Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Billings Gazette "takes on" Montana's First Brother, Walt Schweitzer

Today's Gazette has a finely reported and written article by Mike Dennison and Jennifer McKee (with help from Chuck Johnson of the Gazette's state bureau) about the role that Walter Schweitzer is playing in his brother's Montana gubernatorial administration.

One learns all sorts of interesting things reading the article -- the most important of which is that Governor Schweitzer's reported statements don't match up with the facts as reported in the article. About which more later.

But don't expect to get an accurate reflection of the article's contents when looking at the images and headlines that the Gazette's editors dole out.

Looking at the photo, one sees the smiling and friendly faces of the governor and his brother, along with the ubiquitous Chevy truck and First Dog, Jag, that we all got to know so well from his ads with John Tester during the recent senatorial campaign. In fact, it looks very much like a campaign ad.

Reading the headline, we learn that their brotherly relationship is a concern "for some."

Most importantly, the editors' caption under the photo gives what the reader might reasonably expect to be a synopsis of the story:

Gov. Brian Schweitzer, right, stands with brother Walter in Helena recently. Walter, who helped guide his brother's campaign, is barred by state law from working on the governor's paid staff, but he is seen by some as a trusted aide who helps his brother on policy and other matters. The governor says Walter speaks for him only on campaign matters.

No big deal -- on to the sports page, right? Well, not quite so fast.

For the serious reader who continues on, there are many, very different, parts of the story (quotations and paraphrases follow -- see the entire article):

1. Bob Raney, a Democratic public service commissioner from Livingston asks: "What if it was any other person, who we know nothing about? What if some other governor had a confidante who went completely under the radar screen, yet directed government activity? It's dead wrong."

2. State Sen.-elect Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo says Walter helped lobby the 2005 Legislature to vote for an ethanol bill supported by the governor.

3. Walt's political consulting firm has been doing a booming business throughout the region (Gov. Schweitzer is the recruitment chairman for the Democratic Governor's Association.)

4. Walt has worked on the campaigns of Gary Hart, Walter Mondale, and Jesse Jackson (not exactly typical iconic figures for someone whose only interest "is Montana.")

5. When asked what Walter is doing at various staff meetings at the Capitol, the governor said Walter "has an active interest in the issue. He's not paid by the state of Montana in any way. He's not paid by anybody to be a lobbyist."

(Does this mean that anyone with an active interest in an issue gets to sit in on the governor's staff meetings?)

6. He also took part in meetings at the governor's office this summer with energy industry officials hoping to do business in Montana, said Rep. Alan Olson, R-Roundup. Olson, who supports Gov. Schweitzer's efforts to foster coal development in Eastern Montana, said he'd spoken to some of those officials after the meetings. "They go in, and Walter's there at the table, discussing parts of their business," Olson said. "It just strikes everybody as odd."

7. Bob Raney (see #1 above) said Walter "pretty much dismissed what I had to say (about what he had learned in his research overseas on coal gasification)," and seemed to be a point man for the administration: "He was in charge of the (last) meeting. No one goes into a meeting like that and doesn't feel like they're not talking as close to the governor as they can get."

8. Raney is the bold one -- most Democrat critics wanted to remain anonymous, presumably because of fears of retaliation:

Democratic lawmakers who didn't want their names used because they feared retribution from the Schweitzer administration said they've attended policy and strategy meetings at the Capitol in 2005 and early 2006 where Walter seemed to be directing the meeting. "If you just went to the meetings and didn't know he wasn't on the payroll, you'd assume he was on the governor's staff, helping guide policy and strategy for delivering it," said one lawmaker.

9. Walter Schweitzer was the "heavy" who told a couple of members of the Montana Film and Television Advisory Council that they were dismissed and that the council had been dissolved.

10. Those who bring up concerns about any of this are compared by at least one Schweitzer supporter to those who criticized the governor for wearing blue jeans and bringing the First Dog into the Capitol Building. (Montana Headlines, for the record, likes Jag, and suspects that he is a good, honest Republican Border Collie who would much rather be out herding sheep or cattle than hanging out with politicians.)

While all of this is very intriguing, and while it will be most interesting to sit back and watch as this plays itself out, there doesn't appear to be any evidence of illegality, any more than it was illegal for former President Clinton to help Hillary develop a powerful, unpaid, unelected, unappointed, political role within the administration.

Whether the people of Montana will see all this as in keeping with the spirit of Montana's anti-nepotism laws and ethical traditions remains to be seen. Republicans would do well not to count on this as something that is going to save them in the 2008 election. They will need to rely on something more tangible -- like a competitive candidate.

But on the other hand, the odd presentation of the story raises the question of whether maybe the Gazette editors know something about Montana public opinion and the need to defuse it. Why would public opinion need defusing if there is nothing illegal, unless there is the suspicion that Montanans won’t care for this sort of thing, but that the Gazette's favorite politician isn’t about to change his ways or his tune? .

For the real issue, never touched in headlines, captions, or article alike, is this: Governor Schweitzer insists that Walt Schweitzer is only a campaign advisor. But most of the things listed above are most emphatically not traditional tasks for a campaign manager/advisor.

This strikes at a basic question of truthfulness on the governor's part regarding this issue. The Governor would seem, on the face of it, to have no need to be untruthful about this.

He could say that his brother is a key "off the books" administration member and that there is nothing illegal or unethical about it in his opinion -- and then publically defend that opinion. He could probably do so successfully and legitimately.

He could say that “family is family – stay out of my business,” and then deal with the consequences, for good or ill. In a place like Montana, where it is a virtue for families to stick together through thick and thin, this might also play well.

Or he could restrict his brother to narrowly defined campaign manager tasks, avoiding any appearance or question of impropriety in the face of anti-nepotism laws and the obvious discomfort of public officials in both parties. That would certainly be in keeping with his rhetoric against the supposed GOP "culture of corruption."

He inexplicably seems, however, to be choosing a fourth option: to say that the sky is green – daring anyone to cross him by saying that it is blue. Such is the essence of the politics of raw power -- sometimes it cows the opposition into silence; sometimes it backfires. In general, dishonesty when one can get by just as well with being honest is not an auspicious omen.

The Gazette editors have attempted to finesse this one with characteristic pro-Democrat style. They may end up wishing they had just stifled this story and continued with their front-page series on the boater vs. floater wars on the Bighorn River.