“Schweitzer is the only Democrat that can win the election,” a commenter on Last Best News said today in regard to the upcoming special election to choose Zinke's replacement. “Wouldn't you just love having him in D.C. calling BS on all that goes on there?...Come on Brian - do the nation a great favor.”
People got excited about that post today. They got excited about the idea of Brian Schweitzer representing them again.
I don’t think they’ll see Schweitzer representing them again until this time 4 years from now, however.
That’d be when he gets his third term as governor, something few Montana individuals have done before.
We’ll take a look at those folks today, perhaps with the hopes that we may learn something.
Sometimes I think this is all a big pissing contest, just a way to say who was governor of Montana more than anyone else.
Since everyone that’s had the honor of serving a long time as governor lived in a separate time period from everyone else that has, well…I’m not sure it matters.
And who’s to say what motivates politicians? Some offices are seen as ideal, others not so much.
Some use the governor’s office as a stepping stone, others as a way station before something else comes along.
Many just view it as the best office of all, and those that serve in it the longest often seem to take that view.
So let’s look at them, and see what we can learn.
Territorial Governor Benjamin Franklin Potts (1870-1883)
Potts was from Ohio originally and only came to Montana because he was sent here.
When James M. Ashley was removed from his post as territorial governor by President Ulysses S. Grant in December 1869 it was a man named Scribner that was chosen to fill his shoes.
He did so, serving as acting territorial governor for about eight months, until August 1870 when Benjamin F. Potts was appointed.
By the 1870s the people of Montana needed new leadership, and especially leaders that wouldn’t skip out or die on them, like most had done before. They got such a man in Benjamin Potts.
Potts was born in Fox Township, Ohio, on January 29, 1863. His family never had much money, and Potts attended regular schools and found regular work.
He was a clerk in a dry goods store before attending Westminster College for a year in Pennsylvania until the money ran out. At that point he headed back to Ohio and taught school while also studying law at night.
By 1859 he’d passed the bar and set up his own practice. He got into politics and attended the 1860 Democratic National Convention, throwing his support behind Stephen Douglas. Things went the other way, however, and the next year the Civil War broke out.
Potts was all over the place during the conflict, and was even captured following the Battle of Harpers Ferry in 1862. Sent to Camp Douglas, he was eventually swapped in a prisoner exchange.
He was promoted to lieutenant colonel a short time later and then to colonel just a couple weeks after that. It was no surprise. Potts reorganized the badly demoralized 32nd Ohio Infantry and got them ready for serious action. And they made a dent in the war effort. The Siege of Vicksburg, Champion Hill, Meridian…Potts was at them all and made major contributions.
After his performance during the Battle of Atlanta, Division Commander Giles A. Smith officially wrote that “Colonel Potts did more, on the 22d of July, 1864, to save the good name of the Army of the Tennessee, than any other man.”
By the time hostilities had finished, Potts had been promoted to the brevet rank of major general. In January, 1866, he headed back to Ohio and picked up his law practice where he’d left off. He also had a change of political heart, and switched his allegiance to the Republicans.
That enabled him to get elected to the Ohio State Senate in 1867. He didn’t go unnoticed, and three years later in 1870 President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him governor of the Montana Territory.
Benjamin Potts was one of the rare politicians to come to Montana in the 1870s that was actually able to get things done.
His bipartisan approach to governing settled things down in the territory, such as the vigilante activities that’d been going on, as well as much of the general lawlessness that was so prevalent in a far-western territory. He was able to work effectively with Montana’s representative in Washington and legislation was passed to aid the growing territory, especially in regard to the railroads.
All good things must come to an end, however, and by 1882 politics in Washington had changed. President Garfield had been assassinated the previous year and Arthur took over. John Schuyler Crosby was appointed to fill Potts’ shoes.
It started an unfortunate chain of events where Montana was back to changing territorial governors every year or two. The 1870s had seen two territorial governors and much done. The 1880s would see six and not a whole lot accomplished.
Potts stepped down on January 14, 1883, having served longer than any other territorial governor or state governor of Montana, nearly fourteen years.
