Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What did Jon Tester do in Washington during the Debt Ceiling Crisis?

In the process of writing a book, you have to make some tough choices about what gets in and what doesn’t make the cut. Even in a manuscript of 100,000 words, those choices are often hard to make because you want to share EVERYTHING you know. But, if you share everything, you lose cohesion and the force of your argument. Stuff gets left on the cutting room floor.

I have lots of stories from the campaign trail that didn’t make the cut, but thanks to the world of blogging, I can share them here. I’ve already shared the story of wolf delisting. Here I share a brief window into the political life of Senator Jon Tester which speaks volumes, in my estimation, of him both as a person and as someone representing Montana in the United States Senate.
In August 2011, I drove up to Big Sandy with my wife Hilary to interview Jon Tester on his farm. Hilary tagged along for the experience and to take pictures for me while I talked to Jon for about an hour on the record.

Before we sat down, however, Hilary and I watched the Senator and his wife Sharla have a heck of time trying to get a header on a combine (Tester literally had to hammer the pin because it stubbornly refused to drop in place). During this process, we chatted amiably with then-press secretary Andrea Helling. This is the first time I’ve told the story and I received permission to do so.

Just a few weeks before our visit to Big Sandy, the U.S. Congress was mired in a crisis concerning the debt ceiling. Congress had refused to increase the debt ceiling in the spring, and by August 2, 2011 the Department of Treasury would be out of options in terms of paying the nation’s public debt. Without an agreement between Congress and the President, the nation would default on the nation’s public debt obligations. It was widely anticipated should this happen, markets would swoon and the nation’s credibility abroad would be damaged considerably.

During this period, Senators and members of the House were stuck in Washington. Tester, who came home nearly every weekend to Montana, could not leave the District of Columbia because of possible last minute roll calls necessary to avert the crisis—and the Democrats needed to muster every vote they could in the Senate to pass a deal. 

Stuck in Washington, unable to go home, what were members of Congress to do?

I suppose many of them took in the sites, went to museums, perhaps had dinners and drinks at some fancy establishments. But according to Andrea, Jon and Sharla weren’t quite sure what to do with themselves. They didn’t spend time in Washington on the weekends, and they were antsy. They needed something to do while they waited for the possible call to the Senate chambers to cast a last minute vote to keep the government solvent. 

Andrea told Jon and Sharla that she often volunteers on weekends for Food for All DC, which according to their website “Food for All DC is a non-profit charity that strives to provide food to low income home-bound residents in real need. Our clients are generally elderly citizens, handicapped, or single mothers with young children. The operation is entirely volunteer operated, with the assistance of federal and other agency grants.” 

“Great,” said Tester. “Let’s do that!” 

So during the weekend of the debt ceiling crisis, instead of holing up on a bar or visiting the Lincoln Memorial, Tester drove Andrea’s old Subaru with Montana plates around Washington, delivering meals to low-income residents in need. Sharla came along, too, and helped out. And apparently, it’s not the only time he did it. Another time when he was stuck alone in Washington, he did it just with Andrea. It is another example of the Montana farmer who felt most comfortable when solving problems.

No press releases were sent. No television crews tagged along. No one knew but Andrea, Jon, and Sharla. 

Until now.

Battle for the Big Sky is set to release October 21.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

What Tester-Rehberg taught us about Montana and what it can tell us about the current Senate race

A short post tonight as I sit and contemplate developments in the 2014 Montana Senate Race. This is from the penultimate chapter of my forthcoming book, Battle for the Big Sky, available from CQ Press in December. It says why campaigns still matter in an age of ever-more precise forecasting, and the importance of relationships--to place and to constituents.

"Nate Silver's 2012 Senate predictions missed the mark in Montana and North Dakota. He gave Congressman Rehberg a 66 percent chance of besting Senator Tester. Why was Silver off, and why—if most Senate elections are largely the consequence of fundamental factors such as the state of the national economy, the preexisting partisan inclinations of voters, and the popularity of the president—did Senator Tester eke out a win when all the fundamentals indicated otherwise?  In one sense, Congressman Rehberg's explanation was apt; it was "death by a thousand cuts" and it is difficult to say with great confidence that any one factor was the reason for Tester's victory. 

It is easy, though, to see why Silver and other election forecasters could have been wrong when watching the campaign on the ground. All campaigns begin in a particular place, a geographic constituency, carrying with it a set of representational expectations shaping how members of Congress campaign and later represent that place in office. The story of Montana's Senate race boiled down to a choice between two individuals who had developed representational styles based on place-based connections and affecting a "one of us" presentational style back home.  Ultimately, it was Senator Tester who convinced voters that he best represented the "last, best place" as a working farmer tied intimately to the land, a dogged champion of veterans, and as an earnest person interested in seeking legislative solutions to nettlesome problems. Congressman Rehberg's work as an appropriator, his unenviable position of serving the same geographic constituency with half the official resources, and the coolness some voters felt toward him personally served as clear liabilities in a charged political environment. Home style—the presentation of self, the explanation of Washington Work, and the allocation of official resources—is difficult to quantify and model. It was that which is the most elusive from afar but apparent up close, home styles, that proved the prognosticators wrong long before the voters cast their ballots on election day in Montana."--Battle for the Big Sky, December 2014.