this to get to a position to make a difference.”
Although he has a reputation for being a bridge-builder, and as Montana Senate President always enforced civility and decorum in the chambers, he’s not afraid to take a stand. As the last session was winding down in April, the back and forth for the all-important buget bill began. Republicans wanted more tax cuts and more time with the bill in conference committee, but Tester stood firm. When Republicans threatened to tie up the last days of the session, Tester was reported saying, “If we get our work done, we’re gone. I’m not going to stay around and haggle over things. Sayonara.”
Watch him on the Senate floor and you’ll see a judicious approach, riddled with a little humor, but very often terribly effective. In his three regular legislative sessions, he passed 26 of 40 bills introduced, a 65 percent success rate.
His issues are often have to do with agriculture, but as of late he’s also taken the lead in changing the much-needed (and court-mandated) overhaul of the state’s education funding system.
On national topics, he’s mostly generic Democratic so far: Keeping social security public, for examaple, or changing the country’s energy policy to include more conservation and alternative sources.
But the biggie is that he wants to help revamp farm policy. He’s adamant about “fair trade” – meaning he’s against deals like the Canadian American Free Trade Agreement because he says they erode the opportunities for small producers. He also advocates changing federal farm subsidy programs – and perhaps even the anti-trust laws – to steer money to young farmers and small farmers, rather than agri-businesses.
If farmers were able to stay on their land, Tester says, perhaps it would help curb the depopulation he is seeing all around him. Sharla talks about the campaigning he’s done along the Hi-Line and all of the beautiful, now empty ranch houses they see along the way. “It just makes you sick,ï¿½? she said.
Tester says, “if everything was going fine in this country right now, I wouldn’t be doing this. If I thought Big Sandy was going to be here in 50 years, I wouldn’t be doing this.”
As far as they go, these issues should play well for Tester. Taking a page from Schweitzer’s book, he’s also shunned the Democratic party line and staked out a strong pro-gun stance, his campaign calling him a “vigilant protector of the second amendment.”
Still, he remains a Democrat in Bush country: pro-choice, pro-environment (though with an emphasis on the environment as it relates to hunting and fishing and public lands access – another winning plank from Schweitzer’s platform). He’s critical, but not bashing of President Bush, and has yet to come out publicly with a stand on the war in Iraq.
In many respects Tester is running less on the issues than on his personal character, pragmatic outlook and salt-of-the-earth heritage. He has a good sense of humor, a big, genuine smile and a certain folk charm people out here respect — not the canned, political persona that campaigns sometimes try to sell to unassuming farmers and ranchers. He stresses that he’s not a career politician – a subtle point of contrast with Morrison that’s likely to get sharper as the campaign heats up. He emphasizes his instinctive empathy: “For some reason, I don’t know what the hell it is, but we can connect with people,” he says.
The man-of-the-people stance worked well for Schweitzer (even though Schweitzer is actually rather wealthy), and back in the day it also worked for Conrad Burns. But 18 years in the U.S. Senate, while it brings power and the ability to deliver the goods for the business constituencies that will then help re-elect you, is hard to square with being an average guy.
In the Big Sandy bar, farmer Tim Herron has a ready analogy. “It’s like a cow you’ve got for awhile and then she figures out where the grass is and where the good watering hole is and you’ve got to get rid of her,” he says. “She ain’t worth a shit to you anymore.”
In Big Sandy, at least, the word is that Jon Tester is a guy to be trusted and liked, even if he doesn’t always make decisions you agree with.
I wandered into the bar right before happy hour. The place was fairly empty (it is harvest season afterall), so I asked the blond woman behind the bar what she thinks of Jon Tester running for Senate.
“Well, I know he’s a real nice guy,” Kim Stokes says. “It’s kind of a consensus around here.” Tester’s challenge now is to prove that he’s more than just that.