Benjamin Potts wasn’t done with politics yet, however. He got elected to the territorial legislature after his stint as governor was finished and served until his death in Helena on June 17, 1887. He was 51 years old.
For 17 years Potts served the people of Montana. Talk about dedication.
Governor John Erickson (1925-1933)
He resigned from that third term about 4 months after winning it, and with the promise from his lieutenant governor that he’d be appointed to fill the vacant U.S. Senate seat that’d come up in early-1933.
That was the Erickson-Cooney Deal, something the governor thought would cement his political future. Instead it ruined it.
John Edward Erickson was born in Stoughton, Wisconsin, on March 14, 1863. He graduated from Washburn University in Kansas in 1890, passed the bar the following year, and began practicing in 1892.
By 1893 he was ready for a change and headed to Choteau, becoming Teton County attorney in 1897 and then judge of the eleventh judicial district of Montana in 1905, a position he held until 1915.
By 1916 Erickson was in Kalispell practicing law, which was where he was still when the opportunity to run for governor presented itself in 1924.
Governor Joseph Dixon was coming off a terrible first term and his chances at gaining a second looked slim to none, especially considering the Anaconda Company was so opposed to him.
Dixon lost the race handily, 88,801 to 74,126 and faded into obscurity, the company clouding all attempts to paint him as a reformer with the state’s best interests at heart.
“Montana is usually equated with Clark, Daly, Heinze, Walsh, and Wheeler,” historian K. Ross Toole wrote in 1972, but “Dixon’s name not only belongs among them, it properly belongs at the top of the list.”
Erickson won the race against Dixon easily to become the eighth governor of Montana and he quickly set to work. One of the reasons he was so popular was because he got so much done:
- The new state income tax was passed to ensure stability and protection from mining shutdowns.
- Funds for rural schools were started.
- Taxes on gasoline were first issued.
- Bank laws were updated.
- Mining profits were finally taxed, something politicians in the state had been calling for since Montana had been a territory.
Governor Erickson even gave national hero Charles Lindbergh a tour of Helena, its fairgrounds and Fort Harrison when the famed pilot came through in 1927.
So popular was Erickson that the corporate press gave him the moniker, “Honest John.”
Erickson’s only real challenge came in 1928 when he went for his second term.
Republican Wellington Rankin had again been elected Attorney General for Montana in 1924. By 1926 he’d been appointed U.S. Attorney for the state of Montana and in 1928 he chose to step down in favor of a run for governor against “Honest” John.
The Anaconda Standard called Wellington “At His Rankest” when he ran that year. Wellington's crime? He wanted less company control in Helena.
It was a landslide, with Erickson taking 113,635 votes to Wellington Rankin’s 79,777, or 58% to 41%.
Erickson ran again in 1932, going for an unprecedented third term. Not all Democrats were happy about this, and Erickson faced three men in the primary.
It was clear that resistance was there, but it wasn’t unified. Erickson beat out the competition, picking up 46% to his nearest competitor’s 21%. Still, if you add all his opponents together their combined take was 54%.
That November the Democratic tide was obvious across the nation as the Depression wore on and President Hoover stood by, powerless to stop it.
November 8 was election day and FDR took it handily with 59% of the vote compared to Hoover’s 36% in the state. Socialist candidate Norman Thomas took nearly 4%.
Despite the rising swell of Democratic fervor in the rest of the nation, Montana was evenly divided on what course that state should take. A large part of this no doubt came down to Erickson’s decision to buck tradition and run for that third term.
The gubernatorial election was close but Erickson again won, defeating Frank A. Hazelbaker 104,949 votes to 101,105 votes, or 49% to 47%. The Socialists got nearly 3% and the Communist and Liberty candidate received about 1% between them.
Without the third party competition Erickson very well could have bee defeated. But he wasn’t and went on to become the only governor of the state to serve three terms. It wasn’t an enviable position to be in, as the economy was terrible and showed no signs that it would, or even could, improve.
And then in 1933 Senator Walsh died, Erickson made a deal with his lieutenant governor to step down then get appointed to the seat, and Montana never forgave him.
“The Erickson-Cooney ‘deal’ provoked widespread protest in Montana,” historian Michael Malone tells us, “sapped the popularity of both men” and “caused serious tension within the Democratic Party.”
