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The Hunt for Blue November

Montana’s lone congressman, Republican Dennis Rehberg, has had it pretty easy since he hit the Capitol, facing no serious challenger in his first run for re-election and easily cruising to victory since then. But this week, Jim Hunt, a fourth generation Montanan, retired lieutenant colonel in the Montana Army National Guard, and a long-time Helena attorney, came out swinging as he announced his intention to take Rehberg’s seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

A cold wind was blowing across the snow-covered fields at the entrance to Fort Harrison as Hunt, standing in front of a crowd of supporters, laid out his reasons for jumping into the House race at the 11th hour.

“Our country is headed in the wrong direction and Congressman Rehberg is part of the problem,” he told the cheering crowd. “When it comes to ending the War in Iraq, lowering energy prices, fixing our economy, educating our children, the environment, and providing affordable healthcare to more Americans, our state deserves a congressman who will put Montana’s interests first—not the interests of big oil, big money, and Washington lobbyists.”

Hunt painted Rehberg as an all-too-willing accomplice of President George Bush, including what he called Bush’s “borrow and spend” economics, which he says are “mortgaging our children’s future with trillions of debt.” He cited Rehberg’s support for “misguided policies that resulted in failed mortgages, provided tax cuts to big business and big oil instead of working families, and implemented a dangerous foreign policy that has cost American lives and discredited our nation around the world.”

Saying “it’s time Montana had a congressman who can think for himself,” Hunt said he would work to “invest in alternative energy that will wean our country off foreign oil and lower energy prices, restore sensible economic policies, protect hunting and fishing, and fix the nation’s broken health care system.” Hunt called the American healthcare system “a national embarrassment” and said Montana families are “paying too much to fill up their cars and heat their homes.”

In addressing the Iraq War, Hunt was even more blunt—and remember, this is a man who served 23 years in the National Guard, whose father, former Montana Supreme Court Justice Bill Hunt Sr., was a captain in the Army serving from 1947 to 1964 and was inducted into the U.S. Army Officers Candidate School Hall of Fame in 2003. “We are stuck in a war that we never should have started,” Hunt declared, promising to “bring the troops home from Iraq and take care of our veterans.”

While Hunt’s words bring hope to those who have suffered and continue to suffer under the policies instituted by the Bush presidency and years of Republican control in Congress, the big question on everyone’s mind is whether or not Hunt can jump into the race this late in the game and have any chance of winning. In that respect, this calm, articulate and intelligent candidate has more going for him than many political watchers might admit.

Born on the Hi-line in Chester, Hunt doesn’t need to do any phony acting to come across as a genuine Montanan. He’s a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, an avid sportsman, a true conservationist, and a Chancellor for the Episcopal Diocese of Montana. Taken together, that background deflects about 90 percent of what Republicans have traditionally shot at their Democrat challengers. No, Hunt isn’t going to take your guns away, and yes, he does know how to use them—and he won’t be posing like John Kerry if he shows up in goose-hunting gear. Moreover, he realizes the value of maintaining a clean and healthy environment—just like our state promises—and not just for hunting and fishing, but for all the myriad reasons the drafters found it necessary to include such a groundbreaking
provision in our 1972 Montana Constitution.

Nor will Hunt be incapable of raising significant funds for his challenge; he’ll likely have the trial lawyers behind him. The long era of trampling the rights of victims in favor of big corporate polluters has engendered considerable angst in Montana. The town of Libby, with its hundreds of casualties from the W.R. Grace Company’s asbestos poisoning, may be the poster child of corporate crime here, but thousands of other Montanans continue to live in areas polluted by toxic byproducts of mining, smelting, oil, gas, and coal production. The trial lawyers who represent the victims in their court battles for justice know who is getting the short end of the stick these days. When given an extremely capable individual like Jim Hunt, they can and likely will support a candidate that promises to put the interests of the people first.

These are powerful armaments in Hunt’s upcoming battle against Rehberg, who over the decades of his political career has consistently aligned himself with the wealthy and big corporations while masquerading as a defender of the interests of Montana citizens. Hunt knows it and has promised to run a campaign that will throw a less-than-flattering light on Rehberg’s record.

But Rehberg will be a very tough opponent. Besides the power of incumbency, which in and of itself is a sure source of funding from the Washington, D.C., lobbyists, Rehberg is one of the wealthiest individuals in Congress. He, too, comes from a Montana family with deep roots and a wide reach. And while he may not need that cowboy hat while riding the Potomac range, Rehberg never misses an opportunity to wear it in Montana and put its obvious character to work. Moreover, his chief of staff, Erik Iverson, is also the chairman of the Montana Republican Party. And after losing Conrad Burns’ Senate seat two years ago, you can bet the GOP isn’t going to let Rehberg go gently into that good night.

In the end, all Montanans will benefit from the robust debate that appears headed our way. The Hunt for blue November is on. Change is in the air, and this time around, Rehberg’s finally got a race on his hands.

George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent, where this column originally ran. He lives in Helena, Montana. He can be reached at: opinion@missoulanews.com.

 

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George Ochenski is a columnist for the Missoulian, where this essay originally appeared.

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