The lingering stress of that as well as the usual stress of the office likely proved too much for Erickson’s successor, Governor Cooney, who died about a year and a half after taking office.
Erickson would practice law in Helena until he died in 1946 at the age of 83, largely forgotten by the Party he’d lifted up 20 years earlier.
Governor Thomas Judge (1973-1981)
Thomas Lee Judge was born in Helena on October 12, 1934. He got a BA in Journalism from Notre Dame and then headed off to the University of Louisville for graduate studies. He’d eventually graduate from the United States Army Adjutant General School at Indiana’s Fort Benjamin Harrison.
Judge was a Second Lieutenant in the US Army and a captain in the US Army Adjutant General Corps in the US Army Reserves from 1958 to 1964.
In 1960, four years before getting out of the Army, he started up a public relations firm. He also decided to run for the Montana House of Representatives and was elected. He’d go on to serve three terms until 1967 when he switched to the Montana Senate, where he’d serve until 1969.
It was in 1969 that Judge was elected lieutenant governor, a position he’d hold until 1973. It was in 1972 that Forrest Anderson decided not to run for a second term and Judge decided to go for his seat.
He ran in 1972, beating out Republican rancher and legislator Ed Smith 172,623 votes to 146,231 votes, or 54% to 46%.
Judge was too conservative a Democrat for some, but he was damn popular with the public.
Judge’s main accomplishments during his two terms related to the “strong environmental laws that were enacted in Montana in the 1970s.”
Environmental bills that Judge saw pass were the:
- Strip mine reclamation act
- The major utility siting act
- The subdivision regulation act
- The stream bank protection act
- The hard rock mining act
- The Montana water use act
- The Montana Environmental Protection Act
- And tougher clean-air and clean-water laws
Judge also resided over state passage of some of the best worker’s compensation laws in the country.
He increased state spending on education by 236% during his time in office. That included doubling the university system’s budget.
Also during his time in office the Montana investment program earned $311 million.
In 1978 he also instituted a state employee hiring freeze, something that resulted in 400 fewer state employees. Because of these changes “state government was able to assume a substantial accumulation of new responsibilities without increasing the taxes.”
Montanans saw $100 million in property and income tax relief under Judge’s tenure.
So it was no surprise that Montanans liked him, nor was it a surprise that Judge thought he could win a third term.
Such was not the case.
He lost in the 1980 primary to his lieutenant governor, Ted Schwinden…something we profiled in a post called Fair, Helena, Governor.
It’s true that Judge was the favorite in the primary, but Schwinden was seen as the top competitor. Schwinden ended up taking it 51% to Judge’s 42%, with the other two candidates splitting the remaining 7%.
Judge would come back and try again when Schwinden’s two terms were up in 1988 and the governor made it clear he wouldn’t run for another.
It was a packed primary that year, with six men running. Judge took 39% of the vote to nearest competitor Frank Morrison’s 27%. Mike Greely took 23% and the other three candidates managed 11%, showing it was quite up in the air that year.
(Frank Morrison is the dad of former State Auditor John Morrison.)
It’s not surprising that Judge came back and won like that. “For many Democrats – even those who’d previously voted him out of office – his tenure marked the high water mark of progressive politics.”
Judge’s “1970s-brand liberalism was the best the Democrats had to offer in 1988,” but Montana wasn’t ready to welcome back its 18th governor as its 20th. Republican Stan Stephens got in 52% to 46%, with Libertarian William Morris taking about 2%.
That’s what many of us are afraid will happen in 2020 when Schweitzer goes for his third term.
Will he defeat up-and-coming prospects in the primary only to lose in the general, like Judge did?
Or will his popularity with the public, and favorable relations with the corporate press, carry him to a third term like it did for Erickson?
Potts was the only one to leave the governor’s office for the legislature, and though the U.S. House is a much bigger version of that legislature, I and most others don’t see Schweitzer going for it.
But we do see him going for Bullock’s job come 2020.
Could Schweitzer be governor from 2004 to 2012 and again from 2020 to 2024…maybe even 2028?
It’s possible, and if anyone can do it, he can…right?